The Social Security Experience Panels were established to ensure that the design for new social security system in Scotland is shaped by the experiences, needs and priorities of those who will use it.
This report presents analysis of the written responses and focus groups held as part of ‘About Your Benefits and You’, which was the first piece of research carried out with Experience Panels members.
The About Your Benefits and You research aimed to:
- find out basic demographic information about the Panels
- capture respondents’ experiences of the current social security system, including what works well and what could be improved
- ask panel members their priorities for what the Scottish Government should improve in the development and delivery of the new system
1,144 panel members responded to the survey, which closed on 1 September 2017, and 274 panel members attended 35 focus groups held across Scotland.
The survey and focus groups asked about people’s experiences of the existing benefits system as a whole, rather than their experiences of individual benefits. This report therefore relates to experiences of the system in general. Where respondents’ comments relate to individual benefits this is noted in the text. Where individual benefits referenced are not being devolved to the Scottish Government, this is noted in a footnote for clarity.
Priorities for Improvement
Main priorities for improvement in the new system
The main priority area identified by both survey respondents and focus group participants was the importance of advice and support about claiming in accessing the benefit system. The next most common priority areas related to the process of applying for a benefit and the appeals process. A number of respondents suggested, however, that all of the listed areas were important in ensuring that applicants have a positive end-to-end experience of the system, or that the whole system needed to be considered to ensure a positive experience for applicants and customers.
Reasons for prioritisation
The reasons respondents gave for choosing their priority areas primarily related to where their experience of the current benefits system had presented barriers or challenges.
A number of respondents highlighted the impact that these barriers had on them whilst applying for benefits, including financial and health impacts.
A number also highlighted the importance of a holistic and joined up approach to providing information, advice and support to applicants. Respondents spoke about the importance of the new system being user-focussed and one which listens and responds.
What Works Well
Friendly, Helpful and Knowledgable Staff
The biggest factor contributing to good experiences of the current system was when staff were polite and friendly. The manner of DWP staff members and assessors was often noted when participants spoke about having a positive experience. In particular, it was important to respondents when staff showed empathy and understanding. It was also noted when it was clear that staff, particularly assessment staff, has knowledge of their condition.
Benefits Providing Support and Independence
In general, respondents recognised the value of the benefits system as being the support to live independently and manage their condition.
Simple, Clear and Timely Processes
Where people had felt that the process was straightforward, for example a simple application form, this was viewed as a positive experience. Similarly, respondents spoke of good experiences where things were done quickly.
People also spoke positively when the system met their needs. For example, for disability benefits including Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance  respondents described positive experiences where they were offered flexibility around having assessments at home or not at all contributed to positive experiences.
Overall Negative Experiences
It is important to note, however, that a large number of survey respondents and focus group participants were not able to give any examples of where things worked well in their experience.
What Could be Improved
Inflexibility of the Current System
Respondents often spoke about experiences that highlighted an inflexibility in the current system. This included no choice in how application forms are completed or communication channels. This is particularly difficult for those with mental health conditions or conditions that make certain types of communication impossible. Practical barriers also included being expected to travel to assessment centres, short notice for assessment or tribunal dates, short timescales for completing documentation and unwillingness to meet care or support needs for people with disabilities.
Lack of Transparency
Respondents also spoke about issues that arose from a lack of transparency in the system. A lack of clear information on what to expect from processes and long wait times without information was described as leading to feelings of powerlessness when navigating a difficult process. In the context of a lack of information, respondents often spoke about finding out about the system from informal networks and the experiences of others. Often this increased anxiety around interacting with the system.
Lack of Trust
A strong theme emerged around distrust in the relationship between the DWP and service users. Participants often spoke about a distrust of the DWP and the benefits system, but also that they felt distrusted by DWP staff. Participants spoke regularly about feeling like they were ‘on trial’ and that the presumption was that they were claiming benefits fraudulently.
Impact on Users
The impact that interacting with the system had on people was clear in the responses to the survey and focus groups. On the whole, the process of applying for benefits was often a source of stress and anxiety and participants feared having to go through the process again.