“Just be ordinary”: unions and the digital crisis

This is a note of a speech I gave to a Unions 21 fringe meeting at TUC Congress 2016, to an audience of union professionals and officers.

I’m going to tell you about two recent experiences.

After Congress, I’m going to need a holiday. I haven’t had a moment to book it, so my missus did. I clicked on my bank’s app, held my thumb on the sensor, and sent her the money I owed her— in 30 seconds.

Recently, I changed addresses. I needed to tell my union. Their site suggested no easy way to tell them I’d moved, so I called their south-east region. They couldn’t help. I called their London region — not them either. I called the national office — and finally someone could help.

Just contrast those two experiences. The ease of moving money and the difficulty of letting my union know I’d moved.

I think sometimes unions miss that the world of my bank’s app is the world our members live in. That is their experience of interacting with organisations. Easy, frictionless, quick — at least for the simple jobs.

And that’s why I say that our aspiration for trade union digital should be to be just ordinary. To meet the basic expectations of our members — set by their experiences in the rest of their lives.

We start a long way off. We are a decade behind other membership organisations and the campaigning charities.

Union websites sit, stagnating, like a curling leaflet on a rack in a waiting room. We barely know our members, and we don’t know what they want from us. We open ourselves to legal risks in the poor management of our data.

To take one example: which union has a January strategy? The first week of January is risky for subscription organisations. Feeling the pinch after Christmas, people cancel direct debits. Most unions won’t have the intelligence systems to know what the size of their January attrition is — nor a plan to reduce it, through great comms and flexible offers that keep people in membership.

Of course, our general secretaries have rather taken to twitter, no surprise, as it’s an online facsimile of their political world. But as a substitute for union digital — nope.

It is not hyperbole to say that if we fail to offer the baseline digital experience to union members that they get from every other organisation in their lives, the future of trade union membership is in jeopardy.

How did we got here — a digital offer stuck in the mid-2000s? There are two key reasons: a lack of digital skills in the union workforce, and missing digital leadership amongst union officers.

Trade unions have far too few digital specialists. Where they exist, it’s the product of a lucky recruitment. We should lose traditional comms roles in unions, and instead make every comms staffer digital. And cos our staff tend to work for unions for longer, we need to properly retrain them into the roles we need. An example: we don’t need issue experts to write web advice content, we need people who can write to meet an audience’s needs and get the page high in search. That will help more people, whose first instinct is to google when they face a problem, to find unions.

And we need digital leadership at the highest level in unions. There is no disgrace in union general secretaries, deputies and assistants not being expert themselves. But as with finance and HR, leaders need to hire great people with the right skills at a senior level, give them the cash and people they need, then set tough goals and ask hard questions. Digital is not free, it is important, and it’s about more than getting your GS on twitter.

And digital can be transformative — to your daily operations, not just your comms. I used to work in domestic abuse (for the brilliant SafeLives). Talking to housing associations wanting to spot domestic abuse earlier, they found something surprising: putting the data together, there was a correlation between callouts to fix broken doors and windows, and reports of domestic abuse. So, if the housing association could get targeted help to women reporting certain maintenance issues, they could help stop domestic abuse earlier. That’s the transformative impact of digital — helping you do your job better.

Just think how great digital could help unions. Using issue petitions to gather contact details of workers at a company that you can then try to organise. Targeting mobile membership ads to people in tight geographic locations — like big warehouses where they won’t let unions through the gate. Getting ready to drive turnout through digital when we’re finally allowed to ballot members online. Being where workers are — on WhatsApp, on the hundreds of Facebook shift-swapping communities in our biggest companies. Using intelligence about what your members are actually interested in, based on what they click and what they read, to write the best emails, the most helpful advice.

Digital to this standard is everyday, commonplace, ordinary, in organisations of our size. Join the National Trust or donate to Shelter or Macmillan — and then compare how they communicate with you to what you get from your union.

So how do we get union digital to just ordinary? This autumn the TUC will be launching a digital scorecard for unions to help them understand where they lag behind, and where they need to invest. We’ll be running regular events for digital staff and for leaders who know they need to get digital. And we’ll be writing about it all at digital.tuc.org.uk.