There is growing recognition across public policy – from health and care to transport - that involvement of people directly affected can improve policies and services; and this is reflected in DWP’s objectives. DWP aims to ‘deliver policies, strategies and structures that are co-produced with disabled people’ and to:
‘Improve outcomes and ensure financial security for disabled people and people with health conditions, so they view the benefits system and the department as an ally’.
Through a call for evidence, focus groups and interviews we heard from individual disabled people, Disabled People’s Organisations and charities - those that had and had not worked with DWP, from different regions and nations of the UK – and from DWP officials in different parts the organisation, both nationally and locally. We found many types of engagement in action, from user-centred design of operational processes to listening events and regular meetings. We met officials who talked confidently about why it was important to involve disabled people and what they were doing to achieve it (from engaging people in discussion on early ideas for a forthcoming Green Paper to improving access in local JobCentres). We heard a genuine recognition that trust needed to be strengthened and a commitment to developing effective relationships.
However good practices were not consistently built into the culture and normal ways of working. It wasn’t always clear where on the ‘ladder of participation’ (from just informing people or consulting them on a pre-determined plan through to fully co-producing work) the particular involvement approaches sat. This could cause confused expectations. The Department could do more to ‘close the loop’ and ensure people know what happens next to their input. And there is more to do to involve diverse disabled individuals and organisations around the country.
We also looked at how other organisations involve disabled people, to transfer learning.
To build consistent culture and trust, we recommend that DWP co-produces with disabled people a protocol for engagement, setting out what models of engagement should be adopted in which broad circumstances, with principles about feedback, openness and accessibility, so disabled people know what to expect; and identifying how DWP will engage with different types of organisation, including local, diverse and user-led organisations.
To increase the direct voice of diverse disabled people, we recommend a large-scale panel of disabled people with experience of social security that the Department can consult regularly, and draw from to work on detailed projects.
We also make recommendations on use of accessible networking tools, ensuring accessibility and expecting contractors to adopt good practice in engagement. But given the importance of culture, our final recommendation is that DWP should show through its leadership actions and messages - from all leaders across the organisation - that actively involving people claiming social security, including disabled people, is central to the Department’s values and way of working. This should be reflected in governance arrangements, with regular reports to the Executive Team on progress and a non-executive member of the Departmental Board to champion and oversee progress.
We believe these steps would support the Department in meeting its objectives, building relationships and learning from feedback to improve policy and delivery.