The number of people contacting Citizens Information centres has nearly halved in four years, show figures from the Citizens Information Board.
Within that time, there has also been a shift in how people talk to the centres in the county. In 2018, 15 percent of people engaged over the phone, while that was up in 2021 to 61 percent of people.
Much of that move to online or phone is down to the pandemic, says a review of the board published in May 2022 by the Department of Social Protection.
But the trend was visible before that, it says, and the number of in-person visits is unlikely to fully bounce back.
In May this year, the Rathmines centre closed, and the board directed people to instead use three centres within 3km of it. (Centres in Stillorgan, Wicklow town and Enniscorthy in Wexford have also permanently closed.)
Councillors in Rathmines, and locals who used the centre, say that those metrics, centre closures and a lack of clarity about the long-term direction of Citizens Information services have them worried that the push to online and erosion of in-person services will continue.
And, indeed, the May review says that “As they [Citizen Information centres] engage strategically with this issue, it is likely to result in a streamlining of some in-person services”.
This isn’t the direction things should be moving, says Mary Freehill, a Labour Party councillor.
“The whole accessibility and easy access to Citizens Information centres is diminishing,” she says. “We have never needed it more than we do now.”
Says Freehill: “It’s very clear that there’s an attempt just to close off the face-t0-face.”
A spokesperson for the Citizens Information Board said that face-to-face services are integral to its work. “There is no intention to move Citizens Information Services to a digital only service,” they said.
Services online, by phone, and by appointment aren’t as good as drop-in services, says Marina Enache, who first visited the Rathmines centre more than 10 years ago.
She used the centre regularly, she says. “I remember sometimes I was going twice a week.”
Now, services seem busier, she says. “It’s not the same quality of service, they don’t have that much time as was before.”
Officers rush through the meeting, she says. “Because another customer is waiting, and they’re asking you to come again.”
Getting help on a task can take longer, as you have to wait maybe a couple of days for an appointment and pick a time that fits a centre’s opening hours and your schedule, she says.
Lucy Sweeney, who lives in Rathmines, says that because of her disability, online services aren’t accessible. “I have vision problems and I find screens very difficult.”
“And even so I have chronic pain and chronic fatigue, so even trying to explain facts and figures over the phone, anything to do with tax, it’s very difficult to do,” she says.
Enache and Sweeney say Enid O’Dowd, a Citizen’s Information volunteer who ran a tax help desk in the Rathmines centre, helped them with their tax forms over the years.
“How do you do this service online or by phone?” says Enache. “You have to go face-to-face to show that the forms are numbered and, like, it’s not the same.”
Other officers in the centre helped Enache with her and her children’s applications for Irish citizenship, and accessing social welfare, she says.
The officer helped her make calls in English, she says. “I can say something, but I don’t understand what they were telling me back.”
Sweeney says O’Dowd’s service was invaluable to her. “To have a person who could look over my paperwork and guide me and tell me what to do and bring the forms for me. It was just amazing, really amazing.”
O’Dowd said that during Covid restrictions it was challenging to offer people the same service over the phone as she had done face-to-face.
“They’d be taking screenshots with their phones of documents and sending to them to me, but you can’t really read them,” she says. “It’s simply impractical. Often, it depends on the subject. Some things are incredibly complicated.”
What’s the Future?
The May review of the service does include a recommendation that the board look at how it provides face-to-face information, as online and telephone services continue to develop.
That should be informed by a closer analysis of the impact of centre closures during the pandemic on access to information among vulnerable and marginalised groups, it says.
It should also “encompass the trend in terms of the year on year fall in office visits that preceded the pandemic”, says the review.
At the moment, it’s too early to be sure if online use of Citizens Information services will continue at its current level, says the review.
But it’s unlikely that the easing of Covid restrictions means that face-to-face visits will bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, it says, and the board has to consider that in their plans for in-person operations.
The board “will need to balance the needs of the majority with those of the most vulnerable who cannot access an online service”, says the review.
In April, Fine Gael TD Heather Humphreys, the minister for social protection, said in a written answer to a Dáil question about the closure of the Rathmines centre, that there are “no plans in place to change the role of Citizens Information services nationally”.
“It is envisioned that [Citizens Information Service] will continue to provide essential information and advice to the citizens of Ireland in the most effective manner possible,” she said.
But Freehill, the Labour councillor, says the Minister of Social Protection should provide more clarity on the future of the centres. “Is it her intention to close them off? If it is not her intention, why is she allowing this to happen?
Citizens Information relies heavily on volunteers for face-to-face services, says the May review. But these volunteers were stood down when offices closed for the pandemic and as of February, a significant number hadn’t returned, it says.
“This is in part due to public health considerations; in particular, challenges in maintaining social distancing and also a reflection of the older age profile of the volunteers who could be regarded as being in the higher risk category in terms of Covid,” the review said.
Given the two-year hiatus, it may be hard to get them back, it says.
O’Dowd, the volunteer in Rathmines, said when she was told there wasn’t space for her in the Rathmines centre, she wasn’t told why.
She says she is still not sure whether there’s a plan for face-to-face services to be reduced, although it seems like it. “They won’t give any answers. I haven’t a clue.”
A spokesperson for Citizens Information said it had left its premises in Rathmines in May because the building was sold. “The new owner intends to occupy the space and therefore there was no possibility to remain at that location.”
But Dublin South Citizens Information Service – the umbrella company for southside centres – is committed to delivering face-to-face services to the public through appointment services at other centres in the city, they said.
There are three centres less than 3km away from Rathmiens, they said, directing people towards the Liberties centre at 90 Meath Street, the Dublin 6W and 12 centre at 8 Sundrive Road, and the Carmelite centre at 56 Aungier Street.
The centres have different opening hours. At each of these centres, “appointments will be offered as required”, they said.
The May review does mention that, in parallel with digital expansion, the board needed to reflect on the most efficient way to deliver in-person services.
“One issue for consideration is the impact of a smaller premises footprint and the possibility of colocation for the services provided,” they said. Centres could be put together with Money Advice and Budgeting Centres and Intreo offices too, it says.
“This would enable the public to access both independent information on a service and the service itself within a single location,” it says.
That consolidation would reduce the footprint, and any savings could be invested in developing alternative channels and training, they said, “to ensure consistent high quality service delivery across all locations”.
Sweeney, who relied on the centre in Rathmines, says her disability makes it harder to access centres that are further from her house.
Her chronic pain condition makes travelling by bus difficult. “I don’t have the stamina to travel longer and to find where places are,” she says.