Publication - Research and analysis

Social Security experience panels: decision making and reviewing an award - main report

Outlines the Social Security experience panel's views expressed in a survey and focus groups on decision making for disability benefit applications.

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23 page PDF

365.3 kB

Contents
Social Security experience panels: decision making and reviewing an award - main report
Helping clients understand decision making

23 page PDF

365.3 kB

Helping clients understand decision making

In this project, survey respondents and focus group participants were presented with a list of different documents that may be used to tell clients the decision on their application. These were a decision letter, detailed report, face to face assessment report and benefit criteria. The following sections detail the findings and key themes that emerged about each document.

Telling clients about a decision

Focus group participants were asked to think about how they would want Social Security Scotland to tell them about the decision on their disability benefit application. The vast majority of participants favoured a letter through the post.

Participants explained that a hard copy letter was useful for a number of reasons. They highlighted the importance of having the decision on an application 'in black and white' and of having a physical document. Some participants noted that the hard copy decision letter is currently needed to gain entitlement to other benefits and services.

"Paper copies are the best, as you can use it as proof for other things and it also makes the decision 'more real'."

Participants said they favoured a letter because they could retain it for their personal records and future use, and could return to the letter to read it as and when they needed to. They could also physically take it to other people and places for support understanding the content.

"A letter lets you take your time to decide…there needs to be a paper trail."

"Letter because it's easier to share the decision with anyone who might be helping you."

Some participants mentioned that they would be content with finding out the decision on an application by email. This was because it offered a more immediate response. However most said they would still like a follow up letter in the post. These participants highlighted concerns about email getting lost or missed within mail folders, as well as variations in the IT literacy and connectivity of people who will be applying.

"Depending where you live, email response or text notice, signal goes off and on in this town."

"Not everyone has a printer or a smartphone to show other people it – you can delete an email by accident."

The least popular method of finding out the outcome of a benefit application among participants was by telephone. Many participants felt that this form of communication would be stressful. They explained that a phone call has particular drawbacks, namely that there is no record of the conversation to return to and that it may be difficult for some people to remember or understand the detail of the conversation.

"May misunderstand if it's over the phone – may [get] cross wires and [it's] difficult as you can't have proof. Some people might not remember what was said over the phone."

Some participants felt that it is easy to miss an important phone call, or that it could happen at an inappropriate time. A few participants highlighted that a phone call would not be appropriate for some people. Examples included those with hearing loss or deafness, and those who find talking on the phone makes them nervous.

"The phone calls are carried out with no regard for where an individual is at any time and the emotional impact that this can have on the individual."

A few participants said that they would like to find out the decision by text message or receive a text message to alert them that a decision had been made and they would receive a letter in the coming days. However these participants were in the minority.

"No, because you're dreading what's coming, if there's a message that something is coming from post then this will cause stress."

"If clients are alerted that a decision has been made by text/email, the details and further info should be immediately available at that point."

A few participants mentioned that they would like the option of finding out the outcome of a benefit application face to face, whilst another participant suggested an online system.

"Account based system would also be good - logging into an online account to have a look at the decision after an email would be much less invasive."

"Past experiences with the DWP are that there's no face to face interaction with the decision makers – the Social Security Scotland decision makers should have interaction with us through the process, I'm more of a face to face person."

Participants had individual preferences as to how they would want Social Security Scotland to tell them about a decision on an application and many felt that the option to choose a communication method is key. They envisaged a way in which they could specify a communication preference on the application form.

"People should have the option on how they're contacted – some people are not computer literate so should always have a letter."

"Everyone has different needs, as for me phone calls give me nervousness and emails I can take my time to read so depends on the individual."

As well as being able to choose how they are contacted by Social Security Scotland, a few participants highlighted that the option of being able to send communications such as decision letters to a named person would be beneficial.

"Another positive communication option is if people would like mail sent to a different place, a carer, CAB, someone they trust. That means that individual can communicate the information in a supportive way."

All participants said that they would like to find out about the decision the same way regardless of the outcome, whether successful or unsuccessful.

Helping clients understand a decision

Survey respondents were asked how Social Security Scotland can best help clients understand decisions which are made on benefit applications. The most common response was that Social Security Scotland should provide information explaining the decision in clear, simple language and using an easy to understand format. Like focus group participants, many respondents said that a decision letter would help them understand the decision.

"Make sure all letters are easy to read and understand."

"Applicants should be sent a letter which explains simply and without jargon what the decision is and the basis for the decision."

Many respondents suggested that any decision letter should contain detailed and transparent reasons for the decision. Each aspect of the criteria should be explained fully, and highlight the evidence used.

"A full explanation on how they came to the decision and what documents they used to assist them in making the decision."

"State clearly how decision came about. State what the criteria was and how I did or did not satisfy the criteria."

Whilst most respondents said that a decision letter would help them understand the decision made by Social Security Scotland on their benefit application, a few respondents suggested that a telephone call or face to face meeting, followed by a letter, would be useful. A few respondents also suggested that contact details for Social Security Scotland which they could use for further information or discussion, would help them understand the decision made.

"By explaining orally via telephone conversation followed up in writing."

"I think it would be better to have a face to face meeting to have the decision given to you with an explanation of the decision. When you get a letter with a decision, you want to speak to someone to clarify the decision and ask what this means for you as an individual. This could all be explained at a decision meeting, saving stress, numerous phone calls etc."

Out with the main themes above, a few respondents suggested that the following from Social Security Scotland would help them understand a decision taken on a benefit application:

  • Clear communication through all stages of the application, not just the decision outcome;
  • Named person within Social Security Scotland to contact for follow-up;
  • A copy of the face to face assessment report;
  • Information about the decision making process;
  • Information about who made the decision;
  • Information about the appeals process; and
  • Next steps and timescales.

As highlighted in the survey excerpts above, many respondents mentioned a combination of these themes when answering this question.

"Sharing all the information you have so I can check it's accurate. Telling me why you have made the decision in clear easy to understand language matched against your criteria and tell me clearly what the next steps are and what that means. Tell me the appeals process if I need it, being clear on timescales and process and what will happen."

"Explain, using Plain English, what decision is. How it was arrived at. What that decision means in respect of the benefit award (or no award). How to appeal that decision."

Focus group participants were told that one idea for the future is that Social Security Scotland will send applicants a letter giving their decision, and a detailed explanation of why they made that decision in a report sent alongside the letter. Participants were asked what they thought of this format. Almost all participants said that they thought this was a good idea.

"It would make it more transparent and open. Detail and evidence of what was used to make the decision."

Participants were asked what sort of information they would find useful in the decision letter and detailed report in understanding how Social Security Scotland has made its decision. Participants mentioned different kinds of information, and most of this mirrored what survey respondents said they would find useful in helping clients understand decisions which are made on benefit applications. The most common sort of information participants noted were:

  • Summary of the evidence Social Security Scotland used;
  • Summary of the criteria, where the applicant has and has not met it;
  • Information about who made the decision;
  • Next steps – the details of the award, including amount and timescales for payment and review;
  • Next steps – the right to appeal and the appeal process; and
  • Contact details for Social Security Scotland to discuss the decision, ask a query or follow up.

"Something short on appeals - if you disagree, this is what you should do, the next stage is, who to contact, timescales. A road map."

"A clear signpost if you need to talk to someone or understand this, here's the number to contact."

Participants were asked why they would find this sort of information useful. They explained that the information is about them and so they are entitled to see it. Participants noted that a detailed report alongside the decision letter would also allow applicants to check that Social Security Scotland had used more than one evidence source and would provide a record of how the evidence was used. The report would also allow applicants to understand how they measured against each criteria. Participants explained that they would file the report to use in the future and would find it helpful if they needed to appeal or reapply.

"A detailed report would allow clients to see where the misunderstanding or problem has occurred and target those elements. People forget things on the form. A specific set of examples on how the supporting info has been understood, may trigger more of that, would prove useful at the reconsideration stage."

It is for these reasons that most participants said that they would want a detailed report alongside their decision letter regardless of whether their application was successful or unsuccessful.

"I feel like a sponge that's been rung out, constantly describing myself in a negative way to make people understand. I need to fight the battle for myself, which is why the report is important."

Only a few participants felt that a detailed report would be unnecessary if the application was successful.

"The more paperwork that goes out to everyone, the more expensive the system becomes. If you're successful you don't need that detailed report. If you want to take it forward then you can ask for it."

Format and presentation

Participants were asked how the letter and report should be formatted and how Social Security Scotland can make it as easy as possible for clients to understand a decision. Like survey respondents, most participants said that both the letter and report should be short and written in plain English.

"These benefit letters start to become like wallpaper in the house, 16 page letters that could be written in two."

Some participants provided some thoughts on format, distinguishing what sort of information should be in the decision letter and what should be in the report. These participants felt that the letter should only contain key award information and next steps, with any references to evidence, disabilities or health conditions contained within the report.

"The letter should be basic information on how much, when available from, when the first payment will be. Then 'please see attached report for further info regarding decision'."

Participants explained that they would not want details of their disability or health condition on the decision letter because it is often used to access other services and entitlements.

"If in the decision letter it states that yes this person is entitled to this, you don't need to know why, if they have physical or invisible disability. All they need to know is having a letter that they are entitled to this benefit and when this is until. I don't want people to know the illnesses I have. They don't need to know my disability."

Some participants had different ideas for formatting and presentation to ensure that it is as easy as possible for clients to understand a decision made on an application:

"If it's too much information, colour code it for each section to easily distinguish between them to see what is most important."

"Make sure the decision letter is on top."

"Some people might need an explanation of the process/terms in a leaflet in easy read."

Assessment report

Survey respondents and focus group participants were told that one idea for the future is that Social Security Scotland will send applicants a copy of their face to face assessment report. This would be sent alongside the decision letter and detailed report.

Nearly all respondents said they would like to receive a copy of their face to face assessment report, regardless of the outcome. Over nine in ten respondents (93 per cent) would like to receive a copy of report with the decision letter if they were awarded the benefit. This was slightly lower than the percentage of respondents who would like to receive a copy of the report if they were not awarded the benefit (97 percent), or if they were awarded the benefit but on a lower level of award than they were expecting (96 per cent).

Table 1: Would you like to receive a copy of your face to face assessment report? (n=213-218) [3]
  %
If you were awarded the benefit 93
If you were not awarded the benefit 97
You were awarded a lower level of award than you were expecting 96

Similarly, most focus group participants said that they would want to receive a copy of their face to face assessment report automatically, regardless of whether their application was successful or unsuccessful. They said they would want this for much the same reasons as they stated for the detailed decision report:

  • To check that the report is accurate;
  • For further information on the decision making process;
  • To start the appeal process if necessary;
  • To store and keep for future use or applications; and
  • To have a physical document to read and/or give to others.

"Then you have everything, you don't need to wait weeks to get a report and then you'll have everything there and you can start your appeal and start the process quickly."

"I'm sure if I went to doctor if I sat there and told them the assessors said this or that, I wouldn't be able to remember, so I can hand over the report and they can read it."

Some groups were mixed in their views however, as some participants felt that it could be made an option for people to request the assessment report, or have the option of opting in or opting out to receive it at the application stage. This is because participants thought that it might be overwhelming or distressing to receive this report, particularly if unsuccessful.

"I would say no. It's overwhelming. It should be obvious you can request it, it's not at the moment. It should say how to ask for it in the report."

"A bulky package may overwhelm people."

In contrast, one or two participants thought that the report should be sent automatically if unsuccessful.

"Distressing when you've been unsuccessful to have to wait for a long time to receive the report back."

A few participants questioned the objectivity of a written report, asking whether audio or video recordings would be available.

"Information on how to get the recording of the assessment should be included in the letter/information pack. I would want to access the audio or video recordings because written reports can be very subjective and depend on the person who carried out the assessment."

Criteria

Over nine in ten respondents said that they would want to receive information on the benefit criteria alongside a detailed explanation of their decision (94 per cent).

Table 2: Would you want to receive information on the benefit criteria once Social Security Scotland has made their decision? (n=216)
  %
Yes 94
No 1
I have no preference 5
Total 100

Respondents were asked how they would prefer to receive information on benefit criteria alongside the decision letter. Around six in ten respondents preferred post (62 per cent) and one third preferred email (33 per cent). Five per cent of respondents preferred 'another way' of receiving this information. Their suggestions included phone, face to face, a combination of communication methods, and any personal communication preference.

Table 3: If Social Security Scotland did send out information on benefit criteria and a copy of the evidence they used when making their decision alongside the decision letter, how would you prefer to receive this? (n=218)
  %
By post 62
By email 33
Another way 5
Total 100

We also asked focus group participants if they would want to be sent a copy of the criteria for the benefit alongside the decision letter and detailed explanation. In contrast to survey respondents, most participants said that they felt that the benefit criteria document would be more relevant at the application stage.

"Criteria is usually a before thing, that comes with application and info. Should have it already."

Some participants said that they would still find a copy of a criteria useful, for example, if they had misplaced the original copy or did not have the means to get the information easily.

Other decision letter information

Survey respondents were asked if there anything else Social Security Scotland should include with the decision letter. The most common response was that Social Security Scotland should include information about the right to appeal and the process of appeal.

"Information about what to do if I don't agree with the decision."

"A clear explanation of the appeals process and all the stages involved, with timescales."

For some respondents, this would also include what support and advocacy organisations could help them through the process following an unsuccessful decision on an application.

"Signposting of other benefits or organisations that can help."

Many focus group participants similarly said that they would appreciate signposting to national and local external help organisations. Some participants suggested that Social Security Scotland could highlight any other benefits they may be entitled to, depending on the outcome of the application.

"Make signpost to national and regional support groups and websites."

"Links to community support/schemes/things they could be benefiting from. Organisations in the local area."

Some respondents said that they would like to receive information about the details of their benefit award if their application was successful. This included information on the benefit length, benefit rates, the date the benefit would start and when they could expect to receive their first payment.

"Details of what rates of benefit will be paid and when I can expect to receive the first payment and the rate and regularity of future payments."

"Information on how long the award is for and whether any further contact will be made with a client until end of award date."

With an open text question, respondents were asked if there is anything else they would like to add about how Social Security Scotland should communicate decisions to clients. The most common response was that clients of Social Security Scotland should be able to state their preferred method to receive communications.

"By using whatever format is preferable to that particular client and their needs."


Contact

Email: socialresearch@gov.scot