Developing a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales
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Advice and technology - a perspective on the roundtable

Making better use of technology in the advice sector is one of the Commission’s major interests. A few weeks ago, Patrick Nash wrote a guest blog on the subject, as a a prelude to our roundtable on advice and IT, which took place on 26 March at NCVO. The session brought together representatives of the advice sector with those from organisations who use technology to progress social change and was attended by almost thirty delegates. More background to the event can be found here.

You can read a full report of the meeting here, but below is my perspective on the important issues that emerged. If you have time to look at the report, let us know your views on the issues discussed.

First, I was expecting much of the discussion to focus on the merits (or otherwise) and practicalities of ‘channel shifting’ users from face-to-face advice to telephone or online advice or information. While we did discuss this, we were also encouraged to think a bit differently about service design and delivery. What are the needs of users of the advice sector? How can we do things differently to reflect this need rather than just try to digitise or shift current services? Are there things that can only be done in traditional ways and are there things that only technology can make happen? It felt like quite a big challenge, but it was encouraging to be reminded that technology brings lots of potential to improve how services are administered and delivered in both small and big ways. In the brave new world of less money and more demand, thinking differently about how best to meet some of the needs of users is going to be essential.

Second, I was stuck by the potential of data. There are already some great examples of online processes gathering personal data from users and using it to direct them to personalised information. As technology develops and more people use these services, there is potential for the processes to be refined and expanded - perhaps they can be used to deliver even more accurate personalised information or to help agencies triage, filter or refer users more efficiently. It has been suggested that online information systems cannot even begin to capture the complexity of social welfare law. My feeling is that this is where the expertise of sector comes into play – if the technology proves up to the job, then those in the sector can channel some of their skills and knowledge into developing accurate, up-to-date and reliable systems.

Furthermore, by collecting data about users and their problems, the sector can have at its fingertips much more evidence about the needs of users, which will help feed into the big challenge of how to redesign services so that they meet these needs. This type of information might also be used to challenge public bodies about their services and to help them to identify and put right any problems in their processes. In this sense, data has the potential to help advice organisations maximise their ‘added value’, helping not just individual users but helping to improve systems that have caused the problems in the first place.

Third, it was clear that the challenges facing the advice sector as it tries to make increased and improved use of technology are the same as the challenges facing the sector in the rest of its day to day business. A lack of resources – both in terms of money, time, energy and technological expertise - was identified as the real and understandable obstacle to progress and development. There seemed to be agreement that increased collaboration (between different advice agencies, between advice agencies and local authorities, between advice agencies and organisations with technical expertise) supported by leadership and guidance from networks or funders would be the only way to create the conditions for advice agencies to make increased use of technology.

How does this translate to the Commission’s work? I think it means that we must ensure we always focus on the needs of the user and then think about how the advice sector is structured and funded to meet those needs. We must also encourage innovation and calculated risk-taking with technology; one way of doing this could be through supporting pilots; and, sharing learning when pilots are successful.

Sara Ogilvie
4 April 2013