Working with the DWP (not against them)

Using co-production as the foundation to drive positive change for people with multiple complex needs.


Co-Production and driving change

Brighton Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is not known for its inviting exterior or the promise of fond memories for those who cross its threshold. Its brutalist form sits stoic and unforgiving next to the Law courts and a stone’s throw from Brighton Police Station. The three front-mounted security cameras cast a suspicious eye over all who enter. Over the past 7 years, working with people with lived experience has taught us that approaching the Brighton Jobcentre can leave people feeling, nervous, fearful, judged, and powerless. For locals, Brighton Jobcentre has not – historically – conjured images of warmth, compassion, or community.  Well, that’s changing.  Right now.  Not the exterior though, sorry!

The Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE) partnership with the Brighton Jobcentre began in the summer of 2019.  From the beginning, Fulfilling Lives (FL) project staff and volunteers worked together with Brighton JCP management to design a Mystery Shopper exercise to evaluate how the Brighton JCP staff engaged with customers presenting with multiple complex needs. As well as this we assessed the building environment with the aim of understanding how at times the Brighton JCP could have a confusing and negative impact on some of the service’s most vulnerable customers.

To assess the service at its most authentic, Fulfilling Lives and Brighton JCP management decided it would be best to conduct the Environment Assessment and Mystery Shopper evaluation covertly. Without informing the staff. Yep, that happened.  This decision – made at the start of our partnership – shows the humility of our local DWP partners and their willingness to address any power imbalance; it was a risk to assess their own service without informing their workers, it was a risk to partner up with a small project to help them do so.  Lived experience volunteers and FL staff took part in planning the mystery shops, writing character biographies, and acting out the roles. The environment was assessed for its ‘Psychologically Informed’ design, which includes highlighting potential triggers that might hyper-arouse visitors with complex trauma histories, as well as areas of comfort. The FL project team presented the findings and recommendations from both the Environment Assessment and Mystery Shops to the whole Brighton JCP staff team.

Despite some staff understandably feeling displeased at being kept in the dark and the unforeseen impact of coronavirus and the immense pressures and challenges that have come with it, the Brighton JCP team have stayed with us and continued to work as equal partners towards our common goal of improving the system for those customers with multiple complex needs.   

Following the evaluations, working groups were setup with JCP and FL staff and volunteers to discuss the mystery shopper and environment assessment recommendations and how they could be translated to real change.  Due to having practically zero budget to work with, there was discussion of JCP staff donating their own personal items, such as cushions, to make the environment more welcoming. This commitment on such a personal level is worlds away from the impression many have of the Jobcentre as a cold institution. Art from the local Brighton & Hove Recovery College was hung on the walls, security guards were repositioned to appear less intimidating, toilet access was made easier, a reception desk was added, staff were given relevant additional training, private safe rooms were made available, and more. Fulfilling Lives went on to deliver workshops and webinars to over 350 JCP staff. And produce an eight video training series with lived experience volunteers to support the JCP staff to work more effectively with customers living with multiple complex needs. 

Instead of two organisations trying to further their own agendas, we wanted to embark on this relationship in the spirit of co-production; a single team made up of individuals with varied skills and experiences setting out to achieve a common goal.  As organisations, we are both working to make life easier for people who are struggling.  By working together instead of digging our heels in and fighting our respective corners, we have built a relationship of trust and reciprocity, where we understand each other’s roles, responsibilities, capacities, and capabilities.  With this attitude, the third-sector, local government, and people with lived experience have come together to create positive, social change, the influence of which has the potential to spread far and wide.

Coming up

In the next instalment of this blog series, we will hear more from the DWP managers at the heart of this partnership on how they leveraged the learning from this collaboration to drive the change internally.


Author: Alan Wallace

Should you wish to find out more about our partnership work or our systems change efforts, please contact:

Alan Wallace, Systems Change Officer: alan.wallace@sefulfillinglives.org.uk

Or

Rebecca Rieley, Systems Change Lead: rebecca.rieley@sefulfillinglives.org.uk

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