Dominic Campbell November 26, 2012

From surviving to striving: thinking differently about benefits in Lewes

Dominic Campbell

Whether you’re on the sharp end of change, implementing that change or just reading about it in the news, you’ll no doubt be aware there’s a huge shift coming in the way benefits are delivered.

I’ll leave you to try and understand the complexity of change for yourselves (here’s something to get you started), but in summary there isn’t enough money to go round, councils are stuck between a rock and a hard place and whichever route they “choose” to take they are faced with the challenge of supporting affected groups of people (old, young, unemployed, disabled the list goes on) to maintain their current quality of life as best they can.

In response, this week marks the start of a new project for us working with Lewes District Council to look at how they and their partners can do more to support people in receipt of benefits or on the verge of needing some support from the state.

After a fortuitous introduction, I happened to find myself in a meeting with the leadership at Lewes a month or two ago, where they were meeting with the local Stop the Cuts group. A full and frank discussion ensued, with the conclusion all round pretty much a resounding “this is really tough and there’s not a lot of wriggle room here is there?”.

But instead of leaving it at that, and much to their credit, local leaders were open to creative ideas for how we might go beyond just focusing on a deficit approach (“we don’t have enough to go round so how do we split that up?”) to one that looks more at a community approach to helping people not only survive but also thrive (“what wider resources do we have locally and how can they be used to help people meet their aspirations?”).

This work is an extension of the Benefits Camp ideas day we pulled together last February with the Enabled by Design community among others as changes were starting to be outlined and fears rising. On the whole we’re less interested in lobbying government to change its mind (its not very good at that), rather we focused the day on thinking about how we might help soften the transition to a new benefits system – and not just help people and their communities to survive off a smaller pot of cash but actually strive to do bigger and better for themselves and their families.

And lo and behold, with the help of benefits recipients, people with disabilities, policy experts, the Department of Work and Pensions (biggup to them for coming along), designers and generally enthusiastic and creative people, the group came up with a range of ideas for what more could be done to help people and their communities help themselves through tough times. From collaborative buying to new ways of working to support people into new forms of work, the camp spawned a host of exciting ideas.

What Kiran and Tom will spend the next couple of months doing with Lewes and its partners (East Sussex County CouncilEastbourne Council, Brighton Housing Trust and the Democratic Society among others working on a range of projects locally) is really starting to get under the skin of the lived experience of people who are either struggling already or likely to struggle as these changes come in. Alongside this we’ll be looking to see what the community has to offer in helping their fellow Lewes dwellers make change work for them.

Once we have that deep understanding of what life is truly like for people facing change, in the new year we’ll be exploring some possible solutions to provide the people of Lewes ways in which they can connect and support one another. So ideas like a Kiva for Lewes to provide a way for people to make micro-investments (for instance, crowdfunding the money needed to get someone a car and a suit to take up a job in Brighton or even start a small business locally) or even work with existing amazing organisations like the local credit union to use digital to supercharge what they are already doing and take on the likes of Wonga with sustainable local funding models.

But that’s still to come. First we’re just keen to get to know some local people really well, hear the challenges they’re facing, working out what the community might be willing to do to help and then we’ll take it from there.

Clearly this is a hot topic across the country right now. Lewes have proven themselves to be an open and collaborative bunch, so if you’re interested in getting involved or working with us in your area as well so we have the fullest picture possible and the chance to prototype a range of solutions, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.