Digital mentor update

Just a quick post for those who are interested in the digital mentor role which was mooted in the Communities in Control white paper. There has been a terrific response in the comments on my post on the subject, from people in the third sector, local government, education and a few interested individuals too. Thanks to all for those.

The questions that are being asked go right to the core of the issues:

  • Who are the digital mentors supposed to be? Volunteers? Local government officers? Paid individuals? Charity groups?
  • What are they meant to do? Is it just around upskilling people in digital media – or is there a role to connecting people to local services and democratic engagement online too?
  • How are they meant to achieve this – through online training, workshops, or printed stuff? How will it be paid for?
  • When are the digital mentors to start working?
  • Where will the pilots be?

I have started making a few enquiries to find out who knows what about the development of the role, and to see if there is some way we can all have an input into the process. If anybody has any ideas, do leave them in the comments here.

20 thoughts on “Digital mentor update”

  1. Thanks for the blogging about Digital Mentors. I’m at CLG tasked with consulting informally with stakeholders to help me shape the document to go out to tender so that pilots can start April 09. I’d be really keen to recieve your wish list / views on what you think a mentor should look like based on your experiences and how one builds sustainability into these models. I’ll be watching out for your comments here but you can also contact me at Be warned, the timetable for this initial consultation round is tight – mid-Oct (there may be more opportunities through the formal procurement process).

  2. Hi Dave – this seems to link quite well to one of the sessions we had at UKYouthOnline about excluded young people – in that session one of the conclusions we came to was that the ‘exclusion’ wasn’t so much about a lack of access to the web or technology but that it was a lack of knowledge & motivation. I haven’t read the white paper but I thought this worth mentioning in so far as it would be wrong to assume that young people aren’t in need of mentoring either.

    As for how I think ‘mentoring’ should be approached I would look to develop a similar model to how we developed our own training programme which is to inspire interest & engagement by supporting young people to plan projects/activities that use technology as a tool – built into this is a role for young people to become peer educators delivering that training and in time these would become the ‘mentors’. We also use a model where the most senior trainers do get paid, but those in training volunteer – I think this is worth considering too – that there perhaps need to be roles for both.

    I wouldn’t start with online training – I’d go for face to face stuff and look to develop a model that encourages a ‘ripple’ effect – working with small numbers to motivate them to use technology in such a way that they can pass on their skills & motivation to others.

    I imagine the when & where will be determined by funding!

  3. Very similar views to Mike from me. We have a few NEET projects that we’re working with in the next few months and it will be all about the approach and engagement which, I guess, will be the case with the mentoring role. A more ‘information, advice and guidance’ thing rather than tutoring. I’m very conscious that any ‘official’ outcome of something that is already evolving out of existing internet communities, will not realise and address the issues. A different approach may be the way for this to work and this is what we are looking at with our project. A more informal, shared approach that doesn’t get bogged down in do’s and don’ts, should and shouldn’ts etc. The Internet is constantly evolving and the way we interact with should look to do that too.

  4. I agree with Mike – don’t start with online. What’s needed are people who can help others engage, plan, develop projects using a mix of methods that includes technology tools. That suggests that digital mentors (pity about the name) are people with those mature skills who are prepared to add social and collaborative technologies to the mix. I would also make a case for social reporting – that is, helping people find their voice, develop stories and conversations for collaboration. More on that here
    Georgia – the best way to do the consultation would be to get a few of us together face-to-face:-)

  5. I’m wondering whether this ‘digital mentor’ role has an overlap with the work I’m doing with George Por ( in developing skilled community facilitators. The work we’re doing is being driven by online communities of practice, but the core skills are around leadership and an understanding of how to encourage conversations – both on and off-line. If you get a chance, check out the Art of Hosting website – where I picked up this snippet:

    “We invite you to explore the practice of hosting conversations that matter with us, to enhance your own practices of inviting, designing, opening and holding inspired and meaningful spaces in new places in your work, communities and life”.

    The important point is that the people are the stars – the technology is the supporting cast.

  6. I’m looking at this from a third sector point of view – managing a project to increase the use of technology by umbrella organisations in this sector. (bit of a long reply as well!)

    Agree with the replies so far – technology should be the transparent layer that enables all to tell, swap and share community stories … but (as is often forgotten), despite it being transparent to the community its still needs to be put in place and understood, so technology needs also needs to come first … and second! (if you get my point).

    I can see two distinct areas where the role of a community mentor (for use of technology) could play a really vital part. There may be crossover between these, or they may even be the same person – happy to thrash out the detail.

    Firstly… for those working as “trusted local advisors”

    What I’d like to see is how those supporting local community organisations can be used to mentor the support providers to make better use of the technology they already have and understand the potential for using new social media tools and to reach out more effectively. These organisations play an important part in improving the services and quality of life for the groups they work with, but increased use of social media can make this even better.

    We’ve found that these organisations respond better when mentored and advised by someone local and who is a trusted peer.

    The network of 350+ “local infrastructure” (CVS and voluntary action) organisations we work with respond to the needs of over 160,000 community organisations who are increasingly not just delivering “traditional voluntary sector services”, but are being asked by local authorities to play an increasing part in delivery of public services too.

    Where they are able to step-up to do this they need mentoring to be able to do it effectively and meet LAA targets / NI6 and NI7 etc. they have to be more rigorous in their recording of outcomes etc. They need to firstly make best use of their existing technology, but move on to also understand where to innovate and use new technology / social media to help them to be better.

    Often groups are willing when they see off-line practical examples and hear stories of how other organisations have done more, I have managed an “off-line exchange scheme” and a way to continue to share this knowledge would be welcomed.

    All these I see as being assignments that a Digital Mentor / Local Improvement Advisor role could deliver for the local authority and the community organisation too.

    Second… local champions from within the community

    These are people (for example the e-champions in the Sunderland DC10 project that really impressed me) selected from within the local community and ideally placed as helpers / trainers or mentors to get people started (firstly off-line) but then hand-held through the first steps to using digital technology and to act as a bridge to their local authority.
    Starting with people in the places where they already are the e-champions help their own communities understand the technology they have and how it can help them grow.

    The work I manage has placed a champion for technology in the third sector at a regional level in all nine regions, they have “mapped and gapped” (awful term I know!) each a region to see where there are geographical gaps in technology AND gaps in training / social media skills etc etc. I’m hearing of:
    – lack of confidence in organisations to get the basics of PC use right
    – not enough impartial mentors to show the power of social media
    – not enough supporters giving hands-on technical skills
    – lack of training and support in increased ICT skills

    I’ve heard them called e-champions, Digital Mentors, Local Improvement Advisors for Digital Inclusion – whatever they are I know from experience that to make a difference at local level and get communities back in control. Looking at the white paper I am encouraged with the references in it to the importance of technology in society. It will play a critical part and the people who genuinely want to explore how it can help them do this, need support at local and district level. But at regional and national level we need to be looking for common themes, barriers to inclusion that technology breaks down and create banks of evidence, real stories and case studies using all the social media tools available to show in simple terms how it can be done so others can see, listen and then do it themselves.

    Happy to explore this further with those on the blog, or in a face to face meeting. I have already discussed some of this with the CLG Digital Inclusion team, but Georgia let me know where any of this fits with the plans in the pipeline at CLG.

  7. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far – there is some really great stuff being gathered here, which will really benefit Georgia and her colleagues.

    From my perspective, a digital mentor, as set out in the empowerment white paper, needs to be able to:

    1) identify the needs of the deprived area in which s/he is operating early on, and have some idea of how new media tools can help tell the stories which can help improve things for people

    2) ability to drag existing groups together to work collaboratively, and to identify and motivate previously uninvolved individuals to become part of the project

    3) access to tools and methods to work with the community to develop ideas on how new media can help them tell their stories – such as the social media game

    4) ability to explain and demonstrate in a clear and simple manner

    5) not to be overly tied to any one tool or solution. Focus should always be on free or very cheap existing solutions and not the development of new tools when existing ones can do the job

    6) Coaching in the use of technology that people are most likely to have access to, such as mobile phone video, photo and audio recording, rather than on using more costly, hi-tech solutions

    7) Focus on linking the activity of different communities around the UK to share stories and experiences – again through freely available tools rather than bespoke systems.

    Building sustainability into the model is, I think, the really tricky bit. I think one important issue is that any materials, toolkits and tools developed should be made available as openly as possible afterwards, whether under a free or creative commons licence so that other communities can pick them up and remix them to use for their own purposes. Perhaps sponsorship from local businesses might be possible to help fund local activity after the initial burst of government funded action.

  8. Helo all

    +1 for David Wilcox’s point about social reporters as a possible core theme. How about giving people a voice as the whole point of the process, rather than expecting specific outcomes about community cohesion/economic inclusion/whatever. Maybe the best thing Government can deliver is someone to listen to them?

    + 1 also for all of Dave Briggs’ summary points – to which I’d add that you won’t get far without working through existing networks, which is almost always about gaining trust from key individuals.

    So +1 for David Wilcox’s point about always starting with face-to-face, for any community project.

    Another mantra I learned from David is “Go with the stones that roll”. With a limited budget I wouldn’t produce lots of case studies to persuade reluctant people to do what I think is best for them – I’d get out and get behind the people who want to do something now, and help them become the ambassadors for change. The press releases about their successes will be the case studies.

    Sustainability may come from organisations in local communities continuing to self-organise [like they do already], but working with excluded communities isn’t exactly ideal for raising advertising or business sponsorship [especially in an economic meltdown].

    I helped set up an IT drop-in centre with the Big Issue in Brighton in the late 90s – email and web access for people without a letterbox who weren’t allowed in the library. It opened with UK Online funding and ran for four very successful years.

    UK Online then lost political favour and entered its wilderness years. Funding stopped and the project hobbled on for two years trying vainly to access mainstream skills-based funding [ever tried funding something like this through an LSC?]. It closed about five years ago, and the Big Issue office is now gone.

    The most sustainable solution? Whatever your hopes for exit strategies or social enterprise, in some cases it’s more grant funding. Ideally it comes from an engaged and benevolent funder, giving focus and direction to people on the ground, concentrating on what works and helping people achieve it, and networking with other funders and people of influence to celebrate and endorse local solutions. From the little I know there may be something to be learned here from DC10plus?

    And finally, whatever the budget, don’t forget to budget for the needs of the people who you’re working with.

    Not having the credit rating to get a home telephone, broadband or a mobile phone is as big a barrier to engagement as any other I can think of. It’s not just about fees for digital mentors – it’s about being able to pay bus fares/childcare costs/room hire/broadband dongles/etc for the hardest to reach people, who will otherwise remain excluded, no matter how many Tweets you send them.

    Hope this is helpful


  9. All the comments so far are really useful. Hopefully without repeating too much, I’m inclined to agree that one of the best ways of supporting digital mentors would be to get them together in some freely accessible ways – there are a lot of people working on overlapping projects but because our energy is so locally focussed it is difficult to engage in the wider national conversations (although a good community is growing). You’re welcome to come to Burslem (

    I also agree that some of the main aspects are simple. In our town, the local library has just been shut, hopefully temporarily. This cuts out the only free accessible computers with internet access in a very wide area, including many of the most deprived wards in the country. It is easy for people working in offices to forget that if you don’t have broadband at home and you don’t have a car, you can easily find yourself more than half an hour away from the nearest internet connection, which rather destroys your chances of spending any time on digital activism. Government consultations to PDFs that are 60 pages long with discussion forums that take 15 minutes to register for aren’t very easy to deal with either, since you’re asking 🙂

    In terms of long-term sustainability, we can assume, I think, that groups of stronger volunteer networks will be able to coordinate funding activities if required and will be better connected to grant opportunities. And not to forget how much of our basic tools are free – I would much prefer to see public investment focussed on infrastructure and time for developing mentoring skills and for participating rather than building expensive websites and tools. We now see developers being paid through big commercial (or non-profit) projects that have the knock-on benefit of providing free spaces for much bigger communities and hopefully this will continue to be the case.

    The government role in all this is very interesting and their investment and interest is very welcome. But what I’m sure many of them have thought about is that the first consequence of raising digital activism will be a huge amount of hassle as people find their voices and start to share information. Perhaps this hits the local councils first. It’s quite important that any digital mentoring scheme pilotted by the government can maintain a hands-off approach with not too much monitoring of participants, rather with outcomes being tracked.

  10. Thanks all for the extra contributions. Some thoughts to play back :
    1) Theres talk of online communities but then ironically (and not unwelcome) is the suggestion to meet up face to face to discuss. Is there something in this that I need to take away from this online forum to the digital mentors approach? There’s still something about creating a physical meeting place in many of the initiatives I’ve looked into…
    2) Community issues lead, not the technology but what about those members of the community who havent engaged with technologies at all. How do we get them involved without swamping them with technology. Is it too aspirational to get them to use social media? Or are these the people we most want to give a voice to?
    3)Issues around staff / employees needing to be equipped with these skills.
    4) Peer to peer
    5) There’s a focus on hyper-local but whatever happened to communities of interest? How do you mentor geographically dispersed communities? Or dont you?
    6) Existing initiatives – Paul Webster’s “mapping and gapping regions” and the social reporters sound interesting. More details and more link-ups please..

  11. Hi Georgia

    1) I think there is a definite issue in terms of trust, which can be very effectively developed online, but which happens an awful lot quicker when people meet face-to-face. I think that anyone who really understands online communities will advocate the blending of off and online mediums wherever possible.

    2) I think your last point has it. Done right, nobody will get swamped. Lots of people take photos on their phones. Well, if you share those with people on the web, that’s social media. But is it really that hard? Part of the joy of social media etc is the fact that it makes publishing so very easy, and people can do it using the most appropriate medium for them. Even if they prefer writing by hand to anything else – find them a friend with a scanner and you’re away!

    3) Skills are most certainly lacking amongst staff and employees pretty much everywhere outside of tech startups! But it doesn’t need to be hard, or overly technical. This stuff is potentially so easy, just need people to have the right direction, not to let them get overawed.

    4) Some kind of p2p network is vital at two levels – connecting digital mentors in different areas to one another, and also connecting the recently digitally mentored, again regardless of geographical location. The thing is that there is no textbook on this stuff, it’s impossible to pin everything down at one moment and document the processes perfectly. Therefore the best way to learn and to develop is to keep sharing.

    5) There a need as I mentioned above for communities of practice or interest to exist both for the digital mentors and those they help. Using online methods obviously suits disparate communities as it enables everyone to be in one place without leaving their homes. Maybe it would be necessary to break areas down into cells, have groups of people meeting in village halls, all tuned into the same virtual learning environment hosted by the digital mentor.

    6) Tapping into existing groups and communities must be a prerequisite of ant action in this area. There is no point having government funded schemes trampling over perfectly good volunteer projects that are already happening. The aim should be to fill in gaps and link projects together.

  12. Hi Georgia – my responses to some of your points…..

    1) Theres talk of online communities but then ironically (and not unwelcome) is the suggestion to meet up face to face to discuss. Is there something in this that I need to take away from this online forum to the digital mentors approach? There’s still something about creating a physical meeting place in many of the initiatives I’ve looked into…

    I think theres a need to ensure that neither of these exclude the other ie. face to face discussions should seek to provide an online option for those that can’t physically attend and where online discussions have happened they need to be downloaded for the benefit of those that aren’t yet comfortable with online discussions.

    2) Isn’t that the point?! The caution about not swamping with technology is very relevant but if the approach I suggested is adapted the idea would be to engage people through issues they already have and to support them to take advantage of relevant technology towards addressing those issues. For example community groups wishing to campaign on a particular issue could be supported to take advantage of social media and collaboration tools – the focus as they see it would be making their campaign successful, the focus from the trainers perspective would be helping them understand the technology available to them and working on the basis that as people become familiar with experimenting they will seek to experiment further without needing support.

    (and no social media isn’t too aspirational once you strip away the geek speak)

    3) Very definitely but again isn’t that the point?

    5) Really good point this and perhaps provides a case for not only having local delivery but maybe running short events where communities of interest can come together for some intensive ‘training’

  13. I am interested in the perennial debate about offline, real-world, face-face meetings in order to generate greater utilisation of online technologies for whatever purpose (in this case community empowerment or bridging the digital divide or whatever).

    It is traditional to argue for a hybrid mix of offline events followed by online activities working with people with shared interests, problems, issues or location. Wherever that is practicable, I think that it is preferable.

    However this does create problems for some of those marginalised people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods who do not have the motivation, confidence or desire to attend meetings local or otherwise. This is a significant section of our target group.

    Secondly, historically and currently, anonymity is a major strength of online participation, particularly for those who are not comfortable in groups of any kind. This automatically opens up engagement & participation opportunities for some very ‘hard to reach’ individuals.

    Thirdly a significant number of our excluded individuals are house-bound or have limited mobility for different reasons. This includes some older people, some disabled people, carers, lone parents of young children (during the evening), those traumatised by life experiences etc.

    It is also my experience of many years attending meetings that many people are often unable to attend when the meeting comes around due to busy professional & personal lives. Given the access to empowering technologies that we have today, we should not exclude those who cannot or will not travel to meetings.

    I am not arguing for exclusively online engagement strategies, just taking a contrarian view to the majority of previous posts to try & highlight some of the issues from another perspective.

    As an excluded person once said to me:

    “It’s not me that is ‘hard to reach’ it’s those people with the money & power that are”

  14. I think those comments are really useful Bruce. As always with trying to reach the ‘hard to reach’ its not a good idea to try and reach out to those furthest away immediately – it makes more sense to start with those a bit closer and aim to give them the skills & motivation to pass those on to others further down the line.

    I’m not sure I agree with the strength of anonymity in this context – undoubtedly that has benefits for individuals in some circumstances but I’m not sure its useful from the perspective of aiming to build supportive communities.

  15. Mike – I think that you make a good point about anonymity in the context of building supportive communities around a local agenda – but as you know there are lots of communities of interest where campaigning, peer support, shared interests are all exhibited, but many (up to 90%) of the participants (you might argue these terms are contradictory:-) ) are lurkers, not vocal.

    Are those that just vote and don’t participate in discussion part of the target audience?

    As for the cascade model of engaging with the hard to reach, I have mixed feelings about its capability to succeed at the pace required (it may be a necessary part of the solution, but it is probably not sufficient for a widespread success).

    I think that it is about working with as many existing trusted intermediaries (local, national and shared interest organisations) as possible plus identifying causes, content and contexts that stimulate responses from people that ultimately encourage them to take steps up the Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action (AIDA) ladder.

  16. Hi Bruce – My thinking was on the basis of simply getting people comfortable with using technology – ie. I wouldn’t be concerned with things like democratic involvement (that would be at best a secondary aim) – my thinking being that the role of a digital mentor is to motivate/support/encourage/promote understanding of digital technology. It would be somebody elses responsibility to take advantage of those new digital skills people have for whatever purpose – I think its a mistake to get into something like this thinking ‘right we can help them use the internet, then they’ll all set up blogs & become interested in debating local issues & politics, then they’ll be putting up films on youtubes in reply to Downing Street etc. etc.’ – best instead to focus on helping people gain the skills through things of interest & importance to them. If then Government/whoever wants to take advantage of the new skills people have thats an additional project. If you don’t do this you risk people feeling there is a hidden agenda.

    I think you have a point about the need for speed in so far as its important that people don’t get left too far behind at a time when development is rapid. Having said that a lot of that rapid development is actually in making the web more accessible so arguably online participation will actually become easier in time.

    I agree completely with the idea of reaching through trusted intermediaries – that was what I meant by using those to then reach out to those further away.

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