Social Security Experience Panels: annual report 2020

This is the third annual report from the Social Security Experience Panels programme, covering the key activities and outputs from 2020.

2020: How we worked

This section will give a project update on what we have been up to in 2020. It will cover:

  • Understanding who's on the Experience Panels
  • Feedback from panel members
  • How Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted our work
  • Reaching seldom heard groups
  • Undertaking more user testing
  • Working with Social Security Scotland clients
  • Sharing what we have found

Understanding who's on the Experience Panels

Recruitment to the Experience Panels closed in 2017 when the initial recruitment finished. Since that time we lost touch with a number of existing panel members, and others have chosen to leave the panels. There were also some specific groups that we wanted to boost, namely young people, ethnic minorities and people in remote rural and island communities.  

So between July 2019 and March 2020 we reopened recruitment to refresh panel membership. We publicised the recruitment with the help of current panel members, a large number of partner third sector organisations and colleagues working in local areas for Social Security Scotland. We also circulated information about joining on social media. We tailored our approach to different groups, for example running a series of events with ethnic minorities. As a result, we have welcomed 572 new panel members. 

We asked new and existing panel members to tell us a bit more about themselves. We also asked existing panel members to give feedback on their experience of being part of the Experience Panels so far. 

Spotlight On: Who's in the Experience Panels – 2020 Update

It's incredibly useful for us to understand more about who is on the Experience Panels. This information helps us to understand whether there are certain groups of people who are not well represented, and where we should do further work to make sure their voices are heard. 

A good example is that 2 per cent of panel members who have responded to these surveys told us that they are part of an ethnic minority group, compared to 4 per cent of the population in Scotland. Because of this, we have carried out some additional work with ethnic minority groups and those who have English as a second language to make sure we have a good understanding of the barriers that exist for those groups in accessing social security, and how those barriers can be addressed. 

Another valuable reason for having this information, is that sometimes it is important that our researchers hear from specific people when carrying out research on a given topic. For example, for research to inform the design of disability benefits, it is important we speak to people who have experience of the existing benefits.

We also know that some of this information can change over time. That's why we ask people to update the information we hold about them regularly. It also gives people who haven't previously filled in one of these surveys the chance to take part. The next survey asking people about this will be carried out early in 2021.

The findings from this research are available on our publications page at:

Feedback from Experience Panel members

We also asked existing Experience Panels members to give us feedback about their experience of being on the panels so far. There were many positives, with panel members saying that they feel listened to and that they were pleased that their experiences and views were helping to shape decision making. Some also talked about finding it valuable to meet other panel members who may have had similar experiences, or who they could learn from. 

Many panel members said that they had found the research easy to take part in, and had found that communication with the Experience Panels Team had worked well. Panel members valued the range of topics that they were invited to contribute to.

There were also a number of areas that respondents highlighted where things could improve, or challenges that they faced in participating. One of the issues mentioned was that some people found it difficult to attend face-to-face events, either due to limited travel options, caring responsibilities, work commitments, or their health condition. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced our team to work differently over the last few months, and we are keen to make sure we learn from this. With this feedback and learning in mind, once it is safe to offer face-to-face event we will continue to offer a range of ways that people can get involved remotely to make sure panel members can get involved in a way that suits them.

Spotlight On: How Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted our research 

Like everyone, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a significant impact on the way that we work as a team and how we carry out research. Throughout, it has continued to be as important to us as ever to ensure that the voices of those with experience of the current benefits system are embedded in the design of the new social security system in Scotland. 

We had to change how we interacted with all of our panel members. We could no longer deliver face to face events including the focus group series around Scotland which normally would take place in the Summer and the Winter. We therefore moved all our research to be delivered either online or over the phone. This included running surveys and doing interviews with people using WebEx. We are grateful to all panel members who have been so flexible and understanding during this time.

In line with national advice, our research team has been working from home since the start of the pandemic. This has meant that postal mail-outs had to be paused as the team were no longer in the office to manage this process. We contacted members asking for an alternative preferred method of contact to receive news and updates. By December we hope to offer a limited post service for panel members who have this as their preferred contact method. 

Over the Winter we will also be doing research to understand whether, and how, people's experiences during the pandemic may have changed how they would want to interact with Social Security Scotland. A survey will be launched in December 2020 with interviews to follow in early 2021.

Research with Seldom Heard Groups

In the 2019 Annual Report we highlighted the programme of work to engage with seldom heard groups. This covers topics and groups that are sensitive, marginalised or dispersed, who are less likely to be visible in a project like the Experience Panels. We know many of these groups have particular experiences or characteristics that mean they may face barriers when engaging with public services and we want to make sure Social Security Scotland is designed with these on mind. 

Our programme of seldom heard research, has five strands:

  • Mobile populations:  Gypsy/ Traveller populations, temporary EU migrants, refugees. 
  • Care Experienced and Carers: Care experienced people, foster and kinship carers, young parents, single parents.  
  • Vulnerable groups: people who have offended, people with experience of homelessness, veterans. 
  • End of life: people with terminal illnesses, bereaved families
  • Survivors: survivors of domestic abuse and of childhood abuse. 

We have commissioned external experts to conduct two waves of fieldwork with each of these groups. Some of this work had to be paused during 2020 due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. Work in this area has resumed remotely where possible. We will share the first findings from this work early in 2021.

User testing work 

As we work towards more benefits moving to Social Security Scotland, our research is become more specific. At the start of the Experience Panels programme, we focused largely on understanding people's previous experiences and what they would want a new system to look like. We are now able to involve panel members in helping to shape the precise design of these benefits. 

This includes, for example, helping us to get the wording of information materials right, or feeding in on what an application form should be like. This year there have been increasing opportunities for panel members to get involved in this type of user testing work. This is different from our usual surveys, focus groups and interviews. It involves asking panel members to look at draft parts of a process, for example a piece of an application form, and see how easy to use it is. 

In the past, this kind of research would usually be done face to face because of the hands on nature of the process. This year our researchers have adapted how they work to support panel members to take part in these sessions remotely. By November, 182 people had taken part in user testing interviews, with more scheduled to take place over the winter. We are very grateful to everyone who has been flexible to these changes in how we work and helped us get these processes right.

User testing like this feeds directly into design, and doesn't have a research report like our other work. We do, however, include articles in our newsletters on how such testing has shaped processes. 

Research with Social Security Scotland Clients

Social Security Scotland have established a new programme of research called Client Panels.  The Client Panels are made up of clients who have volunteered to take part in research projects which will help improve the social security system in Scotland.  

In summer 2020, the Social Security Scotland Client Satisfaction Survey was issued to every Social Security Scotland client who had applied for or received a payment up to July 2020.  The survey included the option to join the Client Panels and over 1,000 volunteers have signed up to become members.  Over time, we expect membership to grow and to represent the full range of benefits delivered by Social Security Scotland. There is more information about this on the next page. 

Spotlight On: Social Security Scotland Client Panels

The Client Panels team have made use of experience and learning from colleagues working with the Experience Panels.  

  • Like Experience Panels, a key aim of Client Panels research is to involve users and those with lived experience in service design and delivery. 
  • Like Experience Panels, Client Panels will carry out research activities such as surveys, interviews and focus groups on a range of topics.
  • For some projects, the Client Panels and Experience Panels teams will work closely together to carry out research with both groups.  

There are also some unique things about Client Panels:

  • Client Panels are made up of Social Security Scotland clients.  People who make an application to, or receive a payment from, Social Security Scotland will have the opportunity to become a Client Panels member.
  • Research with Client Panels will focus on helping Social Security Scotland understand how to improve our service.  Client Panel members will be able to share feedback about their experience and their ideas for improvements. 
  • Client Panels will also help Social Security Scotland understand how we are delivering against the commitments set out in Our Charter and the Charter Measurement Framework.  

The first Client Panels research project will explore how the Covid-19 pandemic may have changed how clients want to interact with Social Security Scotland.  The project is being undertaken jointly with the Experience Panels team.

Sharing what we have found

We continue to consider carefully how we communicate with Experience Panels members about the findings of our research and decisions that have been made about Social Security Scotland. 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has meant that face-to-face information events had to be stopped from March onwards. We have also had to stop postal communications until a solution was found to manage this system without putting staff at any risk. 

We have continued to produce a newsletter for panel members, alongside ad-hoc updates about decisions that have been made. In November we also ran an online engagement event for 150 panel members with presentations from the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville, and key policy makers in Scottish Government. A video of the event with follow up information was shared with all panel members after the event. 

Once Coronavirus (COVID-19) is no longer a major risk to public health we will plan how to safely resume face-to-face research and information sharing events. We will continue to provide an online or phone option for those who have found they prefer to get involved in that way.



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