I've been thinking over the last few weeks about digital innovation, the lockdown and what some of the longer-term questions arising out of this are for charities and social enterprises. The good news is that many organisations have adapted quickly and found ways of delivering services without face-to-face contact. The overwhelming need to do this has sparked innovation and created an urgency to explore new ways of working that in normal times would be almost impossible to engineer.
There is potential for this sudden surge in digital delivery to have real benefits in the long term. Whether it does or not is going to depend on how much thought charities give to two key questions:
How do we judge what is working so that we can know which of these changes we should keep (or even accelerate) when some semblance of normality returns?
How should we design digital services and in what ways do we need to think differently than we do about face-to-face delivery?
In this post I'm going to focus on the first question, with the second one tackled next week. Neither of these questions is specific to the current situation - they apply whenever digital delivery is considered. They have however been brought into sharper focus by the situation at hand.
How do we go about working out which aspects of digital service delivery we want to keep once we have the option of going back to (somewhat) normal? Though we may be a long way from that point at the moment, it’s essential that we think now about the criteria we are going to use and any information we need to be gathering over the coming months to inform these decisions. Otherwise the risk is that changes originating out of necessity end up being made permanent by default.
If this seems like a fanciful worry, it’s worth considering the advantages that digital service delivery offers and how these might be viewed in a post-Coronavirus landscape. For one thing, providing services online is often cheaper. Take an organisation that runs support groups. Over the last two months they’ve succeeded in moving these online. As challenging as this might have been, one upside is that they are no longer having to pay for a venue for each session. In 6 months’ time when they are considering whether or not to reinstate face-to-face sessions this cost reduction will likely feature prominently in the decision process, not least because of the substantial impact that Coronavirus is having on charities’ finances. Whilst there is nothing wrong with cost being a factor, it is imperative that questions of effectiveness and impact are given equal prominence, and these questions will probably require a more concerted effort to understand.
As well as being a plea for a focus on evidence this is also a more general request for a holistic assessment of digital service delivery that takes into account a wide range of factors. For our example charity that might involve accessibility, participation rates and issues like safeguarding. The impetus for making the change might have been narrow and urgent, but our assessment of its impact has to be broad.
So, any organisation adapting to digital service delivery because of Coronavirus needs to be working out now what data it needs in order to evaluate the impact of the switch, and to start gathering it as early as possible. This might be tough. Evaluation can be challenging at the best of times, and the current circumstances present a whole range of additional issues to grapple with. After all, how can you begin to control for the radical change to people's lives the last few months have brought? Nonetheless, doing what you can is preferable to doing nothing. At the very least organisations should be closely monitoring the data they already collect and talking to beneficiaries about the new format and recording key learnings from these conversations. If you have particular groups that you are worried will have found the change harder, make sure you prioritise speaking to them. These conversations combined with whatever hard data you deem robust enough will be invaluable when those future decisions need to be made.
Although I've focussed here on a situation where the switch to digital is retained without fully considering effectiveness, the point also applies in reverse. There will be lots of charities delivering services digitally at the moment where it is working every bit as well - perhaps even better - than face-to-face. For those organisations the imperative lies in discovering that this is the case so that they continue delivering in this way in the future.
If we can gather the right information there is every chance that, in this one small way at least, Coronavirus and the social distancing it necessitates can be a useful experiment that pushes the sector forward.