What does ‘blended’ digital and face-to-face provision mean for access to services during the cost-of-living crisis?

The cost-of-living crisis is making access to community-based wellbeing services ever more important for an increasing number of people. These services – from advice, advocacy and support services to leisure and cultural organisations – are critical in supporting our immediate and long-term wellbeing. As highlighted during the pandemic, they save lives in times of crisis. Since the pandemic, many community-based services have established ‘blended’ ways of working, combining online and offline delivery with significant and diverse implications for access and equality; how services work and for who. The differential impacts of digitalisation are widely discussed: for some (e.g. those with limited physical mobility) service accessibility may increase, while for others (e.g. those with limited access to data) accessibility may decrease. While these are both key considerations, the picture is invariably more complicated. Rather than ‘digitalised’ or not, service provision tends to be ‘blended’ – a complex mix of online and offline, where questions of access become much broader than who can walk through the (physical or virtual) door.


What does the literature say?

Research tells us that access to a service, group, or activity, involves not just being able to walk through the door, but how it feels to walk through, and how it feels once we’re inside.  Attention to these qualitative, as well as quantitative, dimensions of access is crucial to understanding and removing barriers to accessing services faced by different individuals and groups in different contexts. Less researched is the way that the increasing ‘blending’ of online and offline provision is influencing this qualitative dimension of access: the experience of a service, whether we feel welcome or intimidated, empowered or powerless, heard or ignored. Having a better understanding of different approaches to ‘blending’ online and offline provision, who or what they work for, and how, creates new opportunities for improving access to essential services as the cost-of-living crisis unfolds.

Existing research on the influence of digitalisation in public and community service provision tends to focus on service efficiency rather than efficacy or experience, and on quantitative dimensions of access (who, and how many, can walk through the door). But emerging bodies of research are exploring how digital and online provision, and the ways in which they work with and through physical and offline provision are, whether deliberately or incidentally, influencing not just the efficiency but the experience of different services.

Careful combinations of digital and face-to-face support have proved powerful in helping people to engage with services in the physical world as well as the digital world, where previously either had felt inaccessible. In youth work, online engagement has been highlighted as an important stepping-stone to interaction and ‘empowerment’ in the offline world. In mental health services and interventions, ‘blending’ online and offline provision has opened opportunities for individualising care, or identifying interconnecting problems (e.g., mental health and debt) and joining up appropriate referral pathways or support. Research in education demonstrates diverse benefits of ‘blending’, like harnessing digital technology to increase opportunities for face-to-face interaction; enabling the individualisation of provision to suit specific needs or circumstances; or enhancing understanding or experience by augmenting the physical world with digital information, images or interaction.


What has our research found?

The WCPP’s own research on the use of technology to tackle loneliness during the pandemic found that the way that digital and physical worlds interact was fundamental to access and inclusion in both digital and physical spaces. For those ‘stuck’ offline, being able to engage with services in a way that, while still remaining offline, was not entirely detached from the online world (e.g., website content printed in a leaflet) was key to improving feelings of inclusion. It also broke down (non-financial) barriers to access by making the online world feel more welcoming and familiar. Similarly, for those stuck online (those not feeling welcome in the physical world), ensuring that digital service provision was not detached or ‘floating’, but provided connections to people and places that were familiar, or could become familiar in ‘real’ life, was essential – using digital engagement to support physical engagement.

While addressing practical dimensions of access remains important (devices, data, infrastructure, etc), access is also a question of the qualitative nature of service provision – in particular, the way that engaging with a service feels. Taking a broader view of access not only helps service providers to understand the diversity of barriers to accessing services (beyond being able to get through the door) but highlights new and different ways that access might be improved. For example, by developing combinations of online and offline provision that improve the inclusivity of a service or activity through attention to not just whether people can engage, but how they feel when they do.

Our work with stakeholders across community-based services aims to showcase the varied and innovative ways that digital and physical provision are being ‘blended’ and how service efficacy and experience (as well as efficiency) may be influenced as a result.  We hope to provide an opportunity to reflect on this rapidly developing area of practice, and identify key learning around what is working, for what and for who, given the important implications for accessibility, equality, and inclusion in service provision.