Citizens Advice: maximising the use of requests for online information and advice

If you are interested in the provision of online advice and information, take a moment to look at the site for the Citizensadvice in England and Wales. This is in the process of being significantly upgraded and it has a commendable feature on it which merits consideration by any institution anywhere in the world running a similar site.

The opening page displays the number of monthly requests for advice on the most popular top three issues (right now that is employment rights at just under 70,000 unique visits), benefits and tax credits for people in work (just under 82,000) and trading standards enquiries (just under 59,000). This is interesting but a further page gives  much more detailed information on real time searches both on the site and from google.

The realtime information is gold dust in at least three ways. First, it is raw data on the kind of problems on which people want advice (given added authenticity by the visibility of spelling and grammatical errors as the results scroll up). Second, it tells you how people are phrasing their requests. Thirdly, it is amazingly good PR for the citizens advice movement.

The numbers using the site are impressive. Over yesterday, which was a Sunday, it averaged 698 users every minute. Already, today at 9am, it is hitting an average of 659 users per minute. Ten minutes later, as the day got going, the number had risen to 743. After 15 the number had got to 844.

At 9am, the realtime list of internal searches of the site included:

health fact sheet

sick pay

NHS operation waiting time

work dismissal

unfair dismissal

template letters

noisy car exhaust

criminal record.

And coming from Google were:

14 day calling off period

Young employees rights and responsibilities UK

rights of workers in the workplace

PIP assessment [an element of benefits]

Letter of notification for electricity disconnection.

A final element gave the trending content over the last month:

Ending a marriage (8,601)

Small claims (8,257)

Working tax credit (8,067)

Dismissal (6,062)

Getting a visa for your spouse or partner to live in the UK (5,947)

Dealing with the financial affairs of someone who has died (5,234)

Claim compensation if your flight’s delayed or cancelled (4,416)

Grants and benefits to help you pay your energy bills (4,108).

Similar information about the use of other online triage or information sites would be really valuable – both domestically and internationally. At home, it provides empirical evidence of the problems that people are facing – useful for online information and advice providers; researchers who have hitherto relied on various academic approaches to surveying legal need; and for lobbying both for substantive change of government policy and for more resources to the advice sector. International comparison might spur interesting cross-jurisdictional collaboration and creative review of provision. Transparency over numbers also allows a judgement on the effectiveness of a site.

So, well done, Citizens Advice.

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