There’s no point in building 80 per cent of the Tyne Bridge,” says Go ON UK chief executive Graham Walker, the man leading the charge to bring more digital skills to the North East.
“We want everyone to have basic online skills, not just because of the moral and social issue of making sure everyone can join in, but also because of the huge benefits. When you finish the bridge, you can get from one side to the other.”
It’s quite an appropriate metaphor. With more than 500,000 people in the North East who are below the basic online skills threshold – nearly a quarter of the region’s population – it’s a gap that needs to be filled.
“If you were in your 50s of 60s 10 years ago, it wasn’t such a big deal that you didn’t have basic online skills. Now it’s huge,” says Graham.
“The majority of jobs are advertised online, and nearly all require basic online skills. For those in their 50s, it really does affect their employment prospects.”
Go ON UK is a charity with a big aim. It wants to ensure that everyone and every organisation – from small business to large corporations and charities – is able to enjoy the social, economic and cultural benefits of the internet and in so doing, supercharge the UK economy and substantially improve the well-being of the country.
Founded by Martha Lane Fox, who created Lastminute.com, Go ON UK wants to make us the most digitally-skilled nation in the world. Working with partner organisations, from big corporate entities such as Lloyds Banking Group, EE, Argos, TalkTalk and the Post Office, to local authorities and individuals, they have set a target of a 25% uplift in the region’s basic online skills base in the first year.
“Lessons learned suggest that strong partnerships are the key,” says Graham.
“We ran a similar campaign in Liverpool, ‘Go ON it’s Liverpool’. All the councillors said ‘this is important to us: for economic regeneration, social issues, we should buddy up across the council and with our private sector partners, and do something about this’.
“Go ON it’s Liverpool brought together these councillors, and 80 local partners and together they got 43,000 people online in 18 months – a 55% reduction. It proves to us that a peer-to-peer approach works. That’s what we’re going to try to do on a much bigger scale in the North East.”
The region’s local authorities are signing up to the Digital Skills Charter. The pledge is for everyone to have basic online skills to enjoy the full benefits of the web; that everyone deserves world-class digital services that meet their needs and are useable by all; that communities that don’t yet have the skills to fully enjoy the benefits of the internet should not be left behind; and that every organisation – public, private and voluntary – has a role to play in building the UK’s digital capability.
“I want people to sign up to the charter for good reasons - to benefit their business,” says Graham. “They often sign up initially as some sort of corporate social responsibility, but then the penny drops that actually there’s a huge change going on in their business that this helps as well.”
Online business accounts for around 8% of GDP – around £100bn a year, but there are around one-third of small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) with no online presence. Graham adds: “Only a third can market and sell goods online and that means they’re missing out. The way most people look for a service is through referral, asking friends ‘do you know a good plumber?’, the next way is to go online on trade sites – or on something like Twitter.
“It’s just plain wrong to say ‘oh, I’m a plumber, I don’t need to go online’. Even if you’re really small, using things like Facebook, or Twitter, can make a huge difference, and if you sell things, make sure people can pay online, such as with PayPal. Research showed that if the one million SMEs that have a basic web presence, but don’t transact online, were to shift up to do that, it would add £19bn to the economy.”
But it’s not just about helping business realise the potential of being online. Improving those statistics about the individual is equally as important. Recent research from Age UK, one of the founder partners of Go ON UK, says that only 27 per cent over-65s in Tyne and Wear have been online. This compares to Surrey with 63 per cent.
Go ON UK wants to significantly improve this figure, but is not solely concentrating on pensioners. “It’s not just the over-65s, there are a lot of single parents or those who didn’t have access to computers at school who are missing out,” says Graham.
“It would be brilliant if the North East produced more computer programmers, but our focus is on the basic online skills, so we don’t leave people behind.”
‘Digital champions’ are a key part of Go ON UK’s vision to help more of us get the basic online skills we need. Graham says: “Be a digital champion, whether it be informally helping someone else, or doing something in the local church hall. People like to learn from someone they know.
“It’s all about encouraging people, giving them a bit of extra support and inspiration.”
So what drives Graham Walker? A father of two sons, Jack, 12, and Louis, 10, and husband of County Durham-born Fiona, Graham, 49, previously held the post of director for digital delivery at the Cabinet Office.
Graham was also a director at Race Online 2012, working directly with the UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox, to deliver a 100% networked nation, and he is a former director of strategy for the Office of e-Envoy at the Cabinet Office.
“I’m not a programmer or a ‘geek’. I believe in the power of education and empowering people to get on. Morally, we owe it to people who are less well-off or older, or small businesses.
“My personal goal is to build sustainable programmes across the country. Not just be this month’s campaign, but be something which we all know is important.”
The North East is the first region in the country to launch this initiative. The tools that are created here will benefit others when the programme is rolled out.
“In the North East, we’re saying we’ll do as many visits as it takes, as many meetings as it takes, and make as much noise locally as we can. Our aim is that it’s sustainable. If we go to the South West, we want them to be able to benefit from the work that’s been done in the North East.
‘Local’ is the key to success, Graham believes. Dictating from London to the regions is not the way to achieve the goals. Already, groups like Go ON Gateshead and Go ON Boro are picking up the baton and running with it.
“We know the only way to make a difference is locally. The support has got to be local, but we can help people with the expertise.
“There are three things I’d like to deliver: I’d like to move the dial on the numbers, so in a year’s time we’ve met that 25% skills target; secondly, more activity, more partnerships, more places where people can go to get help, more people offering help; and thirdly is the model to help other regions. We chose the North East first, partly because the stats are not great, but partly because there are the people and partnerships here to change those stats.
“We want everyone in the UK to be digitally skilled by 2020, and the North East is leading the way.”