Research: public information and older people


Title: Opportunity Age Information Indicators Feasibility Study

Authors: Wendy Sykes, Alan Hedges, Carole Groom, Nick Coleman

Institutions: The authors either work for Independent Social Research or are independent research consultants


This report presents evidence from a study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to assess the feasibility of developing a set of “information indicators” – survey questions that could be used to monitor older people’s experience of information about public services. The study concluded that the problems in developing such indicators were considerable, and DWP has accordingly decided not to pursue this objective.


The background to the research is the government’s cross-departmental strategy, Opportunity Age, which sets a framework for policies aimed at improving the health, well-being and quality of life of people over 50. No satisfactory measure of how well people over 50 access and use information is available, and the study examines the feasibility of developing such an indicator.


The most significant finding concerns the difficulty of establishing a robust indicator to capture older people’s awareness of, access to, and satisfaction with, information about services. The main reasons for the DWP’s decision not to proceed with the development of such an indicator included:

● Difficulties with conceptualising the issue such that it could be translated into a relatively small number of survey questions.

● Problems with identifying information that would be relevant to all people over 50.

● Recognition that older people do not often seek information directly from primary sources or instigate direct contact with public services agencies with a view to gaining information.

However, although the findings proved problematic for the DWP in respect of developing information indicators, they are of considerable interest to the world of social care in what they reveal about the ways in which adults use information. Councils and other agencies often develop quite sophisticated banks of information predicated on the assumption that service users will then systematically collect information to meet their needs. The report knocks this model on the head.

First, the researchers establish the surprisingly limited role played by “information” in decision-making by adults and older people in need of support. Faced with problems, most people’s normal instinct is to try to deal with them by drawing on knowledge they already have, or on intuitive perceptions of the way they think things work. Rather than say “I have a problem, what should I find out?” they say “I have a problem what shall I do”. Moreover, if they do decide they need to find out more, they will tend to use informal sources – the “grapevine” – rather than consult formal sources, which tend to be seen as a last, rather than a first, resort.

Raw information is seldom perceived as sufficient to give people a clear idea of their options for several reasons:

● The systems people need to know about are often very complex.

● Many people seemed doubtful that they would be able to interpret whatever facts they discovered.

● Factual information is often general, with unclear implications for individuals in particular situations.

● Facts may tell you how things are supposed to work, but things often don’t seem to happen as they should – in which case people need support or advocacy.

The research reports a perception among people aged over 50 that there is a great deal of information “out there”, but this does not necessarily make them feel better served – indeed a glut of information can be seen as much of a problem as a dearth. The key challenge for people remains being able to lay hands quickly and easily on what they need, when they need it, and then be able to make practical use of it.

Individuals were found to be turning to formal organisations for help only when really important issues were reaching a point of great difficulty. When they did so, the authors found:

● Local councils were most frequently mentioned, but infrequently contacted few people saw them as broad repositories of information about community services, or as potential signposters to other providers.

● The Citizen’s Advice Bureau was the most frequently mentioned advice agency – few respondents mentioned organisations specifically targeted at older people or people with disabilities.

● Libraries are sometimes used as sources of leaflets but in general people are not “tuned in” to acquiring leaflets.

● Call-centres and press-button menu systems are viewed as remote and impenetrable.


These findings are significant because the effective use of information underpins so many aspects of government social policy. One of the problems with incorporating market-type models into social policies is that one of its key assumptions – “perfect knowledge” – must have some validity.

Both producers and consumers need to have a sophisticated understanding of the market if it is to work effectively, and the use of robust information is central to this assumption, particularly in the following three cases:

● Choice, prospective users need to know what is available and what would be best suited to their needs.

● Prevention, people with “low level” needs are typically “signposted” outside of statutory support with varying amounts of information about other sources of help.

● Personalisation, users are expected to be aware of ways in which their needs might best be met from a variety of sources.

This research shows we need to think more carefully about the ways in which we equip people with the information, tools and support they need to make new models of care work effectively. The findings corroborate another recent study by the Picker Institute that focused upon accessing information about health and social care services, and which concluded that:

● Professionals do not systematically or proactively provide information about accessing local services.

● It is rare for an individual or an organisation to take responsibility for providing relevant information about the services available, and there is a lack of co-ordination across boundaries.

● There is a lack of effective signposting: no shortage of information, but with the individual user left to find it out for themselves.

This report recommended that each local area should have a central, easily identified information contact point that this point should be responsible for gathering and disseminating information on all health, social care and voluntary sector services within the local area and that a new cadre of local “information brokers” should be created who can provide leadership and coordination across boundaries.

Bob Hudson is visiting professor of partnership studies at the School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Durham.

Information needs

Although the DWP research is critical of the assumptions frequently made by agencies in their information strategies, it does identify some of the ingredients of a more robust approach. Specifically, people are more likely to look for information if they:

● Believe it will be available and accessible.

● Are confident about getting and using it.

● Think they will find it without undue effort or frustration.

● Feel positive about the source and have trust in it.

● Believe they will understand it.

● Expect it to be personally relevant to them.

● Assume it will help them, tell them something new or take them forward.

But even in the unlikely event of all of these conditions being met, it is clear from this report that people prefer to find things out through personal (and ideally face-to-face) contact with someone who:

● Knows about the system concerned.

● Can explain it in a friendly and simple way.

● Is amenable to questions and open to direct personal interactions.

● Can interpret the information – tell them what it means for them.


● Sykes, W, Hedges, A, Groom, C and Coleman, N (2008), Opportunity Age Information Indicators Feasibility Study. Department for Work and Pensions. Working Paper No. 47

● HM Government (2005), Opportunity Age: Meeting the challenges of ageing in the 21st century.

● Swain, D. et al (2007), Accessing Information about Health and Social Care Services. Picker Institute Europe.

Published in the 12 June issue under the headline Public Information and Older People

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