Scottish Social Security Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville is flipping politics-as-usual on its head by inviting service users to help design Scotland’s new benefits system.
Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scottish Social Security Minister
You know who’s best placed to spot flaws in a service? The person who has to use it every day. That’s the idea behind a pioneering initiative overseen by Scottish Social Security Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville, which involves inviting 2,400 citizens with direct experience of the benefits system to get involved in shaping its future.
“It’s important to get policy right and to get it right first time,” says Shirley-Anne, who was first elected as the Member of Scottish Parliament for Dunfermline in 2016.
That was the same year that Scotland gained new powers to shape parts of its benefits system, taking responsibility for services previously handled by the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, such as disability benefits, and creating some from scratch, such as a new £10 weekly Scottish Child Payment for low-income families.
Scotland embraced it as an opportunity to build a more considerate service from the ground up. “When you don’t ask people their views on a system, you will find that you then have a system that quite frankly doesn’t work for people,” Shirley-Anne says. “One that’s difficult to navigate – that’s an undignified experience.”
Somerville took her current cabinet role in 2018 and is relishing the chance to shake things up.
“It may be challenging for people,” she says of this new democratic form of generating ideas by tapping direct experience. “But in government, the officials have also found it a refreshing and inspiring way to work. They know that they are making good policy, so they are finding it exceptionally fulfilling. At the end of the day, they will have a security system that they can be rightly proud of that they've worked to deliver, along with those with lived experience.”
The several thousand citizens who form Scotland’s “Experience Panels,” as they’re called, can participate in several different ways: surveys, interviews and workshops, face-to-face, sometimes on the phone or online. While the questions asked were broad at first, they are becoming increasingly specific, with participants testing application forms and other services to fine-tune wordings and design. Special field studies aim to ensure access for groups who might otherwise be underrepresented, and for others who may face barriers in accessing services, including single parents, bereaved families and refugees.
The Experience Panel feedback is already being put into practice, as Social Security Scotland has taken over social security benefits, like Best Start Grants for kids starting school and carer’s allowance supplements.
“Some of the most obvious early (changes),” the minister says, “were around things like the working hours of the agency, when people were likely to phone and how they would want information. And one of the groundbreaking aspects that has already been put into practice is our charter.”
Co-produced with citizen participants, this charter outlines the principles behind Scotland’s new benefits system and explains what people can expect from it. It includes pledges to be patient, kind, fair and treat people as individuals; to make processes simple and value people’s time; and to listen, learn and take complaints and appeals seriously.
One of the ideas at its core is that social security is a human right.
“Everything we're doing is about dignity, fairness and respect,” Shirley-Anne says. “That’s not a strap line. It’s far, far more than that. It’s got to mean something at every single point in the journey.”
As her team work with these values in mind, they are determined to remain “open to new ways of working and new ideas, and our stakeholders – those with lived experience – know that it’s making a difference,” she says.
“They can see the impact that these ways of working are already having and that gives them faith to continue to take part.”
SHIRLEY-ANNE SOMERVILLE’S ADVICE ON HARNESSING FEEDBACK
Embrace the unexpected You have to be flexible, be open to new ways of working and accept that you might not get everything right. Regardless of how expert people are in their field, they don't know everything. They need to be open to the fact that those with lived experience will come with new ideas and new challenges – and those need to be embraced. You can’t be defensive.
Small details can have a big impact
An early example of feedback was about the enormous fear of the Department for Work and Pensions brown envelope coming through the door. So, we use white envelopes. That might seem exceptionally small, but these changes can be quite simple. And they are absolutely symbolic to people.
It is really important to look at who's being involved to ensure it's a genuine representation of the population. Initially, when we looked at those who were coming forward, there were some groups in society that we weren't hearing from, for example young people; those from minority ethnic communities, particularly women; and “Gypsy/Travellers” (Roma, Romany gypsies, Scottish and Irish travellers). So, we can't have a one-size-fits-all policy; it can't be just the first 2,500 people who apply that you take on.
Think beyond short-term
We're not just doing this once, while we set up. We're absolutely determined to continuously learn from those with lived experience.
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