Spaldwick in Cambridgeshire is a village known across the county for one thing above all else: its record on digital.
Since superfast broadband arrived in 2014 the village has seen record levels of take-up - there’s hardly a household without a fast internet connection. But more than that, what is particularly impressive is the way in which the community has taken ownership of its own digital future - both in terms of connectivity and basic digital skills.
Residents of all ages have built up their digital capability and are making the most of being online with the help of the local broadband champion. The author of the village’s e-newsletter, for example, is over 80 years old and says that being online enables him to “do what I want to do far more quickly”.
Spaldwick isn’t unique, though - both connectivity and Cambridgeshire residents’ basic digital skills are improving all the time thanks to the success of Cambridgeshire County Council’s ongoing Connecting Cambridgeshire programme.
The Connecting Cambridgeshire programme was set up in 2011 to give access to superfast broadband (and better broadband generally) to nearly all homes and businesses across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. At around that time, the council ran a market consultation to look at levels of commercial coverage and found that around 90,000 premises would lack superfast broadband without the intervention of this programme. The pent up demand for better broadband was demonstrated by 25,000 people registering for the Connecting Cambridgeshire campaign.
Following the search for an investment partner, BT was selected and signed up to deliver the roll-out of superfast broadband across the county by the end of 2015. The roll-out is on track to exceed its original target numbers and reach over 97,000 homes and businesses across the county with fibre broadband by the end of this year. Planning is now underway for a second phase of the roll-out from 2016-2017 with additional funding to extend broadband to harder-to-reach areas and new developments through fibre, as well looking at alternative technologies like satellite and wireless.
Alongside the connectivity drive, Cambridgeshire County Council are also prioritising digital inclusion. Their ambition is to create a more digitally literate workforce, to improve people’s employability by increasing levels of digital capability, to digitise public services so that they’re cheaper and more efficient and also to help people to realise the wider benefits of being online.
When it comes to digital inclusion, Cambridgeshire’s approach to delivery is very much through informal channels. A key part of this is the county’s network of digital champions, of which there are currently around 140. Initially their role was to provide people with information about the programme on an ad hoc basis, but over time they have expanded their influence. Some have begun to run market stall events to increase awareness, whilst others are even running online clubs for over-50s which are designed to help older people use Skype, to shop online and to generally make the most of the opportunities that being online brings.
Above and beyond this, there is a lot of digital inclusion activity taking place in quite an ad hoc way across the county - often from within communities.
In some cases, digital champions are teaching people how to scan and upload photos, as well as search through archives. This has led to many villages setting up their own websites. It’s also led to many individuals building up their own skills - they’ve found family history to be a very strong hook. There has also been some activity around the anniversary of the outbreak of WW1, such as finding photographs of relatives. The council is also helping to digitise ‘memory boxes’ – a tool to help people with Alzheimer’s to remember things - whilst across the county health workers doing postnatal care where English is second language are using iPads to do auto translate.
Critical success factors
So what are the key drivers of success behind Cambridgeshire’s work?
A big one, according to the council, is their partnership approach. There is one thing that is critical to success when it comes to making partnerships work:
- Make it simple. Whether it’s trying to encourage and coordinate digital inclusion activity or to persuade people to take up high-speed broadband, Cambridgeshire make the point that when it comes to partnership working it pays not to get hung up on formal governance. It’s not always necessary to make rigid and formalised ties to reach people through partner organisations - it can be a far “looser confederation of supporting stakeholders” and still work. It could be a case of encouraging health organisations to put leaflets in GP surgeries, for example, or asking schools to provide information to parents about the benefits of getting online.
But partnership working is not the only driver behind success.
- Another is enlightened leadership – when it comes to connecting or upskilling people, national policy is often perceived at a local level as ‘intervening’ - but at the same time, in many local authorities leaders do not fully understand the importance of digital inclusion. In Cambridgeshire, council leaders realised very quickly just how important being online is for both the individual and the economy – and this is reflected in the fact that the programme has been backed up with £20m of funding, together with up to £3m from Peterborough City Council, Government funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and investment from BT.
Providing citizens with the basic digital skills
Where digital inclusion is concerned, Cambridgeshire point out that it’s hard to measure impact. Some useful metrics on digital inclusion activity delivered on the ground do exist - for instance the council’s adult learning team is able to record how many people have attended particular classes, courses or workshops. But it’s harder to say what this take-up may mean.
For example, we know that giving people the basic digital skills to get online and learn more about health and wellbeing can help people manage their health better. What is more difficult to measure, however, is how much money this in turn may save relevant services, or what it truly means in terms of people’s quality of life.
This is a common challenge facing a range of different organisations. So the digital inclusion team at GDS have been working with a cross sector group of partners to develop an outcomes framework and evaluation toolkit. This will help projects demonstrate the social and economic value of their digital inclusion activities.
What is clear, though, is that the Connecting Cambridgeshire programme is delivering high quality connectivity which is underpinned by a drive to provide citizens with the basic digital skills to make best use of the internet.
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