Rethinking Digital Inclusion in Social Housing

07 Oct 2014 |Written by James Richardson

At our recent social housing conference I presented a summary of the findings from my report on the Digital Deal programme, hoping that I’d give the audience some ideas. As it turned out, I was preaching to the converted: most of those in attendance were already trying many of the approaches that I outlined, as I found out when I helped to facilitate a group discussion of organisational buy-in and internal referrals. Establishing good internal referrals mechanisms between digital inclusion and other inclusion services - financial, employability and social - had been one of my key recommendations, but as it turned out we never got that far.

The reason was that buy-in has to come first, and I soon found out that’s easier said than done. Some people on the table had been able to get the support and understanding of senior management, but had been frustrated to find that this didn’t trickle down to middle management and frontline staff. Others found that colleagues who supported tenants in areas like financial and social inclusion misunderstood digital as at best a supplement to, and at worst a distraction from, their ‘more urgent’ priorities.

On the front line, the digital skills and confidence of staff like housing officers and wardens - who need to be at the centre of getting tenants online - was not consistent, and often limited. Also, as with some of the Digital Deal projects, there was a recognition that digital inclusion was moving Housing Associations’ IT teams from a peripheral role to the very centre of things - this meant they urgently needed to become more open, more tenant-facing, and to work more closely with social inclusion teams and frontline staff, all of which they’d never had to do before.

Pretty much everyone noted that the time and effort spent developing digital strategies did not automatically lead to buy-in, or new ways of working; the general feeling was that, as long as an Association has a digital strategy that’s separate to its wider inclusion strategy, there’s a risk that digital inclusion will remain separate to other inclusion activities.

All of this is frustrating: there are so many energetic, creative people working on digital inclusion in social housing, but it feels like they’re being held back by internal barriers of miscommunication and misunderstanding. It’s not enough to say that digital inclusion is just as important as programmes that address things like financial exclusion, unemployment or loneliness and isolation: digital inclusion and the use of online resources needs to become a part of those programmes, if Housing Associations are to be able to overcome the many different kinds of social exclusion and disadvantage experienced by their tenants.

Across the UK, there’s plenty of great work already being done in this area; there’s also so much more that still needs to be done. Digital inclusion teams need to be able to prove the importance of digital across their organisations, in order to overcome misunderstanding and reluctance to engage. Starting small is one way to address this, with limited projects that can provide evidence of the power of digital, and establish the structures and internal partnerships that can lead to scaling and buy-in. Another way is to use the model of Social Housing Providers at the cutting edge of digital inclusion, whose innovation provides powerful case studies of how and why digital inclusion should be put at the centre of support services for tenants.

By far the biggest reason given by digitally excluded people as to why they’re not online is ‘I’m not interested’, and one of the most important jobs of tutors and volunteers in the UK online centres network is convincing them that they should be, that digital can transform their lives for the better. The situation in social housing seems to reflect this at an organisational level: the staff who have been given the task of getting tenants online first need to convince their colleagues, from the top to the bottom, that this is a job worth doing, not as an add-on or an optional extra, but at the centre of how tenants are supported and staff are trained. I hope that Tinder can help them to make the case, whether through online channels like the Digital Housing Hub, or more events where people can meet face-to-face and talk about what they’re doing - the important thing is to keep talking.