Digital innovation is all around us. And we’re all at different stages of evolution. But how about in a major union?
by Nick Scott
For good reasons, unions have been slow to see the opportunities brought by the digital age. After all, who needs 38 degrees style digital democracy when you have millions participating in a mass democratic structure? Why worry about digital conversations when people are engaging members directly face-to-face? Why worry about communicating to members through email when you’re sending millions of magazines out every month? The cost/benefit ratio was clear: what we have ain’t necessarily broke, why fix it?
That is now changing. If unions were late to the game, I think the next few years will see them catch up, as they realise that their traditional ways of attracting, engaging, organising and representing workers are being challenged by changes wrought by digital. They will want to learn from colleagues in the private sector, public sector and NGOs who are attempting digital transformation, hopefully to adopt the best practices and learn from the failures.
UNISON’s digital work programme
At UNISON we are just about to embark on our own initial foray in this area: a two-year programme which aims to transform the reach and quality of our digital engagement with members nationally and down to the level of thousands of individual branches. We want to deliver major improvements in:
- The digital experience members have at key points in their membership, for example when they join, when they’re trying to ask or tell us something, or when they’re thinking about leaving. As an example, 60% of our members join online yet we have no digital welcome journey to help these people understand how UNISON works and how they access UNISON services.
- Our ability to get members more active and engaged by targeted digital interactions. Active members are essential for our future strength, and better digital processes can support on-the-ground activity by, for example, identifying potential activists based on their online activity and prompting them to join our activist courses.
- The ability of staff and activists who are keen to ‘do digital’ well in their work. If we can make high-quality digital tools available to all, develop and communicate best practice guidelines and foster a culture of learning and improvement we’ll develop an army of digital champions across UNISON to take the programme forward.
Our six principles
How will we get change to happen in a massively decentralised organisation with lots of internal politics? Well, after two years of grappling with that question I’ve put together six principles which (when I remember to follow them all) seem to help in getting tangible and achievable progress.
1. We will amplify our many voices, not just the few
UNISON won’t ever have one single digital voice. We will support all parts of UNISON to find and project their voice in the most powerful and coordinated way possible. We will carefully choose the voice we use on each occasion we need engage with members or the wider public to ensure the greatest impact. Finally, each and every one of our members and supporters has a voice that we can help to raise and ensure it is heard.
2. We will be led by member demand, not what we currently supply
When deciding what initiatives or strategies to prioritise we should take our lead from those who make our movement strong: our members, staff, activists and supporters. We will understand and work back from the digital lives they already have – and their desires for the future. This won’t mean a slow pace of change: individuals will be quicker than big organisations at adapting to the digital age. But it will mean building in flexibility and choice to cater for people who will range from digital natives to the digitally excluded.
3. We will work in a spirit of collaboration, not control
Digital empowers individuals to get things done. Trying to stop them innovating is a fool’s errand. But if everyone in UNISON did their own thing in an unconnected way it would waste time and money, confuse members and dilute our messages. We will bring digital pioneers together to share their experience, knowledge, plans and strategic insights. We will also be transparent: sharing our successes and failures to help others learn and avoid the same mistakes and benefit from the experience of others.
4. We will reuse innovations where we can, not reinvent them
Unions have many functions – among them political organising, campaigning, member engagement. The combination of these functions makes unions unique. However, a wide range of organisations carry out each of these functions individually. We will learn from the way they’ve used digital tools and tactics to support them. We will save time and money by adopting for our use tools and systems already widely used by others, not creating bespoke tools for our unique circumstances.
5. We will be ready respond to opportunity, not be over-ruled by plans
Plans are good things. They help you know what you set out to do, how you’re going to do it and give you a marker to measure success against. But once they are agreed and decided they can be hard to change. By contrast, opportunities to do something new, different and innovative come along all the time. By ensuring we are always ready and willing to take these opportunities – even if it means putting long-term term work on hold for a while – we will deliver change faster and help colleagues and members see immediate change.
6. We will deliver change in short and measured bursts, not long slogs
It should be easy to assess success and failure on digital initiatives. Many initiatives can be piloted. Most can see something tangible, and usable delivered within just a few months. Every project can include ways to measure how things are going. That doesn’t mean big vision and change isn’t possible. Let’s not be in doubt: UNISON needs a revolution in its digital offering. But if we break it down into manageable steps and deal with each priority at a time, we can deliver a revolution and make it feel like evolution.
Looking into the future
Will these principles help us to move UNISON forward? They’ve worked well in a few things we’ve done recently, including our engagement around the Labour leadership election, our development of a new website network and our £10,000 member contact details update prize draw.
For the future it will have to be a case of ‘watch this space’ – I’m very hopeful that we can make massive strides, with the right people on board.
On that note, we have just kicked off a recruitment round for three key posts to join the team – we’d love to see you apply…
- Digital Engagement Programmes Officer, London (£44k)
- Digital Data Analyst, London (£44k)
- Digital Projects Officer, London (£44k)
Nick Scott is Digital Manager at UNISON