What are the most pressing digital issues for the different client groups seeking advice from Citizens Advice Bureaux across Scotland?
Which issues should be prioritised?
What are potential local solutions to these problems?
These were the aims of a recent Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) policy forum held in Perth. Attendees included a mixture of trustees, volunteers and staff from bureaux from Shetland to the Scottish borders, with representatives from urban areas such as Edinburgh also contributing their experiences.
Work done to better understand the barriers to digital that clients face was also presented by the CAS policy team (see below for links to reports), along with inputs from the Digital Team at SCVO which highlighted opportunities to focus on digital skills and how these might be best supported through the Essential Digital Skills Toolkit.
What can we learn from the local Citizens Advice Bureaux experiences?
Universal credit is a major driver for recognising the need to provide digital support but experiences are mixed:
- Lack of mobile signal in rural areas means some clients are being sanctioned for non-attendance at appointments they were not aware of, as the text advising of the appointment had not been received. Poor broadband and connectivity, as well as the cost of broadband and data more generally, also made it more difficult for claimants to access and update their online journal, as well as fulfil job search requirements.
- In urban areas, access to Wi-Fi & public computers is generally better than in rural areas (for instance Edinburgh City Council has invested heavily to provide computers and WiFi across the City). Here, the issues are around digital skills, confidence and motivation.
- The reason for very localised high levels of digital exclusion are not always clear. However, on first looking, it appears that these are related to levels of deprivation, age and cost, amongst others. The costs of devices and connectivity was repeatedly highlighted as a barrier for the clients who come to the bureaux looking for help.Whatever the reason, it is important to respond to this localised exclusion.
Providing digital skills support is complex:
- 1-2-1 digital skills support for clients would be preferential, but bureau capacity to do this is normally extremely limited, both physical resource-wise (computers, private space to assist claimants) and support-wise (staff and volunteer capacity).
- The tension between empowering clients with digital skills,balanced with the pressures of getting an application for a benefit accurately and quickly submitted, as well as assisting many other clients on the same day, is a daily experience.
- The digital skills and confidence of bureaux staff and volunteers can impact on their ability to confidently engage clients in improving their digital skills. The increasing expectations of volunteers are also a challenge, particularly as this can add on further roles and responsibilities to their already complex workload.
- Clients with disabilities and physical and mental health conditions often cannot sustainably engage with digital because their health conditions can act as additional barriers. Sometimes they are simply unable to engage at all.
- All client groups (including under 25s) lack skills to varying degrees and face similar barriers.
- Negative changes in life circumstances often lead clients to the bureaux, but the additional need to engage with digital at these times can be overwhelming.
- GDPR and secure access is a concern for some clients and for the bureaux.
Current good practice at local Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB)
A number of local bureaux have successful projects that provide digital skills support, including in North West Glasgow where the CAB is working through three local community centres. In Motherwell, a digital inclusion staff member (professional Digital Champion) is working directly with the local JCP to provide digital skills support to claimants looking for work. In Airdrie the CAB provides a 'Beyond the Screen' digital skills outreach service:
Potential solutions on a local and national level
Attendees spent time in working groups focusing on:
- The top digital issues for each client group (under 25s, over 55s, people with disabilities, people on a low income (in-work), and people on a low income (out-of-work).
- Considering where these issues were clustered and repeated across client groups.
- Identifying two overall priority issues and their possible solutions.
- Discussing what CAB and CAS can do at a local & national level to address these issues.
Listening to the discussions and feedback from the groups, I’ve summarised below the solutions the group focused on.
Digital service delivery: It was clear from the discussions that some bureaux would welcome:
- Further funding that would allow them to deliver fuller digital support (such as a ‘digital hub’)
- Improvement to essential public service websites (e.g. benefit applications and justice system applications), particularly to make them mobile friendly.
- Having digital champions and volunteers in each bureau.
Public WiFi, GDPR and privacy: providing secure public WiFi in all bureaux was seen as a potential solution, along with secure spaces for clients to complete applications (without concerns about being overlooked, as this involves sensitive data entry).
Tech for clients: for some bureaux, there was a need for more laptops or tablets to be available for client use, as well as other equipment, such as printers.
Universal support: the DWP has committed to funding the bureaux to carry out ‘Universal Support’ for new Universal Credit claimants. This involves providing tailored support for claimants to make and manage the initial five weeks (assessment period) of a Universal Credit claim. It provides an excellent opportunity for CAS and the local bureaux to expand their capacity for supporting UC claimants, at least in the initial stages of a Universal Credit claim. It is particularly significant for vulnerable claimants who have little or no digital skills or the means to access the internet. The implementation strategy is currently being developed at a national level.
Local partnership working: a good working knowledge of partner organisations and the digital support that they provide was recognised as vital. Bureaux could support the collection of this information.
Social policy priority: the bureaux welcome CAS continuing to highlight and raise with decision-makers the digital issues that their clients face. This was seen as essential, especially as the ‘digital by default’ policy continues to affect those who are most vulnerable, often driving a further level of social exclusion and marginalisation as a result.
Reflecting on the day, it is very clear how committed the local CAB and CAS are to finding solutions to digital exclusion. The driver comes from the numbers of clients requiring support, as well as a detailed analysis of how exclusion impacts on each client group. Although this review did not distinguish significant differences in the type of approach likely to be most effective in improving digital inclusion, the actual costs of getting online and lack of digital skills were factors highlighted for all groups.
The potential solutions discussed will be challenging. Universal Support is a positive step, but it doesn’t solve the problem that bureaux often have very limited capacity to assist claimants with the ongoing maintenance of their Universal Credit claims (Universal Support only covers the initial 5-week claim process). Building internal skills and capability is also a challenge, as is securing funding to increase the digital support that bureaux can offer (e.g. to buy computers, find bigger premises for a ‘digital hub’, etc.). Many partners will also recognise these challenges, both for the organisation(s) and most importantly for the vulnerable groups who are excluded whose lives are so directly affected. It was good to understand directly how important this is to the people involved with the local CABx & CAS and I look forward to following their continuing journey and responses.
Citizens Advice Scotland publications