Our November 2019 newsletter was themed on Digital and Cyber and so we interviewed Leah Lockhart, a freelance design researcher and facilitator, about her thoughts on all things digital – including digital resilience and Digital First. You can also view a video interview with Leah on our Youtube channel here.

The Carnegie Trust recently produced a report in partnership with the Glasgow HSCP on digital resilience, inclusion and wellbeing for looked after children and young people. How do you feel digital divides and inequalities interact with wider inequalities and what is the impact of this, particularly on young people?

It’s important to acknowledge (as the report authors do) that the scope of research in Digital Resilience, Inclusion & Wellbeing For Looked After Children & Young People is very limited. Having said that, the report provided lots of interesting points regarding divides and inequities that definitely warrant further investigation. 

I think we can break up most of the report’s insights about inequity of access and digital divides into micro (personal and interpersonal) and macro (systemic and institutional). On a micro level there are imbalances in power and access between the people in care, for example those who are able to buy hotspots lend them out to others who can’t. That hotspot becomes a new kind of currency and the person who had a cash deficit might now have a social capital deficit inside and outside their house. 

On another micro level there seem to be imbalances in knowledge between the people in care and their carers and that has an intersection with macro issues ranging all the way from how the council commissions hardware and network services to HR and continuous professional development over to how adults do or don’t talk to younger people about ‘taboo’ subjects like bullying, sex, drugs and alcohol or mental health. 

Maybe it’s because of where my head’s at right now- I’m thinking a lot about how inequity and justice can be addressed through different design practices in public services- but what’s sticking out to me in this report is an opportunity to redress the controls the council applies to internet access for the folx in care. Those controls seem to be causing problems, both financially and with regard to safety. It would be interesting to see what kind of different controls, compromises or solutions could be found by bringing the carers and cared for closer together in creative thinking and discussion. 

The Growing Up in Scotland study showed that children in Scotland believe they know how to stay safe and protect their information online (over 90% saying they knew a great deal or quite a lot), however, there was a discrepancy between children’s perceptions of how much they believed their parents knew about their online activity and what parents felt they knew. How can we work to ensure, either as professionals or parents, that children are genuinely safe online?

I don’t think we can ensure children are genuinely safe online, just as we can’t ensure children are genuinely safe anywhere. But I also don’t know if this question is the right one because it assumes children are inherently unsafe online. Framing this issue in fear isn’t helpful. It causes issues like we see above with councils putting folk on internet lockdown which results in workarounds and deskilled staff. 

Generally, people who care about each other should try to understand what’s important to one another and why. If that means having uncomfortable conversations, having to spend time learning something new or pushing against conventions then so be it. I’m reminded of a John Waters quote: ‘You can’t order your kids up. So if your kid comes home from school and they have their whole face tattooed, well, maybe encourage them to open a really fancy tattoo parlor in Paris. You gotta work with what you got.’ 

Do you believe that ‘Digital First’ is the right way to think about things in public service? Is there always a digital solution?

Absolutely not on both accounts.

What do you think the impact of a ‘Digital First’ approach might be, knowing what we know about social connections locally and a connection with Place, and a refocusing on community development?

Wholesale digital first approach is a terrible idea IMHO. In fact wholesale anything is a terrible idea. 

The digital first conversation could do with a good dose of encouraging critical thinking in context (‘Will this approach work for this thing in this place at this moment?’) and services given space to flex frequently to keep up with things like changing populations, changes in physical spaces, election cycles…

I’m of the opinion that, at a local authority level, fetishising digital first and the refocusing on community development are driven by a pursuit of cost savings. I don’t see the motivations sitting in a desire to address inequity. While that sounds cynical, I think that financial drive opens up opportunities for some people in public services in Scotland to revisit or return to some good, strong, old school community development approaches and mindsets.

What digital skills do we need in public services now and in the future? Is a lack of digital skills limiting public service reform/transformational change?

I’d start by having a good look in two places: procurement and HR. There’s such a thing as ‘unintelligent commissioning’ of people and technology that could use some attention. There’s also such a thing as gaming commissioning and recruitment frameworks that I think is an elephant in the room. Both of these things would benefit from modernising and reform. 

I’m not entirely convinced our workforce is digitally unskilled. However, I do think that the tools people are given to work with in public services in Scotland are stunting learning in some people and limiting productivity and creativity in others. Just reflecting on my past few years working with various public services, I feel like I’m stepping back in time when I’m using their systems. It’s very inefficient and very expensive and it does not match my experience with technology outside of their environments. And here we come full circle: the very organisations pushing for digital first approaches are working with systems and related mindsets that are far more outdated than what most citizens (including their staff outside of work) use. How’s that going to work out? 

What opportunities and challenges do you believe digital presents for safer communities?

There is not one answer to this question and I’m not sure this is the right question to be asking. Why lead with digital? Maybe we should be asking instead, ‘What are the current opportunities and challenges the community I’m working with are facing? Is there a place for digital in finding solutions to their problems and enhancing opportunities?’ Let’s first find out how we can be most useful to people in the pursuit of living a good life, whatever that means to them. Maybe digital is a feature in their visions, maybe it’s not.