By Dr Gaby Wolferink @drgabywolferink
Everyone who knows me knows that in my daily life, apart from administrative and in my twitter handle I’m not hung up and don’t really go about telling people I’ve got a PhD at every single opportunity I get. I don’t introduce myself around the office and ask them to refer to me as Dr Wolferink when asking if I want a cup of tea, and my work email signatures have always just said Gaby Wolferink <job title>. It’s not a secret, but at the same time I have never felt, working outside academia, to use my title in that way.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I do not use my expertise, knowledge and skills that I gained by completing that PhD in my day to day job, or even when I’m in the pub with friends if the topics comes up. After all, I decided to go back to university while working at a housing association in the Netherlands, because I found things there I wanted to help improve…!
I do tell people about my research when I feel my expertise can contribute to making informed decisions, give a bit of insight, or open some eyes. This is mostly in discussions around digital inclusion/exclusion, volunteering and offering job searching support in work clubs.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
In one of the last meetings I attended in a previous role, talking about any potential implications of implementing a new application, I yet again heard what I’ve heard quite a lot during my time in the sector so far: ‘Digital Exclusion is not really a thing nowadays!’
These words were uttered to me, and to the entire group in that meeting, as a simple statement of fact, after I had just set out the summary of the research that I had done to earn my PhD, academic research that took me 3 years to complete and has been awarded by the 4th ranked University in the UK.
Those words, ‘Digital exclusion is not really a thing’, were followed by a snicker and a look around the room with a grin meaning ‘come on, please, who’s with me!?’ Indeed, nobody in that meeting room backed me up. Instead, I saw the majority nodding in agreement, and even some even saying something along the lines of ‘yes, you know, they’re all on their mobiles and Facebook most of the day to send us our complaints and play Candy Crush, aren’t they?’
Again, I tried to explain that it wasn’t that simple, and that having a phone, posting a Facebook post and ‘having access to Wi-Fi outside McDonalds’ (Yes…!) is not a sign that digital exclusion is ‘not a thing’. I explained that, in fact, people having to access Wi-Fi anywhere other than in their own homes or on their own phone data is a sign that it definitely is a thing. It had no effect. Digital exclusion wasn’t ‘a thing’ because people have mobiles, play candy crush, post on Facebook and because there’s free Wi-Fi available everywhere. Fact.
When asking about their own skills, use of and access to technology, the people making such statements are often sufficiently adequate, or even very capable in handling technology, not in the least because their jobs require them to use desktop computers, laptops, phones and/or tablets on a daily basis. They are used to working with various web applications, software programs and can either touch-type or at least type fairly quickly with 2 or 10 fingers, and all have internet access at home.
They simply did not (want to) not understand that it is not that easy for everyone, and they instead assume that it is simply a lack of effort and taking ownership of and responsibility for one’s own chances of, in this case, finding a place to call home. My expertise and knowledge were dismissed. It was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
Designing better ways to serve people
Although I am old enough to remember the times where you’d send in a coupon from the ‘woonkrant’, or ‘living newspaper’ in English, as it was called in the Netherlands, with your application number, name, contact details and the numbers of the up to two homes you wanted to be considered for/bid on, it is hardly efficient, is it? So, I’m not arguing we should go back to pen and paper all together. After all, it is 2020 and we have seen many more solutions that are easier, quicker and safer. But I do believe there is a balance to be found in a time where not everyone is comfortable managing the bulk of their important stuff online.
The question I’m asking myself every day, is ‘How can we provide the best services to those who want and need to access our services if we underestimate the meaning and extent of digital exclusion? I think it’s by moving away from the phrase ‘digital solutions’.
Digital Tools, not Solutions’
I don’t like the phrase ‘Digital Solutions’. It implies that after implementation your challenges, problems and issues are solved. It implies that there is one right way of doing something, and that ‘application X’ provides and ensures that way of doing something. Get it up and running and you’re all set!
Instead, I prefer to use the phrase ‘Digital Tools’, as it implies that applications, software and hardware are there to help you do your job more efficiently, quickly and help you provide better services for your tenants, not to do your job for you. The emphasis on ‘tool’ makes it clear that the results of using that digital tool are nowhere without the right human input; approaching it like this we are (or should be) more encouraged to keep reviewing the tools we use in the context of the job we are trying to do.
To me, ‘solution’ means that you have one problem and it is solved by using that application, and then you move on to the next problem. This happens a lot when organisations implement new systems, whether this is front-end or back-end, whether it is a new tenancy application system or a new housing management system. The bulk of the work is done, on with the next project, and try to fit in any feedback as and when it comes in, rather than structured and following a really well thought-out Systems Development Life Cycle ( also known as SDLC) that puts ‘maintenance’ , and with that considering and incorporating feedback and requests that you can only really get after going live, at the centre of your IT practice.
But I digress into details, which is something I didn’t want to do here, but in later articles. Here, I just wanted to get my initial experiences out there, and from there work on some follow-up articles where I’ll discuss how we can, in my opinion, embrace digital transformation without leaving behind those who are less confident.
What I will do is give you a small spoiler about something you might not expect and overlook, which is part of why understanding of digital exclusion is so important for your organisation, the integrity of its data, and with that the services you provide and the responsibilities that you have: it’s not just your tenants who are at risk of being digitally excluded…
About the Author
Dr Gaby Wolferink is a co-founder of Social Housing Matters. She has worked in social housing since 2005, following in her mother’s footsteps. Her journey started in the Netherlands, and after a stint in academia that brought her from BA in English to MSc in Human geography to a PhD in Social Policy from Loughborough University focusing on welfare reform and digital exclusion, she decided that her place to make a difference was in social housing.
She is currently looking for a new challenge that will allow her to combine her passion for IT, digital transformation and customer-centred services with her talent for dot-joining and gap-identifying data trawling that leads to innovative and new ways of thinking.