Don’t underestimate digital service provision
The success of a recent project featuring webcams and online booking suggests clients are more willing and able to access and use online advice services than you might think.
People often say digital services are not suitable for their clients, and that they really need face-to-face advice, without asking the clients themselves what they think. Advice Brighton and Hove piloted a webcam and online booking system to provide advice on housing and welfare benefits issues. The project featured strong user involvement in the design of the service, through focus groups, and has overcome some initial scepticism to become a valued part of local advice services.1A full report and a toolkit are available: www.advicebrighton-hove.org.uk/social-policy/webcam-advice-and-online-booking-pilot-evaluation/
The initial pilot was funded by the Advice Services Transition Fund. As there is no question of financial or scope eligibility, people can book directly online, with no screening. Initial appointments are by webcam, with follow-up by webcam and email. The service is due to continue, albeit at a significantly reduced level, as part of the Brighton and Hove CAB-led Moneyworks financial inclusion programme funded by the city council and the Department for Work and Pensions. In addition, a small amount of further funding has been secured to explore the potential for involving law students in delivery of the service.
Government policy is to deliver services digitally by default. The third sector needs to respond to this challenge and help people access services in this way. Although everyone involved in the Brighton and Hove project agreed that face-to-face services would always be needed and preferred by some, there was ample evidence that many people who might be assumed to be digitally excluded in fact are not (this is not exclusive to Brighton and Hove – see box below). However, there is also a clear need to support those who currently are excluded so that they can access digital services.
The online booking system was popular with users and there were very few missed appointments. Advisers felt that conversation via webcam is very similar to a face-to-face meeting in that it allows both adviser and service user to pick up clues from body language. Sometimes, it also allows the adviser to see the service user in their home environment, which could be relevant to their problem.
User profiles show the service is particularly appropriate for:
•people who have existing access to Skype or can access it through a support organisation with which they are working;
•people who are not within easy reach of face-to-face services;
•people in low-paid employment who find it difficult to take time off to get advice;
•people with mental health issues or learning disabilities;
•people who need support when accessing advice;
•people with mobility issues or who are home-based for other reasons; and
•people with dependent children.
Online in Tower Hamlets
Data on users reported by charity Toynbee Hall (located in Tower Hamlets, which is the third-poorest borough nationally and has the highest rate of child poverty in London) in 2015 found that 78 per cent had access to the internet and almost 89 per cent of those said they did at least one of the following online: shopping; looking up information; banking; comparing products or services; using government or official services; and/or signing up for services and making payments online.
Advising via webcam sometimes allows the adviser to see the service user in their home environment, which could be relevant to their problem.
Skype also has the advantage that it can be used very discreetly, eg by people experiencing domestic abuse, with no need to leave their home.
Skype was preferred to telephone by some users. A carer in a focus group discussion said: ‘There is this whole backwards and forwards thing over the phone, of speaking on behalf of the person we care for but proving who we are … For us webcam would be the ideal situation as you could all sit down together without leaving the house.’
For people who were already using Skype and had the IT required, accessing advice by webcam was cheaper than going into a town centre advice agency by public transport or car. A bus ticket in the Brighton area can cost almost £5, a considerable expense for anyone on means-tested benefits.
Simply saying ‘digital services are not appropriate’ to any group is actually likely to increase digital isolation. By contrast, delivering services such as this project, which incorporates methods of providing appropriate support, can increase people’s confidence in using digitally delivered services more generally. The web developer who helped Advice Brighton and Hove to set up the project said most voluntarysector organisations could use the same model on their own websites, with a bit of support. ■