100% Digital Leeds: How Leeds Libraries are leading on digital inclusion

Andrea Ellison, Chief Librarian, Leeds City Council, tells Libraries Week about the success of 100% Digital Leeds – a cross sector collaboration ensuring everyone in the city has the digital skills they need.

Background

Leeds is an ambitious city. The Best Council Plan outlines key city priorities which include tackling poverty and inequality and an ambition be a Compassionate City with a Strong Economy. 

The Inclusive Growth Strategy, published in 2018 sets out how Leeds City Council, the private sector, universities, colleges and schools and social enterprises will work together to grow the Leeds economy ensuring that everyone in the city contributes to and benefits from growth. Key to the Inclusive Growth Strategy is the aspiration to mitigate the impact of poverty and inequality by supporting businesses, improving skills and helping people into work and better jobs.

Like many cities, however, Leeds faces financial challenges and the need to deliver services in smarter, more efficient ways has inevitably meant more services being delivered digitally. But as more services move to digital platforms and the world becomes increasingly more connected, digital exclusion has the potential to increase disadvantage. 

The evidence is that those who are offline are more likely to be disabled or have long-term health conditions, be unemployed or on a low income, have low literacy and numeracy levels or be older or socially isolated.  Ironically, these are the very people who have the most to gain from the benefits associated with being online, e.g. being better informed about health issues, developing skills and finding employment, saving money and staying connected. 

The 2015 Digital Exclusion Heatmap showed that in Leeds tens of thousands of adults had never been online, did not have the five basic digital skills and lived in households without internet access.  The City Council launched an inquiry which looked at the causes of the digital divide and the barriers to digital inclusion. The inquiry considered what existing infrastructure was available across Leeds and what the city should do to close the gap. Priority actions identified included:

  • increasing access to equipment and connectivity,
  • providing more opportunities for digital literacy skills training, outreach and support
  • coordinating and developing new networks across the third sector
  • using Council assets to enhance and extend infrastructure.

The city’s Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) had been asked to respond to the inquiry. An opportune conversation between the CDIO and a member of the library staff provided the chance to talk about range of services already on offer to support digital inclusion through the library service.  This included 34 sites across the city with free Wi-Fi, 500 public access PCs, a pilot tablet-lending scheme, and a strong track record as an Adult Education provider delivering digital skills sessions with library staff qualified at Level 3 in Education and Training. 

With a team of skilled staff, an infrastructure which offered access to digital equipment and connectivity in each local community, as well as good community links and a high reputation, the CDIO immediately saw the potential for the library to lead the digital inclusion campaign for Leeds. 

Increasing the strategic role of Libraries

Leeds Libraries agreed to take a lead role at the Scrutiny inquiry. Working with The Good Things Foundation, we highlighted the key reasons why people are not online.  Main reasons given:

  • Lack of online skills/confidence
  • Cost of equipment and broadband access
  • Lack of interest/motivation – this included a lack of awareness of the provision available within communities.

Having identified the barriers to digital inclusion we were tasked with building a coherent campaign, the 100% Digital Leeds programme to tackle the issues and coordinate activity across all sectors on a citywide basis. 

100% Digital Leeds is a strong concept, with a vision of digital inclusion for all. Conceived as a ‘movement’ across the city, the programme offers a way of galvanising and sustaining grassroots activity and uniting people, organisations and communities with this shared vision.  With the local library at the heart of the programme, we are building the capacity of third sector organisations across the city and working with people to improve outcomes through digital inclusion.  In the early days of the programme, effective progress was restricted by a lack of resource.  It became increasingly clear that investment was needed if we were to succeed in turning 100% Digital Leeds into a coherent movement with a significant impact.

The Library Service had been investigating scalable ways to increase digital inclusion by piloting approaches such as a tablet lending scheme initiative, which proved to be a useful case study for subsequent Scrutiny Board reports, and which also helped us to build our business cases for additional investment into the service.

Increasing investment into Libraries

To illustrate the scale of what could be achieved we created an options appraisal clearly showing how our ambition and impact could grow relative to an increased level of investment (see attached illustration). 

We were strongly supported by our Chief Officer (the Chief Officer for Customer Access and Welfare), as well as the CDIO to develop and use the options appraisal and additional business cases in conversations with other Council officers who were also interested in the savings and positive outcomes that could be achieved through digital inclusion.  This helped to secure sizeable investment in the programme which enabled us to:

  • Appoint permanent staff to the library service (3 Digital Inclusion Coordinators and 1 Digital Inclusion Support Officer)
  • Expand our tablet lending scheme from x  to 150 tablets with connectivity, professional services and a managed framework that other organisations could buy into
  • Work with one of the UK’s leading social change charities, The Good Things Foundation, to support our efforts to build a digital inclusion network across Leeds, embed sustainability, and evidence return on investment.

The success of 100% Digital Leeds to date has seen the library service attract additional funding from the Leeds City Region Business Rates Pool enabling us to:

  • Double the size of our tablet lending scheme to 300 tablets
  • Install free Wi-Fi in 20 community buildings
  • Introduce a grants programme for third sector organisations in the city to remove barriers to digital inclusion for their staff and customers

Additional funding from the Integrated Better Care Fund and NHS Digital has recently added a health-specific stream to our work.  We have a fourth Digital Inclusion Coordinator with an exclusive remit to improve health outcomes for people long-term conditions as well as a Widening Digital Participation pathfinder project for people with dementia and their carers.

We have combined budgets from different council departments and funding streams with a focus on improving shared outcomes.  We have strategic support from across the council with the library service leading the way in collaboration and breaking down silos.  Investment on this scale demonstrates the Council’s commitment to tackling digital exclusion as well as the confidence the Council has in the library service’s ability to deliver such a high-profile programme.

Conclusion

Key to the success of the library service taking a leading role in the campaign was having the elevator pitch to the ready – it was about the right conversation with the right person at the right time.  However, the underlying principles and learning points that got us into this position can be applied by other library services to a range of activities, from digital inclusion for adults to children’s literacy programmes. 

  • Know your ‘product’ and the strategic fit– what can your library service offer across a range of council and city priorities?
  • Know who the influencers are and take steps to frame the positive impact of your offer in a way that speaks directly to those influencers and their agendas.
  • Know the role you want your library service to play and argue for that role with confidence.

These things don’t always come naturally to library services and we haven’t always been as effective as we could be at articulating the importance of our offer and our strategic role.  But we are learning.  As a result of Leeds Libraries applying these principles to 100% Digital Leeds, our digital inclusion programme is one of the council’s Smart Leeds commitments, both the Library Service and the 100% Digital Campaign are highlighted in the Inclusive Growth Strategy, the most recent update to Scrutiny Board was well received and the library service played a key role in Leeds being awarded in the Digital Leaders 100 awards. 

Useful Links:

Likelihood of digital exclusion

Lending tablets to individuals who were offline

Smart Leeds

Leeds Inclusive Growth Strategy

Update report to Scrutiny Board

Digital Council of the Year

 

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