Of the thousands of people working in the UK’s technology industry, only a handful are genuinely dedicated to using their skills to make a positive impact on the world around them. Francis Bacon, Assistant Director of Digital Services and Change at Samaritans, is one of them – but admits he struggled initially to find a way to achieve it.
“Before university I did a placement at IBM in a software testing role,” Francis recalls. “I had a huge interest in computing, and it was a great experience, but I felt lost in such a big company. I couldn’t see how what I did connected to the whole mission, how it mattered.”
After a physics degree at Oxford – and while his peers were jumping into juicy tech and finance roles – Francis enrolled on a Masters in Development Studies at the University of London, hoping it might give him some direction. “I went from studying electronics and writing equations into writing long essays on politics and international development,” he says. “It was a steep learning curve, but it reinforced to me that I needed to find a way to make a difference in my career.”
And he has, fortunate to join the job market at a time when the third sector was seeking people like him to help them grapple with a digital transformation that is at once necessary and difficult. Following stints at Prince’s Charities and The Royal Society, Francis joined Samaritans in 2016 – a charity which Nominet supports. He has been working hard to bring it into the digital era ever since, a task that is about much more than bringing in new technology.
“Digital transformation is a challenge for organisations like the Samaritans because it requires technical expertise that the third sector doesn’t traditionally have” says Francis. “But it’s also about taking a lot of care to understand the problems, develop new ways of working and get people ready for change. Our services are used by people at the most difficult times in their lives, so any changes we make must be based on research about their needs. We also have over 20,000 volunteers and it’s vital that they feel part of the changes too – we’ve co-designed digital solutions with our volunteers and have really taken the time to get things right alongside them.”
He is currently building towards the official launch of a Samaritans webchat service in February, a digital capability almost three years in the making and one that Francis hopes will make a “serious impact at scale”. By way of example, he recalls the unadvertised pilot sessions his team ran during the summer to help prepare volunteers to use the service:
“We went live with webchat, completely unannounced, and within a few minutes people were coming through on the service. Then within half an hour we had a queue of people wanting to contact us,” he says. “It was quite an emotional moment for us all. After months focused on the technology behind it, to suddenly realise how many people were needing this and finding this service without it even having been publicised was incredible.”
He expects the webchat service may in the longer-term become the main point of contact for people reaching out to the Samaritans, citing Childline’s online chat service that now accounts for 70% of the contact they receive. “Digital services are a real gamechanger, but that also means we will have to continually change to keep pace with the world changing around us.” This is a challenge, he admits:
“Charities have not been well set up to embrace digital product development. You need staff with specific expertise. Money is involved of course, but traditionally this has been project-based funding that doesn’t suit digital service development, which is ongoing. For the Samaritans, having a partner like Nominet to support us over a longer period of time is amazing.”
Looking across the sector, Francis suggests it is “early days for digital transformation”, with the larger national charities understandably getting to grips with it faster than the smaller ones. “One of the main challenges is not having patterns to learn from, as they tend to have in government and the private sector. We will have to forge our own path.”
That said, Francis is exhilarated by the progress Samaritans has made over the past few years. “The change programme has really energised the organisation about updating itself – and I’ve recognised how change is and can be sustainable by doing it in stages, small changes at a time, and engaging everyone in the process,” he says. “I’m fundamentally optimistic – if you are in the right environment with the right tools, you can solve anything.”
He is equally positive about the impact of technology on our lives, having himself been captivated by the potential of computing as a school boy. “I found it incredible to be able to sit in front of a computer and get this machine to do amazing things,” he says. “I love the Steve Jobs quote that a computer is like a bicycle for our minds.”
And he is pedalling his way to digital greatness at Samaritans. “We have so many exciting plans,” he says, “starting with increasing the Web Chat from three evenings a week to 24/7. Fundamentally, I want to look towards getting better at reaching people at higher risk – digital channels really bring us new opportunities for this. It’s fantastic to be able to use technological innovations to support the people who really need our help.”