Opening digital public services out to all

By Leighton Andrews, Professor of Practice in Public Service Leadership and Innovation, Cardiff Business School

When the iPad first came out I bought one for my 80 year-old mother. Peggy is an ex-teacher, and a fully competent short-hand typist, but she had never got on with computers – all that waiting around for them to boot up and so on. So she had never sent an email. Now she sends and receives emails, shares in family photographs and videos immediately, reads her newspaper online, and sometimes watches the cricket online as well.

When the Welsh Government programmes Communities@one and subsequently Communities 2.0 were launched, their focus was on how we reached out to people through the things that interested them. With community brokers acting as digital inclusion champions across Wales, and a fund to support community initiatives, often on a very small scale, we found local people, often with no real computer training beforehand, overcoming their own digital exclusion as they recognised that digital offered them new opportunities for existing interests, whether those were in pigeon racing, photography, family or community history, community radio or a range of other activities. For many, this was just the start. I remember my then constituent, Sharon Morris of Treherbert, who became one of the great successes of the Communities@One programme. Wales’s success with these programmes was acknowledged at UK and EU levels.

We know that more and more public services are becoming digital. There are great opportunities to upskill our workforces, and to make work more rewarding and less time-consuming, freeing staff to do more useful and less repetitive tasks. When I was Minister for Public Services, I saw the great success of the new scheme introduced by South Wales and Gwent police forces which pioneered the Electronic Pocket Notebook and the I-Patrol mobile ‘app’. These enable officers at crime scenes to capture audio and visual accounts from victims, witnesses and offenders, to upload these files and information obtained directly into a shared computer system without the need to return to their home police station.

Increasingly, public services are being configured directly around the needs of users with digital being at the heart of new service provision. Small amounts of funding can trigger innovation and new developments, as we saw through the Digital Innovation Fund which I launched in 2015 and previously through the Welsh Language Technology and Digital Media Action Plan.  More recently, a Digital Innovation Fund for the Arts has been established.

We know that those at school are growing up with digital as natural to their everyday life, and the Welsh Government has made significant investments in strengthening online learning through Hwb and Hwb+.

These developments will continue, but we know that almost one in five Welsh people still don’t make regular use of the internet, which is why the Welsh Government launched its new Digital Communities programme in March 2015. This is integral to the Welsh Government’s Tackling Poverty and Economic Agendas. Reaching out to new users, identifying ways to include them in service development and improving their own skills remains a vital task for the future – and in a world where we are increasingly concerned at the impact of loneliness in later life, could be one of the routes to tackling that challenge as well.

The Wales Co-operative Centre has been working to address issues of digital exclusion in Wales for over 11 years now. Working with Welsh Government the Wales Co-operative Centre has delivered three major initiatives: Communities@One, Communities 2.0 and now Digital Communities Wales. The work has made a significant contribution to addressing the digital divide in Wales, but there is plenty more to be done, as more and more services and interactions are moving into an online space.

Ahead of Get Online Week 2016  (17 -23 October), the Wales Co-operative Centre has  invited a wide range of contributors to write a guest blog on Everyone’s Business blog site in an effort to highlight the on going need for organisations across Wales to work together to address issues of digital inclusion.

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