This paper came to our attention down in the woodland because it touches on three areas that are of particular interest to the elves; Firstly, it concerns one of the fundamental elements of citizenship – the right to vote and be involved in political process; Secondly, it concerns user-led activism and tools; Thirdly, it considers the role and contribution of social work practitioner research in more general terms, all things which are big ticks on our woodland to-do list (that’s a real thing).
The paper sets out and examines the impact of a local project called Promote the Vote running in West Yorkshire. The campaign started in 2015 in the run up to the general election, with campaigns during local government elections in 2019, 2021 and 2022, and preparations now ongoing for the 2024 general election. Voting rights are often not discussed in day-to-day social care practice, however it has been highlighted by a range of stakeholders as an important element of the person-centred approach, as the researchers state –
‘…the user led campaign group had identified that voting rights was an important issue for them and that an integral part of this was people who wanted to be able to physically cast their vote in polling stations, with appropriate support, to be able to do so.’ (p.3389)
For those that haven’t seen much about some of the citizenship campaigns, now is a good time to think about it. At some point next year, the polling stations will again reopen and being informed about this stuff, and how to support people who will find it difficult to take part, has to be a core requirement of a rights-based approach. Bodies and organisations such as the Local Government Association (2021), Community Care Magazine (James et al, 2023) and the Blog of the Chief Social Worker for Adults (Mitchell et al, 2022) have reported on the campaign, and the impact it is having on people’s inclusion and sense of citizenship.
The paper examines the impact of the promote the voice campaign across four election dates (May 2019, December 2019, May 2021, May 2022). Reporting on a participant group that grew from 135 people at the first election, up to 224 people in the fourth election. Three clear research questions are identified for the paper, one which evaluates the involvement and allyship within the campaign, and two of which consider the learning gained by undertaking the research and how this informs practice. The authors state these as:
- How can social workers engage in practice-based research?
- Does an activist project such as Promote the Vote evidence social work allyship and translate an abstract concept (rights-based practice in this case) into concrete outcomes?
- How does a project which applied research methods, support generation of practitioner-research evidence and contribute towards knowledge-informed practice?
An initial scoping of the literature is presented, setting out the political context, including the basis of the rights to involvement in political life (voting and standing for election) and the evidence that supports the continued exclusion of some groups, in this case people with a learning disability.
A narrative account is provided that covers the key issues that impact on participation in elections and political processes, and on the effectiveness of practitioner research in this area, including:
- Information on the protections for elections and involvement on an equal basis for disabled people.
- The key rights and safeguards that practitioners need to be aware of in order to deliver a rights-based approach.
- A full description of the campaign and some of the tools it used to support people to exercise their votes.
- Consideration of the challenges the campaign has encountered, and what practitioners need to be aware of when approaching rights-based or research-based activities in practice.
During the project social workers, conducting home visits with people with learning disabilities, as part of their practice roles, sought consent from, and then completed a survey tool and collected other data from the person (e.g., awareness of rights, reasonable adjustments people need to participate, voter registration numbers) as part of their assessment and support planning.
The data set was collected four times at four different time periods, three local and one general election. Data analysis using SPSS (v.20) software was undertaken, and thematic analysis carried out to attempt to answer the three research questions set out.
The authors highlight several themes in the results of their analysis, they note changes in the proportion of those taking part in the survey being supported to vote, from 4% in May 2019, up to 22% in December 2019, decreasing to 11% in May 2021 and then increasing once more to 25% in May 2022. It is not clear why there was a drop in the third election reporting period (from 22% to 11%), however the authors identify several findings from the data set overall, including –
- That there was an association between staffing expressing views on an individuals’ mental capacity (i.e., that they lacked capacity to understand the purpose and/or process) and the likelihood of that person registering and then voting. This does not mean that the person was assessed as lacking capacity to vote, but rather the staff believed they did not, and so no further action/support was provided.
- That party political resources are available for general elections, however in local elections these are not accessible which makes inclusion more challenging for individuals who need additional format materials, easy read, or additional support to understand the salient information to make a valid decision.
- That legislation enabling people with learning disabilities to vote (Electoral Administration Act 2006) is not enough on its own, the barriers to inclusion and civic involvement are both practical and attitudinal; and
- That it is possible to incorporate practice and research and to create the time/space for this to happen, although management and system support do need to support this in order to develop research minded or knowledge-informed approach.
This is an interesting paper which covers not only an important area of practice but also focuses on the role of practitioner-researchers, and how time and space can be created in practice to contribute towards developing the social care evidence-base.
Having a concrete outcome – the use of the voting passport and the acts of registering and voting – helped practitioners to contextualise their contribution and involvement in practice research. The authors conclude by stating they are finding it possible to create time and space and that the work is supporting the practitioners’ sense of ‘allyship’ with disabled people.
Strengths & Limitations
Whilst I’m not entirely sure it fully answers its own questions, the paper is transparent in relation to some of its limitations, and the limitations of social care research more generally. There are important points of learning in relation to both how we can effectively promote and sustain support of civic involvement in practice, and how social care as a sector generates its evidence based and then uses this knowledge to underpin practice across diverse and dispersed practice contexts.
One of the key issues when thinking about complexities of social care research, particularly those focused on social anthropological or political themes, is where to go for ethics approval. As the researchers note, unlike health and clinical colleagues, social care research does not have the same history and structures. Whilst NHS and University ethics approval are often the route for both clinical and academic research, practitioner-researchers, who are seeking to incorporate the methods and frameworks to draw evidence and learning from their practice contexts, do not have the formal structures on which to do this. In the case of this paper the researchers’ professional codes of ethics were applied, but this does not provide the level of scientific method and robustness that would allow this type of paper to sit side-by-side with an equivalent healthcare research study. The authors note that they accessed public health colleagues for ethical input on areas such as participant consent, however no details of what this means is provided.
Issues such as bias and interpretative influences are not fully explored which is a drawback, and given the links identified between the views of the supporting workers towards people voting, and the worker facilitating that vote this is a limitation of the analysis. However, it does consider several important areas of enquiry for social care practice rights-based practice which has a measurable outcome and the practicalities and contributions of practitioner-research.
Implications for Practice
A voting passport is identified as one of the user-developed tools which the campaign uses to support people with learning disabilities to take part in election processes. This tool is not explored in any depth which would have been a helpful discussion. Social care staff like tools, and the use of passports in other areas – e.g. communication passports, are well evidenced and used with people with various communication support needs, and so it would have been helpful from a practice point of view to consider this tool – including what is in it and how it is being used – in a bit more detail.
Given the impact politics has had on some of the individuals and groups supported by and working within social care over the last four years, it seems surprising to me that social care and social work has not had more to say about involvement in civic life. From treatment during COVID-19 (the inquiry ongoing as this blog is published), to repeating scandals and exposés about abuse and exploitation in closed environments, through to the social care funding crisis, housing crisis and cost of living crisis, it seems every aspect of social life is wound up in the politics of the day. This campaign, originally a grass roots user-led movement, and now promoted via increasing involvement by social work practitioner-researchers, has led to the proactive inclusion of civil involvement as a practice focus – something we could all pay a bit more attention to when we are thinking about rights and inclusion.
Other elf blogs that might be of interest on this and similar topics include.
- Barriers to citizenship: a community based participatory research approach (nationalelfservice.net)
- How “Big Society” is experienced in the lives of people with learning disabilities: Austerity, broken promises and cruel optimism – National Elf Service
Conflicts of Interest
James, E., Mitchell, R., Reeves, C. & Ali, A. (2023) Social Work Practitioner Research into Participation of People with Learning Disabilities in Elections in the UK – A Local Case Study.” British Journal of Social Work, 54, 3382 – 3398.
James, E., Mitchell, R., & Reeves, C. (2023) Social Workers’ role in promoting the human right to vote. Community Care Magazine [Online] https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2023/03/10/social-workers-role-in-promoting-the-human-right-to-vote/
Local Government Association (2021) Upholding Human Rights: Promoting the vote for adults with learning disabilities. [Online] https://www.local.gov.uk/case-studies/upholding-human-rights-promoting-vote-adults-learning-disabilities
Mitchell, R., Mashaveve, R., James, E., Jazzmin, & Romeo, L. (2022) Promote the Vote. Social Work with Adults Blog. Office of the Chief Social Worker for Adults. [Online] https://socialworkwithadults.blog.gov.uk/2022/06/22/promote-the-vote/