For-Sale Sign Stokes Fears for Future of Citizens' Information Services on South Side

The building that used to house the Rathmines citizens’ information centre on Wynnefield Road is up for sale, leaving some locals worried that the service may close.

Especially as there has been confusion about future plans for citizens’ information centres on the south side of the city, and rumours of possible closures.

“We have it on good authority that they are planning to cut down very drastically,” says Labour Councillor Mary Freehill.

Michael Owens, the Citizens Information national manager, which funds the regional services, says they are trying to get a lease extension in Rathmines to the end of this year “while alternative service locations are explored”.

But the Dublin South Citizens Information Service, which runs all the information centres on the south side of the city, does plan “to conduct a full review of all of its offices this year”, says Owens.

“No decisions have been reached on leaving a specific geographical location at this time,” he said.

Fears of Closures

Freehill, the Labour councillor, says she has requested a meeting with the Dublin South Citizens Information Service.

She says she fears there is a plan to centralise the services in the city – absorbing them into one large drop-in centre in the city centre and moving much of their information work online.

Any plan along those lines is totally unacceptable, Freehill says.

Elderly people cannot travel into the city centre to access information, she says, and many can’t access advice online either.

People without a high level of education, including those with poor literacy skills, or those with limited English, rely heavily on the face-to-face citizens’ information service.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to have an IT service for people who have poor levels of literacy or who may not have great access to computers,” says Freehill.

Some people need particular regulations explained to them in simple language, or they might need help to fill out forms.

Pushing people to do everything online hurts the most vulnerable, she says. “They are the people that it was set up to cater for in the first instance.”

Owens says that the upcoming review of the citizens’ information services on the south side is not about centralising its services but about improving them.

“Considerations regarding future premises development may include, for example, accessibility for people with additional physical needs, or families with young children in prams,” he says.

The citizens’ information centres want to provide “fit-for-purpose reception facilities” and “improved consultation room facilities for optimal service-user experience”, but they can’t do that in some locations because they don’t have the physical space, he says.

Freehill says she will oppose any move to close citizens’ information centres in any local area, because it is against the interests of disadvantaged people and could even undermine democracy.

Before the citizens’ information centres were established, people in Ireland often went to their local politicians for information. That created a type of clientelism or “parish-pump politics”, says Freehill.

One motivation behind setting up the information centres was so that people didn’t need to rely on politicians for information, she says.

If the citizens’ information centre closes in any area, then councillors become the primary source of information for people in the local community again, which she thinks is harmful to democracy.

“Democracy is diminishing at a very alarming rate,” says Freehill.

During Lockdown

At the moment, citizens’ information centres are closed to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“I think it’s unacceptable that citizens’ information centres are not physically accessible at the moment,” says Freehill.

It is difficult for people in distressing situations at the moment who may be dealing with, say marriage breakdown, she says. “People don’t know who to turn to.”

A phone service is available, whereby the person seeking information calls a number and then the information officers call them back, she says.

But Freehill doesn’t think that system is working well because the person might miss the call or be unable to answer. “The current way of delivering is a long distance away from what was there in the past,” she says.

Owens says that the national phone line has continued to operate and regional and local services are offering a call-back service. In some cases, they may offer face-to-face meetings by appointment.

“These appointments are arranged after a phone or email consultation and are based on client need,” he says.

“Citizens Information Centres continue to provide remote advocacy services, including remote representational advocacy,” says Owens.

Funding and Staff

There have been no funding cuts to any of the regional citizens’ information services, says Owens, and staffing levels across the services have increased in recent years.

In 2018, the 42 citizens’ information service companies across Ireland were restructured into eight new regional ones, he says.

There are two regional organisations in Dublin, one covering south Dublin and one covering north Dublin, he says.

Staffing levels have increased slightly in the last five years. There are currently 216 staff nationally, compared to 189 in 2016, says Owens.

“The Dublin-based regional companies have accordingly experienced no cuts to staffing during this time,” says Owens.

[CORRECTIONS: This article was updated on 10 March at 11.20 to correct Michael Owens’ title, clarify the status of the Rathmines centre, and correct details around the services currently available. Big apologies for the errors.]

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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