Spring 2003

Nonprofits Get Paid by UK Government to Support Technology Centers
by Terry Grunwald and David Wilcox
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David Wilcox, my colleague in Making the Net Work, is based in London and has been a prime mover for community networking and CTCs in the United Kingdom since the mid-90s. Whenever I visit the UK scene, I am awed by (1) the scale of government resources available to CTCs and other community tech initiatives (in contrast to the US); (2) the cohesive national policy that provides a sense of identity, ongoing technical assistance, and frequent networking opportunities for these initiatives; (3) the concern for the social context in which community tech projects function; and (4) the understanding of the need for continuity of service delivery -- from community outreach through formal IT training certifications. 

In particular, the DirectSupport collaborative that David describes below is an excellent model that insures consistent face-to-face support and consultation for many community-based CTCs in the UK.  This cost-effective initiative (akin to a combination of CTCNet, America Connects Consortium, and the Circuit Rider movement) is funded, though not managed, by the national government. In the US, I see a patchwork of local, regional, and national efforts, all funded year-to-year on soft money.  In the UK, DirectSupport insures that assistance is deployed "just-in-time" and equitably to small as well as large communities, rural as well as urban. I often think how wonderful it would be to have the DirectSupport model here in the US. But, I'll let David tell the story...

The Learning Bus

David Wilcox writes:

UK nonprofits that pioneered online working among their members have formed a consortium to help community-based organizations set up technology centers. UK Online Centers has a government-supported web site.  Their comprehensive support model—under which community workers in the organizations are paid to be mentors—could be deployed more widely.

In the UK, the Government is committed to establishing 6,000 centers in England by the end of 2002 by funding new facilities in libraries, colleges and community centers, and branding existing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) centers. The aim is to enable anyone who wants it to have Internet access near their home and an opportunity to develop new skills.

Center set-up costs have been funded from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) Capital Modernization Fund, and initial revenue has been provided by the National Lottery.  Many centers are able to access ongoing revenue for learning activities from the National Learning and Skills Council, but funding for informal open access is still not resolved. Budgets over three years are about $450 million US for equipment and running costs.

In addition to capital and revenue funding for start-ups, the DfES is supporting two programs to provide center managers and partners with help in technology, management,, and activities and projects for center uses.

A community programs team at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency runs the larger of these programs.  The BECTA team is funded by the Government and others to support schools colleges and community educators.

computer lab
The team runs a"Help is at Hand" website, email newsletter and list, organizes events for centers and supports content development. They are able to give technical advice and call on the expertise of other colleagues in the organization who work with education establishments.

Alastair Clark, BECTA team member, says: "Centers have been set-up in a wide variety of host organizations and it is the diversity of this 'community' that leads to a great diversity of needs. Good communication between centers is key to developing a co-operative self-help culture within the network. BECTA has played an important role in developing the sense of common identity within the UK online centers network through our program of events, web site and online discussion group."

In addition to this agency support, the Government recognized that centers set up by community-based organizations would need more support than those in, for example, libraries or colleges, and DfES awarded a contract to a consortium of nonprofit organizations, called DirectSupport.

The consortium provides centers with a comprehensive service that includes a telephone help line, a dedicated extranet including both forums and a substantial knowledge base, events, and a "circuit rider-style" mentor service. Mentors can advise on everything from start up to tech requirements, business planning and center activities. DirectSupport is developing fun "CuriosIT" activities designed to appeal to a wide range of users not necessarily wishing to start formal training.

DirectSupport was able to create its service because it is run by five of the eighteen partner organizations already using a common technology platform run by NetworksOnline. This is a "network of networks" providing services for a range of nonprofit organizations and some 2000 subscribers.

The mentoring program has been particularly successful because DirectSupport was able to recruit mentors from subscribers to the system, and then pay for their work under the DfES contract. DirectSupport is in touch with some 300 centers, and has about twenty mentors active at any one time out of a total of sixty. Centers can call on mentors for at least four days support and sometimes more.

Jane Berry, who manages the DirectSupport program, says: "These are existing grassroots community workers. We had a team within days of launching DirectSupport, and others have been able to join as the program has developed. The online systems were already loaded with relevant content and services, and the workers at the outset were already members, so familiar with how to use the systems.

"This model has the most exciting potential we have discovered. It gives small voluntary sector agencies the platform for joint working, fosters relationship building and trust, and gives people a real reason to use and develop their technology skills as well."

The UK Government is currently reviewing how best to help community-based organizations and other nonprofits make more extensive use of information and communication technologies in their work. Networks Online is discussing with Government departments how it might extend the DirectSupport model from centers to a wider program of support.

In a recent "Review of Civic and Community Use of Technology in the UK," I wrote: "Civic and community use of the Internet is important to the UK Government because of its targets for moving services online, and to commerce because of the insights it provides into user styles and preferences. It is also crucial in the development and re-energizing of our social and civic institutions. This article explores the potential of civic Internet use but concludes that many of our institutions are failing to rise to the challenge."

Several UK organizations have formed links with the US circuit rider movement, and the London Advice Services Alliance plans to launch a service later in the year. DirectSupport is demonstrating how community workers can—with backup support—extend their skills to help others make use of new technologies.

Terry Grunwald is a nonprofit strategic computing consultant and the founding project director of NCexChange, the first statewide program in the U.S. designed to meet the networking needs of the nonprofit community.

David Wilcox is a partner in the U.S.-U.K. Making the Net Work initiative and a member of the DirectSupport consortium.

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