When done well, online self-service for social care can deliver a diverse range of positive benefits, including improved outcomes for service users and carers, better management of demand, better quality interactions with council services and potential cost efficiencies in meeting the capacity challenge.
Commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) and developed in partnership with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and Socitm, a series of easy-to-read briefings has been produced on different aspects of self-service; providing both guidance and evidence from case studies to support digital adoption.
They are designed for senior managers with responsibility for public engagement as well as social care informatics leads and web managers.
Via the full series briefings, local authorities will be better equipped to embed digital as part of wider service transformation programmes, leading to more efficient and joined-up care, health and public service processes as well as greater levels of satisfaction from citizens, service users and professionals.
Self-service relies on trust between the customer and the provider. Confidence about the identity of the person at the other end of an electronic transaction is critical to developing trust in the system. Ever since the days of local e-government in the early 2000s, having a secure process for identity and authentication has been the holy grail for establishing long-term trust. As providers of social care information, advice and services, local authorities are planning for an upsurge in online demand, stimulated by the 2014 Care Act.
What steps should your local authority take for handling user identities for online social care?
Self-service only works if it really is easy to use. If online facilities are hard to use, or do not give the whole answer, then people will give up. Even worse, they will then try much more expensive offline channels such as the phone to find the information. They may also be disinclined to try online again.
Getting it right covers many different things, such as the careful choice of words, intuitive navigation, an information architecture that reflects user needs, a search engine that works really well, and, if you have one, an A to Z index that also works well. Alongside this is a commitment to ongoing user testing and analytics of use, all backed up by a management team that really understands why all these factors are critical. In short, writing for the web is a specialist skill and the organisation should be passionate about ensuring the best possible user experience.
Online social care suffers greatly from poor usability, with a few exceptions. How can this trend be turned around?
Increasing demands on adult social care from an ageing population combined with increasing cutbacks in public expenditure are putting local authorities with social care functions under tremendous pressure.
Service redesign made possible by investment in digital solutions promises an efficient and effective response which both meets the duties of the Care Act 2014 and helps address the issues from rising demand and expectations. Surely this strategic change in direction is both necessary and inevitable. Why might we need a business case to prove it?
Clearly such a change will require investment in new ICT products and services. Suppliers will be only too keen to promote their offerings in the one part of local public services which now has a pressing need to invest. However, there are many possible pitfalls for the unwary, e.g. in terms of the potential scale of the investment, the choice of product, the timing of implementation and the acceptability of new systems to those that will use them. A robust and well-argued business case should help steer councils away from those pitfalls and towards solutions that are appropriate to their local environment.
How should such a business case be constructed?
Our 'Business case for digital investment' briefing set out the overall approach to the business case for a council to offer online adult social care transactions to the public – in the context of increasing demand and reducing council resources. This briefing assesses different possible areas for online facilities with pros and cons for each.
A wide range of software applications is being developed commercially and by public sector bodies – from self-assessment of need, through e-marketplaces, to smartphone apps for informal carers to monitor and plan their loved ones’ care. Some of these replicate existing council processes in a self-service fashion in order to reduce demand on council staff time. Others focus more on enabling families and communities to self-care. Those responsible for public engagement by councils have difficult decisions to make as to where to focus their time and resources. This briefing will help you prioritise.
Yes, you know that digital public engagement is part of the solution, but what exactly brings greatest benefit in the short, medium and long term?
We have seen in the 'Methodology for developing the online user journey' briefing that it is not a straightforward task to get the user experience right. There are many pitfalls that can quickly lead to problems and a poor online experience.
As it requires much effort to get the user experience just right, it becomes very easy to neglect the need to promote self-service. However, you cannot assume that, just because the online facility is there and works, people will use it. Experience over the past ten years shows that it is important to invest time, resources and a little money to promote online information and services to potential audiences who are not yet used to going online for social care.
What approach for promoting online social care should you take for ensuring the greatest take-up?
In 'Planning online transactional facilities' we talked about how online needs assessment covers four different aspects:
From a software point of view, each aspect can be supported with very similar question and answer formats and so the software implementation is likely to be of comparable complexity. However, they have different impacts for the public and professionals. This briefing looks at each in more detail with examples from councils that are implementing various approaches.
Each option raises policy and process issues — and even legal ones.
Many of the established software suppliers will tell you that they have facilities for all of the scenarios that are easy to implement. In practice, councils have struggled to tailor them to their requirements and have not always achieved the take-up they hoped for.
What can we learn from councils that are implementing the different forms of online needs assessment?
In 'Planning online transactional facilities', we set out the pros and cons of financial self-assessment, noting that 'some good examples are emerging'.
Progress since then has been slower than hoped for because of four main reasons:
Nevertheless, many councils have moved forward, using a variety of approaches to make clearer to their residents when they will have to pay for care. Most websites surveyed for this briefing now have a clear description of the maximum capital threshold. Several offer some sort of interactive self-assessment ranging from use of Survey Monkey to one that populates the back-office data directly. We set these out as case studies in this briefing and start with an overview of the various issues to be considered when embarking on such a project.
What are these issues and where do councils see benefits to service users and efficiency from online financial self-assessment?