Digital by distraction?

Activities and developments must not be ignored by the Voluntary and Community Sector

When I started work in a Local Authority Housing Department in the early ‘70’s it was my job to collect housing repair requests – duplicate copies were made using carbon paper, and the big technological advancement of carbon strips enabled triplicate forms to be developed. Jobs were only monitored when one of the duplicates was returned to the office and crossed off the initial ledger.

While there are still issues concerning housing repairs, we must admit that the technological advancements made since then enables greater monitoring and reporting of actions to be undertaken. We have made substantial advancement from copying to carbon paper, from self carboning paper to databases and spreadsheets on computers.

Digital and technological ‘progress’ is now a given. ‘Digital by default’[1] is now the leading term that loosely describes current and potential changes in administration using new and ‘innovative’ technology. ‘Digital by default’ is not a new concept or process, it is just an up to date term that describes the journey outlined above, a journey that is not going to stop. If anything, it is going to speed up as technology changes and modifies faster.

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) has accommodated the move from early computers to flat screens, to laptops, blackberries, smartphones, iPads etc etc. We have accommodated changes in programme applications – online, monitoring through prescribed databases and spreadsheets, and reporting on pre-set and template programmes. Smart/digital systems, big/open data, ‘Smart Cities’ programmes are all processes and programmes that will benefit the sector in developing, delivering, monitoring and reporting services.

The question for the VCS is not about whether, or how, we engage in ‘digital by default’, but how do we proactively lead/shape our involvement within the ‘technological journey’. While the public sector is planning reforms and changes based on technological developments, there are growing concerns over our sector’s ability to take part in and respond to the continued changes.

Why is the sector relatively inactive in the proactive implementation of change related to monitoring and data in a digital format? There are at least two very distinct possibilities for this inactivity.

The first is related to the funding and economic structure of the sector. Whilst the sector has modified its services and activities in moving from grant programmes to commissioning, it can be argued that the changes in strategic planning and developing economic business support to the sector has not moved correspondingly.

The process of procurement, commissioning activities with outputs and unit cost analysis, developing application and monitoring processes that reduce staff time, and therefore core costs, does not take full cognisance of the sector’s process of capital investment. Do those who assess the need for, and commission, services appreciate the economic structures necessary for capital investment within our sector?

Public sector capital investment is undertaken within specific and planned budgets – VCS capital developments were previously undertaken through specific grants. These have, of course, stopped since the implementation of the commissioning process. Private sector capital investment is undertaken through borrowing and capitalisation of assets, or the leasing of equipment over a given and agreed period.

This process, for a variety of reasons, is not open to most organisations within our sector. As a sector we are therefore doubly disadvantaged – we are unable to borrow and capitalise assets as in the private sector, and we are unable to include capital development costs in commissioned programmes, as they may be ineligible, or they may raise the unit cost prohibitively.

The second is probably less palatable to our sector.

We make excuses, excuses that our clients/users would be disadvantaged if we were too technologically focused, but if we examine the statistics of use of existing technology, we may find this to be not that true.

There are 30 million users of Facebook in the UK – the largest participation in Europe. Over 7 million of this group is aged 40+, and over 15 million of them are aged between 20 and 39[2]. The majority of this internet activity takes place in England, and is split almost equally between men and women, with slightly more women than men being engaged. This, according to socialbreakers[3], provides market penetration to 62% of the on-line population.

Ofcom statistics 2012[4] show that of the UK adult population aged 15-64 (39.9 million), 92% (36.7m) own a mobile phone. 15% have a mobile phone but no land line. 76% of adults have broadband (fixed + mobile), 49% mobiles are postpaid or contract.

39% of people use their mobile handset to access the internet, 50% of adults use social networking sites at home and there are 5.1m mobile broadband subscriptions (Dongles/PC datacard).

These statistics will have changed dramatically in the last five years and will continue to change even more dramatically.

VCS users and clients are using the internet, are competent with the internet (possibly within their limitations), but nevertheless they are using it, and we should not use our perceptions of our clients inadequacies to excuse our own.

The sector, therefore, has to aid and lead this journey, enabling current and future users to benefit from services that will inevitably be developed, delivered, monitored and reported on through smart and enhanced digital technology.

Where does that leave the sector in its involvement in using and developing its proactive involvement in digital by default?

Firstly, the sector should adopt the philosophy of ‘Digital by Design’[5], freely discussing how new technology can drive and monitor services. This will enable the sector to develop not only the delivery programmes, but also be proactive in the development of technology. As businesses, this will rank the sector alongside other SME’s, especially in European Structural Funds, accessing grants to fund the capital development process, developing sustainable business processes that will enable it to refund the process in the future.

Secondly, the sector needs to explore how the concept of using ‘open data’[6] and sharing our data can benefit the VCS and our users. We need to use what we have and what we know to generate interest and belief in what we are and do, not just in words or pictures but in statistics, in numbers, in data – the absolutes of public sector funding.

Lastly, the sector needs to, without prejudice, explore the possibilities afforded by the ‘new thinking’ of community banks[7]. We need to think about how we develop as businesses, enveloping and encompassing the ‘new models’ of community business into our activity, driven by external economic factors but encompassing our belief in social justice and delivery of appropriate services to those that need them.

The sector is on the back foot, caught during a period of change, not yet clearly defining its new economic methodology. Instead of natural adjustment, forced change becomes the order of the day. These banks and processes may have been developed through a political process that argues that we cannot afford services the way we used to, and we all have to accommodate the results of the recession and implementation of budgetary restraint (cuts). We have to do what we, as a sector, have always done – find ways of surviving and continuing to deliver services.

The sector has become defensive and negative. In reality the politicians may, if we aren’t careful, circumvent the current VCS and develop new community processes, a new sector: community learning trusts, community forums, and community planning all loom over the sector, heir apparents of community engagement, developed by a coalition government operating as an oligarchy.

Instead of being on the back foot, we need to come out from the shadows of public sector and politically anodyne statements that, with one breath values us, and with another breath, accompanied by swift actions, changes the ball park, the rules and the funding.

Utilising new technology and open data we can empirically make and argue our case, monitor our activities, improve our services and counter the vision offered by others. We need these processes, not only to win the argument, but also to take part in the argument on equal terms. We will modify and adjust the rules from our own perspective, supported by facts, absolute information, our data and our ‘smart’ activities. This overtly challenges political ideological statements for change based mainly on market economics, and instead presents a well argued, empirically supported, counter-argument, an argument from which we can build/rebuild, develop, engage and progress.

 

[1] “All existing and future [government] services to be designed first and foremost for digital delivery” from ‘Digital Strategy, Delivering digital by default’, Felicity Shaw, Head of Policy, Digital Delivery, Government Digital Service, 2011

[2] http://www.clicky.co.uk/2012/02/uk-facebook-statistics-february-2012/

[3] Facebook stat tracker

[4] http://media.ofcom.org.uk/facts/

[5] “ ‘Open by Default; Digital by Design’. …we should take a more thoughtful approach to technology, using it as a means to an end – to help us be open, transparent, accountable and human”, Carrie Bishop, FutureGov, 2012 http://wearefuturegov.com/2012/09/what-i-did-this-summer/

[6] “…the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyrightpatents or other mechanisms of control”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_data

[7] “… a depository institution that is typically locally owned and operated” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_bank