When is a market not a market?

A confusing title for an equally confusing time. We are told we have to behave more ‘market like’, be innovative and develop new products.

But, can publicly funded services, a publicly funded, openly tendered and procured service exist within a true ‘market economy’ (private sector) market?

As a producer, in a ‘market economy’, I would know the size of the market I operate in. I would know my market share, its sustainability and its growth potential.

I would know my customer demographic, have 5 year forecast predictions and have indications of actions to fulfil those potentials.

Any new product (innovation) that I wished to introduce into ‘the market’ would be developed and based on a thorough understanding of the above issues.

I would be able to cost development and retooling , potential borrowing requirements and repayments, capitalize the expenditure over a given period, borrow against projected sales and growth and then decide if I progress or not.

Having developed the initial product, from my own resources, and borrowed to get the product to market I would know which demographic it was targeted at, potential sales and impact on the whole market and my other products within the target market. I would know what share of the market my new product should achieve, and if that would have an impact on current products, or gain me larger market share overall i.e. I might lose 2% of market share from my current products but the new product would obtain 5% of market share, so my overall gain would be 3%.

While I accept that there is a finite amount of money in any given economy, at any given time, in this scenario I believe I could persuade people to change their buying habits and buy my new product.

All these judgements are based within an open ‘economic market’ – knowing that people want to buy my product, persuading people to buy a new product, made by me.

I am aware of how much money exists within my market and what I have to do to impact on my growth.

Product innovated, developed, produced, marketed, sold…

In the public sector funded service provision we are told we are to exist within a market and develop these skills. We are encouraged to innovate and develop new products to meet the need of tenders and procurement activity which is the way we access the funding. The process is developed, implemented and run by commissioners who receive an allocation of funding to ‘procure’ services and, in turn, develop tenders for applicants.

It is therefore a market restricted by funding, funding that can fluctuate within the public finance environment.

It is data driven, public sector data driving delivery targets, informing commissioning targets and outcomes. Data drives silos (specific funding for specific issues), and funding it attached to silos, and cannot (or very rarely can) be transferred between silos.

It is therefore outcome-orientated and very restricted. We have to deliver the expected outcome (data driven) within public sector (and silo) finance restrictions.

This is not a market.

Into an outcome-orientated market (environment), we are expected to deliver given outcomes, often in an expected manner. We cannot innovate, as that may not fit the commissioning brief. We cannot expand our market or products, through innovation, as there is a finite capacity to the finance in the silo for which we may be tendering, and the tender is for delivery, not development.

I cannot borrow to develop new products as I am not guaranteed a place in the market – I can neither argue nor prove my case.

Long term capitalisation of any investment is also restricted by the length of the contract, usually three years but it can be shorter, and any IT development to improve productivity cannot be included in a tender application.

Transformation argues we need, as a sector, to change our behaviour and practice within our ‘markets’.

While there may be skills and practices we can learn from the open market, we are having to learn them within the confines of our eco system, what I would call, based on the foregoing, a ‘non market’.

UKDigiStrategy consultation 2016: Response from Net Squared Midlands

It’s a very open call for ideas, although there are four suggested themes.

Introduction

A group from the public sector and voluntary sector with an interest in digital transformation and digital growth in the charitable sector discussed this at our Net Squared Midlands: Tech for good event in Birmingham in January 2016 and responded with the bullet points below:

1)         Unlocking digital growth

Every business and every charity can benefit from using digital technology, but for many of the smaller charities and micro community groups that we work with there are huge leaps needed to make digital transformation happen.

  • Corporate Social Responsibly – could larger businesses provide digital employee volunteering and mentoring services, brokered through the national network of well established local Volunteer Centres and Councils for Voluntary Service?

  • See volunteer centres https://www.ncvo.org.uk/ncvo-volunteering/find-a-volunteer-centre

2)         Transforming government

Whilst many staff in charities may be comfortable with using their smart phone to go on-line or conduct on-line transactions, the organisations they work for often aren’t at the same level, or don’t have the same infrastructure to make access to government services easy. Many charity websites are not responsive or mobile friendly and others are out of date, poorly designed or non-existent.

Simple transactions Government procurement is seen as being very bureaucratic and a barrier that small charities often with limited digital skills and capacity struggle to engage with. There is a need for more information sharing and awareness raising of what the third sector can (and can’t do) digitally as part of a strategic relationship with government.

  • Simpler commissioning models are needed, maybe with a group of third sector organisations collaborating on contract submission to “Government As A Platform”. ”; info sharing with public sector – lack of knowledge;

  • See the model working in Mansfield http://www.tea-m.org.uk/

3)         Transforming everyday life

Relevant activities that promote digital inclusion should be available at the point of need for individuals who use the services of charities, (e.g. Rough sleepers, single parents etc). Taking time out of running a small community group to assist a user undertake “computer classes” is not sufficient and can be off putting when the environment used is a school or classroom which may have unpleasant memories.

Help citizens to understand what their devices can actually do.

Will e-learning and MOOCs ever really catch on in the third sector?

  • Unlike public or health sectors where training is compulsory and e-learning has been found to be a very cost effective way to deliver this information, no such requirement exists for many tasks in voluntary organisation.

  • See Run A Club platform for skills development & administration of small community sports groups Run a Club packages

For some people leading chaotic personal lives there is a need for “pre basic digital skills”, mentors who can explain the reasons why being a part of the digital society is important. Vitally they also need to mentor and ensure that those farthest from being digitally active retain their connection, remember their e-mail address or government portal passwords.

4)         Building the foundations

Of the 160,045 voluntary organisations in England, 83.1% are small or micro organisations with less than £100,000 income per year. It is these organisations that are most at risk of being left behind digitally and which this strategy needs to accommodate.

The digital framework and basic digital skills developed by Go On UK [now doteveryone] goes part way to helping organisations, but needs to cover the strategic digital transformation issues an organisation has to consider in order to build strong foundations.

Organisations prioritise service delivery over technology, which for a small charity is often the best use of limited resources and capacity, but basic ‘good practice’ cannot be ignored. Digital Fundamentals which must be embedded in the way organisations work, employ staff with digital skills and recruit volunteers to help their cause include:

  • Demystifying ‘the cloud’ and the efficiency saving that this form of working can bring to an organisation, its staff and trustee boards.

  • Being more aware of the many social media tools that help a charity raise its game, increase fundraising and promote its message to a wider audience.

  • Charities need to be directly aware of the National Cyber Security Programme as many don’t adequately protect their data files, use paper based filing systems or fail to back-up databases and don’t use anti-virus and other basic tools which could keep their digital assets safe.

  • Access to impartial advice about the best digital tools and products, not those linked to a particular supplier or solution e.g. http://www.connectingcare.org.uk

  • See Charity IT Association – https://www.charityitassociation.org.uk/about for Tech Surgeries and a Virtual IT Director for small charities who don’t have the resources to employ their own.

These statistics are a concern:

There are some worrying statistics from the 2015 Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index  [updated annually]which tracks digital adoption among small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) and charities:

·         58% of charities lack basic digital skills (23% of SMEs), up from 55% last year

·         28% of charities think that they’re doing all they can online

·         Over 50% of charities do not believe that having a website would help increase their funding and nearly 70% say the same about social media

·         55% of charities think that the knowledge level at board level is lacking.

·         One-quarter (25%) of all organisations surveyed (SMEs and charities) believe digital is ‘irrelevant’ to them.[i]

And this list of technical equipment and events is exactly what is needed by many smaller organisations:

A national charitable funder ran a pilot programme recently which was to help charities use technology to create change in the lives of certain groups in society. There were a number of things which the funder said this programme would not cover and these were:

·         Upgrading of internal IT systems

·         Large-scale capital costs

·         Updating of websites and routine social media campaigns

·         Exploration events or hack days

·         Staff or volunteer training

·         Capacity-building to make an organisation more ‘digital ready’

As an organisation which believes in the need for the digital transformation of civic society, we think this is a handy list of work which does need to be funded by some funder(s) and we aim to identify and seek dialogue with funders who will fund these areas.[ii]

Summary

In summary it is vital to see increased opportunities for face to face networking with other Digital Leaders in the charity sector where exchange of information is possible and all share a common understanding. We have found it possible to gain knowledge of how to build a strong digital foundation by learning from one another in familiar surroundings and from people they trust in similar situations to them.

©         Pauline Roche & Paul Webster – January 2016

[i] http://www.rnrorganisation.co.uk/blogs/smart-cities-smarter-vcse/
[ii] Do.

Digital governance

Strategic processes

In this article we will concentrate on the strategic processes which are needed to help us in the VCSE sector to begin the transformation which will benefit our beneficiaries and our organisations.

Establishing, developing and overseeing strategy is the remit of the board. They need to be supported in identifying the strategy to drive their mission, develop it during the different stages of the organisation and oversee its management by those to whom they delegate that responsibility. That strategy should include the use and regular review of technology to make the delivery of services and activities more efficient and to decrease the time spent on repetitive routine tasks which could be automated.

Our data – owning, showing and sharing

Our organisations gather lots of data, usually at the behest of funders. Boards need to appreciate what data the organisation is collecting and encourage management to start using, sharing and combining it with other data so together they can use the acquired knowledge to make better decisions.

Organisations like the charity DataKind UK work with data scientists (people who examine and analyse data). These data scientists volunteer their time to help charities understand and use their data better. There are also schemes like Pro Bono OR whose members, operational researchers, volunteer to help organisations to make operational improvements.

Strategic digital footprint

But strategic digital footprint isn’t only about data. It’s also about raising your digital profile through accessible platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

We are constantly encouraging VCS CEOs, Trustees and others working in the sector to become more digitally active. Using LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook make these activities more accessible and cost effective.

Supporting trustees on social media

Organisations and management need to explore how they can support trustees through these digital processes.

Are trustees on LinkedIn? If they are, are they leveraging their contacts to support the organisation, not just financially but also opening doors, creating or supporting partnerships, communicating about the brilliant work done by the organisations and its staff? Are they in groups which are relevant to the organisation where they lead or contribute to discussions? Do they reblog posts from the organisation’s website? Do they spot opportunities and send them on to the management?

Are trustees on Twitter? If they are, are they retweeting the organisation’s tweets to their contacts, thereby increasing the reach of the organisation? Are they sharing organisational and topical news, making new contacts, raising awareness of the issues faced by your beneficiaries?

On Facebook, where many voluntary organisations and community groups find a natural home, trustees could be posting event photos, spreading organisational news amongst their networks, publicly responding to organisation invitations and inviting others. It is a great place for new people to find out about your organisation, and trustees can, and should, be involved in this.

Using technology to develop a framework for a strategic process

And what about the governance meetings themselves? Are they just events where decisions are already made and trustees just go along and sign where they’re told to?

Or are they events where participation, including by those not in the room, is encouraged, including through using social media? Live tweeting VCS meetings is not common, but the public sector live streams some of its meetings so our sector must consider this as an option if we want to recruit new members, volunteers and trustees who are growing up in an age where this is the norm.

How many boards use video conferencing such as Skype or Hangouts to enable people to participate in everything, maybe excepting the most sensitive matters?

What skills are we expecting of trustees?

We would suggest that essential digital skills, as outlined in the Department for Education’s Essential digital skills framework, should be a given. Trustees should be able to:

  • Handle: Find, manage and store digital information and content

  • Communicate: Communicate, interact, collaborate, share and connect with others

  • Transact: Purchase and sell goods and services; organise your finances; register for and use digital government services

  • Problem-solve: Increase independence and confidence by solving problems using digital tools and finding solutions

  • Be safe and legal online: authenticate online accounts and email, set secure passwords and privacy settings, identify secure websites, recognise suspicious links

What next?

If you or your organisation wants some strategic help to take any of these ideas forward from people who understand our sector, please contact us for a discussion about how we might work together.

OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES:

Smart Cities, Smarter VCSE

How do you review your digital footprint?

Smart Cities and open data

We have been undertaking research and taking part in event since 2012 into the impact of ‘Smart Cities’, ‘Smart technology’ and open data processes on third sector organisations, service delivery and future funding programmes.

Between 2012 and 2013 we:

Work from 2013 onwards

RnR Organisation is one of 3 VCSE stakeholders who developed the VCSSCamp unconference (informal conference where delegates from voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) support organisations e.g. CVSs, decide the agenda based on using technology better) starting in 2013. We have also participated in #SmartBrum hacks, organised an event to establish the West Midlands Open Datastore (a demonstrator site sharing data about the West Midlands), organised the first Datakind UK meetup in Birmingham and attended their June 2014 datadive, spoke at Leeds Datathing event which brought together professionals and other people interested in using data for good.

We are thus establishing a new cohort of partners outside traditional VCSE activity and have been developing this work of data-informed decision making, alongside at least one of our clients, Regional Action West Midlands (RAWM). We are interacting with a new network of relevant organisations in both the open and the data analysis fields, Open Mercia (data users in the Midlands), Data Unlocked (a local cooperative business in the field), the Open Data Institute (a national organisation) and Open Knowledge (an international organisation) which have a wider experience of ICT and Data Analysis which we can harness to benefit the VCSE sector.

At RAWM we were part of a 2015 Cabinet Office funded Digital Birmingham led consortium project funded under the Release of Data fund to help accelerate and automate open data extraction and publication processes from Birmingham City Council’s proprietary systems onto Birmingham’s new Open Data Hub to encourage citizens, communities, third sector to understand the value of open data to help solve community issues that matter most to them.

Future work

Our future research involving Smart Cities and open data will include:

  • Project monitoring and reporting

  • Monitoring client involvement and staff movement

  • Non-cash payments

We have example design briefs for the kind of work which the third sector needs in this area of work which we have put together. We would be interested to hear from analysts or others who might want to help us fulfil these briefs.

Creating and using embedded maps with Mike Cummins

Building Data literacy in the voluntary sector

In August 2014, as part of our project to build data literacy in the voluntary sector on the Civic Foundry pre-accelerator programme, we organised a session during the Foundry’s massive skills share to show Civic Foundry colleagues and others how to Create and use embedded maps (on WordPress) using Google Fusion Tables.

Mike Cummins and Simon Whitehouse from the co-operative Data Unlocked designed the session and Mike came in to deliver it and share his expertise with us.

Creating Fusion Tables and populating a map

Mike showed us how to create a Fusion Table and how to populate a map using local data from the police website and data from the Land Registry website – and then how to put the map onto a WordPress site.

I didn’t get that far but others did – watch the livestream of the session and you will hear Mike’s very clear instructions and our progress.

The session was very well received, both by the colleagues in the room and the people who joined the session via the livestream. The livestream is still available – thanks to our Civic Foundry colleague Matthew Green from Policyworks.

Post-session

Mike has also published a blogpost of the session content on the Data Unlocked website which shows some of the screengrabs he used – as with all things technical, a few things have changed names since the session e.g. Google Drive now calls the red ‘Create’ button ‘New’ , and the Land Registry is now part of .gov.uk so some of the screens look different but, if you listen to the audio on the livestream, Mike clearly says which links to use.

Future sessions

We are planning to offer more sessions like this to build and improve data literacy in the voluntary sector so please contact us at RnR Organisation if you’re interested in getting involved.

Why the VCS should use Twitter more

 

Keep Calm and Tweet sloganI’m constantly encouraging VCS CEOs, Trustees and others working in the sector to use social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, and here are 10 interesting things I tweeted about in the week just gone,which I hope helps to show why I think they should:

  • Aug 27: I passed on info about a project focused on researching the impact of openness in education to an academic colleague  in Ireland (someone I met on Twitter and now see in real life)

  • Aug 27: I mentioned that I had become one of 121 Net Squared local organisers around the world, along with my pal Paul Webster

  • Aug 27: I mentioned I’m running a social media workshop at a Disability & Mental Health Jobs Fair Sept 11

  • Aug 28: I asked if email spam is getting worse for everyone working everywhere as spammers take advantage of fewer and busier staff? Is it a security risk?

  • Aug 28: I asked a travel blogger friend who works in a foodbank what she thought about a story saying 10.5% of working parents in England skip meals to pay rent

  • Aug 28: I mentioned an upcoming conference call for women in the not for profit tech Sept 25 to a new CVS contact in Cumbria

  • Aug 28: I passed on a link on a beginners guide on how to make infographics

  • Aug 29: I said that The Digital Roadmap which helps libraries identify new technologies to implement could help the VCS too

  • Aug 30: I recommended a Model funders site to the regional funders network

  • Aug 30: I passed on a link about how to articulate a CRM Strategy

I also tweeted some greetings to friends so I did do some of the more ‘social’ side of social media but in the main, I tweeted about things which I think might improve our experiences of working in the VCS.

Maybe VCS colleagues pick up this sort of info elsewhere, maybe they think it’s not relevant to their work, maybe they’re already overloaded with information – I’d love to hear from some of you in response to this post and start a dialogue about it.

Good things come…

Image

Photo from NG Events Ltd

Ever since I was the CEO of The Digbeth Trust, meeting with the then-head of Digital Birmingham to discuss the ICT needs of voluntary organisations in Birmingham, I’ve been clear that many voluntary organisations, especially the smaller ones, really need financial and other support to get the ICT equipment to help them do their work better, and thus be able to help their beneficiaries in more efficient and effective ways.

So I am pleased to see that there is an event in Birmingham on April 10 2014 to launch a Connectivity vouchers scheme to help fund a new faster broadband connection for small and medium-sized businesses, charities, social enterprises and other not-for-profit organisations. It’s funded by the Government’s Urban Broadband Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, and managed by Digital Birmingham.

Digital Birmingham will cover up to £3,000 of the connection costs for eligible organisations (that’s usually enough to pay for all the work) and it’s a grant not a loan, so you don’t have to pay it back.

The voucher scheme is also available in Coventry, although there doesn’t seem to be an event, just a page where eligible organisations (SME (small or medium-sized enterprise) or are a third-sector (voluntary) organisation within the Coventry City Council area) can register their interest

So as vouchers are available on a first come, first served basis, I’ll be encouraging all the charities, social enterprises and other not-for-profit organisations that I know in Birmingham and Coventry to be registering their interest asap – and if you work with those organisations, can I ask you to do the same? Being better connected helps us all.

First thoughts as to where VCS are in relation to LEPs

Background
Local Enterprise Partmerships (LEPs) were established to develop a local growth agenda, locally driven by businesses that had a buy-in to a distinct geography, supported by Local Authorities and other influential institutions, FE Colleges and Universities. LEPs developed strategic plans, recognised skills deficiency and suggested ameliorative processes to enhance their growth programme.

This was all fine and dandy, with government programmes being routed through the process, focusing such activity through the development plans, business plans being reviewed and evaluated with a business eye, and then along comes Europe!

In November 2012 after some deliberation, but coming as no surprise to those who had read Lord Heseltine’s report ‘No Stone Unturned’, The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) announced that the EU Structural Funds 2014 -2020 were to be directed through the LEPs.

While they waited for the initial guidance which eventually arrived in April and July 2013, LEPs went about their business, merrily developing their strategic plans within their initial structures, business orientated growth programmes targeting, predominantly, private sector enterprise, acknowledging the growing sound bites that it was the private sector, and not the public sector, that creates the wealth.
LEP and VCS engagement – a stalled start

In their initial development LEPs had little, and in some cases, no contact with Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations. From November 2012 there was an increased flurry of activity by some LEPs with VCS organisations as they began to discuss how LEPs and the Sector could benefit each other.

What didn’t help matters was the variety of names and terminology used to describe the activities of VCS organisations:
· Civic Society
· Civil Society
· The Third Sector
· Non Government Organisations (NGOs)
· The Voluntary Sector
· Social Enterprises
· Charities
· Community groups

Adding to the confusion of titles was the variety of perceptions of where the Sector gets its money from.

Some basic statistics
VCS organisations constitute an important sector of the economy, creating jobs and economic value, as well as social and environmental benefits. According to research by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), there are over 162,000 voluntary organisations in the UK. These organisations employ 793,000 people (around 2.7% of the UK workforce), and additionally they spend around £18.1bn on goods and services each year. At the same time there are over 60,000 social enterprises in the UK, and 5,950 co-operatives employing 230,000 people.

LEPs and Europe
With the announcement that LEPs were to ‘oversee’ the 2014-2020 structural funds, LEPs had to begin to accommodate new concepts and partnerships in order to deliver EU programmes.

Whilst ESF and ERDF were known programmes, terms like social inclusion, social innovation, community lead local development were unfamiliar. These concepts were to be accommodated into new strategic plans that would outline how the LEP would deliver a European funded programme, and so consultation began.

LEP and VCS engagement – a second bite
While an LEP is capable of delivering economic growth, it will be necessary for it to develop strategic partnerships with VCS organisations in order to fulfil, not only EU requirements, but also to enable them to deliver a growth agenda that accommodated the socio-, as well as the economic, growth agenda.

In some cases, the LEP journey of partnership with VCS was easier than in others – some sought out partnerships, some had partnerships within their existing agenda, and others continued without any partnership plans.

Those LEPs that recognised the importance of an ‘inclusive economic growth’ programme have recognised that the delivery of any growth agenda requires the engagement of those furthest from the labour market, people who, for whatever reason, take longer to become, or in some cases cannot fully become, economically active, and are continually excluded from accepted ‘norms’ and mainstream activity. For this engagement to be achieved, community lead organisations need to be involved.

LEP and VCS – issues to be addressed confusions to be clarified
The most common prejudice faced by the sector in any engagement is the focus on the charitable aspect of the sector, and not on the business aspect. There is often a misguided view that organisations receive grants to deliver to those in need. Much less is known or appreciated of the new commissioning and procurement aspects of public services, and the sometimes onerous open tendering process which organisations need to go through to win contracts, even small ones.

The concept of ‘Social Enterprise’ was often confused with ‘charitable’ delivery and, therefore, in some cases, ignored. There is evidence throughout the country, through information sharing at VCS network meetings, of sparse appreciation of the activity and role of the VCS.
This ignorance or lack of appreciation has prevented significant partnerships being developed, and while the role of LEPs was purely economic growth, stimulated only by the private sector, the management of European Structural Funds brings wider responsibilities.

The most successful LEPs and VCS partnerships occur where there is a historical connection between local and regional infrastructure organisations and the current European Management processes in Local Management Groups.

What therefore does the sector bring to LEPs?
While there is little argument that local, regional and national economic growth policies are a necessity, where such activity can be lead by business, it can be supported by public sector funding. However, the lack of penetration and engagement of public sector programmes has consistently failed to engage a certain percentage of the population. Whatever title we give this, or these groups, (for they are not a homogeneous community, geographically, culturally or socially), if we are to develop a fully integrated socio-economic growth programme, they must be engaged to their fullest potential, and at a pace that maintains and sustains their engagement.

We cannot assume that all individuals are capable of full time employment within the labour market. Are then these economically excluded individuals not to be included in mainstream developments and provision, or just managed/cared for, within other provision?

Are we to ‘lump’ all these people together or, building on the concept of the individual, develop communities of geography or interest, with civic activities that can include the individuals, starting the journey from their own specific capability and journeying, at their own pace, arriving at a destination with which they are comfortable?

What the VCS offers the LEPs is access to such groups, and the ability to engage them in relevant, developmental and sustainable programmes that will engage them, over a period of time, in the socio-economic development of an area.

There is significant evidence throughout the country where community and civically lead programmes have stimulated local engagement in economic regeneration and growth activity. Social innovation programmes can develop a social economy, and can generate sustainable activities that can accommodate developments which facilitate the necessary engagement outlined above.

This process is not one of ‘charity and care’, ‘handouts and management’, but one of business, humanity, and compassion, with an understanding of the individual’s journey, place and circumstances, and an appreciation of the economy, targets and their achievement capability, matched to a support programme to accomplish set and agreed targets and activities.

Digital by distraction?

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