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Engaging With The Hard To Reach

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility

GDS aims to create digital services that are world class and become the channel of choice for service users.  But the demographic of those who remain offline reveals that these very citizens are some of the heaviest users and most reliant on access to public services.

We recognise that if we are to succeed in driving channel shift to digital then services and transactions need to be developed with a relentless focus on users. We want to make use of the most innovative and versatile technology to deliver products that match industry leaders while ensuring that no-one is left behind.

So how are we going to do this? Although GDS has the skills to help create digital services, we don't have the expertise or resources to engage with all those who remain offline.  We need to work with others who have that expertise to share ideas and promote awareness of the issues affecting disadvantaged groups.  A recent example of this was when we visited St Mungo’s in Southwark.

About St Mungo’s

St Mungo's is one of the leading charities working with homeless people in London and the South. It provides beds for approximately 1,800 people each night and manages over 110 accommodation projects.  Only about 6% of clients are in employment; some have literacy issues, engagement problems, addictions or mental health concerns.

For the vast majority of people, becoming homeless is the culmination of a series of events and factors which have contributed to inevitable loss of control in their lives.  This can often be traced back to the break up of a relationship (family or partner) or job loss.

People living in hostels can feel stigmatised and are often displaced, far from home without any friends or family. The difficulties that we can all face when dealing with public services are magnified for a homeless person and can present huge challenges for them.

St Mungo’s provide access to basic IT equipment and encourage their residents to engage digitally.  Staff are experienced in managing the types of behaviours and frustrations of some clients who may also lack reading and writing skills.

During our visit to St Mungo’s, it quickly became clear why residents need an environment that builds trust and allows them to engage at their own pace with essential support.  The normal routes for learning computer skills (eg. UK Online Centres, formal training courses, libraries etc) can be too overwhelming.

With support from the Go On campaign, staff at St Mungo’s Southwark centre helped to get 180 clients online in a 12 month period.  In 2010/11 the organisation supported over 2,000 people to find employment, gain educational qualifications or take part in activities and skills training.

St Mungo’s receive excellent client feedback and are always looking for new and innovative ways to improve their services.  They have created social enterprises that help to train their clients and offer real value to the community, for example:

  • Squeaky Chains - a bike repair business located in the Southwark basement.   The company runs a non-profit making bike recycling scheme and also offers affordable repairs to the community.  All St. Mungo’s residents are offered training in repairs and presented with a free bike when they pass the course!
  • Suitcase Media - a community interest company, also based in St Mungo’s Business Incubator in Southwark.  In return for the space they run an IT skills and web design course for St Mungo’s clients.

GDS plans to engage the homeless in ongoing user testing for accessibility issues as GOV.UK continues to evolve. More on this and other engagement activities will follow in the coming months.

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  1. Comment by James Barton posted on

    Great article Bob, it is easy when working in the online sector to just assume everyone has access to the internet and online services. It's great that places like St.Mungo's are doing something about it and helping the disadvantaged.

  2. Comment by Anna Geraghty posted on

    Hi Bob

    It’s great to see your interest in this. It’s not that clear from your blog, but St Mungo’s is actually a UK online centre. There are 3,800 centres in our network, and they’re all very different - some of them are in libraries and colleges and there are also locations like pubs, cafes and even a launderette! A lot of them are also supported by volunteers, just like St Mungo’s. It’s great that you’ve been able to see first hand how UK online centres can support people - and do let us know if you’d like to look round another one!

    • Replies to Anna Geraghty>

      Comment by Bob Kamall posted on


      Yes, I was aware that St Mungo's is a UK Online Centre - they did in fact make that point to us and expressed their gratitude for all the support provided by the Online Centres Foundation. We should have acknowledged their role as UK Online Centre in the original post; so please accept my apology for that oversight and keep up the good work at all 3,800 centres.


      • Replies to Bob Kamall>

        Comment by Anna Geraghty posted on

        No problem Bob, thanks for your reply!


  3. Comment by Bob Kamall posted on

    I am glad that our efforts to engage with disadvantaged sectors of the population has been so well received. We will continue with our efforts to engage with all sectors of the population and to better understand the socio-economic barriers that prevent the take up of digital services. We regard to the over sixties - we have had an initial discussion with Age UK and hope to work with them as we move forward. We are also working with Digital Unite and will look at supporting their Spring Online 2012 Campaign ( in April.

  4. Comment by UK Government Digital Service case study on engaging with the homeless | Service Delivery in Government posted on

    [...] blogpost, Engaging with the hard to reach on the UK Government Digital Service blog discusses their recent work with the homeless charity, St [...]

  5. Comment by manicpolitics1 posted on

    This is a very welcome attempt to engage disadvantaged sections of the population - well-done! Age and socio-economic status should not be a barrier - often said but here is someone doing something about it.

    • Replies to manicpolitics1>

      Comment by Bill Kilpatrick posted on

      I especially agree with the effort to increase accessibility for older people. I've seen many studies that say those in their 60s and over are the fastest growing segment of Internet users. That combined with the fact that older people often have trouble with mobility. So, in my mind, it makes a great deal of sense for governments on all levels to put resources into this.