Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives
TechMates is a digital mentor service introduced by Wigan Council’s Digital Services Team, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wigan has been under stricter lockdown rules applied to Greater Manchester, raising concerns of a disproportionate impact on our community compared with the rest of the UK. Residents have been propelled into a situation where they have felt removed from everyday life, unable to socialise and participate, impacting on physical and mental wellbeing. TechMates has provided vital support to residents, helping them access digital technology, Wi-Fi, and bespoke digital support over the telephone and via video calls. With funding from GMCA, we have been able to assign a digital officer to the project, ensuring that all learners and volunteers
are receiving support.
TechMates is delivered by volunteers and council staff, providing support to help residents use digital technologies such as smartphones, tablets and computers. We support a range of residents needing essential digital skills to thrive in the modern world but focus on those with low or no digital skills. This includes those already at a disadvantage, through age, education, immigration status, income, disability, or unemployment. It is proving to be a lifeline and a key enabler in terms of basic human needs.
We aim to help every resident to achieve the government’s five essential digital skills:
– Handling information and content
– Problem solving
– Being safe and legal online
Using online services is no longer a choice but a necessity. It is now more important than ever to bridge the digital divide and ensure residents and businesses have the confidence and tools to engage with online resources. We help residents to become confident completing digital tasks during the pandemic. This has now expanded, from teaching basic digital skills to more advanced device troubleshooting. It has enabled the Council to build on existing working partnerships with Wigan’s grass-roots community organisations, including Pensioners Link, Age UK and Wigan & Leigh Carers. From the start of the project, we worked closely with Wigan’s Youth Cabinet, who embraced the project, taking part in training and becoming TechMate volunteers. The partnership enables us all to communicate best practice, offer bespoke training, problem solve and work towards our shared goal of ensuring Wigan Borough becomes truly digital.
TechMates volunteers benefit in several ways. It gives them the chance to be part of a cutting-edge digital project, add something invaluable to their CV, share knowledge and transform lives through the power of digital. TechMates support Wigan’s #BeKind movement campaign, which was launched during the pandemic and aims to highlight the need to support each other through challenging times. In April, we received digital devices from the Devices Dot Now scheme and referred each individual to a TechMate for support in learning how to use their device. A resource pack was put together to ensure they received the best possible introduction to technology. Residents who already had their own device and have been supported by a TechMate, have shown impressive progress and results. Most learners achieve something they didn’t think was possible within the first few weeks. We also see a huge growth in confidence and motivation to learn more. It opens a door to feeling included in the modern world and an ability to interact with friends, family, and local services.
TechMates also support our local wellbeing offer by helping people to download and use a Fitness app, as well as an ‘inhome’ cycle scheme. These services are predominantly aimed at older people living with Dementia or at risk of falls. Online classes and fun YouTube cycle journey videos help residents to keep fit and well. We believe the TechMates project deserves the recognition of the iNetwork Award because it has helped us to completely transform how we deliver digital support to our residents. Our innovative approach, utilising technology in place of the usual face to face offer, has enabled us to react quickly to the demands of our community at a critical time. We rolled out a short online referral form, allowing residents to request support. They can request support for themselves and others and apply to become a volunteer. We train all volunteers and utilise a Slack channel and email for our TechMates to keep in touch, share progress and good news stories.
In summary, realising the power of the volunteer sector to support our local community has enabled the Council to save money and reduce the pressure on our resources. It’s saved time, which has allowed essential resources to be focused on assisting residents in other ways. This has enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of the support we offer to digitally excluded and vulnerable residents; while boosting confidence, fostering a strong and positive community spirit.
What are the key achievements?
We are extremely proud of the achievements of TechMates and the Digital Services team. We have seen some real successes for both residents and TechMates alike. In relation to our TechMate volunteers, we have been astonished by the number of Wigan residents wanting to help their community by training to become a TechMate. In November, we celebrated recruiting our 100th TechMate. We are proud of our community and our residents. The people of Wigan Borough have risen to the challenge of trying something new, offering kindness, digital know-how and support to those that need it most. These volunteers have delivered an amazing 611 hours (approx.) of support since June. The Digital Services team have delivered 35+ hours of training for volunteers and offered daily support to make volunteering with us as easy as possible.
The TechMate project reaches across all demographics. Individuals who would normally shy away from engaging with Council services. For residents accessing this service, we have witnessed first-hand the difference TechMates can make to a person’s life. For example, one of our learners, Colin had low digital confidence and skills, limited access to an internet connection and couldn’t do the things he wanted online. He was thrilled to receive a tablet device through the Devices Dot Now scheme. Our TechMate appointments helped Colin to problem solve and build confidence. We set him ‘homework’ between appointments to help embed is new skills. Colin is a prime example of what happens when you give someone access and skills. He’s already accomplished so much in a short space of time – he’s even helping to run a virtual support group, offering digital support to others. Watch Colin’s Story.
We have also seen the real-world impact digital skills can have on a person’s life. Residents supported by TechMates have gained employment, enjoyed exploring the internet for hobbies and information, accessed vital services online and video called with family they haven’t seen in some time. In some cases, learners with family living abroad, may not have seen them for years and through TechMates have seen grandchildren and great grandchildren in a virtual face to face for the first time. The TechMates project has enabled us to reach out to community groups/organisation and grow our Digital Community Partnership, a collective group of local organisations who want to help residents gain essential digital skills. Our community partners are a real strength to the TechMates programme. Our digital community partner, Pensioner’s Link, have seen the value in the support offered by TechMates and have become real TechMate (and Digital) Ambassadors for Wigan. “I enjoy hearing the joy in their voices, of the initial scepticism at first, from the ‘I’ll never learn this’ to the ‘wow, this is really
great’ moment, when they get it and when they think, this is actually very useful and I like what I’m doing.” – Paul Roughley, Manager at Pensioners Link in Leigh. See the full interview.
Through the amazing work of our TechMates, together with the dedication and commitment of the Digital Services Team, there is now a huge awareness of digital inclusion across both the authority and our Borough. The fabulous success and progress of our learners has attracted a lot of attention. Our services are now approaching us to help their staff through the TechMates training programme so that they can support their customers. To ensure the future success of upskilling our residents, it is important that all of our staff are aware of the importance of digital inclusion and the barriers which need to be overcome.
A key achievement for the Digital Team has been the sharing of best practice and knowledge with other authorities. In November, the team were invited to talk to Libraries from across the UK at a Libraries Digital Bootcamp. The virtual session talked about the delivery model for the TechMates project and offered tips and advice on how other local authorities could implement something similar for their residents. We have received excellent feedback and contact from colleagues across the UK who are now setting up their own projects.
Another key area which the TechMates programme has run alongside is our accessibility awareness project. Sharing case studies of how residents with low digital skills have found it difficult to navigate an online process or access information. This has really helped raise awareness of why it is so important to design simple and easy to use online services. We’ve seen a real culture change across the authority in relation to this and the real-life stories has been key in supporting this.
What are the key learning points?
People are key – without the TechMate volunteers, community partnerships and a dedicated Digital Services Team, none of this would have been possible. The Deal 2030, Wigan’s Strategy for the borough, has been the driving force behind enabling not only our residents to become self-reliant and digitally confident but also to call on our community to support the people in their local area. In addition, our staff engage with residents across the borough every single day. They are key in ensuring the continued success of the programme and it is our aspiration to provide our staff with the skills and confidence they need to support our residents in the best way possible.
It is easy to make assumptions that everyone has access to the internet within their home. However, a lack of connection for many people has been highlighted through the closure of Libraries and Community Centre during the pandemic, the work of the Digital Services team and TechMates. This has affected people in a profound way during the pandemic, making it very difficult to apply for jobs online, get vital help and take part in education and personal development online. Wigan Council along with colleagues from Greater Manchester are working hard to address this inequality for our residents. Delivering our bespoke training for volunteers has been essential, however this has sometimes been a challenge on our resources particularly during the pandemic. It is important for TechMates to understand the expectations we have of them and for them to approach supporting learners in the right way. In addition, the interest in people wanting to volunteer was higher than expected. Although this is very positive, with a continual flow of volunteers signing up to become TechMates; organising, delivering, and following up or even the rearranging of training sessions was quite demanding. To reduce time and make the training process more efficient, the Digital Services team have now designed an interactive online training course.
The training is delivered using a well-known survey platform and includes videos, and opportunities to test knowledge and share experience and feedback to the team. Support, follow up and progress reporting will of course still be provided by our team. However, our team members will be able to concentrate on other projects and further work towards our digital inclusion goals. Telephone and video call support has many benefits and does address some of the issues of accessibility with residents being able to lip-read or use captions/subtitles to communicate. However, from a support perspective, it is obvious that accessible technology and information about where to find and purchase accessible technologies needs to be made more readily available. For example, for those with quite severe sight impairment and low digital skills, it is quite difficult to figure out how to make a video call if you can’t see the icon for the video call application on your tablet device. In addition, if something that person was not expecting appears on the screen, problem solving is made doubly difficult and stressful for the learner. Accessibility is something our Digital Services team are passionate about.
We’re setting the foundations to create the most accessible service possible by educating staff on creating accessible documents and guidance, and utilising funding to buy accessible technologies and equipment. We realise that telephone support will not suit all learners, however, our model of delivery with the TechMates project has shown us how we can blend different kinds of support. In the future, we will continue offering telephone and video call support but hope to deliver face-to-face TechMate Tea Parties and one-to-one appointments in our community venues. In addition, the learning we have gained from the TechMates project has allowed the team to think about previously unattainable opportunities, such as setting up a brand-new tablet loaning scheme. We now know that we will be able to roll this scheme out with the resource of guaranteed support and volunteers to back it up.
Wigan Council is a local authority, providing 700+ services to around 323,000 residents. The Digital Services team is integral to our ambitions, set out in our Deal 2030 strategy, and works closely with Wigan Borough’s community to support residents to develop essential digital skills. From helping people to get online ,to educating families on how to stay safe online and teaching children to code. Our digital community can help everyone embrace digital technology safely and confidently.
COVID-19 Response Recognition Award
From the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, many essential services and the provision of fundamental needs shifted to only being available online and we knew that for many of our residents – of all ages – this shift would not be straight forward for different reasons. Businesses were also struggling to re-imagine their businesses in the digital world and our residents were faced with barriers such as digital poverty, low or no digital skills, confidence and motivation.
Our libraries and community centres were suddenly required to close during lockdown. They are usually thriving hubs of digital engagement within our communities, where residents seek digital support and gain access to devices and free Wi-Fi. Digital support was being provided through our Customer Service Centre (alongside our humanitarian response to the pandemic) and our existing digital inclusion team. However, demand was high. We worked quickly with Barclays Ventures team to work on a solution to initially tackle skills and motivation and launched our TechMates Programme. In addition, our own staff have rapidly adapted to using new technologies and embracing software such as MS Teams to deliver normal operations.
COVID-19 has further emphasised the importance of bridging the digital divide. It has positively raised the profile of how important it is for our residents and businesses to have the confidence and the tools to engage with online resources. In particular, the support offered by TechMates to our residents has addressed the most relevant digital needs required during this time – online food shopping, access to online health services and connecting with friends and family. TechMates has given many of our residents focus during these extremely difficult times to learn a new skill and develop their self-reliance. Through case studies we have seen improvements to our residents’ mental health and it has provided hope and independence. An offshoot of the TechMates project, Council Colleagues have provided ‘Digital Buddy’ support for our local Councillors, offering guidance to help them reset their passwords and use MS Teams to keep in touch. This has enabled Councillors to contribute to the borough-wide COVID-19 response and support our most vulnerable residents.