Yesterday Lambeth Council alongside the Government Digital Service, GoOn UK and Job Centre plus launched our Digibuddies project at one of many community venues participating, the All Nations Church on Poynders road.
Digibuddies is the latest of Lambeth’s Cooperative Council initiatives and aims to get everyone in Lambeth online with support, training and mentoring by local volunteers. It’s cooperative because we work together with the public, with community partners (in this case the church and their learning centre) and public agencies like the job centre for positive outcomes for all.
The political driver was that central government was going digital by default, that pensioners and others on some form of welfare benefit would have to access it online in future. The looming threat for us is that those groups of people are our least digitally connected and in most categories figure highly in our most vulnerable residents. With news this week that Government is also making jobseekers do this digitally, the risk of further excluding those at the sharp end of austerity from the basic welfare safety net is a terrifying prospect becoming reality.
Also our Labour Party values and the strong Cooperative Council foundation we have been building over the past 5 years has given us the expertise and appetite to tap into the energy, skills and resource that exists in our communities right across the borough, rather than scratching our heads and wondering how we do it.
About 9 months ago we set about bringing understanding our challenge, bringing together partners, mapping provision and shaping the opportunities to train volunteers to work with those in need of skills in their own communities. The Council cannot pay for this with 50% of our budget cut but we can make it happen working through our cooperative principles and experiences. And yesterday Digibuddies was (officially) born.
About 10% of Lambeth residents – about 26,000 people – do not use the internet and the figure who lack confidence is even higher. This might be difficult to grasp for those of you reading this electronic blog post on your smart phone from my twitter feed but there are large numbers of people for whom it is not natural, it is scary and something to be ignored.
And whilst when your internet goes down you might breathe a sigh of relief at the respite from the incessant tidal wave of emails, pictures of cats in funny situations for others this is a real problem in the real world and the real economy. Now if you are not online you can’t access the job seekers programmes and forms you need to, and failure to do so means you get no access to job seekers allowance. And if you do get a job and need to update your housing benefit to take this into account you will soon be able to only do this online.
Of course it’s not just about benefits and basic survival. I use the internet for everything from reading the paper, research, communication with friends and family, buying and selling things and…well I can’t think of anything that the internet doesn’t help me with.
For me personally this was a real proud moment, like seeing a child perform in a school play and thinking “I did that.” Of course it wasn’t just down to me, a significant number of people, not least the Digibuddies themselves, have made this a reality, but as a politician trying to make something happen, change and delivery can be painfully slow. In this case it’s taken me and the officer I got together with about 9 months, which in local government terms is the superest-most high speed broadband of delivery that I’d hoped for.