Bridging the digital divide with Universal Basic Services
Words by Dan Morris, Job Hub Lead at London Borough of Camden
Over the last few months, Camden Council has begun delivering an innovative pilot aimed at increasing digital inclusion for job seekers. The project is led by Good Work Camden, our service which focuses on improving employment outcomes across Camden by supporting people into (and ensuring they remain in) good work, through accessible and relational support.
The pilot is the evolution of a pre-pandemic exploration in to Universal Basic Services (UBS) by Camden’s Inclusive Economy service. This project prototyped a small-scale, free travel and internet connectivity offer for those without work. The findings suggested that a UBS digital offer would provide many benefits for those seeking good work, including boosting access to job opportunities and reducing social isolation.
From the results of UBS insights, coupled with the growing need for universal digital access that emerged from the COVID pandemic, the Digital Inclusion Project (DIP) was born: a bespoke, 100-person pilot that aims to narrow the digital divide for Camden’s job-seeking residents by ensuring participants have access to appropriate devices, a home internet connection, and digital skills.
The Project Team worked together to create resources that help build digital independence for participants. These include a collection of free online training courses, resources that provide supplementary support for those with additional learning needs and handouts that provide a step-by-step guide to setting up a computer and simplify how to get online. We’ve also developed a robust evaluation procedure which will explore the connections between digital, social and economic inclusion, monitor resident progress on their journey to good work and develop our understanding of the wider impacts of the project, with an eye on its sustainability.
The project began in May 2021, so there are limited findings so far. However, through our wider Good Work Camden service, which is open to all Camden residents, we have a good understanding that we have identified and are meeting a pressing need. Conversations with the residents who work with the service often touch on digital challenges, and our advisors are empowered to recognise residents who need support with digital devices, connectivity, or skills.
Resident insights have emerged from these conversations. Pre-pandemic, it was already clear that digital exclusion was a major contributor to societal inequalities; the COVID-19 pandemic has made tackling the digital divide even more pressing. With work, social, and leisure activities moving online and access to free WiFi in public spaces becoming difficult, households without adequate digital access are increasingly at risk of social and financial exclusion.
For one job-seeking resident, home-schooling during lockdown was very demanding. The resident tried using an iPad to ensure their child could access video lessons, but this proved difficult. The iPad was faulty and they were hot-spotting unreliable internet from a mobile phone. They didn’t get a new device because they wanted to seek advice from a shop clerk, but the shops were closed. In the end, the child had to work on paper whilst their friends were accessing school online. Without an internet connection the resident couldn’t find the information to support with her child’s homework, as most of it was online. English is their second language meaning that they were unable to translate words effectively. On top of this, they couldn’t attend a pre-booked online English course as they had to prioritise their child’s home-schooling.
Similarly, another resident’s unstable internet connection and small mobile — which prevents them from accessing apps like Microsoft Teams — hindered their chance of success in online interviews. This resident also believes their eyesight has deteriorated from using the phone excessively.
The Digital Inclusion Project was developed in response to these challenges, and it has made a real difference to those who have participated so far. Almost 20 residents have received a laptop, with some expressing a desire for internet connection which is currently supplied through dongle access or by signposting them to free broadband supplied through the DWP. Many have said they are unhappy with their current digital skill set and feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the transition online without significant sustained support. To meet this need, we work closely with Camden’s Adult Community Learning service, who offer an array of free and local digital upskilling opportunities for residents to access.
The majority of those participating in the project are now independently accessing opportunities that serve to enhance the support we provide through Good Work Camden. For instance, one resident has completed a customer service training course which they are optimistic will lead to work. Another has signed up as a freelance journalist, while another was admitted to the University of East London to study Podiatry and is also completing an online Medical coding course.
Not only are residents now able to more easily complete job searches and applications, attend university online, undertake voluntary work or participate in online training such as Google’s Career Certificates to improve their digital skills, there is also evidence that the project is reducing social isolation and improving wellbeing by increasing connection with others. This is best exemplified by a resident who recently moved to an area that they did not know well. Because they had access to a laptop, they connected to their local community through Nextdoor (a hyperlocal social networking service) and were able to befriend neighbours, better understand the area and the people within it, and acquire free, second hand goods from their community, such as a free bedspread for their children. None of this would have been possible were it not for appropriate digital access.
It’s clear we are moving to an increasingly digital society. Digital technology has and will continue to play a fundamental role in schooling, working, personal wellbeing, accessing services and staying connected to the ones we love. The gap between those with digital skills and those without has been magnified over the last two years; as has the impact of digital exclusion on both social and economic issues.
The financial, social and employability benefits of having a suitable device, good connectivity and applicable digital skills is transformative. The DIP is a collaborative and effective Camden investment in the lives and futures of its residents, that addresses a specific need that has been identified by listening to our communities. The project turns ‘digital inclusion’ — a conceptual, abstract topic — into something practical and real for those who engage with it. The project’s efficacy means it has gained some high profile publicity, including featuring in an episode of the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast.
The DIP bridges the digital divide, increasing the likelihood that a resident can access good work and enjoy the advantages of a well-connected, purposeful life. We seek to demonstrate that by embracing digitisation in a bespoke, universal and vision-led way, Camden can take one giant leap closer to ensuring that we provide a place where everyone has a chance to succeed, where nobody gets left behind, and where everybody has a voice.