The challengeAt least £17.6 billion of benefits went unclaimed last year due to the complexity of the benefits process and the stigma associated with claiming.
Applicants require help on the go that is easily accessible regardless of digital literacy.
The resultWe developed a peer support web application using Twilio to allow for SMS communication between those who have already been through the benefits process and those at the start of their new application journey.
When you are struggling financially, it can be hard to know what to do or where to go to look for help. In fact, navigating an overly-convoluted benefits system – particularly when paired with potential barriers such as low digital literacy, limited access to the internet or potentially a disability – can seem impossible. As we see reduced welfare support across the UK, the introduction of a botched Universal Credit system and the perceived stigma associated with claiming benefits on the up, it’s unsurprising that some people feel they can’t reach out for the support they need.
At least £17.6 billion of benefits went unclaimed last year. As a solution, Turn2us – a national charity fighting poverty – created their trusted and popular online Benefits Calculator to help people on low incomes identify welfare support they’re entitled to. The Benefits Calculator was used over 2 million times in 2018. However, 50% of people who learnt they could claim dropped out of the process, rather than starting their application. Research shows this is due to a lack of skills and confidence and a fear of the associated stigma with being a benefit claimant.
of the UK population are living in poverty
We worked with Turn2us to develop ‘Connect’ – an SMS-based peer support app to help people successfully apply for welfare support, aided by an online volunteer.
Using the tool, volunteers (“Digital Buddies”) who have lived experience of claiming benefits themselves, provide support and encouragement to Turn2us Benefits Calculator users (“Connections”) around the next steps in the benefits journey. Peer to peer support helps to reduce stigma and build confidence by creating an inclusive community with easy access to shared practical and emotional support.
The Connect app also enables Digital Buddies to develop their skills and be part of the Turn2us community supported by Turn2us advisors (“Admins’”). These Admins provide a comprehensive programme of training to prepare Buddies for providing support, alongside back-up on any welfare entitlements queries that arise as and when it’s needed.
All Connections need is a mobile phone (not even a smartphone!) to get help with applying for their benefit entitlements, whilst Buddies and Turn2us Admins are able to use a back-end dashboard to manage the process smoothly. Using Twilio for SMS ensures that both parties’ privacy is safeguarded, as phone numbers are not displayed.
On the surface, Connect gives individuals access to support from a trained volunteer via SMS. Digging deeper, it is an intelligent, flexible and personal service which could be replicated for other peer to peer support services.
What we did
Right from the start, communication was key in this project. After all, the experts on the problem we were trying to solve were Turn2us, their volunteers and, most importantly, their beneficiaries themselves. At the beginning of the project, we took time to understand Turn2us and their target audience inside-out to ensure that what we were creating would be genuinely useful.
We delivered discovery workshops (both in-person and virtually) with Turn2us, alongside independent research and a full review of the pilot that had already run. This uncovered some vital insights which heavily steered the direction of the project. For example, through the Turn2us pilot study, we found a significant drop off rate when people were asked to download a 3rd party application. In fact, SMS text messaging was by far the most popular choice for all participants. This backed up research that showed that people living in poverty are much more likely to be digitally excluded.
Therefore, we knew that the solution wouldn’t be to create a new flashy piece of technology, which would risk excluding those that needed support the most, but to ‘go back to basics’ in a fresh and innovative way. However, we also knew that a smooth back-end journey would be required to manage the matching of Buddies with Connections, providing support to Buddies, and enabling them to own the ongoing process of managing communications.
The solution? Twilio. By using Twilio we were able to create a SMS-based tool that only required beneficiaries to have a mobile phone to receive text message-based communications. At the same time, we created a back-end mobile and desktop friendly chat interface and dashboard that Buddies and Admins could use to manage their end-to-end process.
Once we had our concept, we needed to work together to ensure that we were creating the best possible tool within time and budget. By using agile methodologies we were able to effectively prioritise features/functionality and work together towards an effective MVP (Minimum Viable Product). We then developed the tool in ‘sprints’, set periods of time (usually 2 weeks) in which set deliverables are agreed and completed. At the beginning of each sprint, planning sessions allowed us to agree on scope.
At the end, we provided demos of what we’d produced and conducted retros to understand what worked well and what we could do differently going forward. Thorough user testing with Buddies also ensured that we were moving in the right direction, and planning in work according to need. This transparent approach allowed us to align as partners, and respond rapidly to the needs of Turn2us and their users as the project evolved.
“Reason were really collaborative throughout, particularly when understanding the user journey, IA and developing the detailed user stories. We had some great sketching workshops together and were able to follow an agile 'test and learn' delivery process - which is not always easy when working with digital partners. Reason took time to really get to know us and become part of the team, and together we delivered an MVP that was firmly grounded on user needs.”
Jonathan, who has moderate learning difficulties, had been left completely destitute after delays with his online claim for Universal Credit. Having phoned the Turn2us Helpline to check his benefits entitlements, he was offered Connect support to get peer help with completing his claim.
Through the Connect App resources, his Buddy, Laura, arranged an emergency food bank delivery and linked Jonathan directly with another local charity who arranged for a £60 energy credit for heat and light. Finally, Jonathan was also put in touch with a specialist welfare advisor in the area, who immediately took the case up with DWP to speed up payment.
“I am at home most of the time due to health reasons and feel that this would be a good way for me to do something useful. I also think it would be great experience for future work. I enjoy helping people and have helped many neighbours and friends through the benefit system.”
*Digital Buddy and Connection names have been changed for the purposes of privacy.
The Connect tool has now been live since March 2019. So far, the results have been amazing. Here are some of our latest figures on Connections’ progress:
Improved financial situation
Decreased anxiety levels
Increased life satisfaction
Turn2us estimates that successful users of the app will see their finances improve by approximately £2,600 a year.
In a truly agile fashion, we are continuing to work with Turn2us to listen to Buddy and Connection feedback and utilise insights to make improvements to ensure the tool is the best it can be. We are working together to put in place an effective fundraising plan in order to be able to continue to invest in the project longer term.
We also see the potential for the technology to support many more charities and their user groups to access peer to peer support; and are exploring how we can add value to the sector by making the tool available to be utilised by others in a sustainable and impactful way.
“I’m on ESA. I have experience of applying for benefits and have done loads of research about benefits...I need to show that I am working towards getting employment and I think this would be a great way of doing something constructive and getting some experience. I’m pretty much housebound and this criteria seems to fit me perfectly.”
Guardian Public Service Awards - Digital innovation
Winners of the Digital Innovation award - Turn2us: Connect SMS benefits support service