Friday, 17 July 2020

The long and winding (and emotional) road to impact

Posted by Mandy Cheetham, Research Associate, Teesside University

Having submitted written evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry on the impact of the 5 week wait for Universal Credit (details here), I had not anticipated being invited to give evidence by Zoom to a panel of MPs in the midst of lockdown. The evidence submitted (available here) drew on qualitative research into the experiences of claimants in North East England (Cheetham et al 2019) and quantitative research showing the mental health impact of Universal Credit, undertaken by colleagues from Liverpool University (Wickham et al 2019). Dr Sophie Wickham and I were both invited to be part of a panel for the second evidence session. I had watched the first evidence session to see the lines of inquiry pursued, realising (with dismay) it was available live on parliament tv.

As witnesses, we had been given a broad indication of the areas on which MPs would focus their questions. These included the effects of the 5 week wait, its impact on mental health, and our thoughts on what could be done to mitigate the adverse effects. I had read and re-read our research paper, digested more recent reports and published literature and carefully prepared my responses to the anticipated questions. I had emailed colleagues in local advice organisations to see if the issues identified in the research were still relevant. I had a chat with a university colleague who had given evidence to a different committee drawing on our research on energy drinks 2 years previously. A final check that the technology worked in a test call the afternoon before and all was set.

Following advice from the friendly and efficient clerk of the committee, I had moved my laptop away from the background distractions of grandchildren’s Batman costumes and toys. I woke up early on the morning of 17 June feeling nervous with anticipation. ‘Trust you know enough’ were the calm words of advice offered by one committee official.’ ‘Stick to the evidence; be focused and don your cloak of authority’ came texted advice from a senior academic colleague with a good luck message. I have a tendency to talk too much when I’m nervous, and knew I needed to avoid waffling, so this was a helpful reminder. But I wasn’t sure I had a suitable cloak of authority handy.

In the event, the preparation paid off. I stuck to my bullet points and weaved in quotes from participants when I could. It wasn’t perfect and there’s always more to say. I’m not sure it’s possible to do justice to the harrowing experiences which had been shared by research participants, but I tried. There is a big focus in academia on impact, and I sometimes feel limited recognition of the time and multi-layered approaches needed to achieve it. Immediately after the evidence session, which lasted an hour, I was contacted by a journalist from the Independent asking about a paper I had mentioned in my evidence. Within an hour the Sun online quoted our evidence in an article supporting their campaign to make Universal Credit work.

Evidence is clearly not the only, or the most important deciding factor in the messy world of policy making. I believe we need to use a combination of political levers of influence at our disposal to affect changes when opportunities present themselves. This felt like a huge moment. The priorities and timeframes of academia and policy making do not always align. The study I was reporting grew out of embedded research with community members in Gateshead who talked about their fears about Universal Credit being rolled out in 2017, fieldwork was undertaken April – October 2018, written up and paper submitted in November 2018 and published in 2019. Following the select committee, a colleague posted links to the evidence session on the Facebook pages of organisations who had supported the research for community members to see. It felt right to let participants know what had happened.

Since 2018, we have shared the research findings at numerous conferences and with Department for Work and Pensions staff, but with limited effect. COVID-19 has prompted temporary changes to be made to Universal Credit, which will help. My experience in the shielding hub demonstrates how many families claiming Universal Credit, particularly those with children, continue to struggle with the additional costs of lockdown. Last month, Therese Coffey announced the re-instatement of conditionality requirements and sanctions, which will add to Universal Credit claimants’ stress at a time of economic insecurity, rising unemployment, unprecedented job losses, and anxiety about the future. Even a global pandemic can’t halt political will it seems.

In my view, public health is political. Lobbying and advocacy are a core part of our role, particularly when government policy has such a crucial role to play in addressing inequalities. We need to continue to highlight the harmful impacts of policy on particular groups and be part of the process of informing solutions. Researchers need to seek out these opportunities for ‘academic activism’ (Askins 2009) to help shape policy. We need to provide training and support to academics at all levels, and accept the emotional investment these efforts require. After all, the drive to impact is fuelled by emotional as well as scientific engagement with our subject matter.

  1. Screenshot taken from 16/07/2020
  2. Screenshot taken from The Sun website: 16/07/2020

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