Joanna Spiers

The views expressed do not reflect those of Policy Scotland or the University of Glasgow.


I’ve been working at Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector for around 18 months; my job is to coordinate some of the welfare reform activity happening across Glasgow’s Third Sector; to help the sector stay informed about impending changes and to use their experience and evidence to try to help shape and influence policy responses. My post was funded by The Scottish Government, Social Justice Team, who have been looking at ways to practically deliver the findings of the Christie Commission and are interested in how people with experience can become more involved in the design, development and delivery of the services they use, so in addition to my work with the Third Sector I was also asked ‘To increase citizen participation in the welfare reform agenda’.


Not a small task, but one I was very interested in; personally and professionally I want to find ways to facilitate citizens’ full engagement in the democratic process, from influencing the development of policy, to having full and equal engagement in the improvement of existing services and the design and delivery of new services.


Over the last 10 years I’ve spent time working across policy, practice and participation, trying to find ways to help people understand policy, working with them to find out how this policy may impact on their lives and trying to find ways to counter any negative impacts. It’s led me to develop various peer projects, informed by the experiences of people and delivered by people with experience, but not developed with them. I saw my role at GCVS as an opportunity to remedy this.


So, how do you increase citizen participation in the welfare reform agenda? My answer – you work with a small group of interested people, who currently use the benefit system, have a good understanding of the challenges and problems the system presents and feel passionate about trying to disrupt the system with a view to improving it.


The small group is Glasgow Action on Benefits (GAB), four Glasgow citizens, all from different backgrounds and all engaging with the benefit system in different ways and receiving different benefits. Volunteers to the group were recruited on the basis that they would be trained on peer education and peer research and would have the opportunity to use their training to inform and educate others whilst gathering information and evidence to test a theory about something benefit related.


The Challenges

As with anything new there were challenges, but also lots of invaluable learning.


1) Recruiting people to something that has no defined objective or outcome can be difficult, people are pretty sceptical when you turn up and say ‘well I don’t know what the outcome will be, that’ll be up to you to decide’.


2) Making sure you can fully facilitate the learning process by responding to the knowledge and learning requests of the people involved.


3) Facilitating, not leading can be difficult, there’s a lot of checking and balancing required to make sure you aren’t unwittingly influencing the group’s decisions.


4) Understanding that, for most people, this is a new way of working and that it may take some time for them to be fully confident that they have full control over the development, design and delivery of the work.


The Good Stuff

GAB surprised everyone, they decided not to focus on a specific benefit issue like sanctions, but decided to test a theory about Rights & Entitlements and how knowledge of rights and entitlements could impact upon the stigma and inequality being experienced by some of their peers.


We worked together to design a workshop that would gather information about peoples’ experiences of the Department for Work and Pension (DWP), inform them of the true nature of ‘Benefits Britain’ and share information about the DWP Customer Charter. Over 3 months we delivered the session to 140 people using a range of services.


Our workshops have returned some great results, with 100% of participants telling us that they learned something new and 28% of participants expressing an interest in joining the group.


In addition to these workshops we designed a one to one questionnaire to be taken out into the community in a bid to reach people who do not use services, the questionnaire sought to gather similar information as the workshops, and again inform people of their rights under the DWP Customer Charter.


So, what’s next?

GAB is currently collating and analysing the information they’ve gathered, it will be available in a full report by the end of April and will:

  • Highlight the inconsistencies between people’s experiences and what the DWP Customer Charter promises them;
  • Provide evidence on just how little is known about the Customer Charter, across both citizens and staff;
  • Outline recommendations and next steps, the actions GAB want to take in order to redress some of the imbalances they have discovered as a result of their work.


In a nutshell the GAB’s work demonstrates what we know to be true – people’s experiences don’t always match up to policy or practice intentions and it is only by continuously involving the people who use services in the design, development and delivery of them that we can make sure they are fit for purpose.


Scottish Government funding for GAB was provided on a short term basis, but here at GCVS we are fully committed to continuing with the model. The volunteers and I are working together to think about how best to develop the project and secure funding; we all believe it has some real potential and could be used across a range of social policy areas to help bridge the gaps between people, practice and policy.