Developing virtual advocacy

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Liz Fenton, Strategic Service Development Manager, SeAp

Support Empower Advocacy Promote (SeAp) provides face-to-face independent advocacy across the South of England. We are contracted by Local Authorities to provide advocacy that is required by law, e.g. relating to the Mental Capacity Act, the Mental Health Act, the Care Act and NHS Complaints.  We also have a strategic mission to extend advocacy to others who need help to make their voice heard. Our website is key to our operation: it has the properties of an App, allowing the user to log in without downloading, using desktop or mobile devices.

Those due to undergo a medical assessment for Employment Support Allowance and/or Personal Independence Payments particularly need our services. The process often results in high levels of anxiety and fear for very vulnerable people.  Apart from impacting on their wellbeing, this can also have a negative impact on the outcome of their assessment.  A small pilot project in Hastings has shown that advocacy can make a huge difference to people in this situation – and on the outcome of their assessment (we have a 100% success rate).  Advocacy helps people to understand the process, prepare for the assessment and feel supported, but also helps people to understand the reasons their claim would not be successful.

We were aware that we are only able to support a limited number of people in one area, so we sought a solution that can provide the key elements of support remotely to reach the millions of people who are affected in the UK.  With funding and support from the Legal Education Foundation and Comic Relief, and the technical expertise of ‘NeonTribe’ we were able to create a ‘virtual advocate’.

No client data is held on our website: the interaction is completely anonymous and free of charge to encourage full participation and enable people to use public computers, in libraries, job centres, etc.  Users are provided with background information, including a short animation which is available in a BSL signed format.  The focus of the site however, is to guide users through the kind of questions they may be asked and provide explanations to help people to prepare and to get an opinion on their eligibility.  At the end of the process a page of tailored information is provided as a guide to the assessment itself.

Since the launch in January 2016, over 30,000 people have accessed the tool and we are keen to get the word out to as many people as possible.  An evaluation is currently taking place which aims to describe the development process as an aid to other voluntary organisations that might be considering a digital response to social need.  We hope to launch this in the Autumn.

In the meantime, we are pursuing opportunities to extend our digital advocacy by developing an online NHS Complaints Self Help Pack.

At the same time, technology is having a radical impact on the way we deliver and manage our services.  The recent introduction of Microsoft Dynamics CRM is enabling our staff to work remotely and access/complete client data whilst in the field via the Cloud.  The data will support our need to report on the range of Key Performance Indicators that we need to report on to the variety of Local Authorities that commission our services.  By the Autumn 2016, we will have a fully integrated online professional referral process which will take the pressure off our central Contact Centre staff and enable them to spend more time interacting with clients who call in.

We also provide City and Guilds (C & G) accredited  Advocacy Training, for which we have achieved awards for our supportive and innovative approach to make learning accessible for all. This is increasingly moving toward more digital options, including the opportunity for those who are unable to travel to join training by Skype. Our Advocacy Training (AT) website is key in communicating all stages of the process from the marketing, booking,  payment, pre-course reading, course details and joining instructions. We provide a range of training formats including self study via the website portal and Assessor support is also offered remotely to meet individual needs. Assessors are able to access 24/7 support via the AT website and our interaction with the C&G is conducted entirely via a Walled Garden website.

Internally we utilise comprehensive and integrated HR and Finance software packages and all our basic mandatory staff training is provided via an e-learning tool.  We are also making as much use as we can of the opportunities for social media to engage with clients, potential funders, supporters and customers.

For an organisation with extremely tight overheads and very limited central resources, these initiatives have presented considerable challenges.  However we are very excited about the potential for technology to streamline our work, support our staff and, crucially, to extend our capacity to contribute to social justice.

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