Global lessons from the Department of Work and Pensions: joy in heaven for a repentant sinner?

Yesterday, an English family lawyer organisation sent out a press release. You might have missed it. Resolution reported: ‘The Department of Work and Pensions) has announced that the Help and Support for Separated Families … mark scheme and the Sorting out Separation (SOS) website have been discontinued.’ You certainly might have missed the implications. The DWP media website itself would not help you. It is still leading on great employment figures and says nothing about this announcement.

The SOS website has raised issues for some time. It was promoted by an English and Welsh government that cut legal aid for family lawyers as a means by which separating couples might still be encouraged to minimise their conflict. The problem was that, frankly, it was all too naff. The version available when Professor Alan Paterson and I were writing a Face to Face Legal Services and Their Alternatives: Global Lessons from the Digital Revolution published in 2014 was simplistic. It contained a number of expensively made videos with the message that mediation was good: conflict bad. All your problems would go away if you could get to a mediator.

Comment on SOS has been bitter. The website translated into an app which could be embedded into other websites. A good idea in theory perhaps but technically a problem and one user reported balefully in bold caps: ‘THE DWP ENCOURAGES GOOD BOY SCOUTS LIKE ME TO EMBED THE APP ON THEIR SITES.  THIS I DULY DID AFTER SPENDING HOURS WORKING OUT HOW TO DO IT.  UNFORTUNATELY, GOOGLE THEN DETECTED THE APP AND DECIDED THAT MY INNOCENT BLOG WOULD INFECT ANY VISITORS WITH MALWARE. MY TRAFFIC FELL OFF A CLIFF. THANK YOU DWP. SO I HAVE REMOVED IT’.

The content wasn’t much liked either. Another frustrated user reported: ‘Honestly, will this REALLY be of any use to anyone? At the risk of sounding like a belligerent teenager, I already ‘know my rights’. The day I decided I wanted to leave my child’s father I Googled them, cross referenced them, looked up family law stuff and went and had an hour’s consultation with a family law expert (a free initial consultation as offered by many practitioners). I don’t think ‘not knowing where to turn’ is the real issue at all during separation – sure it might be for some people, but, as the excruciating film for the app shows, it is all about breakdown in communication. THOSE are the realities, and frankly, an app pointing us in the right direction to resolution (our ‘rights’, access to mediation…) is not going to take any of that away.’

The website became itself a troubled child that underwent review after review. The 2014 report for the Legal Education Foundation on technology and access to justice reported on one departmental evaluation of SOS’s effectiveness. It recommended the removal of rose-tinted appreciations: ‘it would be useful to focus additional content on mapping the range of issues that may take place and the questions that users may need to ask themselves now and in the future. This should recognise and acknowledge realistic problems around separation – both in terms of messiness and unpleasant emotions involved for those separating, and in terms of potential problem points around the solutions and support. The website will lose credibility if it is perceived as offering unrealistically positive solutions or does not acknowledge real-world situations’. The Ministry of Justice digital and technology department later had a go, summarised in a blog nicely entitled: Family separation: what’s GOV got to do with it?

The answer now appears to be that perhaps government had rather too much to do with it. A DWP report seeks to draw out the lessons. This is where a domestic failure potentially has global relevance. The subject matter of the SOS project was reducing parental conflict. But, the study draws out lessons more generally for digital assistance on any topic. 

For example, the researchers found – as we probably already knew – that ‘smartphones are the device of choice for internet use (over laptops, desktops, tablets, etc.) not only by low-income families, but by all economic groups …  Although low-income families have access to smartphones, they may not have a large data allowance. … In contrast to more affluent social economic groups, low-income families tend to undertake a narrower band of online activities, and do not generally browse the internet. Much of their time online is spent on social media networks accessed via their smartphones.’ Counter-intuitively perhaps, ‘Smartphone models were often the latest generation as low cost contracts and PAYG (‘pay as you go’) enable the purchase of newer models with little initial outlay. iPhones were the most popular followed by Samsung. Some individuals did not have an internet connection at home and were solely dependent on 4G (wireless internet access) via their smartphones.’ Users often did not have an email address so could read discussion forums like MumsNet but not participate. Indeed, ‘Messaging apps on smartphones such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat were favoured over emailing.’

More detailed findings are:

  1. ‘mothers and fathers from low-income households, who are experiencing parental conflict, do go online. In the main, they are confidently accessing social media (for example Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger) to communicate. They prefer videos to long articles and are more likely to engage and re-engage with trusted and recognised brands (the parents we interviewed mentioned brands such as children’s charities and trusted government websites and for social media mainly online and TV celebrities).’ 
  2. Parents … ‘are not typically going to established webpages for parental conflict advice and information. Parents found it difficult to define search terms for issues relating to parental conflict and, therefore, they did not always find the relevant information that was available online.’ That is probably the same for legal needs.
  3. Parents google but can be overwhelmed by the results: ‘A Google results page predominantly listed links to blogs and articles hosted on websites with which the parents were not familiar.’
  4. And, ‘a key insight that we want to share which may also have application outside the parental conflict space’, ‘delivering digital help where parents already go online and addressing what they need (rather than signposting or re-directing to websites and apps) could be critical to engaging this target group in the future.’
  5. The findings … suggest that to better engage families in low-income households, material or content … should:
    • provide for a reading age of 9 years (as per GOV.UK digital standards)
    • ensure that text based information is short, concise and not text ‘heavy’ so readers can understand and take on board the information
    • be optimised for smartphone use and not use high amounts of data to access
    • follow simple clear design practices e.g. include headings, bullet points, short paragraphs and checklists
    • ensure legal accessibility requirements are met.

Significantly for organisers of information and advice websites of all kinds, ‘parents … did not respond favourably to any digital offering that required higher-level digital skills or the inputting of personal information, for example apps that require downloading and registration. Parents were often suspicious of any online form or email registration. They preferred to remain anonymous online and didn’t want to register or sign in to view online content.’ That creates a tension for providers between the desire to monitor use and to obtain the widest coverage.

Reports of the cost of the SOS website veer between £14m and a probably more realistic £300,000. You might think that the DWP could have slipped a tenner to anyone involved in access to justice and saved themselves whatever the cost was. However, the findings of the report leave a legacy underlying the importance of smartphones (even if we knew that);and social media (even if we don’t like that) in accessing hard to reach populations. And, maybe, there should be joy in heaven over one that repenteth more than 99 who never went astray in the first place. Though it seems a bit of a waste of resources.

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