As an addendum to my last post, I should perhaps explain why I used scare quotes around signposting.
As mediators, we can’t tell people what to do. We can tell people where to find information for themselves (which it’s now commonplace to call “signposting”), but not what information they should believe or disbelieve. But is this really a signpost?
Sometimes it’s a simple issue. If someone’s got a pension and they want to know how to get to it, it’s easy to point — so, signpost — them to the Pension Tracing Service. But where different opinions prevail about how to value a pension, or who should get a pension, or how to share a pension, or even whether to share a pension, as soon as a mediator points clients to an information source, s/he can be accused of bias.
So is it realistic to ask us to be signposts at all? Perhaps we need a better word — one that doesn’t raise expectations of mediators as paragons of impartiality in a world where information is seen as less impartial than ever before.
I’ve been spending a little time looking at the advice sites available for separating or divorcing couples. In the limited sessions that mediation provides, mediators never have time to give all the relevant information, and so we rely on redirecting clients to “signposting” services.
Some of these aren’t actually too bad. Take Advice Now; it has free downloadable guides and links to a whole load of resources which might come in handy, for all sorts of different people. It’s also not too difficult to navigate — compared to some others, which I won’t name here — and so strikes the right balance between being user-friendly and comprehensive.
However, even though Advice Now has some benefits, and I would recommend it to other mediators, the issue around “signposting” isn’t being resolved. There isn’t anywhere that you can get specific advice without sitting down and talking to someone about your case. Many clients, armed with that most dangerous of things — a little information — can be given the wrong impression about their rights or obligations from these services.
In the end, the answer to this may well be that these signposting sites are forced to develop more tailored models of online advice, where the risk of over-simplifying or misunderstanding clients’ cases is minimised. While we’re waiting for that to happen, sites like Advice Now shouldn’t be underestimated — both in terms of their potential benefits for the discerning user, and the pitfalls for those who use them unwisely.