Report and resources from a collaborative action research inquiry in Fife which examined data about welfare sanctions and how it can be used to support people who are at risk of or receive a benefit sanction.

Fife is one of the four case sites where What Works Scotland has worked with community planning partnerships to do collaborative action research into public service reform.

Key findings

  • Importance of positive working relationships across agencies, in particular improving relations with agencies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, including the value of face-to-face contact between professionals to improve relationships and knowledge-sharing.
  • Deeper understanding of the extent to which data protection and different understandings of data sharing impact on frontline working practice and service design.
  • Identification of the referral process as key to supporting individuals and connecting them to networks and services.
  • Value of up-to-date information about welfare changes and support services as a resource for staff and in particular to ensure knowledge is retained and there is service continuity in a context where there may be staff changes.

The inquiry

The group of practitioners – called the Partnership Innovation Team (PIT) – which undertook this collaborative action research inquiry asked these questions:

How can we improve our knowledge of what data is available across partner agencies in Fife?

How can we use this to:

  • prevent people from being sanctioned?
  • better support those who have been sanctioned?

The context

A sanction can be used by the Department for Work and Pensions to temporarily reduce or remove social security benefits from someone who is unemployed. This can happen when the Jobcentre Plus raises a ‘doubt’ that the person has adhered to their Claimant Commitment, a contract which outlines what they’ll do to find a job. In Fife, between October 2012 and June 2016, Jobcentre Plus staff raised over 36,000 doubts, of which 84% led to a sanction. There were more than 332,000 sanctions across Scotland during this time.

As this research demonstrates, in practice, many organisations and individual practitioners working in at the local level are seeking to understand the sanctioning process and its impact on residents, service provision, and collaborative ways of working. The practitioners involved in this CAR project also sought to reduce the impact of sanctions and incidences of acute poverty that may occur when benefit payments are removed.

The members of the Partnership Innovation Team

For much of the time of the inquiry the group included:

  • Local government: Based at the centre with Fife-wide functions:
    • Policy officer
    • Analyst (Research team)
    • Research consultant (Research team)
  • Local government: Kirkcaldy-based practitioners
    • Community Learning and Development team leader
    • Housing Officers
    • Community Education Workers
  • Third sector
  • Department for Work and Pensions
    • Work Service Manager
  • What Works Scotland
    • Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Inquiry activities

Two cartoon images. The first shows a person in an office with a computer showing a line graph. He is thinking 'Who might want to know about this trrend?' The picture caption says: 'Improve the understanding about data sharing practies across organisations and professions.' The second shows two individuals in an office looking puzzled. One is thinking 'What is available for this issue? Is that programme still operating? Who can I ask?' The picture caption says: It can be diffiicult for staff to know everything that is available.

Some of the information and data issues identified by the PIT

The Partnership Innovation Team met 21 times including PIT meetings, facilitated sessions, events and home retreats between March 2015 and December 2016.

These are some of the research activities the PIT members worked on:

Used the StatExplore database to explore national sanctioning patterns and consider how they related to the local context.

This resulted in:

  • Better knowledge of the StatExplore database
  • A colleague outside the PIT group being trained in using the database
  • Production of a series of briefing documents with key trends for Kirkcaldy
  • Information for managers to update, inform, and influence colleagues and elected members

What Works Scotland blog post about understanding and utilising social security sanctions data at the local level

Organised an event called Strengthening partnerships for a Fairer Fife: Working collaboratively with data that matters. This was designed to improve knowledge, promote data-sharing and develop a shared understanding of welfare reform. It was attended by 42 people from a range of local organisations. It contributed to building a wider community of practitioners interested in anti-poverty partnership working in Kirkcaldy.

See a presentation by Martin Dick about the different strands of research.

See the presentation and transcript on the Prezi website

Created a set of vignettes and developed the skills to create and use them. This a useful format for broaching difficult discussions about service provision with other agencies and focuses on identifying support options instead of culpability.

Key outcomes of CAR 

  • Increased engagement of others within the system in the discussions and work around welfare reform and supporting people experiencing poverty
  • New links and services from third sector organisations brought into the job centre, including an improved relationship with the DWP and a better understanding of the role of different agencies
  • Linking up the work and the individuals in the PIT to the Fairer Fife work
  • Connected frontline staff with people working in policy or more senior positions across a range of organisations, helping them to get insights into service delivery
  • Findings from the PIT to be used Fife-wide

What was the impact of using a collaborative action research approach?

The group spoke positively about the collaborative aspects of the work and recognised the value in each other and the opportunities to learn about different organisations, work areas, and practices.

One of the most noticeable benefits from using the CAR approach has been the improved relationship between individuals working in different parts of the system, specifically the inclusion of the DWP into the PIT.

Another key benefit was bringing frontline staff into discussions with others working in policy or more senior positions across a range of organisations. This appears to have helped people to realise the reality of service delivery and the ways that frontline staff support the citizens they work with.

One direct action of this PIT group is the plan to encourage all the seven area leaders to bring a frontline perspective into the existing Welfare Reform and Anti-Poverty groups operating in each of the seven areas in Fife to ensure that there is a range of views during decision-making discussions.

Stronger relationships and the impact on partnership working are discussed by Gary Smith, Partnership Analyst with the Communities Directorate at Fife Council, and a member of the Fife welfare reform inquiry team in this blog post – Reflections on the welfare inquiry experience: Building and enhancing partnership working.

Download the report

Collaborative Inquiry Exploring Data and Knowledge-sharing Practices in Responses to Welfare Sanctions (PDF)

The report was written by Dr Hayley Bennett, based on the practitioners’ inquiry and the information they provided in their populated reporting template.

Related resources

Fife case site page
See all the collaborative action research projects by practitioners in Fife and What Works Scotland.