Using Ethnographic Research Methods to reinvent on-line Access to Social Services


Department of Health and Stockport Council – Adult Social Care



Stockport Council – Adult Social Care provide services to older people living within the geographical area


This project was initially commissioned by the Department of Health `Care Services Efficiency Delivery’ (CSED) Programme in order to identify inadequacies and inconsistences in information provision.


Stockport Council highlighted that if they could deliver their services more effectively and in greater frequency, then they could improve the outcomes for the older people living in the area. The problem was that older people weren’t accessing care services, and if they were, it was as an emergency measure in a crisis.

The issue was that older people feared losing their independence by accessing social services. For some, even the installation of ‘grab bars’ outside their homes was seen as a sign of weakness and an inability to be self-sufficient. The result was that older people were accessing services too little too late as circumstances became critical rather than as an enabler for independent living.

How could Stockport Council reinvent the perception older people had towards their services?



We used ethnographic research methodology. The position we took was that the service itself had a neutral meaning, whilst its use had a social context that we needed to explore. The findings were that for service users, social care meant:

  • Loss of dignity and self respect
  • Loss of social status
  • Loss of home
  • An emergency option

Even for professionals and 3rd sector organisations, social care had negative connotations.

The findings showed that if social services were presented as adding ‘value’ to life rather than being a ‘cost or burden’ on society, there would be more demand, access and uptake.



An access website was developed around the premise, that ‘customers’ (rather than Service Users) could select services, some of which were free, some of which had to be paid for. Customers decided what services would add value to their lives and what they wanted to spend their money on. It was their choice.

Service terminology was also changed to reflect its value or use. Professional jargon was dispensed with.

The website access itself was redesigned around the way older people (Silver Surfers) browse the net, and with value-based language and imagery.

The eventual outcome was that the project with Stockport became a national flagship example of Social Services provision – not efficient services, but meaningful services to their customer base.


  • Tangible savings of circa £200,000 to £400,000+
  • Intangible benefits of reducing customers’ online search time, reducing customer stress by providing personalised solutions, reducing the end-to-end process of obtaining the self-assessment outcomes, etc. While these should be achievable by all councils, some would obviously benefit more than others.
  • Tangible improvements in internal business processes and streamlining existing bottlenecks.
  • Improvements in staff productivity, as well as staff morale.
  • Improved outcomes as a result of staff being able to focus their skills & experience on more customer-focused, specific and appropriate cases (as opposed to handling inappropriate queries, failure demand, etc.)
  • Improved, customer-friendly websites, which would align in a more consistent manner with their neighbouring local authorities.