Social Housing – Sleepwalking into the digital nightmare?

Another post inspired by a conversation on Twitter, which followed on from my previous post about disruption from the bottom up. The conversation turned to the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions having a target of 80% of Universal Credit applications being made online. This was deemed to be a much too ambitious target by a couple of people working in social housing. My response was that social landlords cannot afford to see it as too ambitious. It has to be met or they risk losing £millions in rent payments.

The other day I was talking to someone in a local authority about getting Our Digital Planet back on the road. He said to me “we’ve tried everything else, so we need to give this a go”.  And I think that’s a key point. If we accept that we need as many people as possible online (and there’s a debate to be had about that, but, in social housing terms, I think it’s an unavoidable necessity), then I believe some pretty drastic action is needed. The people who remain resistent to joining the online world are those who would be characterised as “hardest to reach”. In this, as in other arenas, I maintain there are no “hard to reach” people, if you are finding anyone hard to reach you are using the wrong tactics.

If social landlords don’t get this right, I seriously contend that they are putting millions of pounds in rents not collected in jeopardy, and that is not to speak of the hardship that many tenants will suffer. And I think it needs a lot of painstaking, patient, non-directive, work of the kind we have been undertaking in Our Digital Planet and that done by the Digital Lounge at LS14 Trust. It entails working individually with each person to find the touchpoint in their lives where they can see that digital technologies can make a difference; and it involves working with them over a sustained period to support them in their use of new technologies, not believing that a one-0ff intervention will solve everything.

I go back as well, to my oft-cited contention that people need to enjoy what they are doing if it is to become integrated with their everyday lives. And it is important to think outside the box when seeking to convince people technology has a role to play. That is why I ran the Twicket initiative. A lot more people were interested in watching a village cricket match online than might have been interested in a blogpost on why technology is good for them.

These are the things I think social housing providers need to do, urgently, in order to make sure those of their tenants still not online can make the leap:

  • provide somewhere they can go to for patient, sustained support to get online and carry on using new technologies. LS14 Trust (see video below) is a fantastic model for this kind of operation;
  • Encourage tenants to become digital champions (example project here);
  • Offer free wifi for tenants – here’s an example of a social landlord doing just that;
  • Work with other public organisations and local charities to source and refurbish computers and make them available at low cost to tenants – here’s an example of service like this;
  • Use social media to communicate with tenants;
  • Assist tenants and community organisations to use new technologies and social media to gain wider audiences for their work (like this);
  • Do interesting, innovative things with new technologies that attract attention (like Twicket);
  • Invite Our Digital Planet to your neighbourhood to launch your strategy.

I recently met Nic and Jo from LS14 Trust who are doing just the kind of patient digital inclusion work necessary. And yet they are struggling for funding. Someone needs to step in and address this.