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Is social housing (still) sleepwalking into a digital nightmare?

Back in 2002 a group of us co-authored a book for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about why social landlords, and their residents, should be concerned about joining the online world both for its benefits and because of the way public services were going digital.  It was well-received by the relatively few people then focused on the issue … but didn’t get a lot of attention in the sector despite a mini-campaign.

The issues raised then are now getting more pressing – and I’m delighted to sign up for what promises to be an excellent event in Leeds on July 30 organised by my friend John Popham and Leeds Federated Housing Association. Sleepwalking into a digital nightmare is about right.

Here’s what we were saying back in 2002:

The Government has set targets for public bodies to deliver services online within five years, and is concerned that everyone that wants access to the Internet should have it through public or private provision. Partnerships Online examined the practicalities for housing associations and residents, found that progress is slow, and offers some insights and ways forward. Drawing on exploratory work, online forums and workshops with housing association residents and staff, the study found:

  • Housing associations could use information and communication technologies to deliver on three fronts: providing online services, supporting community development, and providing residents with learning and job opportunities.
  • However, most housing associations are doing relatively little in this field. Research suggests this is partly because of lack of vision, lack of skilled staff and funding and the need for organisational culture change. It may also be because the benefits of introducing new technology are not evident or easily realisable.
  • Forecasts suggest that by 2007 there will be many ‘smart’ homes, public services will increasingly be online, and other communication methods may be reduced. Advocates of online services argue that social housing residents could be at a disadvantage as citizens and as consumers if they do not have access to at least some of these features.
  • Workshop discussions suggest that residents arecurrently concerned about costs of Internet access, are unsure of benefits, and concerned that development of online services may lead to cuts in traditional provision.
  • If housing associations do not take action, it seems unlikely other solutions will readily emerge without new partnerships. The public and non-profit sectors are generally not performing strongly in this field. Commercial organisations will only go for profitable market sectors. Most residents will find it challenging to develop ‘DIY’ solutions.
  • There is currently no forum for these issues. The researchers suggest the development of ‘communities of practice’ for those housing association staff and residents willing to explore the complex issues in this field.

Here’s the intro for the July 2013 Leeds event:

The Government’s “Digital by Default” strategy means that services will increasingly be moved online. Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax, Unversal Jobmatch, are all examples of where tenants who are not regular users of digital technologies could get left behind, and which place the ability of social landlords to meet the needs of their residents in jeopardy. As a result, Digital inclusion is becoming an imperative for social landlords.

Digital fluency is also a key issue for staff as they adapt to new ways of working and are increasingly called on to support residents in their use of new technologies.

This workshop will explore the different elements of digital inclusion, describe effective practice implemented in a range of settings, encourage delegates to come up with their own ideas, and develop actions plans to increase the numbers of their residents and staff who are comfortable using the internet.

Some of the pratical initiatives we will explore include:

  • drop-in centres where residents can go to for patient, sustained support to get online and carry on using new technologies;
  • encouraging tenants to become digital champions;
  • offering free wifi;
  • sourcing and refurbishing computers and makng them available at low cost to residents;
  • using social media to communicate with tenants and communities;
  • assisting tenants and community organisations to use new technologies and social media to gain wider audiences for their work;
  • doing interesting, innovative things with new technologies that attract attention;
  • using mobile facilities to bring the internet and new technologies to homes and communities.

The initiative for the 2002 publication came from the Joseph Rowntree family of charities, who included both a social landlord and research foundation. They could see the future, and also be concerned to do the best for their residents. JRF research continues to focus on housing, digital and social exclusion particularly through work led by James Grant.

We included in 2002 an early version of the social media game that helps people think through what might be needed in any situation … and it would be interesting to do an update on that to include the ideas John is promoting.

I was fortunate to have futurist David Greenop as a co-author, who had extensive experience in the telecoms industry. His view here of what homes would be like in 2007 was incredibly insightful, and I think our key ideas still hold up.

This post isn’t meant to be a “told you so” – more a reflection that although technology moves fast, our institutions remain slow to adapt. Although there are some worthy pioneers in the field, a loud wake-up call is needed. I’m sure the Leeds event will help – and hope it can be repeated in other regions.