Feeding into wider conversations with Scottish Government around joined up digital strategies and lessons learned between third and public sector organisations has allowed me space to reflect upon the current significance of this for social housing and the two key areas that remain central for digital connectivity – digital infrastructure and digital skills.

The Connecting Scotland programme and much of the Supporting Communities and Community Recovery funding has addressed the short term need to get people devices and data to be ‘online’, while longer term planning, resourcing and actions would support this even further.

It was heartening to see mention in the Scottish Government’s ‘Housing to 2040‘ strategy of improved connectivity options in new build developments, but it is less clear what approaches could be funded for those in existing units who do not have adequate connectivity options or access.

The need for individuals – particularly in groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the consequent restrictions – to be connected to online services and family and friends, has been extraordinary. Housing associations across the UK have reported the impact they have made in the past 12 months which shows that on average per organisation, 190 of their tenants are being supported to obtain digital skills or access services.

I’ve already mentioned two key areas in terms of connectivity that supports digital inclusion – infrastructure and skills – however it is worth calling out the third area that is required to create a more effective solution and that is motivation. What the past year has provided for most of us, is the understanding that without face-to-face access or ability to connect to others, there is an intrinsic incentive for even those previously removed from digital services to be able to be ‘online’.

Often playing the role of community anchor, with the responsibility to ensure health, safety, and rental income of tenancies was supported during lockdown without existing routes to engagement, there was an even bigger push from social housing organisations to fill the digital exclusion gap.

Having worked in digital inclusion projects and roles for much of the past five years, I can attest that there were already great steps being made in some areas across the sector. However, it wasn’t until the SCVO Digital Champion’s network that I felt a real combined push to understand, join up, and improve internal capabilities within Scottish housing associations. Not only was this a formal training provision, giving us key resources and structure to our digital inclusion approach, it also enabled communication between those in similar roles approaching the same challenges (at that point mine was centred around getting people online ahead of UC roll out!).

What my journey in this found was that colleagues who met much of the SCVO guidance to be earmarked as suitable Digital Champions in terms of ability to engage with tenants, and providing a supporting and helpful manner when doing so, actually lacked some of the basic digital skills themselves.  Not allowing this to hold us back, we created a signposting model where those more digitally able would pick up specific tasks, however sometimes the most effective support or momentum needed is to provide that on-the-spot guidance. 

Currently working at SFHA as part of their Social Insight Partnership with HACT, my colleague Gary Dickson has really been driving forward a better understanding of the digital maturity of organisations and has been working with SFHA members to collate findings of this, and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming outcomes which will enable us as a sector to better understand current challenges. In a time where digital enablement has been one of the hottest topics being able to connect and provide better services for staff and customers alike is imperative. Understanding the changing nature of organisational capacity, staff skills and digital engagement will allow us to better channel support, resources and learning as a longer-term partner to increased infrastructure and connectivity as we move forward.

Alongside the updated SCVO Digital skills checklist, Gary’s work will help both strategic and operational understanding of delivering more effective digital inclusion programmes. The work HACT have been doing throughout social housing organisation across the UK recently has also focused on internal capabilities for digital enablement, and alongside providing digital transformation through our Business Capability and Design model and implementing the free to download UK Housing Data Standard with which more effective data led decisions can be made.

What this clearly shows is that there is so much to address to ensure social housing sector are equipped with the tools to effectively digitally enable their tenants. So when I invited Claire from SCVO along to the most recent Scottish Network meeting of Centre for Excellence in Community Investment, I was delighted to see that not only have they developed their Digital Champion’s approach and their training programme in partnership with Kelvin College(having recently passed the Digital Inclusion Project Management – SCQF Level 8 I can thoroughly recommend!), but they are continuing to offer it free directly to Scottish housing associations.

Their new Digital in the Houseprogramme is currently open and I urge any associations not yet signed up, to go and do so NOW! The future and resourcing of infrastructure and connectivity is still unclear, but the future of digital inclusion training, resources and support most certainly is.

As the SCVO team will certainly attest, digital exclusion is not a new concept and has been suffered long before COVID-19, and what we (and they) know, is that social housing tenants are disproportionately affected by this. If anything, the pandemic has made the digital gap more of a chasm for some, and free programmes such as Digital in the House are certainly part of the solution for this.