‘Blending’ online and offline provision in community wellbeing services: what does it mean and why does it matter?

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, public and third sector organisations supporting community wellbeing have relied on a mixture of remote and face-to-face methods for delivering services and engaging with the people they support. These have been delivered in different combinations at different times, in response to a rapidly shifting landscape of restrictions on physical contact and changing individual and community priorities. In this context (and in some cases, pre-dating the pandemic), many services or organisations supporting community wellbeing have developed sophisticated approaches in which online and offline provision are deliberately ‘blended’ to achieve specific goals relating to the nature of services or access to them.

To varying degrees, much service provision is ‘blended’ now, as we move beyond the emergency response phase of the pandemic. Like society more broadly, public and third sector organisations supporting community wellbeing are faced with determining what role digital provision could and should continue to play in their work, and how it should interact with face-to-face provision. This question has far-reaching implications for social justice, equalities and inclusion – because, as the emerging evidence suggests, the ways that online and offline provision are ‘blended’ can determine how services work and for whom. It is therefore critical to better understand the different ways in which online and offline provision have been ‘blended’ in community wellbeing services, and the associated opportunities, benefits, and risks.

Debate about the role of ‘digital’ in service provision can sometimes focus on the strengths and weaknesses of digital ‘versus’ face-to-face provision in a binary way. Emerging research and practice suggests that things are not so simple. Digital is not the antithesis of the physical world but part and parcel of it. The two interact, and the way they interact has important implications. Increasingly, discussion is shifting towards how digital or online and physical or offline provision might be combined in ways that are mutually beneficial. While digital can increase disconnection and exclusion, it can also reduce them through its carefully designed combination with physical interaction. For example, in WCPP’s research on the use of technology to tackle loneliness during the pandemic, community organisations emphasised the importance of blended delivery, where digital interactions are designed to enhance or enable face-to-face connections in physical space, or where face-to-face interactions work to make online communication more accessible.

Moving beyond binary debates around digital and face-to-face service provision, towards exploring how and to what ends they work together opens exciting opportunities. The concept of blended service provision begins to unpick these. Yet, despite increasing use of the term, less is known about what blended service provision might look like in practice, what different approaches to ‘blending’ face-to-face and online delivery are being taken in different contexts, and whether and how these might lead to better processes and outcomes. At WCPP, we aim to contribute to addressing this gap by exploring the diverse evidence from practice that has developed during the pandemic around blended provision in community-based services. Our conversations with policy and practice experts with a range of different specialisms and perspectives have highlighted both the breadth of this evidence, and the need to capture and analyse it in order to better understand ‘what works’ in blended service provision, for whom, for what, and in what . Above all, these conversations have highlighted that doing so is critical for improving equality and inclusion in public service delivery.