Connecting Scotland - evaluation: qualitative research - implementation and early impact
Findings of research with organisations who applied for digital devices, through the Connecting Scotland programme, to distribute to people that they support.
Connecting Scotland is a unique and ground-breaking programme. It was set-up and implemented at the height of the pandemic in response to an immediate need for digital connectivity that is unprecedented. A programme of this nature has never been done before on this scale and the speed at which it was implemented, especially given the ongoing restrictions in place due to Covid-19, is impressive.
Application process and delivery of devices
The vast majority of applicants found the programme concept easy to understand, the opportunity to apply for funding was widely advertised, and the application process was described by most organisations as straightforward and reasonable. 77% of respondents to our survey found the process either easy or very easy, 20% found it neither easy nor difficult, and only 3% found it difficult. Furthermore, 96% of survey respondents indicated that adequate support was provided during the application process. Interviewees were similarly positive.
One area of frustration that was raised by a number of national organisations was that separate applications had to be submitted for each local authority area that they worked in. They reported that this created additional administration at both application stage and in relation to data collection and reporting. Others felt that the eligibility criteria for each round of funding could be widened, or removed altogether and be dependent on need only.
While there some teething problems identified, related to delivery of devices, and the programme database, these were immediately picked up on by SCVO and as the programme has progressed, solutions have been found to address these. Programme managers continue to work on improvements and solutions to any challenges as these arise.
A key component of the programme was the provision of support to service users who had received a device, through the appointment by funded organisations of digital champions. The vast majority of organisations were easily able to identify digital champions within their organisation. These were usually members of staff who were well-placed to take on this role – either because they had strong relationships with their local communities; had good IT skills; or worked directly with service users who were eligible to receive devices through the programme. Some digital champions were other types of staff who were unable to carry out their usual job due to COVID-19 restrictions.
SCVO data shows that for 36,000 devices issued, some 3000 digital champions have been trained to date. This number is far lower than expected and low relative to the number of devices issued and SCVO is keen to ensure that projects do not provide devices to people without adequate support. However, the actual number of digital champions may be higher than this as it is unknown how many did not take part in the training offered.
The training provided by SCVO through the Mhor Collective was generally felt to be comprehensive and as the programme progressed, a range of different training opportunities were offered to enable Digital Champions to develop their skills.
The main concern raised with regards to Digital Champions relates to the sustainability of the model which relies on the goodwill of organisations to identify, recruit, and dedicate time to the digital champion role. Some interviewees raised concerns about the amount of in-kind staff time that had to be dedicated to the programme, either through the digital champion role, or in relation to management and administration. This is at the heart of one of the key considerations for the future sustainability of the programme.
Identifying and supporting participants
Most organisations identified recipients/demand in advance which meant that issuing the devices once these were received was straightforward. Of the organisations responding to our survey, 67% indicated that they had reached out to eligible clients before receiving devices from Connecting Scotland, and 33% had done so afterwards. Of those, however, most had already determined demand and had a clear route for identification of eligible people and for distribution.
A small number of organisations encountered challenges identifying recipients but these challenges were exceptional and organisations described SCVO as understanding, supportive and flexible in relation to these issues.
Organisations' experiences of providing support to participants varied. While all were confident that their service users had received support when they needed it, the level of support required tended to vary depending on the type of service users being supported. Organisations supporting older people reported more challenges in supporting their clients than organisations supporting younger people who were more familiar with using technology.
Implementation of the programme by SCVO
SCVO implements Connecting Scotland on behalf of Scottish Government and this working relationship was described positively and as an "equal collaboration". Although the Connecting Scotland model pre-dated the pandemic, the pandemic provided the impetus for the programme to be implemented and required it to be set up at speed to urgently address need. Staff reported that the advantage of this speed was that the process was far less bureaucratic than would usually be the case and SCVO was given the freedom to implement as they saw fit. SCVO staff recognised that this led to some initial teething problems arising but these were resolved as the programme progressed. Feedback from funded organisations was extremely positive about SCVO's role in the programme.
A small number of challenges were identified with regards to programme implementation. These included challenges with inputting data to the programme database; some challenges with delivery; challenges with poor internet service (particularly in some rural areas); cross-over in recruitment with other local organisations; and the challenges already mentioned regarding supporting older people. Most of these challenges could be overcome with effective suport from SCVO and were not a hindrance to the programme being implemented effectively overall.
Capacity to deliver
The vast majority of the organisations consulted during the research confirmed that they had adequate capacity to deliver the programme. Only a small minority reported any challenges with managing the number of devices they had received and this usually related to problems identifying as many people in need as they had anticipated at application stage.
This picture has begun to change however, as staff are moving back into their pre-pandemic roles, leaving them less time to devote to Connecting Scotland. Some feel that it may be impossible to manage the level of support that they have provided to date alongside their normal day job once COVID-restrictions are lifted. Many organisations are concerned that it may not be sustainable going forward without staff resources being paid for.
Although impact data collection to date has been varied in quality, organisations are confident that the programme has had a significant positive impact on their service users. They reported that the programme has helped to reduce social isolation (particularly during the peak of the pandemic) by supporting people to connect with family and friends; has supported young people and their families to access education and training opportunities; supported employability; supported health and wellbeing by enabling people to connect in to a wide range of health services online; ensured continued access to welfare benefits; and facilitated access to a wide range of services online.
It has also positively impacted on participating organisations by upskilling their staff; increasing their capacity to deliver and support online services; speeding up the implementation of online service delivery; and encouraging more advanced thinking in relation to opportunities to deliver services online.
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