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Socitm social care findings raise concerns over online access and visibility

Neil Merrett Published 17 May 2017

Two new studies conducted as part of Better Connected programme have found that around 50% of surveyed council were providing services rated as 'good' or 'very good'

 

New survey findings looking at the provision of online social care services by councils has raised concerns over the visibility of these functions through popular search engines such as Google and the ease of accessibility.

The findings form part of public sector IT managers group Socitm’s Better Connected survey, devised to research and measure online performance for UK local authorities.

Two separate surveys conducted as part of this research have looked at the impact of the Care Act on how English councils provide information on their case services, and how UK local authorities undertake assessment of the needs of the elderly.

Both studies concluded that about 50% of the 206 councils surveyed were found to provide ‘good or ‘very good’ services online in both areas.

“This indicates improvement when compared with past surveys on social care tasks by Better Connected – for example ‘Find out about breaks for carers’ in 2014-15 and ‘Find out about care homes for elderly relative’ in 2013-14 – when only a third of councils did as well,” said Socitm on the two surveys.

“This is encouraging, although within the survey sample reviewers found sites offering a very poor experience to their users, sites that could learn much from the best performing, including those from Barnsley, Coventry City and Wokingham.”

Search engine focus

In detailing findings from the research, Socitm expressed some concern over the ease with which council social care services could be found through the Google search engine, which is used by a vast number of individuals.

“Better Connected starts all service-based surveys with the Google test. Using the search phrase ‘XYZ council social care assessment for elderly person’ an unusually high proportion of sites – more than 10% - were not found for this task, when for most Better Connected surveys the percentage is between 0% and 3%,” said the group.

The findings were said to show a large number of these searches were not found in Google, especially where authorities provide third party sites to detail information on care services.  In addition, failure to better integrate these third party sites with councils’ ‘gov.uk’ website domains was also seen as a critical challenge preventing the location of services.

Despite noting a significant investment in third party websites over the last three years by social care departments in council, Socitm argued that too little attention was being paid to the need for search engine optimisation to meet the core requirements of the Care Act.

“Where Google did land reviewers on introductory pages about assessment, these were rarely clear enough in providing the gateway they should do to council support and services. Reviewers were looking for each step of the journey from initial contact with the council to the final result – whether it be receiving care/funding or becoming a self-funder – to be provided as an overview and then mapped out as a logical sequence of web pages,” said Socitm.

“They were also expecting services to be easily found via the council’s own search function or A-Z, or by navigating from within the website.”

In considering the overall user experience of third party sites used to provide information on a council’s care services, concerns were raised over a number of factors including the duplication of content on different domains and poor categorisation.

Socitm was also critical of “jarring differences” in the presentation and style of council and third party sites.

“The worst of these over-use imagery and adopt ‘friendly’ writing styles that patronise users and hamper the process of finding information,” said the organisation in its findings.

Vicky Sargent, Better Connected programme director, said the Care Act has ensured improved transparency around council social care provision online.

“Many state from the outset that most people will have to contribute to care costs and are explicit about thresholds. Scottish councils, which have not been subject to the Care Act, tend to bury these issues and also be more obscure about the whole process of assessment for both needs and financial resources,” she said.

“Scottish councils are much more likely to ask people to phone the council than complete a self-assessment and submit it online, which is a growing feature of English councils’ sites.”

The surveys were developed in collaboration with the charity Independent Age.

Andrew Kaye, policy and campaigns head with the charity, expressed concern over the findings with regard to only 50% of councils having easy to access information on care.

“Decisions about what care services to access can be difficult for older people and their families, particularly when they have to be made quickly or in difficult circumstances, for example following a stay in hospital. It is therefore imperative that relevant, trusted information from local authorities is straightforward to find,” said Kaye.

“Many older people and their families go into the process of finding the right care with no prior knowledge of what is available or which information to trust. All councils need to ensure local residents can find the right information on care when they need it, but these findings suggest for too many people the process remains unnecessarily complicated."

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