Spartacus Report – New Form of Voluntary Action?

The internet is a wonderful thing. You should know. You’re reading it.

For disabled people it can be a liberating tool, allowing those with restricted mobility the opportunity to interact with the world in a way unthinkable even twenty years ago. Of course, it also provides new challenges, such as how to make websites accessible to those with sight impairments; or how to move away from reliance on the written word for those who find reading and writing difficult or impossible.

For a sub-section of disabled people, however, this new form of interaction also allows for new forms of cooperation. Following in the footsteps of the New Social Movements in the 1960s, disabled people are meeting in cyberspace to share their experiences of being disabled, and forming new groups to stand up for their interests.

The most striking example of this must be the Spartacus Report – a survey of 523 responses to questions about the coalition government’s reforms to disability policy.

Published in January 2012 under the title Responsible Reform, it was fully researched and written by disabled people themselves, conducted over social media and e-mail, and therefore required very little funding. Other than, of course, the internet connections, computers and the efforts of those involved.

Responsible Reform cover page

“The Spartacus Report”, or Responsible Reform is available through the WeAreSpartacus website.

This poses some challenges to us as historians, and to the group themselves. On the one hand, this is a very effective and rapid means of research and communication. By sharing the report on the internet, billions have access to the information and methodology contained within the report. This could create new possibilities for voluntary action as people can coordinate their political action across international borders without leaving their own bedrooms.

On the other, there is a danger that these reports will be seen as “inferior” the their glossy, professional counterparts. Despite the praise Spartacus has received from many quarters, the government claimed that the report was unscientific and unrepresentative. A sample size of 523 organisations is impressive enough for an amateur – a comment on the researchers’ salaries, not abilities – research group, but it pales in comparison to the large-scale survey the government can commission.

Still, it must be made clear that the responses came from the government’s own survey of disability organisations, with their responses gleaned from a Freedom of Information Request. While the methodology may have been criticised, the campaigners were working from much the same data available to the DWP.

For now, it seems, cyberspace-based activism needs to build its credibility. Yet a new, brasher form of voluntary action had to gain credibility in the 1960s and succeeded. The major disability lobbying organisations today have their roots in the “Poverty Lobby” and New Social Movement organisations of 40-50 years ago.

Is this a new form of voluntary action? Or is technology putting a new spin on an old concept?

Responsible Reform, also known as “The Spartacus Report” is available through the We Are Spartacus website.
Short disclaimer: since writing this post, I have been involved in a minor way in “fact checking” and research into disability benefit issues with people from the Spartacus group.
EDIT – 18 February 2013, 15:12 – a previous version of this post said that the responses to the survey had been solicited by the Spartacus Group. In fact they had been obtained by the group after a Freedom of Information request asking for the responses to an official DWP survey. The author apologises for the mistake.
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11 Responses to Spartacus Report – New Form of Voluntary Action?

  1. Ann Johnson says:

    Hi
    I’m glad you’re thinking about the implications of this Report.
    By the way, my understanding is that the Spartacus report was a re-analysis of the an existing government survey. Thus the UK government were responsible for the sample; sick and disabled people accessed organisational responses to the survey (via a Freedom of Information Act request to the government), so that some sick and disabled people could assess for themselves the government analysis of the survey responses. I believe the Government has yet to make available the responses of individuals to the same survey, so ‘Spartici’ have as yet been unable to analyse these.

  2. Spoonydoc says:

    The author misunderstands what the Spartacus Report did. Any controversy does not arise from the survey itself or who responded. The survey was in fact an official consultation commissioned by the government. The government had published a response to the very same consultation and claimed that respondents were in favour of their welfare reforms.

    The authors of the Spartacus report obtained the 523 original group responses to the consultation through a Freedom of Information Request. These were chosen as most representative of disabled people’s views, each response representing hundreds of disabled people.
    They were able to show that in fact the government’s position was untrue and the group responses showed great opposition to the reforms.
    Same consultation: different result.

    There were however some additional individual responses to the consultation. The government pointed to these to claim that the group responses sample was unrepresentative.
    However it should be noted that, given the weighting of the responses, even if every single individual submission were in favour of the reforms, the overall result would still be against the government. Ironically the government had previously dismissed close to half of all individual responses as “template letters” against them and inadmissible.

    Furthermore the government was then therefore required by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to release the individual submissions for examination by the end of 2012 but have so far failed to do so.

  3. Gareth Millward says:

    Both valid points, and difficult to cover in a short blog post such as this.

    My understanding is that the government’s main objections were to the fact that they saw the sample size and the way in which it was analysed as “biased”. Whether this is true (or whether this conveniently overlooks the part of the report based on the DWP’s own data) is a different debate. What I was trying to do here was to outline how this new form of campaign can be contextualised within the history of voluntary action.

    It is interesting, however, that these responses came largely through FOI requests (which I apologise for misrepresenting in the text). It’s also very interesting how the government has sought to characterise the act of retrieving and synthesising that information.

    I suppose the question the throw back is: if (for example) Leonard Cheshire or Scope had done what the Spartacus Report group had done, would the government have taken it more seriously?

    • Spoonydoc says:

      I should explain at this point that I am the main co-author of the Spartacus Report: Dr S.J.Campbell which is why I have some insight into this.

      I’m not sure that it is a question of being taken seriously. I think that the government needed to win the welfare votes and needed to discredit the report at all costs. They used the lack of “officialdom” to its advantage, which would have been harder to do had it been published by one of the leading disability charities (although not impossible. A favourite tactic at the moment is to dismiss any opposition as “scaremongering”, regardless of the quality of the source).

      Fortunately many were swayed by the arguments and evidence itself. More publications have followed and today Spartacus has a reputation all its own and can often be found quoted or mentioned in Hansard or on Joint Committees.

      We had to take action ourselves because charities simply stood by. The feeling is that some rely on government for funding or contracts and cannot afford to rock the boat. It is a shame because they have a lot more resources.

      • Gareth Millward says:

        All valid points, and ones that I hoped to tease out of the discussion. So thank you!

        I agree that there has been an historical problem with organisations (not just the traditional “charities”) who not only rely on funding but don’t want to jeopardise their good contacts and relationships with government. On the one hand they may feel compelled to speak up – on the other, if they have no access to Whitehall, can they make a difference? It’s a difficult path to tread.

        Perhaps then there is a further question – are these more informal groups less in debt to the political establishment (with all the pros and cons that entails)? And is this likely to be a political problem or strength in coming years?

  4. M Thomson says:

    “A sample size of 523 organisations is impressive enough for an amateur – a comment on the researchers’ salaries, not abilities – research group, but it pales in comparison to the large-scale survey the government can commission.

    Further, of those 523 responses, one has to assume that many of the groups heard about the survey because of their own opposition to the government. Is there a chance the survey may be too selective, and too skewed towards government opposition? The government thought so – or at the very least, they felt able to claim so.”

    Sorry but methinks you assume too much! The responses from the 523 organisations were not solicited by the authors of the Spartacus Report, they already existed within the government consultation document. These responses were obtained using the Freedom of Information Act FOI No. 989, ‘RE: DLA REFORM RESPONSE AS PUBLISHED APRIL 2011’, which stated: “With regard to the above document, please can you provide copies of all responses from organisations mentioned at ‘Annex 2: List of organisations that responded’ in full?”

    The Spartacus Report was therefore based “on a rigorous analysis of the 523 organisational responses to the Government’s consultation on reform of disability living allowance…”

    It should also be noted that the Government announced the Welfare Reform Bill two days before this consultation on DLA ended which made it impossible for it to be taken into account when drafting the legislation for it.

    • Gareth Millward says:

      Not so much “assume too much” as “misunderstood the research methodology”!

      Again, point taken. I’m not saying whether the government was right or wrong in this instance (though I think it’s pretty obvious where I stand on the issue). The wider point is to engage in the discussion of what this means for the history and future of voluntary action and campaigning.

      Given the comments here, however, I will edit the offending line. Thanks for the input.

  5. Charlotte Clements says:

    Sorry to wander off the topic of the conversation so far, but I am interested in the idea of ‘new’ forms of voluntarism – particularly campaigning/activism. One of the things I have a sense of from voluntary action history is that voluntarism springs up wherever it can, and from that viewpoint, the internet should be no different. In that sense I am not sure how ‘new’ digital activism/campaigning/mentoring is.

    What does strike me though is that two aspects of the debate can be changed through technology -both are hinted at in your piece – scale and access. Both mean that the horizon for such action is wider. Perhaps a third might be speed – mobilising support may be quicker through online networks – I’d need someone with a better grasp of NSMs to fill me in here.

    As far as I can see there are two notes of warning to be sounded: digital disenfranchisement – are the voices of those offline going to be drowned out? Also are we at risk from a less engaged form of voluntary action where ‘likes’ and links are substituted for action? (There is a great opportunity for some comparative VAH here!)

    I remain undecided about ‘newness’ – it is certainly not new for voluntary organisations to take every opportunity open to them, nor is it new for there to be the risk of people getting left behind. Even prior concern about apathy and donor fatigue mirrors concern about the limitations of new social media. However taken together, scale, access, and speed might provide something new, perhaps in changing the terms and landscape in which voluntary organisations engage with the state. Perhaps in terms of providing a more democratic arena in which to engage in debate. Maybe what is new is that, although still stacked, for us in western societies, the odds of mounting effective campaigns are that little bit more favourable when practically anyone (tongue firmly in cheek) can have a blog to air their views!

    • ASFinnegan says:

      Is there any research that has looked at evolving, and proliferation of, technologies (i.e. phones, public transport, cars…) and the impact they have had on voluntary action?

  6. ASFinnegan says:

    Thanks for this interesting post.

    I hope that this comment is on point – I am interested in the idea that the internet and specifically social media encourage not only a new kind of voluntary action but also attract a different kind of person. At the ARNOVA conference last November I listened to a number of papers and discussions asking whether social media has introduced new people to philanthropy & volunteering. I am unconvinced that the activities discussed in this post represent a new form of voluntary action. Rather, I believe that the internet provides a new, and potentially more effective, way of doing it.

    In terms of who will engage with voluntary action online, I do not think that the internet with have any significant impact. Research from the Third Sector Research Centre has shown that just over a third of the population together provide 90% of volunteering hours, four-fifths of the amount given to charity, and nearly 80% of participation in civic associations. Those in this ‘civic core’ have some common characteristics: middle aged, professional, highly educated, actively religious, and have lived in the same area (usually affluent) for 10+ years. I am not sure how the internet will change this? I understand that people are statistically more likely to volunteer if you are asked to and therefore because you are able to be more connected to people via the internet then you the chances of you being asked increases.

    But, I want to ask whether you are more likely to connect with people that have had different backgrounds/experiences. Do we not connect with people/organisations who think the way we do or have the same interests? If so then it is likely that those in the civic core will use the internet for voluntary action. Does it mean that those who are not will start to seek out voluntary activities/organisations?

    I am aware that I digressed from the issue of voluntary action and disability (and haven’t taken a historical perspective!). I also recognise that in this specific case social media may offer people with disabilities the chance they wouldn’t otherwise have due to lack of mobility/support, to engage in such activity.

  7. Rob Jackson says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I think it illustrates well that so-called under-represented groups in volunteering are in fact highly active volunteers, they just don’t do what the ‘establishment’ wants to define as volunteering.

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