Rightsnet: a model for virtual specialist support

This is the first of two posts looking at the work of London-based social welfare law organisation, Lasa. This considers its best known product, rightsnet.

Rightsnet  provides news, case law and discussion fora of particular use to welfare rights workers but open to all, supplemented by further subscription only material. And it does all this on something close to a self-funding basis. It, therefore, provides a model of virtual specialist support for advisers. It would be interesting to know of any comparable examples.

Contribution to discussion on the website is free and only requires registration. Subscription gets you extra, promising notice of news stories; statutes, statutory instruments, guidance, consultation and policy documents ‘brought together and summarised within 24 hours of their issue’; and user-friendly summaries of significant case law – all on the basis of a daily update. It covers welfare benefits, debt, housing, employment and community care.

The trick has been to produce an attractive enough package to encourage sufficient subscriptions to keep the site going. And rightsnet has attracted a creditable number – currently more than 1,000 organisations across the UK. These range from small voluntary organisations with 10 or less staff (for which the annual rate is the reasonable £125 or $175) to large organisations such as Citizens Advice which pay a bespoke rate for a bulk deal. Welfare rights workers use the resource in some numbers. As an example of how well, Shawn Mach – head of services at Lasa, the organisation that runs Rightsnet – says that more than 2,500 registered individuals logged in and actively used rightsnet in the last month. There were over 4 million annual page views. Even allowing for the vagaries of Google Analytics, these are figures that suggest product which is meeting a real need.

Rightsnet has a history that illustrates chance and evolution in the voluntary sector. Its origins lie with the creation of LASA in 1984 by the Greater London Council (GLC) as the London Advice Services Alliance. This was during the GLC’s brief flowering as a Socialist haven over the river from Mrs Thatcher’s national government in Westminster. The GLC was more than happy to use welfare benefits to highlight what it saw as the Conservative Government’s divisive economic strategy. As a result, it made a major investment in the sector which flourished at that time both in London and around the country as Labour councils took similar positions.

Lasa’s CEO, Terry Stokes, joined in 1998 – well after the GLC had gone down in glorious flames in 1986 and two years before a new, more sober, administration for London was re-created. His initial job was to project manage a pilot designed to test whether the internet would have any effect on the delivery of advice. It was funded by the National Lottery – which had started in 1994. In the early days, the emphasis was on what he calls ‘putting the plumbing in place’, ie helping welfare benefits teams to have dedicated access to the internet and dealing with the consequent technology challenges.

The pilot was a success and the Lottery came up with more money to roll out a national service. Terry Stokes recounts: ‘The first year was spent trying to get people to engage and in developing good material. We hadn’t thought about a discussion forum. It was originally the suggestion of our developer. We intended just email advice. We initially set up a forum using an American product to which you could subscribe for $50. We just bought it off the shelf. Originally, it was ”linear” and not divided into  topics. It rapidly became apparent that the forum was unique and really valuable. The peer support from the welfare rights community was strong. We started to encourage a core of people to contribute, they came to love it, and we went from strength to strength.’

A further phase of development allowed the prioritisation of harder to reach communities and ethnic minority provision away from established ‘mainstream’ providers. ‘We put enormous efforts,’ says Terry Stokes, ‘into demonstrating the product at conferences and such things as meetings of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers. We were lucky with the timing. This was during the golden age when there was a lot of money. However, the result is that it is now even more valuable as provision is being cut.’ The organisation has long since shifted from a London focus to a national one – though amounts of specific funding for London projects continued to come through until last year, albeit in dwindling amounts.

The comprehensiveness of the coverage on the site is impressive. Yesterday was a pretty typical Wednesday: rightsnet staff had put up no less than nine news entries covering welfare rights, employment and housing. People made contributions on topics that included  housing cost contributions on the basic ‘universal credit’ benefit, a posting on mental health evidence reports, income support and job seekers allowance, cut-off dates for tax credit claims, personal independence payment appeal and hearing aids, and Department for  Work and Pensions’ addresses.

The discussion contributions look fairly representative of a day’s chatter by welfare rights workers going about their business – and, indeed, a bit of a challenge to the more established welfare rights organisations, like the Child Poverty Action Group, which has found a younger rival – relying on new technology – in a field once completely dominated by their more traditional materials.

Rightsnet has been recognised within its sector. Its website proclaims – ’We’ve been twice nominated for an ‘Access to justice through IT’ award in the Legal Aid Practitioner’s Group’s LALY awards; won the British Library supported ‘Opening the World of Knowledge” category in the Nominet Internet Awards; won a ‘technological innovation’ award in the Lexis Nexis Taxation Awards; were shortlisted in The Guardian Social Enterprise awards; and were the only second-tier website to be awarded the Community Legal Service Quality Mark standard for websites.’

The project has not only found a respected role among its constituency – successfully moving from a regional to a national following. It has also managed the holy grail of washing its face financially.  Subscription and job advertising raises enough to sustain two editors and a web assistant, not enough to provide an entire solution to Lasa’s continued overall funding but at least a substantial contribution.  So, the result is a resourceful service that has mutated to survive (at least so far) twenty years of downward pressure on funding for advice and upward pressure from user demand. Not bad. It looks like it took a lot of imagination; some luck and a good deal of financial savvy.

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