This is the fourth in a blog series by Keith Harrison-Broninski FRSA, which explores a new way for cities, towns and rural communities to tackle the effects of austerity. The series explains the ideas behind the approach, how it was initially proven within the NHS, and how it has now become a larger scale initiative - Town Digital Hub - that is being supported by the RSA.
In 2015, The Guardian reported that, "Young people are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population, the largest gap in more than 20 years" and BusinessWest wrote "Youth unemployment across the UK has hit an all time high, nearly 1 million in total, with 1 in 5 young people now out of work."
However, communities can use a Town Digital Hub (TDH) to equip some of their young people not only with skills that lead directly to high value employment, but also with networks of contacts that will help them find work.
Like any information, the collaboration plans in a TDH have a maintenance cost. The discussion and negotiation between the stakeholders that the plans represent, never ends, since the services they provide must adapt to evolving goals, new circumstances, and availability of resources. When such a change is agreed, the corresponding update to the online plan is ideally made immediately - if possible, during the same meeting. However, it is not always possible to make such changes quickly enough. Sometimes it is necessary to make a complex set of inter-related changes, in which case someone will need to devote proper time to it. Collaboration plans also require changes to minor details from time to time that do not need to be agreed by all stakeholders.
So a collaboration plan needs an owner to maintain them. This may be a council staff member with responsibility for the corresponding public services, or with a community-oriented role such as engagement or regeneration. However, often this person may delegate the actual updates, and even the associated information gathering activities - for example, to arrange meetings, possibly to chair meetings, to take notes, and to confirm contact details and other data items that form part of the collaboration plan. In other words, a TDH needs a Coordinator.
The work of a TDH Coordinator is not just clerical. Even just to make the online updates correctly, some understanding is necessary of collaboration planning and of local stakeholders. If the work also involves information gathering and stakeholder management, then it also requires standard business skills to gather information in a structured way from a range of organisations (to facilitate meetings, give presentations, capture data, coordinate needs, manage expectations, report on progress) - and to do it in a timely fashion, minimising delays and working around issues.
These are the skills of a "Business Analyst" (BA), whose role is to make sure that an organisation's IT systems match the needs of its stakeholders. It is currently the #1 skill in demand for freelance IT professionals, which means a BA can find well-paid work anywhere in the world. However, a BA does not actually require IT skills! Rather, they need familiarity with digital tools generally, and the business and interpersonal skills described above - which can be acquired by anyone who is keen to learn, enjoys working in teams, and will rise to a challenge. Since most young people are familiar with digital tools, and the personal qualities necessary to acquire BA skills are what you might call "Duke of Edinburgh" capabilities, many young people are well suited to train as BAs. So, in a time when so many young people are struggling to find work, why is there such a shortage of BAs?
Success as a BA requires good communication skills, and more generally, the ability to establish good working relationships from scratch with a wide range of people in a short time. However, the sort of young people who possess such personal qualities often dismiss anything IT-related as an "IT crowd" job - in other words, a technical calling with an associated working pattern. While this is true of most IT jobs, it is not true of BAs - and there is a growing need for BAs out in the real world. In the last 10 years, digital tools have undergone a fundamental shift. In order to provide an organisation with IT capabilities, it used to be necessary to install expensive, complex hardware and software, via projects that lasted years and were staffed by teams of IT gurus. No longer. The development of the Web into a fully-featured platform for computing has made standard business tools available in your Web browser at low cost (even free), and many organisations are switching to solutions that run in "the cloud" and are simple to set up.
As a result, small organisations (including not only local businesses but community and voluntary groups) now have the same opportunity as large organisations to automate routine parts of their work and free up staff for higher value activities. However, it is not always clear to such organisations which tools will help them most, how to set them up, or what information to put into them. They need BAs. Such work is very different from a multi-year implementation project for a multinational! It is informal, sociable, small-scale, self-directed, and beneficial in an immediate way to your own community.
Most local businesses and third sector groups do not have an IT strategy or realise that a small investment in this area would save them a lot of money. So how can small organisations come to realise what a BA can do for them, and find a local BA to help?
A central team help build the TDH for a community, but most of the work is done by locals - led by people with business experience, local knowledge and the interests of their community at heart (FRSAs are ideally suited), who mentor local young people to be TDH Coordinators (and thus acquire BA skills). This approach not only enables hubs to be built without the central team becoming a bottleneck, but also makes best use of the skills of local people and increases the employability of local youth. A TDH Coordinator can seek work as a professional BA anywhere in the world, or stay in their community. TDH Coordinator work may be part-time, but they can supplement the income via BA work with local organisations, via the network of local contacts developed through TDH - which benefits their community yet further.
In the next instalment of this blog series, I will look at another economic virtuous circle from providing public services collaboratively between local authorities and the community. Stay tuned!
Read the previous blog - Collaborative public services will save councils money
I would welcome any feedback on the blogs and the project. It would be great to hear your own ideas and experiences in comments – we seek to engage with communities both across the UK and internationally, so if you would like a digital hub for your own community (town, city, neighbourhood, district, county, or non-geographical) , then please do get in touch directly.