Evidence-based campaigning

On a day when the Work and Pensions select committee confirms the Universal Credit IT system is becoming a white elephant and the JRF calculates how little the Bedroom Tax has saved once you account for additional costs, it’s tempting to dismiss the current welfare reform agenda as an expensive mess.

Two of its key components have turned sour, proving – if proof were needed – that rushed implementation of seemingly ideological policies was never going to go well. Another report has been released today – by the indomitable Spartacus Network, looking at the implementation of ESA reform and the Work Programme. But their constructive approach means this doesn’t have to be the holy trinity of bad news days for the Government that it might first appear.

Spartacus became well-known in political circles in January 2012 after months of careful planning by this small group of disabled people came to fruition with the publication of their first report – Responsible Reform. Copies landed on the desks of Peers who, later that week, would be debating and voting for amendments to the controversial Welfare Reform Act.

The contents – a damning, evidence-based account of the mishandling of the consultation and subsequent reform of the Disability Living Allowance – went viral on Twitter for a week, with celebrities and big political hitters joining thousands of others all tweeting their support for the#spartacusreport. The Lords took note, and voted to make significant amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.

While the amendments were overturned by a bullish Commons the following week, Spartacus’ success set the standard for social media campaigning.

This report – a ‘Spartacus II’ if you like – has therefore been much anticipated, with many itchy tweeting fingers poised for its release. As they should be: the report itself is excellent – not so much a campaign document as a serious piece of research. The evidence gathering, international review of alternative welfare to work and labour market models and subsequent analysis of the findings – with supplementary appendices – are something one might see from an academic research unit (or think-tank like Demos). The presentation is compelling, yet sober. It avoids hyperbole or damning indictments in favour of evidence-based identification of problems and – crucially – potential solutions to them.

And this is where Spartacus II marks itself apart from any other campaign I have seen – including Spartacus I. It doesn’t simply articulate a problem and propose the undoing of legislation or a policy U-turn as a response. It is not crying out ‘stop the cuts!’. It makes sensible, workable, sometimes costed recommendations that would make ESA and the Work Programme more efficient. Yes, really.

In an era of Open Policy Making, such research – which includes gathering the insights of 1,200 people with direct experience of the ESA process and welfare to work – should be seen as a gift to the Government in providing a range of policy suggestions to improve welfare to work support, suggested by disabled people themselves.

Just as Spartacus I set the benchmark for social media campaigning, Spartacus II is leading the way in evidence-based campaigning. Rather than simply opposing change, Spartacus is working within the constraints of the new regime and suggesting interim changes and longer term reforms to improve efficiency. It even suggests where the money might come from to pay for some of the small but important investments it recommends.

These aren’t frivolous demands by those with no awareness of resource constraints, but proposals for improvement based on first-hand knowledge of the current system and a review of proven international alternatives. As the report explains, ‘It is easy to produce a report which merely criticises the status quo, and much harder to propose solutions. Some may be obvious, but others require imagination and ambition.’

Don’t get me wrong – the feedback from those going through the ESA process is damning, with the evidence collected on the range of inaccuracies, omissions and variability of the assessment process likely to make uncomfortable reading for Atos, if they hadn’t already decided toterminate their contract for administering ESA early.

But the proposals bear the mark of those with real insight into the challenges disability poses to employment – ideas range from replacing pre-prescribed Work Programme offers with personal budgets for employment support; to reforms to the labour market (inspired by Danish ‘flexi-jobs’) and education system to improve access for disabled people; to detailed suggestions for how the ESA assessment could use the evidence it already gathers not just to determine eligibility, but to identify the barriers to work and how they might be overcome.

The million dollar question is, of course, how the government will respond to this report. Written as a sincere and serious attempt to improve a regime which on all objective measures is failing to get disabled people into work and wasting scarce resources on a burgeoning appeal system, it would seem churlish for the Government to stone-wall it due to its origins in a campaign group. It should ask itself what reception such a report – which talks about efficiency and ‘creating value for the taxpayer’ – would receive from the DWP if it had been written by a sympathetic think-tank.

The lasting impression I had, on reading Beyond the Barriers, was that Spartacus are appealing for a new relationship between disability benefit claimants and the welfare regime. One that is based on trust, and a presumption that disabled people don’t want to defraud the system, but want to work if they can, when they can, and as much as they can.

It is particularly powerful that this call is made by a group of disabled people, on behalf of thousands of disabled people. It is asking for an end to hostilities, and a new era of partnership. In writing a constructive report, with more solutions than problems, Spartacus has made the first move. Will the Government respond in kind?