Disability benefits evaluation: supporting information

In line with our evaluation strategy, this report is a policy impact evaluation of the supporting information aspect of the application process in the context of the devolved disability benefits


Summary of findings for anticipated outcomes

The theory of change guiding the evaluation was outlined in the Methodology. This approach involved identifying the policy commitments underpinning supporting information as well as the short, medium, and long-term anticipated outcomes that the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland hope to achieve if the policy commitments are implemented as intended.

Overall, findings suggest the policy commitments are aligned with the anticipated outcomes. However, in order to ensure the commitments are a means to obtaining these outcomes, the implementation of them in practice (such as, communication of the policy, understanding, application, existing processes) needs to be improved. In this regard, the following sections highlight what works well and what needs to be improved upon for the outcomes to be achieved. The last section describes recommendations for policy in order to ensure that the commitments are a means to achieving the anticipated outcomes.

Findings for the short-term outcomes

Highlighting the importance of supplying supporting information, client survey data suggests that those who submit supporting information with their application are more likely to obtain an award.

The findings show that individuals do not fully know how to access supporting information guidance and support. Understandably, the guidance on the application form is the most utilised form of guidance, however, there is a lot less awareness of the other forms of guidance available. The most utilised form of support is that from friends and family, followed by that from Social Security Scotland. However, awareness of support offered by Social Security Scotland and other organisations was mixed. Furthermore, organisations exhibited some misunderstandings around supporting information themselves.

There was mixed evidence around whether clients understand what supporting information is most useful. Some interviewed applicants thought the guidance was helpful and others thought it could provide more clarity. Though, most survey respondents agreed that it was clear what information they should supply, interview data provided a more complex picture. A number of misconceptions about supporting information were highlighted, for example, not knowing that supporting information can be from their wider support network or that large amounts of documentation as supporting information are not necessarily needed.

The quality of the supporting information provided by applicants was mixed. This was evident from interviews with applicants and staff as well as survey findings showing over half of applicants were recontacted after submitting their application to ask for further information or to clarify something. This seemed to be underpinned by the uncertainty of knowing what to provide but also providing contradictory or partial information as well as partial or blurry documents.

Overall, evidence suggested the process of supplying supporting information was simple and straightforward. Most survey respondents said it was easy and clear. Interviewed applicants said that the online system for uploading documents and the ability for case managers to gather information on their behalf helped to simplify the process and mitigate stress and anxiety. Indeed, the main reason individuals asked Social Security Scotland to gather information on their behalf was because they thought that they would obtain the information faster than them.

At the same time, interviewed applicants and staff did acknowledge that the process of case managers gathering supporting information on behalf of individuals can take a long time which consequently impacts on the time taken to make a decision as well as to process an application. Indeed, the main cause of applicant dissatisfaction was the length of time it takes for Social Security Scotland to gather information on their behalf.

One potential way to reduce individual dissatisfaction and staff frustration related to processing times is by enabling individuals to supply supporting information themselves, where possible.

Interview and survey data point towards applicants agreeing that a trust-based approach had been applied to the collection and use of their supporting information. However, unsuccessful applicants in interviews were less certain whether a trust-based approach had been taken, suggesting that whether individuals received an award contributed to their feelings of trust towards Social Security Scotland.

In line with this, the biggest impact on interviewed applicants' perceptions of whether their supporting information had been considered fairly was whether they had received an award. Furthermore, survey respondents were more likely to agree they had been treated fairly and respectfully throughout the application process if they agreed with the decision.

Survey and interview data support that applicants' experience of the supporting information process is in line with dignity, fairness, and respect. Interview applicants also felt that Social Security Scotland staff took a person-centred approach and listened to them and staff themselves saw their role as helping those who are eligible receive an award, rather than an "investigator" or "gatekeeper".

However, staff reported challenges and practices which were not fully aligned with policy. Specifically, staff spoke of the difficulty that Social Security Scotland face in balancing taking a trust-based approach where not all information has been 'confirmed' by another party. Senior staff advised that when confidence increased, this became less of a problem. Furthermore, despite staff being aware of the different types of supporting information, there was a bias towards supporting information from professionals and, particularly that from medical professionals. These issues may impact staff's approach in practice.

Findings for the medium-term outcomes

Evidence suggests that the supporting information being supplied is not always of good quality and might negatively impact the speed of decision-making. Over half of survey respondents received a call from Social Security Scotland after they had submitted their application to, for example, clarify information from their application or to ask them to submit (more) supporting information.

In interviews, successful applicants felt that Social Security Scotland trusted them and the information provided, leading to them trusting in the supporting information process. This position was contrasted favourably with relevant applicants' experiences with the DWP. A main reason for this was because staff did not ask for any more supporting information for their application. Successful applicants also said they were more likely to apply for other benefits delivered by Social Security Scotland in the future.

Interviewed applicants with previous DWP experience indicated that the application process with Social Security Scotland was less difficult and stressful, and said that they felt more confident applying for future Social Security Scotland benefits now that they have gone through the process. However, a lack of knowledge about what supporting information is most useful and that Social Security Scotland can gather information on their behalf, could potentially lead to more stress and anxiety about the application process more generally.

The way in which Social Security Scotland staff understand their role, supporting information, and handle their interactions with applicants, suggests that the values of dignity, fairness, and respect are embedded. Both survey respondents and interviewed applicants also agreed that their experience was in line with dignity, fairness, and respect. However, unsuccessful survey respondents were less likely to agree with this.

Staff tended to put more weight towards supporting information from a medical professional such as a GP which could impact on the supporting information process.

Some applicants felt that a key purpose of supporting information was to allow Social Security Scotland staff to make a fair decision on their application. The majority of successful survey respondents agreed that they understood the decision made on their application and that it had been explained clearly. However, the majority of unsuccessful survey respondents disagreed that it was clear, and nearly half of them took further action.

Survey and interview data showed that those who had contact via a phone call with Social Security Scotland staff indicated that this was extremely positive, with interviewed applicants describing staff as "approachable" and "helpful" and agreeing that they felt listened to. The majority of survey respondents also agreed that it was clear why Social Security Scotland staff contacted them, they felt comfortable sharing their information, they trusted the person they spoke to, and they knew what was going to happen next. However, interviewed applicants also said that despite the positive contact, the application process could have progressed more quickly and efficiently than it did, likely impacting on their overall experience.

As highlighted throughout this report, the process of case managers gathering information on individuals' behalf has likely led to increases in application processing times. This highlights the importance of encouraging individuals to supply supporting information themselves, where possible. However, interview data showed that it was clear that some factors made supplying supporting information easier, some made it more difficult, and some made it impossible.

The evidence also showed that there are differences in the experience of supplying supporting information between groups, for example, those reporting one versus multiple areas affected, those within different age groups, and those from lower income households. This suggests the need for continued flexibility in process of supplying supporting information.

Interviews with applicants also highlighted that having access to and the skills required to submit supporting information seem to be key facilitators in enabling individuals to supply supporting information. Whereas, a lack of understanding about and access to supporting information were key barriers. So too were having a disability or specific condition that makes the completion of tasks more difficult.

Local delivery and third sector staff also identified other groups of people who may struggle to provide supporting information. This included:

  • People with severe mental health difficulties
  • People with addictions
  • The Gypsy/Traveller community
  • Some religious communities (particularly where women might be less likely to access a GP)
  • Homeless people
  • Prison leavers
  • People with little or no English
  • People with low levels of literacy

Findings for the long-term outcomes

Survey data suggested that the majority of applicants received a determination without a consultation. Interviewed ADP applicants were positive about the role of supporting information in replacing the need for a consultation.

All applicants interviewed for this research typically expected the application process to be stressful. However, many reported that their experience was the exact opposite and said that now they have gone through it, they feel less worried about it. Nevertheless, it is likely that all worries regarding applying for benefits will never be completely eradicated given that they offer financial security for so many. The aim is therefore to reduce any undue stress or worry about about applying for benefits delivered by Social Security Scotland.

Survey data provided evidence for individuals trusting Social Security Scotland. The majority of survey respondents agreed that they trusted Social Security Scotland. However, those who were successful in obtaining an award were more likely to say they trusted Social Security Scotland than those who were unsuccessful. Successful interviewed applicants were also willing to contact Social Security Scotland in the future, indicating a level of trust. However, the same willingness was not felt by unsuccessful applicants.

Regarding barriers to applying for disability benefits, the majority of survey respondents agreed that the eligibility criteria and application process were clear, and that the application was relevant and allowed them to fully explain their/their child's needs. However, markedly less agreed that the application process did not take too long.

Survey and interview data showed that successful applicants did agree that the right decision was made first time on their application. However, when speaking to only unsuccessful applicants, they were less likely to agree that the right decision had been made first time.

Key recommendations for policy and practice

Key recommendations identified from the cross-cutting themes

  • Ensure decision letters are as transparent as possible in communicating the reasons for the decision made.
  • Further staff training on the usefulness of different types of supporting information from professionals as well as the wider support network.
  • Better communication of the concept of equal consideration (formerly equal weight) to individuals.
  • Clarification that staff will establish importance of different pieces of supporting information on a case by case basis, depending on the relevance of the pieces at hand.
  • Take steps to increase staff confidence in making decisions without all aspects of the application being 'confirmed' by supporting information.
  • Further clarify supporting information guidance on the application form.
  • Raise awareness of other types of guidance available and ensure these are in line with that provided on the application form.
  • Raise awareness of the different types of support available and how to access these.
  • Raise client awareness of the different types of supporting information and what might be most useful in different situations/circumstances.
  • Encourage individuals to check that supporting information is in line with information on application form.
  • Showcase examples of "good quality" supporting information to individuals to increase understanding.
  • Raise awareness of the benefits of individuals supplying supporting information themselves and incorporate this in external messaging.
  • However, continue to implement and raise awareness of the policy of gathering supporting information on individuals' behalf for those who are not able to supply supporting information themselves.

Additional key recommendations identified from policy commitments and anticipated outcomes

  • Ensure support organisations are sufficiently trained and kept up to date on current policy on supporting information.
  • Increase accessibility to Social Security Scotland staff to offer support to individuals when they need it.
  • Better communication of policy message that supporting information only needs to broadly support application or review.
  • Staff training to help them process cases with varying amounts and types of supporting information.
  • Awareness-raising on this policy that mostly, one piece of supporting information is sought from a professional for both individuals and staff.
  • Clear communications to individuals and staff that a professional does not necessarily mean a GP.
  • Clarification and support so individuals are empowered to request supporting information from not just medical professionals but also their wider support network if they feel that it captures the impact of their condition or disability on their every-day life.


Email: Stefania.Pagani@gov.scot

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