I am writing to update you on the advisory group’s most recent discussions. We summarised the three points (detailed below) when we met to brief you on 6 December, and you now have the report of our workstream on independent scrutiny which, we note, is being considered by the Social Security Committee today, Thursday 18 January.
Stakeholder engagement and equalities
Group members have an ongoing interest in the quality of stakeholder engagement, especially the participation of people with lived experience of the current social security system and also of the future system. We welcome the role of Experience Panels, while noting our concern that some key demographic information is missing – notably the ethnicity of panel members – and that recruitment is skewed towards members who can participate on-line. It is important to ensure that Experience Panel members are supported, their access needs are met, and that there is effective communication and expectation management with those who have been recruited about their role.
We are encouraged that officials are working on ways to complement Experience Panels via stakeholder networks who can support the participation of those who are less likely to have joined, and look forward to the Scottish Government communicating how this approach has worked.
An important issue on its own merit is the scope and extent of equality analysis and the application of equality impact assessment processes of each new devolved benefit. Members of the Group are keen to see the Scottish Government go further in their use of appropriate and in-depth equality impact assessment (EQIA) tools. It is imperative that the different lived realities of benefit recipients are identified and that this understanding informs and improves their experience.
Group members are keen to work with officials on these and related issues.
Social Security Charter
The Charter has strong potential to become the key document holding accessible information in one place, available to all, on the different aspects of claiming social security in Scotland including: citizen rights, agency standards, scope for user feedback and redress. The Charter can be central to driving the culture of the new agency, both emblematic of its guiding principles and providing the impetus for effective delivery and accountability. The Charter could set out the responsibilities of different bodies, how disputes can be resolved and how standards will be tracked and evaluated. The Group also sees the Charter as a key part of scrutiny considerations, since it should translate principles in the Social Security Bill into meaningful aims and set out how well these are being achieved. The process of co- producing, and improving, the Charter will be neither easy nor quick, but the Scottish Government is right to commit to it.
Group members have agreed there is merit in establishing a new workstream on the Charter, working alongside Scottish Government officials and seeking clarity on timescales. We have written to Stephen O’Neill and Trudy Nicolson to seek a follow- up meeting. Following discussions we will establish what it would be most productive for a workstream on the Charter to focus its advice on, e.g. content, process, design, scope, co-production, or potentially as a vehicle through which co-production is carried out.
Social Security Agency
The Group has welcomed the input of Ally Macphail and colleagues on recruitment for the new agency. Members are keen to see staff recruitment result in an agency workforce that reflects the diversity of Scottish society. We appreciate the Scottish Government’s commitment to identify the best candidates irrespective of background and to work with external agencies – including employability networks - to raise awareness of job opportunities, create recruitment pathways and simplify the application process. The Group has welcomed a specific approach from officials to advise on the format of vacancies.
Some members felt there was a risk that the process of transferring staff within the civil service via COSOP (Cabinet Office Statement of Practice) may result in a substantial ‘Business as Usual’ element in the operating culture and while we acknowledge there may be strengths in drawing upon accumulated expertise, we would encourage the Scottish Government to use external recruitment as soon as possible. We also felt that this risk can, to some extent, be mitigated by having the right training and workforce development approaches in place, involving people with lived experience of the social security system as partners from the outset.
External recruitment was also seen by members as a means of increasing diversity, as initial internal civil service recruitment could lead to the agency reflecting the same levels of diversity, or lack thereof, as within the available internal pool of candidates. Members are willing to work with officials on these issues and have also flagged this as an area for ongoing monitoring of progress and feedback to ensure that diversity is built-in to the profile of the agency and the impact effects the new system.
In addition, we foresee a risk that demanding programme timescales begin to drive delivery towards the status quo ante, defaulting to what we are familiar with rather than what is needed and in line social security principles and values. For example, care needs to be taken in the language used and careful consideration given to the physical environment of the new agency’s central locations as well as its local co- location.
Group members and other external organisations can help to build capacity and mitigate risks around equality impacts.
The Group looks forward to meeting in Dundee on 1 February. If you or officials have any questions about these points in advance, please get in touch.
With best wishes,
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