Channel shift?

Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox has launched Go-ON UK, the new campaign to increase our digital literacy. It picks up the baton from Race Online 2012, which has helped reduce the number of people in the UK who have never used the internet.

This is very good news. Afterall, with advances in technology moving at such a pace, those without the skills, confidence or opportunities to use the net face being left way behind. Digital exclusion will matter more and more if the Government succeeds in its plan to deliver public services online by default.

At Shelter our enthusiasm for digital has led us to develop our own web services. Our Get Advice channel contains over 700 pages of content and received over 2.1 million visits last year – a 92% increase on the previous year. The most popular pages included information on homelessness, eviction and debt.

As the profile of people in housing need changes, digital channels have an important role to play in helping people get the advice they need to keep their home. Some have assumed that developing digital offers would enable advice providers to shift clients from face to face and telephone services to the web, taking the pressure off these services and helping more people.

Our experience suggests something more complex is occurring: we certainly seem to be reaching more people with our digital offer, but we are no longer so sure the channel shift is happening in quite the way we anticipated.

Our most recent analysis suggests that our Get Advice pages not only help some of those who may be particularly vulnerable to housing problems, but also significant numbers of those who are more affluent. We may be simply tapping into previously unmet need rather than shifting people from one channel to another. It may even be the case that developing digital services increases the demand for face to face advice as people use the web to discover that they have a civil legal problem that requires specialist advice.

Research reveals that client groups and problems associated with disadvantage tend towards face to face services. In fact, there is evidence that so far, making digital contact with an advice provider is only really a meaningful option for those with incomes of £50K or more.

We are constantly developing our online services and are committed to making them as comprehensive as possible. However, face to face services must continue to be there for the substantial minority of vulnerable people who are the wrong side of the digital divide.