Teaching offenders to code: supporting digital skills and reducing reoffending among those leaving prison

Breaking the cycle of reoffending by teaching prisoners to code

In the UK, we have one of the highest numbers of adults in prison in western Europe, and of those who have been in prison, almost half will re-offend within a year of release. Reoffending in the UK is estimated to cost as much as £15bn each year. One of the major factors in reducing reoffending is finding and sustaining employment upon leaving prison, however, it has been suggested that the skills and training that offenders receive while in prison only prepares them in a limited way for life “on the outside”.

The importance of digital literacy and the disadvantage caused by a digital skills deficit

Whether it is applying for benefit payments, booking a doctor’s appointment, online shopping, paying council tax or word processing and data navigation in a wide range of today’s job roles, having a basic understanding of digital literacy is important. For many people these skills are acquired over time, sometimes even by accident as we come into contact with more and more digital services in our day to day lives, including in many of today’s jobs where word processing and email skills seem to be a given.

However, for people leaving prison, perhaps who have been away from the fast pace of digital development for a few years, the leaps and bounds in terms of technological change and how we use digital platforms for a range of tasks can be a daunting prospect. While there is some exposure to digital platforms inside prisons, there are increasing calls to ensure that in order to better reintegrate into society on release from prison, digital skills should be higher up the agenda for those prisoners being prepared for release.

Linking digital skill programmes to labour market need

While we raise concerns about digital literacy, it is also widely reported that the UK is facing a digital skills deficit, with job roles going unfilled because there are not enough skilled individuals to fill them. Why not then, supporters argue, align the two policies to meet a need within the skills market and better support offenders to be able to live a full, digitally literate life on their release from prison.

In his Ted talk on teaching coding in prisons, Michael Taylor highlights some of, what he sees as, the key issues with the current skills and training programme in prisons: it is mundane and repetitive, and it is not linked to skills or labour market need. Coding, he argues, in addition to being accessible, cheap to teach and not requiring any pre-requisite qualifications, is an easy way that prisoners can be equipped with high-level digital skills to help them find employment, and teach skills that employers want and need to employ.

He also argues that coding is a way to equip offenders with the basic tools to go into a range of careers or further training across a range of occupations, in a range of sectors doing a wide range of different jobs – giving the variety and scope for development that many offenders simply don’t get from current skills and training programmes. The benefits, he argues, go beyond just teaching the ins and outs of how to code, with digital skills having wider applicability around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating as well as raising confidence and self esteem.

Learning from digital skill programmes in prisons elsewhere

The Last Mile programme in California is being used as a model to create a UK based coding programme for prisoners. The programme teaches digital skills, specifically coding, to allow offenders to find employment once they leave prison. The American programme is based out of San Quentin prison and has consistently shown positive outcomes for participants, with a recidivism rate for participants dropping from over 70% to 0 in the latest cohort of “graduates”. These positive and tangible outcomes are one of the reasons supporters have been so keen to roll out a similar scheme in the UK.

The UK Government has acknowledged this evidence and in March 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced it is investing in two pilot schemes, one at HMP Humber and one at HMP Holme House which will see a selection of “carefully vetted prisoners” participate in new digital skills programmes. Prisoners will learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript before moving on to more advanced coding techniques. They will then be invited to work for partner companies, eventually on day release, with a view to better preparing them for work when they are released from prison, while also helping employers manage perceived risks that come with hiring former offenders.

Final thoughts

Offenders leaving prison face a number of barriers to successful reintegration into the community, and preparing them fully to meet all of these challenges can be a difficult task in itself. However, by better equipping offenders with digital skills we will enable them to leave prison with knowledge employers are looking for. Coding programmes could be one route to developing skills for prisoners due for release which can help them adapt to life outside prison, give them purpose and options and, it is hoped, reduce the likelihood of reoffending in the future.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity:

Beneath the headlines: record high employment rate but what’s more important, quantity or quality?

Competition for new jobs

The UK employment rate has hit a joint record high of 76.1%, according to the latest official figures. The unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%; it has not been lower since 1974. The economic inactivity rate was also close to a record low.

It’s not surprising that such record figures are often highlighted as ‘good news’ headlines. However, there has also been an increasing focus on quality of work over the past decade and the impact this has on people’s lives – reflecting concerns regarding developments in working practices, as highlighted by a recent City-REDI briefing paper. It has therefore been argued that the record employment rates are not necessarily representative of a ‘good news’ story.

Concerns

Concerns over working practices include the rise of the gig economy, unequal gains from flexible working, job insecurity and wage stagnation, to name but a few. The City-REDI paper outlines a number of ongoing concerns related to:

  • weak productivity growth;
  • employment insecurity and precarity;
  • in-work poverty;
  • skills shortages and skills polarisation; and
  • the impact of automation, technological change and the gig economy on the nature and experience of work.

Indeed, analysis has shown that much of the recent rise in employment is due to a ‘surge in low-value work’, which is holding back productivity growth. Many people are stuck in low paid insecure work, all of whom are contributing to the high employment rate.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that four million workers live in poverty, a rise of over half a million over five years – meaning in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. The causes of this increase include poorly paid jobs – particularly under temporary and part-time contracts – and a lack of progression routes for people in low-skilled work.

In addition, the rising gig economy shows no signs of slowing down, more than doubling in size over the past three years and now accounting for 4.7 million workers, according to a new report. An interesting finding of the report is that the majority of gig economy workers use this platform to supplement other forms of income, suggesting that workers are not getting enough of an income from their primary employment.

It has also been shown that advances in technology have pushed some workers into poorer quality jobs than those lost, something which cannot be addressed without some kind of policy intervention.

Health impact

Not only is poor quality work bad for the economy, it is also bad for people’s health.

A recent report which examined the impact on social inequalities of policy initiatives and reforms to extend working lives in five European countries, highlighted that working conditions are also known to influence post-retirement health, and for those with lower socioeconomic status, workplace arrangements may be causing or contributing to poor health.

A number of studies have highlighted the link between good work and health and wellbeing. As stated by a What Works for Wellbeing briefing paper, “Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.” It has also even been suggested that being in a poor quality job is actually worse for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed.

Moves towards improving quality

Recent developments in the UK to address such challenges for the future and quality of work include:

  • the establishment of The Work Foundation’s Commission on Good Work in 2016, which aims to better understand the factors shaping change, and the nature and scale of opportunities and risks, so as to promote policies to achieve ‘good work’;
  • The commissioning and publication of the independent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 which called for policy to address the wider issue of creating quality jobs for all; and
  • the Government’s Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, which sets out the reforms planned to help improve quality of work – the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) launched the UK Working Lives survey, the first robust measurement of job quality in the UK. This has since contributed to government thinking and recommendations around ‘good work’ in response to the Taylor Review.

Despite the widespread agreement over the need to adopt ‘good work’ principles, however, there remains no agreed set of indicators of exactly what it encompasses nor metrics for measuring progress towards it.

What is good work?

As the City-REDI briefing paper and other studies indicate, defining good quality work is complex as quality means different things to different people.

A range of factors contribute to different people’s perception of quality and fulfilling work, including pay, flexibility, security, health and wellbeing, nature of work and job design. The CIPD survey highlights seven dimensions of job quality:

  • pay and benefits
  • employment contacts
  • job design and nature of work
  • work-life balance
  • work relationships
  • voice and representation
  • health and wellbeing

Of course, there is no one size fits all solution.

Final thoughts

While productivity and employment rates undoubtedly remain important, they alone are clearly not enough to understand the health of the labour market; the quality of work also needs to be considered.

As shown by the visible shift from quantity to quality of work in recent years and the recent developments from the government and others, ‘good work’ is undeniably on the policy agenda. However, as the City-REDI paper suggests, there should be a focus on promoting ‘good work’ amongst the most disadvantaged groups such as the young, people with disabilities and those working in hotels and restaurants. It is also suggested that there is scope for further research on good practice in promoting ‘good work’ in establishments of different sizes and in different sectors.

As highlighted in the Taylor Review, “All work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.


You may also be interested in some of our previous employment-related posts:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

The unusual suspects: how to make sure Citizens’ Assemblies are representative

Citizens’ Assemblies have been in the news a lot recently. Among the ideas mooted have been a Citizens’ Assembly to sort Brexit, a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the potential details of Scottish Independence and a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on steps to tackle climate change.

They have been heralded by some as a new democratic process which will put the public at the heart of policy development and decision making at a local and national level; one of a number of “deliberative democratic tools” to help engage people more in decision-making processes, allowing people to decide not only what outcome they want, but which issues should make up the agenda in the first place. However as experiences so far have shown, the theory and the execution do not always match up.

With some arguing that they are just another opportunity for those who already have a voice to make their voice even louder, advocates of Citizens’ Assemblies and similar projects have their work cut out to ensure they are both representative and effective.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

The basic principle of Citizens’ Assemblies is this: collect a representative group of people from a particular area, invite them to a discussion, and allow them to identify and discuss potential policy issues and options based on an initial question. They are then invited to come to an agreed consensus which is then reported to politicians/ government.

The members of a Citizens’ Assembly are typically selected at random from the general public – like a jury – and can, in theory, be any size, but the larger they are the more likely they will be to be representative of the electorate. The aim is to secure a group of people who are broadly representative of the electorate across different characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity, social class and the area where they live. Depending on the topic they will be discussing, information about party political affiliation or voting in referendums may also be taken into account.

Citizens’ Assemblies tend to rely on a few key values in order to function effectively, and participants should be made aware of these expectations and values (or any additional objectives) at the outset:

  • Debate should be informed and informative and should allow for discussion and deliberation based on sound argument and evidence;
  • Experts in a particular field and campaigners from all sides and all possible viewpoints should be invited to discuss their arguments with participants and be willing and able to be questioned;
  • Participants should be willing to talk and listen with civility and respect;
  • Participants should be representative of the general population as far as possible and should reflect a range of perspectives.

The sessions of the assemblies themselves vary but will usually include learning and evidence sessions introducing the assembly, the participants and the question to be discussed as well as background and contextual information and additional evidence from invited experts; sessions in which campaigners are able to present their arguments and be questioned; and sessions which focus on deliberation, discussion, consensus building and reporting. Facilitators will often be used to ensure a fair spread of opinions are heard – but facilitators cannot participate in the discussions themselves, and organisers will often pre-plan elements such as seating plans or evidence presented to assembly participants to ensure an even spread of opinions.

The fundamental idea is that if you randomly select a representative group and give them time, information and a safe space to discuss issues, you can create an illustration of what it would be like if everyone had the tools and time to discuss and debate the important issues. There is, however, no legal obligation for Government to take the recommendations forward.

What has happened elsewhere?

In the Republic of Ireland, they have held a number of “democratic experiments” and the Irish examples have been cited as examples of how Citizens’ Assemblies can effect change.

In 2012-13 the Irish Constitutional Convention led to the bringing forward of legislation and the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in the Republic of Ireland, and the 2016-17 Citizens’ Assembly paved the way for the 2018 referendum which legalised abortion. Ireland has been cited as a major inspiration for a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly to be established, something Nicola Sturgeon expressed support for in her speech at the 2019 SNP conference.

Ireland is, supporters of the concept argue, an example of how Citizens’ Assemblies can be effective at helping to reach consensus on contentious issues and allowing people to have a meaningful say in what legislation is put forward to parliament, not just having the choice of policies that are prescribed to them by politicians. Critics have argued however that the Irish experience has, to a degree, been oversold in Britain and shows how “the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes”.

And, for all the perceived successes of the Irish experience, the somewhat contrasting experience of Iceland also has some potentially useful lessons for anyone looking to implement Citizens’ Assemblies at a national level. The experience there shows that it doesn’t always go to plan. Citizens were invited to input into the new values of Iceland’s constitution following the 2008 economic crash. Consultations took place across the country and a series of recommendations were presented but these were not taken forward by parliament.

Other models of Citizens’ Assembly have been trialled in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Canada. The Canadian model invited public input into electoral reform proposals in British Columbia and Ontario, while the G1000s organised in Belgium saw 1000 participants randomly selected to deliberate for one day on major policy issues. Success in Belgium inspired the Netherlands to run a similar scheme.

How can we ensure everyone feels able to participate?

Deliberative models, like Citizens’ Assemblies, aim to encourage consensus building and finding common ground. They also aim to take opinions and make decisions based on a diverse spread of participants, however identifying and encouraging those on the fringes of democratic processes to participate can be a challenge. But it is a challenge that Citizens’ Assemblies and other local community engagement models need to address.

Research conducted around improving local community empowerment initiatives highlights a number of relevant questions and opportunities to improve engagement in deliberative democratic processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies.

  • Is it appropriate to pay participants to attend?
  • Should organisers actively invite participants from certain underrepresented groups or highlight to people that they are part of an underrepresented group to encourage participation (minimising self-selection bias)?
  • Will holding meetings at evenings or weekends enable or disable certain groups from attending and what impact might this have on the make-up of the assembly?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities that are accessible via public transport?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities which are accessible to disabled people and people with children (perhaps with creche facilities)?
  • Have organisers ensured that the information presented is robust but varied, so that everyone feels their views are represented in some way by the evidence?
  • Have organisers considered additional support for participants? (Organisers should provide effective and complete support throughout the process, making no assumptions on previous knowledge or understanding of how participation in activities like Citizens’ Assemblies work and understanding potential anxieties around participation, particularly of first-time participants).

Final thoughts

Citizens’ Assemblies and other similar mechanisms like Citizens Juries have the potential to revolutionise the democratic process in the UK. Although not intended to be a replacement of the traditional mechanisms of government, if done well, engaging citizens more meaningfully in not only the decision making process but in setting the options under discussion in the first place could transform how policy is made and how politicians interact with their public.

The emphasis on weighing available evidence and consensus building is also valuable, particularly in instances where politicians are unable to come together over contentious issues. However, to be truly transformational, the assemblies must have a level of self-awareness which recognises the difficulties some groups may have in participating in the process.

Finding ways of tackling this, and engaging the “unusual suspects”, giving them a voice and showing them that their opinion can have a direct impact on the choices taken by politicians could potentially repair some of the damage which appears to have been done to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, but it is clear we have a long way to go yet.


If you enjoyed this blog you may also be interested in reading:

Follow us on Twitter to see what topics are interesting our research team.

Digital Leaders Week: Closing the digital divide

Today, in our final Digital Leaders Week blog post, we’re looking at the issue of digital inclusion.

As you look around, it may seem as if everyone is online. In the street, on the bus, in cafes and shops, most people seem to be glued to their smartphones. But a number of articles on our blog have highlighted the digital divide in society, between those who have access to digital technologies and those who don’t.

In 2018, we focused on digital exclusion among young people:

“One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

Our blog went on to highlight research by Carnegie Trust UK which found that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Schools and local authorities have been tackling digital exclusion in a number of interesting initiatives. We’ve reported on a ‘bring your own device’ scheme in secondary schools in Inverclyde, where children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge. Another project – BBC Micro: Bit gave children the opportunity to learn how to code.

Recently, a new project was launched to ensure young people have equal access to digital technologies. During 2019, Digital Access for All (DAFA) will be working on a series of pilots to test out different ways of improving digital access for children and young people.

As our blog underlined, addressing digital exclusion among young people is crucial for their future development.

“Failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.

However, the digital divide is not confined to the younger generations. This month, new research has shown that one-fifth of the population do not have foundational digital skills, such as using an internet browser or connecting a device to a wi-fi network. Nearly one in ten of the population have zero digital skills.

There are good reasons why people dislike going online, such as concerns about security and affordability. But being “digitally disadvantaged” matters because it can exclude individuals from earnings, employability, communications and retail transactions benefits. As government moves increasingly towards a digital by default position, the need for everyone to improve their digital skills will become more important.

A lot of work is going on to address digital exclusion, including research into its causes, funding initiatives and training programmes. Local government is also playing its part.

In 2017, the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year at the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) Awards – a showcase event for sharing innovation and improvement in local government. Among the initiatives that impressed the judges was Go ON Croydon, which aimed to help people struggling with technology or lacking digital skills.

“The Go ON Croydon project was introduced to support the 85,000 people in Croydon who do not have basic digital skills. Reaching out to organisations such as community and faith groups, this year-long programme set out to highlight and promote the council’s digital skills initiatives. One scheme promoted by the project was digital zones.  Staffed by volunteer digital champions and located in banks or retail stores, these physical spaces provided places where people could go to have their questions answered and to improve their basic skills.”

The Go ON Croydon project clearly made an impact, with digital skills levels in Croydon increasing from 70% to 79% within one year.

Throughout this Digital Leaders Week, we’ve highlighted just some of the ways in which the public, private and third sectors are working to help people make the most of the tremendous opportunities presented by digital technologies.

Digital doesn’t have all the answers, but it does provide examples of good practice from which organisations, communities and individuals can learn. As we enter a new “fourth industrial revolution”, where artificial intelligence, automation and robotics become more commonplace, our blog will continue to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital.


Some of our recent articles on digital technologies include:

To read more of our digital-themed blog posts, follow this link.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital government – looking beyond Britain

 

Image: Digital Leaders

This week, the Knowledge Exchange blog is marking Digital Leaders Week with a look back at some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and focusing on more recent digital developments.

Our blog has often taken an international view of digital transformation, looking for lessons that might be learned from cities and countries around the world that have been leading the way in making the most of digital technologies in society.

Singapore is one country that has been blazing a trail in digital readiness, and in October 2015, we reported on the city-state’s efforts to ensure that more and more government services could be delivered electronically.

Among the earliest innovations was eCitizen – a first-stop portal for government information and services:

“When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).”

That was impressive enough, but, as the Smart Nation website explains, Singapore has continued to explore how digital innovation can improve citizens’ lives. From assistive technology and robotics in healthcare and environmental news updates to autonomous vehicles and an app linking parents and schools, Singapore’s digital revolution is transforming the way its citizens live, work and play.

Closer to home, Estonia has been leading the way on digital government. Our blog post from August 2015 reported on the country’s pioneering approach:

“In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.”

The article went on to highlight some of the key elements in Estonia’s approach to digital government:

  • An ID card (installed on a mobile phone), providing every citizen with secure and instant access to online services such as internet banking and public transport.
  • A national register providing a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia.
  • Estonian government services, including verification of citizens’ identities, enabling them to vote in e-elections. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In 2017, Wired magazine called Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.” And with good reason:

“Estonians have complete control over their personal data. The portal you can access with your identity card gives you a log of everyone who has accessed it. If you see something you do not like – a doctor other than your own looking at your medical records, for instance – you can click to report it to the data ombudsman. A civil servant then has to justify the intrusion. Meanwhile, parliament is designed to be paperless: laws are even signed into effect with a digital signature on the president’s tablet. And every draft law is available to the public to read online, at every stage of the legislative process; a complete breakdown of the substance and authorship of every change offers significant transparency over lobbying and potential corruption.”

Our blog noted that there were lessons for the UK to be learned from the Estonian experience:

“…it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.”


As one of the premier election service providers in the UK, Idox is leading the way in the provision of innovative, agile and cost-effective solutions that help authorities deliver across all areas of electoral management, both in the UK and overseas. From canvass tablets and call-centre solutions to electronic voting, Idox delivers democracy through technology, combined with an exceptional customer support service.

In 2019, Idox Elections has gone from strength to strength, delivering local and European Parliament elections in the UK. In addition, Idox made electoral history in Malta, using an Electronic Vote Counting Solution to count the country’s European Parliament election ballots for the first time. Idox’s e-counting software successfully reduced the counting time from days to hours, delivering the poll results in record time.

Good enough is not enough: International Making Place Conference

International Making Place Conference, Glasgow. Image: Jason Kimmings

There is now a growing body of evidence to indicate that our physical environment – the places where we live, work and socialise – affects our health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. But even without the research, it’s plain to see how a neighbourhood with lots of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, a choice of shops and good public transport connections could benefit health in ways that one with an excess of pubs, fast food shops and car traffic would not.

The importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities was the theme of an international conference held in Glasgow last week.

The venue for the conference – Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket building – is a shining example of how a great place can be repurposed and reinvented. Originally a wholesale fruit market, the building has been reborn as a unique setting for cultural and business events, but has retained many of its original features, including a lofty vaulted roof and a cast iron balcony.

David Crichton, Chair NHS Scotland
Image: Jason Kimmings

Facing up to the challenge of place

In his introduction, David Crichton, Chair of NHS Scotland, pointed to the sobering statistics that throw the importance of place into sharp focus. He noted that while the health of Scotland’s population was generally improving, people living in 10% of the country’s poorest areas are four times more likely to die prematurely than those in more prosperous places. The city of Glasgow knows all too well about these stark health inequities. A person living in the deprived area of Calton has an average life expectancy of 54 years, while someone growing up in affluent Lenzie, just 12km away can expect to live to 82.

Glasgow Lord Provost Eva Bolander
Image: Jason Kimmings

Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, acknowledged the challenges facing the city, but also noted that Glasgow is at the vanguard of place making. The city council’s Avenues Project aims to transform 17 key streets, prioritising space for cyclists and pedestrians, introducing sustainable green infrastructure and improving public transport connections. Glasgow is also investing £20m in its Community Hubs programme to bring multiple support services together in areas experiencing high levels of poverty.

Aileen Campbell, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, highlighted projects such as Clyde Gateway in Glasgow and the Bellsbank Initiative in East Ayrshire as successful examples of placemaking. Their success, said the minister, lies in focusing on what’s important to the people and communities of these areas, with the support of government and local authorities.

This international conference also heard from Monika Kosinska from the World Health Organisation, who noted that the problems facing Scotland are not unique. Around the world, countries and communities are experiencing the challenges associated with ageing populations and health inequalities. In this sense, she observed, all countries are developing countries.

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of coherence

The World Health Organisation’s assertion that health is a complete state of wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease, was at the heart of a powerful presentation delivered by Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde.

His research has underlined that poverty is not the result of bad choices. The real problem is that, without a sense of coherence and purpose, people are not in a position to make good choices.

As Sir Harry explained, a child experiencing chaotic early years (featuring parental substance abuse and/or domestic violence) is already on a path to mental health problems which can culminate in a loss of control and long periods of worklessness and poverty. But the implications can be even more serious: “The more adverse experiences you have as a child, the more likely you are to have a heart attack.”

A eureka moment for Sir Harry Burns occurred when he read a book by an American sociologist. Aaron Antonovsky spent the latter half of his career in Israel studying adults who as children had been in concentration camps. He found that the children who survived had developed what he termed a “sense of coherence” – a feeling of confidence that one has the internal resources to meet the challenges of life, and that these challenges are worth engaging with.

That sense of coherence, Sir Harry believes, lies in giving people in poverty greater control over their own resources: “People who have a sense of purpose, control and self esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices.”

He concluded that rather than being passive recipients of services, all of us have to be given the opportunity to become active agents in our own lives: “‘Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that’.

Woodside Health Centre
Image: Jason Kimmings

Placemaking in action

This theme of active engagement in placemaking was demonstrated during a site visit to a new health centre in Woodside, one of the most deprived parts of Glasgow. The aim of the new health centre is to reshape health services from the patient’s point of view, helping them to manage their own health and improve the care they receive. The new centre will bring together GP services, along with dental, pharmacy and physiotherapy services.

The health centre and its surroundings have been created by engaging with the local community. Using ideas from local people, the exterior of the building features designs reflecting the natural and industrial history of the area. Natural light from large windows in the roof floods the centre of the interior, giving a sense of brightness and tranquility, while wooden slats feature designs linking the centre with natural features nearby.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve. Image: Jason Kimmings

That connection with the natural environment will be reinforced with the development of a community green space close to the new health centre. The Forth and Clyde Canal is just a few minutes’ walk from the health centre, and a new foot and cycle bridge linking the centre to the local nature reserve is under construction. Other features will include new and improved pathways and new wildlife habitats. The natural space is already attracting walkers, joggers, families and cyclists, and local people report feeling they can now visit this area in greater safety than ever before.

Mark Beaumont and Glasgow Disability Alliance. Image: Jason Kimmings

The Place Standard

One of the threads running through this conference was the Place Standard, a practical tool developed in Scotland to help communities assess and redesign their own places.

For the final session of the afternoon, round-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont introduced members of the Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA) who shared results from their day as the Place Making Team using The Place Standard Tool. The results highlighted some of the elements of place that are important to people with disabilities – but also to others: lack of accessible toilets, poor transport links, networking events with no seating, inaccessible information, no social care support.

Final thoughts

This conference provided some important ideas on what’s wrong with our places, and some examples of places that are getting it right. And even for those that are on the right track, everyone was left with a clear message: when it comes to placemaking, good enough is not enough!

Merchant City, Glasgow
Image: Jason Kimmings

Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


With over 90% of UK local authorities as customers, Idox has built relationships that last across a varied portfolio, incorporating specialisms such as electoral management, business transformation, software solutions, managed services and front-end design and delivery. Our recent white paper explores the new digital trends being embraced by local government.

A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


 Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.