Capturing the Impact of Welfare Reform
The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aimed to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods.
The Civic Innovation Toolkit documents 29 such methods that had never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue.
This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work.
In a context where there are significant myths and misconceptions around welfare benefits and social security, Northern Ireland is introducing significant changes to the benefits system. Advice NI set out to capture the impact of welfare reform from the perspective of the Northern Ireland public (particularly those most likely to be impacted by the welfare reform bill) by evidencing citizens’ current experiences and fears of the proposed future reforms, ultimately providing them with a voice for engaging with and influencing Welfare Reform policy decisions.
The Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act was given Royal Assent on 25th November 2015. This provides for significant changes to the benefits system, including the introduction of Universal Credit, the introduction of Personal Independence Payment, changes to Housing Benefit, changes to Employment and Support Allowance and the introduction of a more severe sanctions regime.
Advice NI felt that parts of the media have increasingly demonised benefit claimants over recent years. Television programmes such as Channel 4’s ‘Benefit Street’ have fuelled the debate around welfare benefits. A lot of the discussions have been based on emotion and not fact.
Advice NI’s Civic Activism project set out to: challenge the myths and misconceptions around welfare reform and social security; capture citizen’s experiences and fears; enable benefit claimants to have more influence, a louder voice and be better informed.
In support of this, Advice NI adopted five civic activism tools:
- Digital Fact Checking – Advice NI have used fact checking to help ‘bust’ common myths and misconceptions around welfare benefits and welfare claimants. These pithy mythbusting reports, outlining the key facts, cover topics including the generosity of welfare payments, fraud in the social security system, where social security spending goes and who welfare reform will affect.
- Citizen Reporting – Advice NI have used Citizen Reporting to collect personal stories of the current impacts of welfare reform and people’s fears/anxieties for the future changes. This included adopting a mixture of online (e.g. social media) and offline (e.g. photos, videos and vox pops) tools to capture and publicise stories in citizens’ own words.
- Citizens Report Card – Advice NI used a Citizens Report Card to collect people’s perspectives on welfare myths, the impacts of welfare reform and fears for the future. This took the form of an online and face-to-face survey, including at an “I, Daniel Blake” film screening, welfare reform training events and workshops, and during advice consultations.
- Crowdmapping / Ushahidi – Advice NI are planning to use the crowd-mapping tool, Ushahidi, to map the impact of welfare reform across Northern Ireland. This will allow them to collect, map and communicate the impact of welfare reform in an interactive way, using stories and images.
- Crowdwise – In light of the information collected via the other methods, Advice NI will be using Crowdwise to engage welfare recipients and others with experience of welfare reform in a conversation about Advice NI’s policy priorities.
What Worked Well
The project has helped to give people – particularly welfare recipients – a voice to influence advice services and welfare reform policy in Northern Ireland.
Working with partners who provide frontline services to vulnerable, hard to reach and marginalised citizens has enabled Advice NI to reach those who most likely have been or will be impacted by Welfare Reform. Engaging through training events, workshops and other outlets has helped the project target clients who have experiences, fears and stories to tell. In addition, the project has been able to capture and understand perceptions and stereotypes of benefit recipients through engaging with the general public.
Producing and publicising citizens’ stories has helped bring to life the reality of Welfare Reform and the impact it can have on vulnerable citizens. The project has demonstrated people are extremely anxious and fearful of the impacts of the changes to the benefits system.
Through capturing and analysing citizens’ stories via the Citizen Reporting and Citizens Report Cards, Advice NI have gathered an evidence base of people’s opinions, experiences and fears that will help inform the delivery of their services in the future and highlight the impact of welfare reform on people.
Advice NI has collected and anonymised data generated from those seeking advice on welfare changes. Geo-coding this data has enabled them to examine spatial patterns, for example displaying the broad geographical areas where those seeking advice are living.
Advice NI’s intention is to integrate the tools, knowledge and new skills learnt through the civic activism project into their business as usual activities. They see potential in using civic activism tools across other business areas within the advice sector.
What Lessons Can Be Learned
Do not underestimate the time it may take to learn new approaches and setup new tools. It is important to be prepared to experiment and adopt a flexible and agile approach. Over the course of their project, Advice NI needed to reflect on and alter their approach in order to best achieve their intended outcomes.
One such example of where a change of approach was needed was in supplementing online engagement with face-to-face engagement. During the project it became clear that engaging online via social media and an online survey was not going to reach the people or collect the information Advice NI required. They therefore used face-to-face engagement at events and with advice services to reach people.
The establishment of the crowd-mapping platform was delayed due to some teething problems during the setup phase. In addition, the delay to Welfare Reform legislation being passed impacted on the project as Advice NI was keen to use live data. However, now that data is available, Advice NI plans to integrate it into their everyday practice.
When using civic multiple activism tools, do not think of them in isolation. Advice NI chose to adopt five tools, which could have proved to be too much, but through considering how they worked together and complemented each other it was possible to maximise their potential.
Be aware of external circumstances that may cause delays and impact on the project.
All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.
The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community Fund) with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.
Advice NI, a registered charity founded in 1995, exists to provide leadership and services to our 62 member organisations and to ensure accessible advice services across Northern Ireland.
For more information about the organisations and the project: http://www.adviceni.net/content/welfare-reform