Age UK is the country’s largest charity for older people. It’s engaged in a digital transformation programme that’s looking to improve the way it works with the one in five of us who are over 65. Leading that programme is chief digital and technology officer Lara Burns. She talks to Julian Blake.
Charities everywhere face challenges when they want to improve what they do through digital. Almost all face limited resources, finding it hard to justify spending donations on anything other than frontline services, using legacy systems that are out of date and inefficient. That affects the way they work and the quality of the services they provide.
Age UK, one of the UK’s biggest and best-known charities, is no exception to this. It’s been around in one form or another since 1940, and it has one of the most complex structures of all, with a federal organisation taking in over 150 independent local charities, three national bodies and over 400 high street shops. Its staff work across fundraising, campaigning and direct services, backed by thousands of volunteers working to support people in later life with care, advice and more.
Last year Age UK turned over more than £168m, putting it at number 22 on the income list. In the Cinderella charity world, it is relatively well resourced. But the vast range of services it offers means its donations are put to good use, reaching every postcode in the land.
When it comes to improving through technology, however, Age UK’s history, culture and structure mean that it faces more obstacles to change than most. Add to that the fact that nearly three million people over 75 have never used the internet and it’s easier to see the specific challenges it faces.
For nearly four years, the person at the centre of Age UK’s digital transformation work has been Lara Burns. A career digital professional, Burns joined AUK as head of digital, moving up to become chief digital and technology officer in April this year.
Burns has helped to deliver some notable wins for the charity during her time at the digital helm, most recently for AUK’s Call in Time befriending service, which picked up awards this summer from both BIMA and Third Sector. She has also worked closely with CAST, the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology, on a new tool that’s also helped to bring AUK digital and services teams closer.
Born in London and brought up in Cambridge, Lara Burns came into digital via humanities rather than science, after studying modern history at Edinburgh University. “I got into digital a bit by chance”, she admits.
“It was back in the days where you did a subject you thought was interesting and enjoyed rather than worrying about what it was going to lead to. But I guess I was learning about enquiry quite early on.”
Four academic years gave Burns itchy feet and the desire to do less theory and more practice. “By the end of my degree I was very ready to go out and earn some money,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in doing things which lead to something tangible.”
Returning to Cambridge in the early 90s, Burns soon found herself working on some of the earliest digital publishing projects. “I worked for what were called new media projects,” she says. “I ended up working for an electronic publishing company. They were an amazingly innovative business, digitising the entire works of English poetry.”
“It must have been thousands of books,” she recalls. “It was really radical. And we were selling it on CD-ROM for tens of thousands of pounds to national universities and institutions around the world. It was opening up stuff to a mass audience for the first time, using digital. It was really exciting to be in something new that I didn’t even know had existed.”
Burns spent the following years honing her digital project skills, working for online publishers and agencies, both in house and freelance. Then, in 2009, she made her first move into the charity sector, with an online project manager role at the Royal Horticultural Society. She stayed there five years. Why the move to charity?
“I got to the stage I guess where I felt I was basically just selling more stuff for other people, but it was also selling stuff that wasn’t that interesting,” she recalls.
“I decided I’d rather use the expertise I’d built up to do some good, where I could see what I do might have an impact where it made a difference to people’s lives. Going into charities enabled me to do that.”
So when in 2014 the chance came for Burns to move to Age UK, it wasn’t too much of a leap from the RHS. She was appointed head of digital, given a big-job remit to lead digital transformation at the charity across both external service delivery and internal organisation. And she was given a decent resource to help her deliver.
“I had a team of nearly 30, so compared to a lot of charities we invested quite a lot in people here,” she says. “It makes a difference when you have people at your disposal. We’ve been lucky because we’re one of the big charities.”
But, as much as resources help, organisational change is always about way more than the money. Burns says Age UK’s leadership knew the organisation needed to change and could see the benefits of improved efficiency and better service that could come through digital innovation. With new players starting to appear, no charity could afford to stand still.
“When I first joined, I think digital was still seen very much as the team that ran the website and the social media stuff, and that was it,” she says. “We were very much seen as the marcomms side of digital. It was about getting words up on the website. The shift I’ve seen is getting senior management and trustees to understand that it’s a long-term challenge.
Securing senior buy-in to a change programme was key for Burns. But was the organisation’s charitable remit a challenge? After all even the largest charities are stretched, often having to push resources towards the front line. That can leave them behind the curve on digital change.
“Sometimes charities and the way they do things enables people to be better at digital than big corporates because we can’t overthink things,” she counters. “We can’t just throw a lot of money at stuff, so we have to be quite fleet of foot and agile. In many ways we’re not agile, but we have been able to do quite a lot that’s interesting quite quickly precisely because we do things at low cost.”
So what are the big challenges faced by the organisation and its older client base? Burns paints a complex picture, with a wide range of client needs and services on offer.
“A lot of local Age UK services deliver a personalised integrated care programme, where we work with older people with multiple health conditions. They might have hearing problems, diabetes, a bad hip, and more,” she explains.
“Typically they have a complicated network of health and social care needs, so Age UK integrated care programmes see our team workers help knit that network around the older person. Ours is very much a holistic point of view, looking at the older person’s needs first.”
“The more an older person is looked after in a holistic way, the less they tend to go into hospital. That saves the NHS more money because older people with multiple conditions are the biggest cost for the NHS. We work closely with GPs and the CCGs within a local area, because for them being able to see cost go down is really important.”
So what are the challenges that this presents to Burns and her team in terms of technology?
“It’s massive because we don’t have direct control over the individual technology or digital structures of each of those local charities,” she says. “So the ability to share data and systems that can be used by lots of localities is just not there. Finding a way we can integrate systems and data is one of the big things on our road map moving forwards.”
“Our vision is that an older person or their friends and family should only have to tell their story to us once in order for us to help them. So whatever channel they come to us through, or whichever locality they come to, we’d have a way to capture data about what they’re telling us, then pass it through to the right platform.”
The federal structure of the organisation, with those 150 local charities, and three separate national organisations, also presents mega challenges for Age UK systems. Not least of these is at the front line, where local advice centres can often struggle with limited staff and outmoded ways of working.
“If we were a big corporate we’d probably be able to create one big system and make everyone go on it, but we can’t do that,” says Burns. “We also don’t have the governance to force local Age UKs to do things in a certain way.”
But she also sees an opportunity in this arrangement. “There’s a big shift in a lot of Age UKs locally, partly because of the financial challenge. They are starting to see that they want to focus their effort and money on the frontline stuff. Quite a lot are coming to think it might be more useful for them to operate in a more common way with data and technology.”
But she also concedes that “some of them don’t think like that. We tend to talk about working with a cohort of the willing. We’re trying new ways of things with different groups that are more open to change. But a lot of it is about persuasion and facilitation rather than just having a plan and going ‘right, let’s do this’.”
Helping older people to help themselves online is, Burns says, “a big aspiration -enabling them to serve themselves, particularly with easier type of enquiries through the web. That’s a massive way we know we can reach many more people.”
That help extends beyond older people themselves, to friends and to relatives looking for answers and support. Much of that is in online information on benefits and other entitlements.
“We get a lot of friends and family coming to us for advice on how they pay for care,” says Burns. “We have a tool on the website called the benefits calculator, which lets people put in their information then calculate entitlement. That’s probably the biggest visited area on our website. It’s where people come to get help, and it’s very tangible.
“We help people claim benefits they didn’t know they were entitled to. We unlock millions of pounds every year, which is effectively unspent government money. Typically we unlock about £1500 per person. That may not sound much, but £10 or £20 a week makes a big difference to people’s health and mental wellbeing.”
A huge challenge remains the sheer numbers of older people who are not online. At the moment, says Burns, Age UK talks to around 7 million people each year, but there are 12 million over-65s – and that’s before you count the millions of friends and family supporting those older people.
“We’re only touching maybe half or even less of the overall demographic that we can help even on a very simple level. We know that that’s a massive shift, and that’s where the potential for digital lies. By helping people with the simpler stuff online it effectively frees up frontline resources or intense resources for those who are much more in need of personal help.”
The “biggest challenge of all”, she says, remains the fact that there are so many older people who are not online at all – something like 4.5 million out of the older population of 12 million. When Burns is looking for resource to take more services online, she has to keep these stark facts in context.
“I have to remember that, when I’m talking about exciting digital stuff and want investment from our board, I am only ever going to be answering 50% of our overall demographic. If you’ve got a certain pot of money do you use it for the people who are online already or the others who aren’t even online?”
To help that massive never-online community, Age UK is focussing much of its work on streamlining its frontline services through digital so that even those going into local centres receive a more effective and efficient service. It’s also about making the centre more efficient.
Looking at the Age UK digital transformation agenda, what does it actually mean in practice to the people working for the organisation?
“Digital transformation means so much to different people – people understand investment in bits of technology or software,” says Burns. “What they don’t get is how you change the organisation. That’s not something that the digital team can lead on its own. That’s a much bigger thing and it’s about everyone doing stuff differently.”
Burns says people previously suspicious or just unclear about transformation are starting to see the benefits, because they can now see the ways it is helping the Age UK client group. “Focusing on the user is where the penny drops,” says Burns. “We are all here for older people and everyone here has bought into that. That’s what motivates people to come to work here.”
A project led by Burns with the team from CAST last year took a clear focus on the user, looking to improve the interaction with people receiving Age UK services. Following visits to older people at home, CAST helped the team to develop a new tablet-based tool to enable workers to have guided conversations with older people, which would at the same time ensure they could identify the help they needed.
“When we go into people’s homes we often don’t really know the issues,” says Burns. “So we have a very wide, holistic conversation with them to find out where we might be able to help. We worked with service colleagues to build a digital tool to help with that conversation and help capture outcomes.
“Trying to get services colleagues to buy into the ideas was very difficult because they thought it was much more complicated than we suggested. CAST’s involvement enabled us to bang our heads together and get on with it. They helped us to come up with a solution.”
Previously, she says, workers would have had to capture outcomes on notes or on a piece of paper, then go back to the office to type it up. “The tool has enabled us to start capturing things in a consistent way. And it’s an immediate efficiency because people aren’t spending an hour typing up notes.”
“The CAST project was brilliant because it enabled us to figure out what this thing could look like, It helped us to build something fast, show it to people, test it and get them on board.”
The project has also formed part of a successful £4m bid with the Ministry of Defence offering support to veterans.
Burns believes that the positive outcome from the CAST project offers strong evidence to Age UK of the value of digital, and a user-first approach that tries and tests and tries again.
“It enables us to keep that kind of typical agile iteration model, because we just keep doing the test and learn based on what user feedback is telling us,” she says. “It has enabled us to move something forward and scale it. “
Burns is clearly a respected figure, both within and outside of Age UK. She is variously described by people who have worked with her as “conscientious, methodical and results-oriented”, “an exceptional stakeholder manager”, ”pragmatic and realistic” and “terrific to work with”.
She’s come a long way since digitising all that poetry back in the 1990s. After all of her experience in and out of charity, does she now describe herself as a technologist?
“Not really,” she says. “I still think of myself as a project manager. I see technology as a means to an end. It’s not technology itself that particularly excites me. It’s what you can do with it that counts.”
Lara Burns – CV
Head of digital, then (since April 2017) chief digital and technology officer, Age UK
Online projects manager, then (from 2012) head of online, Royal Horticultural Society
Self-employed digital consultant and project manager
Vice president of technology then (from 2001), programme director, Agency.com
Electronic development manager, Cassell
Senior project manager, Chadwyck-Healey
MA (first class), history, University of Edinburgh.