When you walk into one of our services, chances are you’ll get a warm welcome from an experienced member of our frontline team. They’ll have worked with many different people from many different walks of life, and will quickly be able to connect with you and understand what’s going on. At our best, we work with kindness, firm boundaries and love. Teams will try to find the support that’s right for you, whether that’s clinical treatment, counselling, support from peers or getting into housing, work or education.
For the 1 in 6 of us who experience issues with drugs, alcohol or other mental health problems, access to this kind of help can be life saving. But it’s too hard to reach. If you live far away from a service, or have mobility issues, the costs and complexities of travel can be prohibitive. If you’re working or have caring responsibilities, it may be hard to find and book an appointment that works around your commitments. If you are from a community where even talking about drugs, alcohol or mental health brings shame and disapproval, walking into a service may be more than you can cope with.
This challenge is why we’re so pleased to have received funding from the National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund to use digital tools and technology to change how we work with people and run our organisation. Over the next two years, we’re building an in-house team of people with digital, data and design skills to work with people who use (or might use) our services and different teams to reimagine and redesign the ways we help people to overcome addiction. We want to do this in a way that helps communities and individuals shape their own experience, recovery and support.
‘Digital’ can mean a lot of things. In some ways for us, it means getting the basics in place: an accessible website that provides a platform for useful information and helps people find the support they need; expanding routes in to services and peer support so that not everything relies on physical locations; making our content and language more accessible and inclusive; designing self-help resources and tools that people can use in their own homes or with their families.
But it also means more fundamental change, including to our systems and processes so that staff spend less time on admin and more time with clients; building tools that give people who use services more power and autonomy, from co-produced plans to ways of tracking their own experience; shifting our culture internally so that we always start by understanding people’s needs, codesign solutions, test and continuously seek to improve; collecting, analysing and using data more wisely; and being open in doing so to help others do the same.
For charities like us who provide services funded by government and the public sector, the tools, processes and cultures of digital offer massive opportunities to radically change the way markets work for and with citizens. In private markets where the consumer is the buyer, companies are forced to continuously change and improve how they respond to people’s expectations — otherwise product lines fail, new entrants take over and businesses close. But in public markets, commissioners buy services on citizens’ behalf, often under huge pressure to reduce expenditure and defend purchasing decisions. Commissioners know their communities, but work to long cycles and buy services every few years. Digital gives us a way to bring people in. It creates real time feedback loops, and gives weight to user research and codesign; without this dynamic, it can be hard for charities and services stay relevant and responsive when people’s needs and expectations change.
We’re not starting from zero. Our staff, volunteers and the people who use our services have a big appetite for change. Over the past year, we’ve had conversations across the service about things we could do differently, where we’ve learnt lessons from past mistakes and the opportunities for digital to help us improve and reach many more people. We have established and grown our webchat service which now helps over 12,000 people a year. We’ve redesigned our talking therapies services to make it much easier for people to access help and book appointments. We are rethinking how we use data and building new capabilities in data, design and technology. And we’re starting to develop new content and tools based on the questions we know people need help with.
Technology is rapidly changing society. Responding to this change is one of the biggest challenges facing the social and public sector. It requires bold vision, ambition and hard work. It’s a huge challenge for people in roles like mine where we are helping to lead organisations, and means we have to learn new skills and adapt to different ways of working. We’ve committed to being open with what we learn as part of the Digital fund, and open source any solutions for our peers, the public sector, smaller charities and others to use. There’s so much we can learn from each other and we’re excited to get going.