#OneDigital Action Learning Sets

By Karen Herbert on 7th Jun 2016

As leader of a Third Sector Interface, I meet many leaders of other organisations every day. Many charismatic people, very focused and dedicated individuals who are passionate about social justice in its many guises. From small local organisations to large nationals, and discussions cover a wide range of topics.

As you would expect, funding and cuts are often on the agenda, but not in a whiny way, rather as driver and catalyst for system change. But in recent times the severity of cuts and the increases in demand have combined to create a ‘perfect storm’ that is exercising all of us beyond what we ever considered reasonable.

I have no doubt that technology can be harnessed to benefit our organisations, improving service delivery, increasing reach, streamlining back-office, all of the usual suspects. But underpinning that is our innate focus on social justice, and most particularly the need to keep our attention focused on those ‘hardest to reach’ or ‘furthest from’ or otherwise disadvantaged and excluded.

In my own small team I have employees who do not have a computer at home, whose children are disadvantaged by not being able to get online to do homework. In one local school with a more 'affluent' catchment area, all homework is set and completed online. In another just a few miles away which has a catchment area frequently described as ‘disadvantaged’, paper-based homework is the norm. Perhaps the decision is right for each school, but is everybody in each area typical of the whole? We all know people who live in ‘affluent’ areas who, for whatever reason, are actually in poverty; what additional barriers are being put in the way of these children? And childhood poverty is the blight of our time, which we need to address at an individual level.

I do not mean to suggest that education is a poor example, I could equally have picked access to healthcare, or housing, or employment, or a myriad of other areas. Technology can be a great enabler, but we must remain alert to those it does not suit, for whatever reason. There are individuals who cannot or will not access technology. We must be careful not to exclude them by creating yet another barrier.

However, rather than use that as an excuse not to increase our uptake of technology, I suggest that we take a different perspective. If we utilise technology better and harness its divergent features to provide a ‘pull’ service for those savvy and motivated to self-serve, that would free up our scarce and reducing human resources to provide a more individually tailored and supportive service to those who do not. If we get this right, everyone could access what they need in a way that is best suited them. Utopia? Yes. But….

I have a vision about how my own organisation could deliver this agenda, but a significant investment in hardware and software to start is required. I have just heard that more than half the PCs in use in our office cannot upgrade to Windows 10, they are that old. Although all of my staff team have received training in the main Microsoft packages that we use daily, and use our Salesforcecloud-based records system daily, we do not have an integrated solution that they can access while with clients, and there is so much more we could do to make their working life more productive and accessible for our clients and improve the working environment for my staff team.

If we could harness aspects of social media better to increase our reach and improve our accessibility, there would be more staff time to provide an 1-2-1 hands-on service for those that need it most to make a difference to their lives.

So why am I not delivering this? Because I am not an expert in all of these things, which means I have to pay for advice, find someone with all of the knowledge without a bias towards any supplier. I have to find the money to pay them, then the money to buy the equipment, then the money for staff training and not least, employing one or more people to do all of the work that will keep these solutions up to date and expanding. What existing service/post do I cut to pay for these changes? How do I take funding away from service delivery for an unknown future? This model of working is a fundamental change in thinking and practice, and like all paradigm shifts, is akin to leaping off a cliff. It would be made easier if it did not come at a time of austerity, or if an enlightened funder could be found to underpin the financial risk involved. Oh yes, Utopia again.

This decision requires a leap of faith, and I am finding it very hard to make a start. I know this is the role of a leader, and being a part of the One DigitalAction Learning programme has helped me on this journey.

It has clarified my thinking and better informed my decision making. I have learnt knew ideas and it has reinforced thinking in other areas. I am grateful to my peers for their openness and support, we are all facing difficult decisions ahead. ‘Just do it’ is made easier by having a knowledgeable network to sanity-check your bad days. Having the thinking space to help make the right choices is invaluable.

A TSI is meant to lead by example; how can I suggest that increased use of digital resources in original ways will improve the service for the many and free up resources to focus on the few, without proving it by doing it. This is an informed choice, there is still a risk to be mitigated, but to me, the way forward is clear.