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Connecting with the community to build digital capability

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The Cabinet Office actively promotes opportunities for its staff to help schemes make a real difference to the public whilst strengthening its wider mission. Here, Chad Bond, Service Manager at the Government Digital Service tells us about one such scheme:

Recent research estimated that 12.6 million people or 23% of UK adults lack basic digital skills. It’s still a prevalent issue, which is why the Government is aiming to help everyone who can be digitally capable to be so by 2020.

Today, the Government Digital Service (GDS) works across government to build great digital services like the award winning GOV.UK.

The GDS mantra is that you always start with user needs and they remain at the heart of everything you design. Services are iterated continuously, and will not go ‘live’ unless there’s always appropriate support available to those who need it. Even then, it continues to be measured and improved to meet those user needs.

But now civil servants are doing more than designing these services. Over the last year, Cabinet Office staff have volunteered to help Origin Housing tenants with digital services and digital skills.


How has government helped?

The Government’s Universal Credit reforms are some of the most significant changes to the benefits system in a generation. The aims of the reforms are to boost the personal responsibility of claimants, smooth the passage to work and prepare out-of-work claimants for their next job. These changes affect around eight million households.

New claimants are required to have a bank account and access to the internet to use the service. As Universal Credit is being redesigned, the departmental service team will put assisted digital support in place for people who don't have access.

In the interim, Origin Housing are providing digital drop-in sessions to support residents with the rollout of Universal Credit.

Origin provides affordable housing and care and support services for more than 6000 homes in London and Hertfordshire and aims to build strong communities. When the Cabinet Office got involved there was a backlog of 100 local people who wanted support with digital skills.

Somers Town


Working in partnership with the community centre in Somers Town meant volunteers and learners could use the laptops provided in a relaxed, safe area with access to sofas, a kitchen and a restaurant.

40 volunteers have now signed up to help and the feedback has been great from both sides. The volunteers have found the experience really rewarding, but more importantly the community, those ‘users’ whose ‘needs’ we’re always talking about, are picking up vital new skills.

Poss Apostolou, Head of Delivery Operations for the Government Digital Service has been volunteering at the sessions:

I really enjoyed helping people on the scheme, particularly when they get the 'eureka' moment, when you make a breakthrough. Also, funny enough, I've forgotten how to use certain features in windows 7 - the default for the Origin computers - so have had to re-learn it myself.

It’s been great to hear comments from members of the public that use the scheme:


They're great people. They have been encouraging, patient, supportive and caring with me. They really know what they are doing. They have really helped me with my computer skills. If this service wasn’t available I wouldn’t been able to do some of the things I love.


The guys have really helped me with getting back on track using computers. It has  been a massive help and has really made a difference to me at work.


Sahil Khan is Head of Community Development at Origin Housing:

This is a brilliant project and makes such a big difference to so many people. The secret of the project's success is down to it being so accessible and open. Anyone can just drop-in and book an appointment to get support with any IT issues from a really friendly volunteer. The project helps everyone from job seekers to people wanting to stay in touch with family. We gets lots of positive feedback from our residents about the project, but most of all they are always praising the brilliant volunteers.

This scheme is just one relatively small scale example of the type of Digital Friends activity rolling out across the civil service, but the potential is huge. If just 1 in 4 civil servants helps a colleague, friend, family member or neighbour to use the internet, that means more than 100,000 people will be empowered, not only to use government services, but to access all the economic, social, health and wellbeing opportunities and benefits of being online.

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