Developing a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales
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Adviceonomics: In search of an evidence base

By James Sandbach

We are delighted to be publishing a report by Graham Cookson reviewing the evidence base around the business case for investment in social welfare advice services. Graham already knows this field well from having conducted research for the Law Society, which concluded that even using the most conservative methodologies for identifying potential costs arising to other services as a result of legal aid cuts, any overall savings to the public purse are neglible. I won’t go over Graham’s findings in his report for the Low Commission, you can find these in his article, but the evidence internationally is remarkably consistent - notwithstanding the methodogical discrepancies - that you get a bang for bucks across different categories of law from positive outcomes for clients, in the region of a £2 to £10 return for every pound.

There’s a growing research literature in this field which could become as important a policy driver as health economics is to NHS decisions (eg measuring effectiveness of medical interventions against QALYs – quality adjusted life years). So I call it “adviceonomics” as it’s a wide discipline covering outcomes measurement, social return on investment, impact assessment, behavioural economics, cost-benefit models, social research and socio-legal studies. I think there are three main issues to consider though going forwards.

A Nudge or a Push?

Behavioural (or “Nudge” ) economics is much in vogue with policy makers and looks at both the rational and irrational factors shaping economic decisions and outcomes, often drawing on Daniel Kahneman's psychology works which contrast “systems 1” (reactive, emotional etc) and “systems 2” (logical, deliberative) thinking. The basic proposition is that these two systems interact with consumer’s “choice architecture” which is in turn framed by the way that both private and public institutions act and the messages they send especially in respect of default options. This may be relevant to debates about how advisers act in framing choices for clients relevant to outcomes, but it’s a controversial topic.

The counterfactual challenge

Even where positive outcomes from legal support can be established with outcomes that demonstrably save the state money, that is not in itself conclusive evidence to support public investment unless you can compare the outcomes for those who don't receive advice. What happens to this group, ie those who give up trying to resolve problems and seeking help as it’s all too inaccessible or unaffordable. Those who for want of a better word, Professor Hazel Genn described as “Lumpers” - literally lumping it. It's hard to ethically incorporate such a comparative "control group" into cost-benefit research, let alone on a longditudinal basis. But we must understand and study the implications of inability to access advice better in order to construct a robust business case.

Building a Whitehall widget

A robust research method to establish cost benefit is one thing – translating it into a practical policy tool though for use by Treasury analysts etc is quite another. Not only does to be a standardised element of undertaking impact assessments, but it also needs to be built into policy design, spending review processes and funding and commissioning formulas. The Home Office has experimented with a “ready reckoner” tool as a resource for statutory bodies looking to calculate the costs of domestic violence / violence against women and girls, in their area. We need something like this for social welfare issues and interventions – a tool that’s practical, accessible and embedded. Using this it would be possible to build in "advice premium" into public services policy and funding mechanisms for the voluntary sector.