What is a ‘Digital Mentor’?

One of the ideas in the Communities in Control white paper, published last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that has attracted a fair amount of attention is that of the ‘Digital Mentors’. Here’s what the paper itself says about them:

Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy. The Digital Mentors will The digitalalso create links with community and local broadcasters as part of their capacity building, to enable those who want to develop careers in the media to do so. Depending on the success of these pilots, this scheme could be rolled out to deprived areas across England.

This is part of an initiative to help communities take control of their media, to fill the gaps in coverage themelves in a way that takes advantage of the remarkable opportunities that exist with social web  tools, to both provide a means of communicating a community’s messages, and to help that community collaborate both internally and with other agencies too. I would argue that such a role is required in all local communities, not just the deprived ones, though it may well be the less well off that need it the most.

What isn’t particularly clear at this stage is who these mentors will be, nor how they will work. Should they be the employees of local authorities, for example? Or should they be volunteers, who perhaps are rewarded for their time in some way? Should they belong to the communities they mentor, or can they be ‘outsiders’?

One option might be for digital mentors to operate out of local colleges, say, and turn it into a real educative experience, or perhaps community centres or village halls would be better locations.

Then, what role should the mentors actually have? Just providing the training on new media, or actually coordinating projects too? It’s interesting that the focus here is on enabling ‘those who want to develop careers in the media to do so’ – what about people who just want to use this stuff to revitalise their local democracy?

I think the role, as fuzzily defined in the white paper, needs to be developed and broadened in scope. In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about a possible process for social media to be used to bring togther the various elements of civic society in a locality. The focus was on social media as an end in itself, like a local social media club, but I think it works for democratic participation too.  The main steps I identified were:

  • Establish tags – common ways of describing and finding content that everyone can use: local gov, local press, individual bloggers, existing communities and groups
  • Aggregate content – use the tags to bring the conversation about the area into one place
  • Communicate – start to talk amongst the various content producers
  • Meet – get everyone meeting and talking to each other in real life
  • Develop – put together some of the infrastructure together to allow for further collaboration and coworking, both online and off

The digital mentor could be the person driving this forward in a local area.

I know that there are people really interested in this role and its development, people like David Wilcox and Paul Webster, to name just two. It would be great if the Digital Mentor concept could be designed in the public, between CLG and those willing volunteers who think this could be a great initiative.

27 thoughts on “What is a ‘Digital Mentor’?”

  1. Totally agree – we’re looking at exactly this kind of role for the Leader project we’re working on to help bridge the gap between offline and online and bring all the great things going on villages . One of the ideas I had was instead of training non-techies up to do this, get students, bloggers etc to ‘mentor’ the communities/projects that they could be embedded in and firstly do the story telling, video ‘social reporting’ etc and secondly share those skills and get the communities up to speed to do it themselves when the mentor moves on.

    One thing I don’t know the answer to, is whether you need to get some quick wins with a mentor showing how its done with decent pics/video/blog posts/tagging or do you do the training first and risk putting people off when it’s not as good as it could be. Especially when we know that although this stuff is undoubtably easier to do with the new technology, to do it well does require new skills to make it work properly (a blog is not just about writing…)

  2. @ Tom – like a digital mentor in each department in Whitehall? One thing that is clear from the development of the social web as a tool for better communication and collaboration within government and between government and the people is that roles need to be rethought and perhaps invented. Maybe a digital mentor could help upskill civil servants – and perhaps politicians too – in the new language of the web.

    @ Paul – interesting points! I think that one of the key messages of the social web is that messiness is good and not everything has to work. So let people throw themselves in at the deep end and give things a go – it’s the way most of us learned, after all.

  3. There are number of converging ideas here.

    1, Third Sector – Digital Media – Social Inclusion Co-ordinator
    There are others around the country – part of the Everybody Online project.

    2, Regional Digital Inclusion Networks – WM, SW meet, at least YH and SE planned. These are cross sector networks between local authorities, third sector and communities.

    3, The range of DC10 projects that see people from within the community leading thei way in use of digital technologies, often in partnerships with the third sector and in all cases with their local authority. The project in Sunderland is a particularly impressive collaborative effort.

    4, The third sector regional ICT champions who are all working to fill the gaps in infrastructure support that will enable local communities to get the ICT support they need. http://watfordgap.wordpress.com/regional-ict-champions/

    I may have missed another role – I had heard of a DC10 spin off to have local authority new media technology advocates … but I may be confusing fact/fiction and proposals …. will dig back on that one!

  4. You’re right in saying that the thinking on this is very fuzzy on this point however it does seem to be a precursor to a move towards creating media with true social value.

    A few thoughts that come to mind in no particularly order:

    * Are we talking about helping communities out in the wild as it were or are we talking about mentoring/guiding the social media awareness and/or capabilities of individuals in positions of influence? or both? These would seem to be two separate, if related, challenges.

    * In terms of up-skilling communities a fair amount of capacity already exists in form of media-focused nonprofit/social enterprises such as On Road Media (http://www.onroadmedia.org.uk/) and work like the SavvyChavvy project (http://www.savvychavvy.com/). I am certain that a quick google would bring up a couple dozen other community minded media training providers who’s work with the more marginalized parts of our communities could inform engagement with the more mainstream? It would seem logical to have a good look at how we might increase and improve this existing capacity with a common vision and decent resources before we start to (re)create a new tier?

    * As someone who works on the ‘professional’ side of volunteering I would always expect any initiative of this scope worth its salt to engage volunteers. While there are many able & committed individuals who could help here (and you mention two fine examples above) something of this scope would need to be properly resourced. I always get nervous when volunteers are mentioned so early in the process as it often smacks of trying to convince people that the project won’t cost too much because someone will be working for free. CLG & co need to clarify the vision and understand the resources needed, then worry about the paid/non-paid HR aspects for delivery.

    *Re: messy communities – personally I entirely agree with the give-it-a-go mentality but suspect that if you’re trying to engage communities with low online literacy rates then you will also likely be dealing with a group who will be challenged to see the social value of the work on first sight. As a national initiative I think you’ll want to have someone (individual? team?) in a community with the skills to ensure that it’s a half-decent production from the start. There will always be those suck-it-and-see success stories (and they should be encouraged) but it’s surely not a philosophy on which to build a national initiative.

    Hope this doesn’t sound too negative as I do think it is overall a positive step forward.

  5. Social media Minister Tom Watson’s comment above suggests there is work to do within Government before investing in a new service.
    On past form the next steps will be a consultancy tender to explore what digital mentoring should be, followed by another tender to supply the services. Result: a programme that may or may not be appropriate, but will almost certainly exclude many of those – identified by Michael – who are providing direct or indirect mentoring at present.
    Instead, how about getting together those current suppliers who are prepared to collaborate, and as a first step run a (paid for) event and support for civil servants in CLG and elsewhere responsible for digital mentoring, literacy, inclsuion etc. The aim would be to help them understand social media and the networked world; see who is doing what; then consider how best to promote and support mentoring, in part by building on current activities.
    This isn’t in pursuit of “jobs for us” … it’s just that I don’t see how any Government department can promote new policies and programmes in this field without first developing its own internal digital literacy. As Whitehall Webby points out, that isn’t happening at present http://snurl.com/2b8k8

  6. are we talking digital mentors for communities or to upskill central and local government officers?
    Youll probably say both are needed but in the remit of the wp its the communities that need to benefit.
    We have been running pilot projects for a year now through dc10plus and there are local authorities who have got the idea. What we dont want is a lengthy tender and pilot phase.
    Also worth a look is the capbuilders national service on this led by the media trust

  7. Great responses all. Fabulous that there is so much interest in this – let’s hope that the powers that be are listening in!

    Paul W – you are right that the remit of the white paper is deprived local communities, but if the role of DM is fleshed out properly, it should be applicable to any community, whether a village group, youth club or a bunch of civil servants!

    So let’s work on building up a skill set, maybe through a package of event/workshop, games, guidance and online stuff which folk in communities can use, people in organisations, individuals – anyone who can fit it round what they want to achieve.

  8. Interesting stuff – recent meeting with Digital Birmingham answers a couple of points raised above (or not – I’m generalising based on a particular councils response, sorry).

    1 – they will always go local when looking for skills

    2 – they will happily by in a ‘service’

    And with a drive to digitalise conurbations, Glasgow, Birmingham, Hull, etc. (DC10 and IDTV) there is going to be a practical need to educate a lot of people who will suddenly find themselves with access to the web via their TV’s – councils/central gov will have to fund this, can’t be all volunteer work can it?

  9. I’m really keen about the concept of digital mentors. In the context of the empowerment white paper, it’s a brilliant idea to give people in communities a new voice. Most of the people we want to give a voice to may well still be totally digitally excluded, so we have a real opportunity to bring them online and help them to help others to get online and have a voice at the same time. I’m keen that even though a pilot this is done on a large scale and nationwide, building on the work of other projects mentioned here as well as existing UK online centres also already using web, blogs, YouTube, audio streaming etc, to give disadvantaged people a new way of communicating with eachother as well as with decision makers. UK online centres are a great way to reach into most deprived communities across England, they are already employing mentors and supporting the skills development of volunteers, as well as the citizens using their services.

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Helen. As you can see from the number and the quality of the comments to this post, there is considerable interest in the potential of this role. Hopefully us interested folk will get the chance to talk to DCLG and maybe develop this in the open. I’ll keep you informed, if you like!

  11. @ Dave, Yes please, do keep me informed. I’m hoping to get a chance to talk to CLG, and if we get a role in the development of this, I’m also keen to have a conversation in the open.

  12. Have the deprived communities, which are mentioned in the WP, been deteremined. If there are pilots do we know where they will be located and how soon before a pilot is rolled out to other aeas?

  13. Hi Lawrence

    I don’t think too many of the details of the Digital Mentor role have been determined. I might try and ask CLG what they can tell us about how they see it developing. Not sure how people feel about it here, but maybe we could organise some sort of workshop around it?

  14. Dave,
    Thanks for the quick reply. I would be interested in the details because Wear Valley has serious levels of deprivations. However, we are also moving to a unitary next April which may make it difficult to arrange a workshop. However, I am interested in anything that might reduce the digital divide that occurs in deprived rural areas. If you find more details on these pilots please let me know.



  15. Lawrence, will keep you updated.

    I think that there are a number of ways that a ‘digital mentor’ might be able to bridge the digital divide: whether by setting up some laptops with 3g cards in a village or community hall, and showing residents how to access services or take part in online consultation; to setting up flickr groups and community blogs to forge the sense of belonging in a geographical area.

  16. Hi Dave,

    Interesting stuff. I’ve been “digitally mentoring” people for some time and although it’s very difficult, it can work brilliantly.

    I’d be very happy to put together some words on my experiences if it’d be useful.

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