people sit in a line using their various digital devices

Involve the sector in the Digital Strategy for Wales or risk leaving people behind

Published: 16/02/21 | Categories: Author: Anna Nicholl

Welsh Government is working on a new Digital Strategy for Wales. Anna Nicholl, WCVA Director of Strategy and Sector Development, tells us why it’s so important for the voluntary sector to be at the heart of it.

The pandemic has quickened the pace of a move towards digital services that was already well under way. Over the last year, people have found that their meetings with health professionals, tutors, counsellors, social clubs and more have become online affairs. After the pandemic is finally over, face to face services may well become more available once again – this will be absolutely necessary for some people – but digital services will still be more than commonplace.

It’s amid this context that Welsh Government are preparing their new Digital Strategy for Wales. In it, they outline six key ‘missions’ for the strategy to undertake – these look at digital services, the digital economy, digital skills, digital inclusion, digital connectivity and data and collaboration. (As part of this, they performed an engagement exercise, and you can read our response here.)

A key statement in the draft strategy is ‘digital is not just about computers – it’s about people’. We wholeheartedly agree with this, so it’s a shame that the voluntary sector –embedded in our communities across Wales – is largely overlooked throughout.

The ‘people focus’ of the strategy means that it is essential for the voluntary sector to be at the heart of the final document. The sector is all about people, social justice and improving all aspects of wellbeing, so the lack of reference to it is a concerning gap in thinking. The sector touches the lives of all of us – from nurseries to hospices, arts groups and sports clubs and social movements that have shaped our rights, our cultures and our environment.

Much of it is characterized by agility and innovation. It is a space where people come together voluntarily to make a difference on the issues they care about. Those people are often driven by finding solutions to pressing issues, creating forerunners for what later become core public services.

The sector is also an important part of our economy. Voluntary organisations employ some 100,000 people in Wales, with 28% of people giving time towards volunteering each year. Charitable income in Wales is over £1.2bn, and this excludes big chunks of the voluntary sector such as Housing Associations. The equivalent value of volunteer time is higher again, estimated at over 3% of Wales’ GDP.

This is why the new digital strategy must tap into the reservoir of skills, knowledge and experience that the voluntary sector can offer, or risk losing a huge source of value and innovation. If government works with voluntary organisations on digital approaches – well-designed, secure and based on user needs – it has huge potential to create and enhance wellbeing.

If the strategy doesn’t connect to the voluntary sector, however, it will miss key parts of our economy and services, hampering its ambitions from the start.

To ensure our sector is at the heart of the digital revoluation, there will need to be investment to provide leadership, to engage with people and to support practical solutions. There are plenty of voluntary organisations who are eager to work with government and each other to achieve this. That includes infrastructure bodies like WCVA and Wales Co-operative Centre, specialist organisations like Promo Cymru and also the thousands of voluntary organisations grappling with digital in their day-to-day work in communities across Wales. The social tech movement too, already alive in Wales, is there for the voluntary sector to use as a resource.

The recent White Paper on strengthening social partnership outlined a vision of a Welsh economy in which ‘everyone can thrive and no-one is left behind’. In a world in which digital services form a large part of social and economic life, it’s vital that no-one is left behind digitally.

The voluntary sector must be an integral part of the new digital strategy.