Bridging the gap: remote carers and digital inclusion in Government Services - Part 1

Social Security Programme Blog: Leadership Series – Part one: scoping, designing and carrying out user research

Rethenwyn (Ren) Grethenan, Senior User Researcher and Eduard Vasile, User Researcher


For the past six years, the teams working within Social Security Programme have been diligently designing and developing new benefits that better meet the needs of the Scottish people. But how do we ensure that we have considered the needs of everyone who relies on our support in accordance with our essential principles of  dignity, fairness and respect?

This is a question that sits at the core of our user research practice. In the Carer Support Payment space, we leveraged third-sector support to create a database of over 500 carers, allowing us to incorporate their invaluable experience in to all aspects of the benefit design. But we knew there were fundamental drawbacks to this approach: people who were unable to complete our online survey, or those who felt disempowered, might not  engage with us in this way.

Guided by the principals of the Digital Service for Scotland, as well the Policy team’s equalities impact assessment, we endeavoured to close the gap in engagement with two crucial carer groups: those who experience digital barriers – such as limited resources, connectivity issues, or a lack of digital skills and confidence – and those who live in geographically remote communities.

With the time and financial constraints that Programme is intrinsically bound to, we knew that better understanding the needs of these groups of carers would be crucial to guiding delivery priorities for Carer Support Payment.

Why do we need to consider Digital Exclusion?

According to a report published in 2020, an estimated 480,369 adults across Scotland had not been online within a three-month period, and over 1 million were classified as not having essential digital skills.1

Whilst there is advanced work happening within the Scottish Government’s Digital Transformation Directorate to help lessen these numbers, in our increasingly digitally-focused world there remains a significant number of people who risk being left unable to access basic services.

Designing the research

To ensure maximum engagement and impact, we knew our success would hinge on three key factors:

  1. The backing and guidance of the wider Carer Support Payment team.
    User research is not an island. It was only through collaboration and assistance that we were able to set up and design our research, secure high-level backing, and prioritise our findings.
  2. The ability to leverage knowledge from other teams and involve them in the research.
    A lot of work with carers and care organisations has already been accomplished so we set out to understand: what do we collectively already know? What have we learned through work already undertaken by policy, social research, and analysis teams, for example, through the formal consultation process? Where are the gaps in our knowledge? How can we incorporate these in to our research plan?
  3. Securing help and support from third-sector organisations.

The pivotal role of third-sector organisations

We knew we couldn’t underestimate the support we’d need from third-sector organisations so we brought them into the design of our research from the very beginning. This started with us meeting key representatives in person in our target areas of Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and the Highlands.

Working with these groups was both humbling and gratifying. We found that meeting in person engendered a high level of trust and engagement and, within a short space of time, people  had bolstered our vision with their vast knowledge, experience and compassion.

Third-sector organisations helped us co-design recruitment materials and then distribute them through their networks to carers who might only be reached via telephone or post. They also promoted our research in their office spaces and community groups.

Successful mission

Executing our plan, in May and June 2023, we visited some of the most remote areas of Scotland, engaging with both carers and third-sector-organisation workers alike. Through a series of group workshops and one-to-one interviews we talked with over 100 individuals – we were even invited to attend Orkney’s inaugural ‘Carer’s Conference’!

Unsurprisingly, all these activities left us with a LOT of data to bring back and analyse, but the richness of our findings was clear from the outset. We gained so much more by reaching out to talk to these groups in person, it allowed us a deeper glimpse into the extent of the challenges they can face, which in turn resulted in a greater impact on the service.


Final thoughts

In closing it feels important to note that the biggest affirmation for conducting this research came from carers themselves. Time and again they expressed their gratitude for being given the chance to share their feedback and feel heard. In the words of one participant: “Thank you very much for doing this, if you hadn’t come here, I’d never have been able to share my story.”

We will be continuing our story in a follow-up blog where we will outline how we collaboratively analysed our data and then impacted it with the Carer Support Payment team to help shape the design and define priorities for the service.



1: 3. Strategic Case – Connecting Scotland programme: full business case – (

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