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Review of content and usability of social care services online shows impact of Care Act

A review of content and usability of social care pages published by the UK’s local authorities shows the impact of the Care Act on the way these are being presented.

The surveys, carried out as part of the long running Better Connected programme run by local authority professional association Socitm, covered two key areas: finding local care services, and the assessment by councils of care needs for elderly people. The survey topics and question sets were developed in collaboration with the older people’s charity Independent Age.

The first survey covered English councils only, aiming to explore the impact of the Care Act on councils’ provision of information and advice about local services. Under the Act, which came into effect in 2015, councils in England gained new responsibilities to ensure that all people in their area have access to suitable information and advice about care options. Although they are not obliged to provide all this themselves, social care departments have made significant investments over the last three years in their online provision.

The second survey covered councils across England, Wales and Scotland, and was focused on the process of assessing people’s needs and eligibility for care services. Increasing demand from an ageing population, and diminishing resources to meet it, mean that more councils are turning to the web to deliver information about access to services and financial support, as cost-effectively as possible. Under the Care Act, councils in England are also expected to be managing demand and expectation around social care, pointing people who do not qualify or are not interested in council support, to other sources of help.

Both surveys show around 50% of councils tested provide a good or very good service online. 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.

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.

One area of concern raised by the survey is the poor findability of council social care services from Google searches – the place where the vast majority of Internet users begin when they go online.

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%.

High instances of ‘not found in Google’ tend to arise where councils are using third party sites to present information about council services, and these sites are not well integrated with the council’s corporate (gov.uk) website.

Social care departments have invested significantly in third party websites in the last 2-3 years, and it appears that in too many cases too little attention has been paid to the important issue of search engine optimisation. Searches often returned web pages of varying relevance or linked to pdfs, which are effectively dead-ends.

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. 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.

While the ‘find local services’ survey performed better in Google, use of third party sites to present social care information and services often created a poor user experience by:

·       duplicating content on two sites

·       failing to ‘deep link’ between something discussed on the council site (eg residential care) and relevant pages listing of care homes on the third party site

·       jarring differences in the presentation and style of content between the main council site 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

·       poor content categorisation on third party sites dependent on pre-determined, off-the-shelf modules and titles

·       over-engineering of some third party sites resulting in long and/or circular user journeys

Commenting on the survey findings, Better Connected Programme Director Vicky Sargent said:

‘There can be little doubt that the Care Act is responsible for a much more transparent presentation of what is (and is not) on offer from English Councils. 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. 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.’

Andrew Kaye, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Independent Age said:

‘It is concerning that half of council websites do not have easy-to-access information on care assessments or local care services. 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. 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."

Headline results of the social care surveys for the 206 councils tested, including English county councils, metropolitan district, London boroughs and English, Scottish and Welsh unitaries, are now available and free to view. Individual council results can be found from the council index page at https://www.betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ reports - also free to view - can be found by following links from https://www.betterconnected.socitm.net/services

Findings from the social care surveys will be presented as part of Better Connected Live and the Connected Local Workshop on social caretaking place as part of Connected Local Government Live 2017 onJune 28 & 29 in Birmingham.

Notes for editors

Anyone can access ‘all-council’ reports and individual council headline results from Better connected surveys at https://www.betterconnected.socitm.net/. Full details of individual council reviews are available to Socitm Insight subscribers only (around 75% of all councils).

Any employee of a Socitm Insight subscribing council (see list at  https://www.inform.socitm.net/) can register for free with Socitm.net at https://www.socitm.net/user/register and then get access to the detailed results for their council.