This report presents findings on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the ways people prefer to communicate with organisations like Social Security Scotland. Most respondents said they preferred a mix of communication methods for getting in touch for different reasons. Only a small number said they would use the same method to get in touch regardless of the purpose. There was limited overall change in preferences before, during and after the pandemic. Among those who did indicate a change, preferences for online communication increased.
The sections below provide more information on the key results from each of the research themes.
Contacting Social Security Scotland during the pandemic
Around 40 per cent of survey respondents said they had contact with Social Security Scotland during the pandemic. Some respondents may have reported contact with Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) when answering this question.
The majority (83 per cent) said they were happy with their interaction. Around one fifth (18 percent) said there was something they were unhappy about. Half of these respondents said they considered making a complaint.
Interview participants who were unhappy with an aspect of their interaction said they had difficulty in finding information or help. One participant said they had to make repeated calls to resolve an issue. Other experiences included questioning the amount they had received and feeling unsure about how to raise a complaint with Social Security Scotland.
Submitting evidence about a claim
Just less than a third (28 per cent) of respondents who had been in touch with Social Security Scotland during the pandemic said they had submitted evidence. Most (74 per cent) said they experienced no trouble with the process.
Participants and respondents who discussed submitting evidence as part of a benefit claim included experiences with both Social Security Scotland and DWP. Many said that sending paper evidence can often be problematic. Difficulties included having no access to a printer or scanner to make photocopies and delays with mail.
Many said uploading evidence online was quicker and more convenient than providing paper evidence. Interview participants who had used the Social Security Scotland online evidence portal said the upload process was straightforward. One noted that the service should remain beyond the pandemic.
Getting in touch with Social Security Scotland before, during and the after the pandemic
Around 40 per cent of survey respondents said they preferred the telephone before, during and after the pandemic. This was across six different reasons for getting in touch with Social Security Scotland. Telephone was the most preferred way to get in touch for: advice and general information; monitoring the progress of an application; and for urgent situations.
Across all purposes for getting in touch, around one in ten (10 per cent) said they preferred meeting in person. This remained about the same before and after the pandemic. There was a slight decrease in this preference during the pandemic.
Preference for post across all purposes remained roughly the same before, during and after the pandemic at around 15 per cent of respondents. Post or paper form was the most preferred way to challenge a decision made about an application.
Before, during and after the pandemic, around half of respondents said their preferred way to make an application was via an online form. During and after the pandemic, online form was also the preferred way to advise a change in circumstances.
During and after the pandemic, around a fifth (20 per cent) of respondents said they would get in touch via web chat. Around a quarter (17 per cent) said they preferred to receive updates about the progress of an application via text message (SMS).
Around 5 per cent of respondents said video call would be their preferred method after the pandemic. Video call was the third most preferred method for getting advice and general information and for making contact in an urgent situation.
Only around 1 per cent of respondents indicated a preference for social media for getting advice and information, progress updates or in urgent situations.
Attitudes about different methods for getting in touch
Many said that telephone communication gave callers the chance to fully explain their circumstances. Feedback also said that phone calls were a good way to get quick answers or make initial contact. During the pandemic, some respondents said that their preferences had changed to include more calls due to restrictions on meeting in person. Some said that they had experienced long wait times on calls to organisations during the pandemic. Some said they would now consider alternative ways of getting in touch.
People who preferred paper-based communication said letters were helpful as they created a record of all information sent and received. Some said it was easier to explain personal circumstances in detail, or include supplementary documents, via paper forms or letters. Some feedback said that delays in Royal Mail's service during the pandemic had caused difficulties. One respondent said that Social Security Scotland should consider the environmental impact of sending letters.
People who preferred text messages said they were a helpful way to receive updates and reminders. Two interview participants said they had heard a lot about scams via text message and felt wary of communicating in this way.
Those who preferred online forms said they could be quicker to complete and more accessible than paper forms. There were also suggestions for other types of online communication. Feedback said it should be possible to get in touch via email. Participants liked email because it provided a record of interactions and gave them space to explain personal circumstances or questions. There were also suggestions for a Social Security Scotland app and a platform to monitor the progress of applications.
People who liked web chat said it could be a good way to get quick answers and find out more detailed information. Some participants said that web chat was a good option when it provided personalised replies and not pre-programmed responses. One interview participant said the Social Security Scotland web chat service was helpful and convenient and was pleased with the quick response. A survey participant who had used the service said they hoped it would remain an option after the pandemic.
Very few (1 per cent) survey respondents said social media was, or would be, their preferred way to get in touch with Social Security Scotland. Two interview participants said that social media could be a helpful way for Social Security Scotland to provide information.
Change in communication preferences during and after the pandemic
Around a quarter (23 per cent) of survey respondents said that their preferred way to get in touch would be different during the pandemic. Compared to before the pandemic, a fifth of respondents (20 per cent) said their preferences would change once COVID-19 was no longer a serious risk to public health. Older respondents and respondents with a long-term health condition or disability were more likely to say their preferences would change during or after the pandemic.
Those who indicated a change during or after the pandemic said they would prefer more online communication. Some said this was because they had gained confidence communicating online or recognised the convenience of online methods. Some participants without online access at home said options for communication should continue to take into account that not everyone has access to the internet.
Talking to Social Security Scotland via video call
Some respondents said their experiences during the pandemic meant they now considered video calls a helpful way to get in touch.
Participants had different ideas about what purposes were best suited to video call. These included: for all interactions; for advice and general information; or only when it was appropriate to the situation. Some feedback said video calls could replace in person interactions while restrictions were in place or from now on.
Almost all interview participants said they would expect Social Security Scotland to arrange video calls in advance. Participants said this could be via letter, phone call or email. There were a range of suggestions for information that should be provided in advance including: what would be discussed and how long the call might last; a list of documents or information to prepare in advance; and instructions about how to join the call.
Across both the survey and interviews, participants mentioned experience with a variety of different platforms. Most respondents (45 per cent) said they were happy to use any platform. Two in five (40 per cent) preferred Zoom.
Many participants said a key benefit of video calls was being able to see the person you're talking to. Others said that not everyone might be comfortable using their camera. Some participants mentioned other features that were important to them including: ease of use and access; a chat function; the ability to share documents; and being able to record the call. Participants didn't raise specific security concerns about video calls with Social Security Scotland.
Meeting Social Security Scotland in person
Over three quarters (79 per cent) of respondents said they could be interested in meeting Social Security Scotland in person in the future. Respondents with a long-term health condition or disability were more likely to say they would be interested in communicating in person. Over half (56 per cent) of respondents said they would consider either visiting a Social Security Scotland location or arranging a meeting at home.
The majority (67 per cent) said they would only feel comfortable meeting in person once all restrictions related to the pandemic had been lifted. One in five (20 per cent) said they would consider in person interactions when the restrictions in their local area allowed people from different households to mix indoors. Around one in ten (11 per cent) respondents said they would be happy to meet in person while restrictions remain in place.
Respondents and participants highlighted a range of reasons for getting in touch with Social Security Scotland in person. These included: to discuss complex issues; to share documents or evidence; to report problems; and to get extra support during difficult times. Some interview participants with experience of disability benefits said in person meetings were the best way to carry out health assessments.
Most survey respondents said they would want to receive a letter (42 per cent) or email (40 per cent) before visiting a Social Security Scotland location. Feedback said this should include information such as: who they will meet; COVID-19 safety measures in place at the location; and if bringing children or someone for support would be allowed.
COVID-19 safety measures when meeting in person
Around three quarters (79 per cent) of respondents said that while restrictions are in place, there should be access to hand washing facilities. A similar number (77 per cent) said hand sanitiser should be available. Over half (55 per cent) said physical distancing should be maintained while restrictions remain in place.
The majority (80 per cent) of respondents said that from now on, staff and clients should wear a face covering. Over half (58 per cent) said there should be screens or shields for example, at desks.
Suggestions for other safety measures included: a one-way system for moving around; sufficient ventilation; and regular cleaning. A few respondents said that precautions such as temperature checks, tests, and proof of vaccination status could also be used.
Face coverings were the most frequently mentioned precaution for home visits. Other precautions suggested were: hand sanitiser or hand washing; maintaining physical distance; and suitable ventilation, such as opening windows. The majority of survey respondents and interview participants said they would expect some safety measures to be remain even after restrictions were eased or removed.
The Scottish Government will continue to work with the Experience Panels in the design and development of Scotland's social security system. Research with Client Panels will continue to provide insight about clients' experience and support Social Security Scotland's continuous improvement.
Insights about communication preferences and views about meeting Social Security Scotland in person will inform the design and delivery of local delivery services. Views about video calls will inform the development of the Social Security Scotland video call service.
The research will also be helpful to make Social Security Scotland work in ways that prioritise the needs and wellbeing of clients and staff. The findings will also be used to plan and deliver the next stage of the design of consultations for Adult Disability Payment.