Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
May/June 2003, by Delia Venables

Voluntary Sector Providing Legal Information on the Web
(or not, as the case may be)

by Steve Donnison

The internet, with its almost no-cost publishing opportunities, should be a dream come true for voluntary sector organisations providing legal information to the public. Instead, distrust, funding difficulties and conflicting interests mean that the voluntary sector is even less free with information than the private sector.

The field I know about is welfare benefits. Over the last two years I created and developed (with pro bono assistance from my partner, a voluntary sector advisor turned barrister) an online resource providing free, very detailed, step-by-step, downloadable guides to claiming disability and incapacity benefits. The agency I worked for was a small benefits advice service in one of Bristol and the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Yet the Barton Hill Advice Service website (www.bhas.org.uk) became a national resource with around 9,000 copies of the various guides (amounting to over 300,000 A4 pages) being downloaded every month and links from many national voluntary and public sector sites, including NHS Direct, Department for Work and Pensions and the Law Centre’s Federation.

However, BHAS has run out of funding, I’ve lost my job and the site is rapidly becoming a source of outdated information. So why is it that the voluntary sector can’t even manage to give away useful information?

In my case the reasons were fairly straightforward. Although we succeeded in getting a series of small grants, enough to pay my wages for a few months at a time, the bigger money eluded us. Grant making trusts were dubious that a little provincial agency could really provide a first class national service. In addition, the officer dealing with our application to the Community Fund (formerly the National Lottery Charities Board) told us that the board really didn’t like website projects. Our bid was turned down on the grounds that there were other agencies providing the same service – a claim of breathtaking inaccuracy.

One of the real problems, apart from a general suspicion of anything to do with the web, is that big funding agencies like the Community Fund increasingly want to know about ‘outcomes’: how many people per year will get how much extra money per year as a result of your project. In the anonymous world of the internet such things are unmeasurable unless you oblige visitors to register with your site and give permission for you to contact them later. Many people with mental health problems, for example, would have shunned our site if we had tried to do this and with visitor numbers at over 100,000 a year and rising rapidly it would have taken a huge amount of time to produce representative statistics. Not only that, but sometimes the ‘outcome’ is a visitor realising that they aren’t eligible for, say, disability living allowance and saving themselves the time involved in filling in the 40 page claim pack, rather than gaining any money.

Funding was not the only problem. What began as a popular addition to our small agency became a deeply unpopular cuckoo which, in a reversal of traditional roles, was shoved over the side by the other nestlings.

The site had originally been published with a small amount of leftover funding and had only one guide on it. Its popularity took us all by surprise and further guides were funded and published piecemeal until there were more than a dozen. But it was not easy for managers used to running a local advice agency, where a small number of clients received very in-depth support, to manage such a different style of project. In addition, I worked from home because there was not the technology or spare telephone capacity in the office and my isolation was increased by my failure to ever quite explain to my employers what I did, how I did it or quite what ‘unique visitors’ or ‘.pdf files’ were.

There were other problems. One manager complained that the website project’s visitor statistics made theirs look too small, though this was hardly a fair comparison. Sometimes people would track down the agency’s telephone number and staff would find themselves using up their valuable time explaining to callers from Camden or Lockerbie why it was that they were not able to help them with their benefits queries. In the end, managers simply ensured that a matched funding opportunity that would have kept the site going was not enthusiastically pursued and I was made redundant.

Even where local agencies are happy to have a website and encourage visitors, there seldom seems to be any strategy behind their choice of content. The result is a large number of sites producing relatively superficial information about the same things. So, for example, you can find dozens of local advice agency websites offering similar, very brief, introductions to disability living allowance and attendance allowance, as if each existed in its own separate little locality on the internet as well as in the real world.

This is true even of organisations, such as law centres, with a great deal of specialised knowledge that they could share. Coventry law centre (www.covlaw.org.uk) for example, has a carefully designed, accessible website which includes a range of 13 downloadable introductory information leaflets about various benefits such as .... disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Yet the typical law centre's area of expertise is not in initial claims at all, but in appealing against welfare benefits decisions. Around half of all claimants who appeal against benefits decisions have to do so without representation because of a growing shortage of free representation, particularly now that many advice agencies are switching to CLS funding. A detailed, tactical guide to appealing against a disability living allowance decision for people who are unable to find a representative would be a unique and very valuable online resource. As yet it doesn't exist and there is no sign that any of the local advice agencies or law centres with a wealth of practical experience are willing to create it.

But it is not only small, local agencies that have problems with the idea of giving away useful information on the web. Many national voluntary sector agencies depend on selling benefits information for their very existence. The Child Poverty Action Group sells its welfare benefits handbook to the public and to advice agencies alike. Disability Alliance has its own handbook for disabled claimants, along with a diminishing selection of shorter texts. The former National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, now known as Citizens Advice, depends on selling its information system to advice agencies and others. For these agencies, giving away information would be financial suicide.

However, their status as national agencies demands that they have a website at the very least. CPAG (www.cpag.org.uk) make no pretence of providing useful information about benefits. Their site is devoted to advertising their training, publications and campaigns. Disability Alliance (www.disabilityalliance.org) make a token effort, providing a miscellany of news and information that would be difficult to sell. Otherwise, its site is also largely designed to sell training and publications.

Citizens Advice’s (www.adviceguide.org.uk) information system is available digitally and updated monthly and so could be provided on the internet at very little cost. Many libraries subscribe to the information system and make it available to visitors, demonstrating that they at least believe that the public can cope with detailed benefits information.

Instead, however, in order to protect both their income and their reputation as a leading advice provider, Citizens Advice has come up with a whole new set of information for the internet. It is sadly, very much less detailed, of very limited use for people seeking help with their benefits and still refers to ‘a person’ rather than ‘you’ in many places, as if the authors couldn’t quite bear the though that they were addressing visitors direct rather than through an intermediary advisor. So basic is the information that, in relation to benefits appeals, a very large area of advice agency work, the website simply provides a link to the Department for Work and Pensions booklet on the subject.

Some of the best and most detailed information on the internet about benefits is actually provided by the private sector. Lisson Grove (www.lissongrovebenefits.co.uk) exists to sell benefits calculation software, but includes on its site a vast amount of detailed benefits information. Ferret Information Systems (www.ferret.co.uk) also has a website advertising its benefits calculation software but Ferret also provides free support to claimants via an online benefits calculator which can help visitors decide which benefits they may be able to claim. Youreable.com (www.youreable.com) has a thriving welfare benefits forum run by and for disabled people and housed within a site which earns its income by selling advertising and disability aids and adaptations.

Meanwhile, the BHAS site may have been left to descend into an online version of Miss Havisham’s bedroom, but the guides themselves have survived and migrated to the private sector. Updated versions are available from my own website (www.benefitsandwork.co.uk) (free of course) where, naturally enough, we also advertise our very competitively priced welfare benefits and employment law training courses.

Steve Donnison is a freelance welfare benefits trainer and writer. Email: info@benefitsandwork.co.uk.

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