Social security experience panels - About Your Benefits and You: qualitative research findings

Analysis of focus group responses within ‘About Your Benefits and You’, the first piece of research carried out with the Social Security Experience Panel.

This document is part of a collection

Chapter 1: Priorities for Improvement


This chapter considers responses relating to the survey questions “What are the top three things that the Scottish Government should improve about the benefits system?” and “can you explain why you chose these as the most important?”. Focus group participants were also asked to discuss these questions as a group.

The chapter outlines the priorities which were reported in the research findings, published in November 2017, as well as providing more detail on the responses of those who identified “something else” as a priority. It also considers the reasons given by responses for their choices of priority areas. These included:

  • Lack of advice and support
  • Impact on applicant
  • Whole system improvement

Key points

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 information and advice in accessing the benefit system. 71 per cent of respondents rated this within their top three priorities. 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.

Priorities for improvement in the new system

As reported in the tick-box survey research findings, published in November 2017, we asked respondents to tell us about their priorities for the Scottish Government to improve in the new social security system. 71 per cent of respondents to this question rated “advice and support about claiming” within their top three priorities. Other priorities included “applying for a benefit” and “having a claim reconsidered or going to appeal.” Table 1 outlines the priorities listed by survey respondents. This prioritisation is also reflective of the response from focus group participants.

Table 1: Priorities for improvement (n = 1,111)*

% respondents
Advice and support about claiming 71%
Applying for a benefit 52%
Having a claim reconsidered or going to appeal 45%
Being kept up to date about your claim 44%
General enquires about benefits 24%
Being told the result of your application 18%
Making changes to your information after the result 13%
Making a complaint 10%
Something else 2%

* figures relate to the proportion of complete responses which listed the area within their top three priorities for improvement. Figures therefore do not add up to 100%.

Respondents who selected “something else” were asked to described what this priority was. The analysis of these responses highlighted a number of key themes.

Many of these respondents described improvements they felt were needed within the assessment process for Personal Independence Payment ( PIP). This included themes relating to the provision of evidence about their condition being taken into consideration in decision making, eliminating the need for reassessment of people with degenerative or life-long conditions, and the way that assessments are carried out. This is discussed at length in Chapter 3.

Making sure the information on assessors reports are true and listening more to GP's and specialists who know about the conditions people have. If a GP or specialist say the person is unfit to work [2] or they class them as disabled that should be enough. The assessors are not aware of the people's background or daily life so how can they decide in 30 minutes. (Survey Respondent)

A number of respondents highlighted a need for improvements to the speed of application and appeal processes as a key priority.

Respondents emphasised the importance of a person-centred approach, including understanding how disabilities and health conditions can affect people differently. Some described a need for a system which is more sympathetic and treats customers with compassion, and emphasised the importance of improving the behaviour of staff.

Treat claimants with the dignity and respect they deserve. Stop sending confusing letters that do not make sense. (Survey Respondent)

A number of respondents also commented on the importance of effective communication channels, including improving the phone system to be quicker to answer, responding to email or written correspondence, and having more face-to-face support.

Respondents commented that they felt it was important that the new system doesn’t use private companies within its processes, with some referencing the role of Atos in PIP assessments as a specific example.

Many of the respondents who highlighted “something else” as a priority felt that the whole system needs to be improved. Some also highlighted the importance of having clear policies, transparency and accountability within the new system.

Make tribunals more transparent and require them to reveal any contra-indications that they think they find in the information provided by the claimant or that has been provided by any 3rd party. (Survey Respondent)

Reasons for prioritisation

When giving reasons for why they had prioritised certain parts of the system for improvement, the majority of survey respondents highlighted personal experiences where they had faced barriers or challenges within the system. This included experiences where their interaction with the system had impacted on their stress or anxiety levels, their mental health or had exacerbated their existing condition. Many of these issues are covered in Chapter 3.

Lack of advice and support

The importance of advice and support about claiming was consistently highlighted when people explained their priority choices. Some respondents talked about the application process being confusing, and a lack of clear information about what you are entitled to.

The application system is confusing and time consuming and not individual enough. Far too many people are completely unaware of what they might be entitled to. Each benefit is paid at different dates each month making budgeting incredibly difficult for families. The system is a mess...time consuming, difficult, messy. There is nowhere to get advice on what you are entitled to...the calculators recommended are utter nonsense and are never correct. Too many families don't get what they are entitled to because they don't know what they can claim. (Survey Respondent)

Nothing is signposted, people are left to try figure out for themselves what they are entitled to claim. DWP make things so difficult throughout the process. (Survey Respondent).

A number of survey respondents and focus group participants described finding out about potential benefit entitlements through friends and family members or through medical professionals, rather than information available from the DWP, in particular when claiming benefits for the first time. Participants often spoke of finding out about benefits through ‘luck’ or ‘by chance’.

Advice and support is needed as when I got ill health retirement at the age of 40 nobody told me about the benefit I could claim it was pure chance that I stumbled on it. I always worked and never claimed any benefits. (Survey Respondent).

Some focus group participants highlighted the importance of a holistic approach to providing support and advice, in particular in relation to the wider support available to applicants and other benefits that applicants may be eligible for.

It is just down to luck finding out about benefits you can apply for, this could be improved. Find out through friends and family. Society expects that families will take on caring responsibilities, GPs/district nurse/social workers could provide information to carers about benefits. There should be a holistic resource directory. However resources are so tight that provision is cut to the bone so you have to kick up a stink to get what you need. (Focus Group Participant).

A number of respondents highlighted the need for a more joined up approach between DWP departments, and with other services. In particular, respondents spoke about difficulties in finding out about other related things that they were entitled to. Disabled parking permits and Carer’s Allowance were often given as an example. On one occasion, a focus group participant who had given up work to care for her husband found out about Carer’s Allowance at the focus group.

DLA should cover everything from mobility payments to your blue badge and bus pass and you should be told about all of the other benefits your will be eligible for (Focus Group Participant)

Joined up approach between benefits and the other entitlements that passport – didn’t know about bus passes, warm home discount. Hospitals etc. should play a key role in advising people – even if it’s just a leaflet. There needs to be a central directory of all of the things you can access. (Focus Group Participant).

Impact on applicants

A number of applicants reported that their reason for prioritising particular issues was due to the impact that negotiating the system had on them. This included financial hardship, stress, and health impacts. This reason was given across a number of priority areas.

A key factor in this was the stress associated with waiting to hear the result of an application or waiting for an appeal.

Can't take the stress of not knowing decision for months. Uncertainty. Already ill in pain it is difficult to go on every day with axe hanging over you. Three months waiting for a decision. Need it to end. Can't take the pain and getting thru every day with an axe hanging over me. (Survey Respondent).

The appeals process is traumatic and lengthy. Having someone accompanying me to provide advice and support and being able to speak on my behalf when I was crying would have helped. Being kept up to date about my claim would have been better as I had to phone for an update every week for 7 months before a decision was made. (Survey Respondent).

The stress and anxiety going through the system are unbelievable. If we knew that the system was on our side when we apply it wouldn't be so worrying. The wait to find out the result of claiming drains you - three months is a long time to wait for the outcome. (Survey Respondent).

Other respondents highlighted the impact of going through the application process whilst also coping, or in some cases, coming to terms with a disability, health condition or new diagnosis. Some highlighted that this often cooincides with a significant life change or change in personal finances. For example, when an individual is required to stop work due to their health or caring responsibilities.

Having to deal with a devastating change in your life is stressful on its own, so advice and support are paramount to someone who cannot fully focus on anything else, being kept up to date can help forstall payment of bills etc, while you no longer get a wage and are waiting for a decision, and if doctors/specialists letters were read properly half the appeals would not be needed. (Survey Respondent).

This for me was a very disturbing time of my life. I went from being in a good job I loved to being disabled in a couple of days. The very fact I didn't want this seemed to missed by the people that were there to help. (Survey Respondent).

Whole system improvement

Some respondents suggested that all of the areas listed above should be seen as priorities for improvement within the new system.

I think all of the questions above are applicable… All of the above should really be considered when making any changes to the benefit system as it’s like a domino effect, if you make one change it will have a knock on effect with other benefit issues. (Survey Respondent).

It's all important. Every stage is important, I actually think ranking them is pointless, from start to finish every person applying needs clarity all the way through. Which one is most important to any person depends totally on which point they are at. Every point listed needs to be spot on all the time for every enquiry. If you are asking for general info thats most important to you at that moment...if you feel you need to complain then thats most important then. What matters most is consistent accurate information at every point . (Survey Respondent).

Illness isn't something that is structured and unchanged. It is more fluid and can change drastically in just seconds. New diagnosis, hospital stays, changes in condition should all be much easier to change. (Survey Respondent)

A number of survey respondents and focus group participants highlighted the importance of improving consistency within the system both across individual benefits and across different parts of the country.

Help/advice needs to be consistent across the country, currently there is disparity across geographic regions. (Focus Group Participant)


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