Drive to online presents a new challenge for Citizens Advice

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CAB

The plan to reduce the welfare budget by £18 billion will have significant implications for the Citizens Advice service and the thousands of individuals who seek its help each year. In addition, it is the UK government’s mission to get up to 80% of welfare benefits applications submitted online.

This leaves Citizens Advice with the difficult issue of sticking to the provision of advice or going further and actively helping those struggling with electronic applications to get online.

IT training?

The question is framed by several competing pressures; demand for existing CAB services exceeds supply, its core competency is the delivery of advice rather than IT training or support and there are practical issues such as security and confidentiality.

These challenges come into sharp focus though, when so many of those who are offline, because they don’t have access to a laptop or PC or iPad, or they lack IT skills, seek its help as a well known and well trusted advice provider. 

Digital gulf

Many CAB clients are digitally excluded and are facing worsening social and economic exclusion as a result. From accessing information and training, to applying for jobs and networking, the starting point is increasingly online.  The digital gap is rapidly becoming a digital gulf and this growing inequality is compounded by the need to go online in order to apply for a job or a loan or even basic benefits.

The CABs don’t have to go and find these people and attempt to direct them to  libraries or schools or community centres, they visit their doors voluntarily. So shouldn’t they try and help them to participate in the digital world and reap the wider benefits of being online, rather than offer tactical advice on how to survive it.

Support

The City of Edinburgh Council has taken a lead in not penalising its citizens where the issue is a lack of IT skills or access or affordability and is actively looking at ways to support more people to get online.  As part of this initiative, Citizens Advice Edinburgh and the Council are developing services to support those who want to get online.

The Council and the local CAB are planning a joint initiative to provide for both detailed benefits advice and access to practical help to complete online benefits applications.  This project, planned for early 2014, will link the provision of competent benefits advice to basic IT training at a dedicated IT suite based in the CAB’s Edinburgh head office. 

Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Scotland welcomes this attempt to deliver practical services which help close the digital gap and tackle the growing inequality head-on.

Stuart Gibson is a member of Ofcom's Advisory Committee for Scotland and Trustee & Treasurer at Citizens Advice Edinburgh