Hastings carries the legacy of having once been a fashionable Victorian south coast resort. That has left it with two funiculars and a pier. The latter has been recently saved with lottery money but is now – alas – in liquidation. Its failure flags the precarious economy of the town. There is noticeable renovation but almost one third of its children are reported still to live in poverty. So, it is perhaps logical enough that it houses a vigorous NGO, Hastings Voluntary Action, which almost twenty years ago created an independent body with wider geographical coverage, SeAp, to deliver advocacy in order that ‘everyone who uses health and social care services can have their voice heard on issues that are important to them’. To supplement its face to face work, SeAp hasdeveloped a website, C-App, (geddit?) for which it received a Charity Times award for the best use of technology in 2017 and was enthusiastically praised over three pages of the annual report of the Legal Education Foundation who funded much of the work.
The best way of appreciating C-App – which, confusingly is not an app but a website – is to follow this link and explore it. You might also have a look at the evaluation of the project because it is both helpful in understanding C-App and, more widely, provides a model of how to report and reflect. If you prefer to learn about C-App by video, then you can do that as well.
C-App provides assistance for applicants applying for two benefits (employment and support allowance, formerly invalidity benefit – ESA – and personal independence payments, formerly disabled living allowance – PIP). The administration of these has caused significant difficulty in part because applicants struggle to show that they meet very detailed, points-based assessments; in part, because the quality of administration has been dreadful, with the initial contractor prematurely ending its engagement after what the Guardian reasonably enough called ‘widespread public and political anger’ at its performance; and, in part, because the government deliberately wants to reduce entitlement. The difficulties with disability benefits have attracted a number of digitally based proposals – notably exploration of the concept by LexisNexis and a mandatory reconsideration request letter tool developed by AdviceNow. A future collaboration between these approaches would be potentially very valuable.
The C-App website supports the user to build up their application in the kind of detail that is required for a medical assessment eg, for PIP claims, by detailing issues under twelve headings ranging from ‘washing and bathing’ or ‘dressing and undressing’. You are given options about whether you can or cannot do an activity but also whether that applies most or some of the time. You can pause at any time and build up a printable checklist. You are encouraged to keep answering the full list and advised whether you have built up enough points to qualify. You can review and amend your answers. You are also given printable advice about attending your assessment and preparing your answers along such lines as ‘write down points you want to make about your conditions and their impact on you in case they are not covered/asked about by the assessor’ and ‘consider keeping a diary which you can show the assessor’. You are reassured that the site keeps no data on you as an individual user, though it saves some on your computer so that you can come back to it.
The site is essentially a guided pathway document assembly programme. You could use it to prepare for your medical assessment or ask for a review but what is distinct is the focus on self empowerment. Liz Fenton, SeAp’s head of business and operations, said, ‘The biggest emphasis was so that you would not, as a user, have weeks of terror about the assessment process and so people would feel less overwhelmed. That was one of the most exciting things about the project’. SeAp remains committed to its face to face provision and sees the app as a way of supplementing its contracted services out of their area. But, Ms Fenton expressed her surprise at the potential of the digital: ‘We did not understand until the end that for some users this could be better than conventional delivery. Some people can do better at moments when they are feeling well and up to it. There is real stress in having to tell someone about what you cannot do. The process of doing it in your own time can be better than face to face. In addition, carers and family can support you.’ As SeAp said in its evaluation, ‘Our intention was not to develop a tool that would replace the need for face-to-face advocacy or advice for those that need them. That would be impossible. Rather, it was to develop a website based tool that some people could use to get some help. For some users, this might be a prompt to seek further support, and for others it would help them to proceed by themselves.’
SeAp has a history of working in collaboration with other agencies in the work for which they have obtained competitive contracts. That carried over into this project and partnerships were clearly built up with the two major funders, LEF and Comic Relief, the developer NeonTribe, Hastings Advice and Representation Centre and clients who user tested elements of the site. Ms Fenton says that the funding for sufficient support was crucial. It included resources to meet the cost of a professional developer and a project manager. Comic Relief invited SeAp to participate in a ‘Tech for Good’ boot camp, a process on which there is a video on the SeAp website. Google provides $10,000 per month worth of free advertising which has helped to drive traffic to the site. The evaluation report provides figures on the first eight months of the site. Perhaps the most significant figure is that ‘The number of sessions involving engagement with the PIP essential guide is equivalent to 5% of the total number of PIP registrations in England and Scotland during this 8-month period. We can be confident that people undertaking these sessions found the site useful.’ SeAp estimates on the basis of site analytics that in this period 38,000 users found the information useful and 34,000 found it useful to practise answers to questions. Since its launch in February 2016 we have averaged 15,000 unique users per month, totallng 350,000 to date.
SeAp has ambitions to extend its provision to cover areas like health and social care complaints. It also has the challenge of developing the site to deal with the introduction of Universal Credit, intended to be a comprehensive benefit that involves a shift in the methodology of assessments. Work is under way to increase the number of organisations that will provide links to the C-App website. Personally, I recognise the neatness of the name but I might change it. Meanwhile, Hastings is hosting not only a rather beautiful pier (see it soon while it is still open and free) but what might be a world-leading project supporting benefit claimants in a way which supplements face to face provision and allows the leverage of the expertise built up in face to face advocacy for those for whom it is simply not available.