We recognise that digital inclusion makes sense for our tenants (they're better able to access employment, training, manage their finances, be connected with their family, friends and community). We also recognise it's makes sense for us.
Interacting with us online, rather than in person or over the phone, is cheaper and, when done right, more convenient for both parties. We've long held the view that online channels will not replace face-to-face or phone contact but that online gives our customers greater choice.
At our last STAR survey, we found out that 49% of our customers have some access to the internet. We know that figure will be growing every day, particularly as the non-contract smart phone market matures.
Our approach to digital inclusion has been about creating 'pulls' and 'pushes' that will (hopefully) nudge up the number of tenants who use the internet and help develop their skills.
- We've held five Homes on the Net sessions - these are opportunities for tenants who have never used the internet to come along and have a go. These are group sessions where tenants sit with a staff member and chat about what they'd like to use the internet for and together they give it a go. What's good about these sessions is they are informal and friendly, and genuine relationships are formed, what's bad is we can only host 12 tenants at a time - not exactly scalable.
- We put a tablet and PC into a former sheltered housing scheme and hooked them up with broadband. Our ICT team trained the tenants on how to use them. This has had some success with a handful of tenants really taking to it but again it's not scalable.
- We're setting up an online self-service where tenants can directly access their accounts, update their details, report repairs and book appointments. A lot of housing organisations have similar services but most don't link into their housing management system. If they don't, it (usually) means an email is generated and someone at the landlord end of the transaction has to do something with it. This means it's not a genuine 24 hour service. What we wanted was a system where people could instantly book their own repairs appointments depending on what suited them without having to have a person at the other end. This is way more difficult to set up but we believe it will be worth it for the better quality of service it will offer customers. We have just trialled the first phase with tenants and it went well.
- We worked with a group of tenants in Low Hill to set up a website for their area. The idea was that a resident-led website would stimulate people to want to get online to find out the latest news and information. It hasn't been a total fail but it hasn't succeeded in the way we wanted it to. Part of the problem, I think, is that we used Ning and the barrier of having to log in to a platform they weren't used to, put people off. I keep meaning to blog about it and I will soon.
- We've set up presences on social media and encourage tenants to interact with us about whatever they like there. Facebook is the most popular for customer interaction; we get occasional customer engagement on Twitter. We use youtube for videos of anything and everything.
- We've gone to where the people are: our Council runs the immensely successful Wolverhampton Today facebook page; we share our stuff with them and vice versa, and we are hugely lucky to be working in a city with exemplary citizen digital engagement in the shape of WV11. We interact with those guys whenever we can.
There's a few other initiatives we're trying too. We are also soon to be starting a project with the Council, Police and a couple of other organisations to try and stimulate digital inclusion in neighbourhoods through social media surgeries. I've been a 'surgeon' at various surgeries around the midlands and I've seen how powerful they can be at connecting people and ideas. I have high hopes for this project, but I'm still not convinced we've found the key to unlocking digital inclusion en masse. I think more likely it will take lots of little things over time to get to the tipping point; what I hope is that our efforts can hurry that tipping point along.