Using websites to deliver personalised services

Is personalisation poised to enter the digital age? Mark Hunter reports on three pioneering websites for adult care services, which are also reviewed by service user Simon Heng


At first sight, social care seems to have embraced the online marketplace with open arms. Social services’ IT departments bristle with web-based resource allocation, case management and budget management systems. Technology has revolutionised the procurement and commissioning process and tendering is routinely conducted through e-auctions.

However, the frontline of care remains stubbornly old-school. Service users who can happily order their groceries, books and music online find that spending their personal budgets requires numerous phone calls and form-filling.

“There are a lot of different online models aimed at service users now,” says Andrew Tyson, policy lead at the personalisation charity In Control. “But local authorities are being a little tentative in using them. I think that many have found that personalisation itself has been a big step forward. So perhaps the online market is just a step too far at the moment.”

Nevertheless, there are some forward-looking authorities that, if not ready to take the plunge, are at least dipping their toes in the water.

Harrow Council in north London has its own online catalogue on the ­shop4support site and eight local authorities in London have completed a pilot project with online market pioneers Slivers of Time.

Initial results suggest there is an untapped market for a range of services that could be ordered online – from assistance with meals to putting up flat-pack furniture. The project also highlighted some barriers to the online market, such as the issue of safeguarding and vetting, the role of volunteers and of accessibility.

Sue Bott, director of the National Council for Independent Living, emphasises that, although the online market offers advantages for service users, it will not suit everybody.

“I think that these sites do provide the opportunity to act more independently and offer more choice,” Bott says.

“But they are not really accessible to everyone so, although I would like to see local authorities offering more services like this, they certainly shouldn’t be used in isolation.”

Shop4support is a social enterprise set up jointly in 2004 by personalisation charity In Control and the e-procurement company Valueworks.

The site is essentially an online shopping mall offering service users, their families and carers equipment and services ranging from nursing care to legal and financial advice.

Equipment covers the range of adapted products to aid everyday living. There is also a community section where members can share experiences and rate the services and equipment they have bought. There is a rolling social care news banner and a function to help individual budget holders manage their finances.

We wanted to get closer to the concept of shopping,” says In Control’s consumer support director, Caroline Tomlinson. “If you were going to hire a plumber you might ask your friends or family for a recommendation. But if you are looking for a care assistant then you might not know anyone else in that situation. The internet allows us to break down that isolation.”

Tomlinson claims that sites such as shop4support can also help providers and local authorities streamline invoicing systems that have been put under pressure by the demands of personalisation.

“The technology can take over that backroom function and provide a platform for both buyers and sellers. That should relieve local authorities from a burden of administration,” Tomlinson says.

TRIED AND TESTED: Simon Heng writes

Shop4support compares itself to eBay and Tesco, and in layout and ease of use comes close to achieving this, to the point where you can buy segments of care as you would books on Amazon.

Shop4support is a model for accessibility. For example, the service user can easily adjust the font sizes and screen colours. It also includes an accessibility statement. I recommend that anyone providing web access for people with disabilities read this.

For the vulnerable adults who may come to rely on this service, the two most important will be the availability, quality and reliability of the people and services advertised, and whether they and their supporters have the skills and confidence to use the site.

Shop4support seems to have these criteria in mind, but success will be measured by constant use over a period of time.

Dotcomunity is the brainchild of Steve Piper, managing director of The Care Division, which provides support staff to people with disabilities.

he site is a not-for-profit directory of community services and care information. It allows users to locate what is available in their area and to review and rate their experiences with the listed organisations. It is free to both users and to the organisations.

Initially serving just the South West region, Dotcomunity launched nationally last month (February).

The directory includes support services, employment, legal matters, finance, sports and social activities. A members’ area allows events and services to be reviewed and scored using a star-rating system.

Piper hopes the rating system will ensure good services prosper while encouraging poorer services to improve their standards.

“The good ones will appear at the top of the list while the bad ones will either shape up or fall off the bottom,” he says.

The idea for the site came about when The Care Division’s staff began to find it difficult to access or even find out about services and activities for their clients.

“One of the outcomes of Valuing People and the campus re-provision programme has been the closure of the day centres,” says Piper. “This means that the people who provide services and those who know about them have been scattered to the four winds.

“In preparation for the site we spent a year data-harvesting and have identified 25,000 service providers for people with learning and physical disabilities. We’ve now divided these up into 135 categories and put them all in one place on the site.”

TRIED AND TESTED: Simon Heng writes

Dotcomunity offers the same accessibility features as shop4support, including anchoring (each image displays a descriptor as the cursor moves over it), and widget icons for each word, to help people with learning disabilities.

The community news sections consist mainly of links to care-related news on BBC and community care websites.

Much of the site is still empty. The finishing touches were put to the portal at the end of January, but it hasn’t attracted enough providers and contributors to make this a useful, national resource yet.

Wingham Rowan is a pioneer of the online labour market. Five years ago he took a £500,000 government grant to develop the Slivers-of-Time concept, under which people with time to spare offer their services to employers on an ad hoc basis.

Slivers-of-Time markets are up and running throughout the country, serving local authorities, the health service and private companies.

Rowan now plans to extend the concept to personalised social care, and Slivers-of-Time is developing a person-to-person marketplace that would allow service users instant online access to pre-vetted care and personal assistants.

“We need a more user-friendly market place that offers products, packages of care and more ad hoc local services that do not have to be planned weeks in advance,” says Rowan.

Vetted care workers would sign up to the service indicating what hours they are available to work and where. A service user requiring an assistant for, say, that afternoon would log on and be presented with a list of workers, prioritised by price and personal preference. One click brings the user and worker together.

“Let’s not kid ourselves that this is going to be easy,” says Rowan. “There is the whole safeguarding and vetting issue to deal with and the role of volunteers so it’s a different model from other Slivers-of-Time markets. But we are used to working with fluid labour markets, so the technology is in place to do this.

“What we need now is a lead from central government and enough local authorities to be willing to go for it.”

TRIED AND TESTED: Simon Heng writes

Slivers-of-Time offers a consultancy service for local authorities to use in setting up local schemes. It does not offer a marketplace online itself.

The encouraging aspect of this website is that service users’ needs and vulnerabilities have been considered, and have clearly taken a pre-eminent part in the planning of a local market.

Take this statement, from its person-2-person section, for example: “Service users want a relationship with the person who provides support, not the organisation that employs them. Enabling those direct relationships is demanding. But it can expand local workforces and reshape local markets for support.”

This article is published in the 4 March issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Technology trials

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