Experimenting with Universal Basic Services:
5 things we learnt prototyping a new approach to welfare support in Camden

Camden Inclusive Economy
8 min readSep 7, 2021

Words by Yelena Bidé, Policy Designer and Sarah Dew, Head of Strategy and Policy Design at London Borough of Camden

Even before Covid struck it was evident our welfare system was struggling to respond to many of our most pressing social challenges. And, as the pandemic unfolded, this became even clearer.

At Camden Council, there have been different initiatives to imagine what the welfare state of the future might look like — one that can reduce inequality, build social solidarity, and enable people to live flourishing lives. This blog focuses on one of these projects: our work to test parts of a local Universal Basic Services (UBS) offer as a way of supporting people into good work.

UBS is the universal provision of key public services — including housing, transport, and access to digital services, among others — to enable access to economic and civic participation for all. The NHS and the UK’s education system are two examples of universal basic services.

Pre-pandemic, Camden’s Inclusive Economy service was prototyping a free travel and internet connectivity offer, exploring whether access to these services might support unemployed residents to find good work. This work was part of a broader programme, Good Work Camden, that also collaborates with local businesses to create quality job opportunities in the borough.

This blog focuses on 5 lessons we learnt through this work. We’ve recently published a full report which you can read here.

#1 — The value of academic research in practical experimentation

In 2017, the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) at UCL published the UK’s first report on Universal Basic Services (UBS). This foundational work made the case that a national welfare state formed of a broad set of universal services would help people live secure, flourishing lives; support stronger social connections; and build a sense of civic responsibility across society.

When we heard about UBS, through our existing partnership with the IGP, we thought it was a powerful idea with real practical potential. While UBS is a national policy proposal, we wondered what we could learn at the local level — to improve the lives of people in Camden and offer some practical learning to support wider case making. In the Inclusive Economy service, we built on the IGP’s work to develop two UBS prototypes designed to support Camden residents into good work. We focused on access to transport and internet connectivity because in our conversations with residents these regularly came up as barriers to engaging with employment support, taking a job offer or staying in and progressing in work. And we knew that the existing welfare system wasn’t providing many people with a sufficient safety net to enable them fair access to these two essential tenets of modern life.

#2 — Listen to the people you’re seeking to help to understand what’s most important to them

The public sector is (broadly) organised into a set of services and teams responsible for supporting people with a particular challenge or experience. Projects to improve service offerings, or reimagine what help might look like, often originate within these existing siloes. The reality, of course, is that people don’t experience challenges in their lives in this fragmented way and the challenges of our existing welfare state won’t be fixed by tinkering within existing parameters.

To genuinely design a welfare system that is fit for purpose today, we need to listen to people about their lives, experiences and what matters to them. And we need to embrace an openness to these conversations that lets us imagine an alternative future beyond the confines of our existing welfare paradigm.

In our case, the hypothesis was that free travel and internet access would help residents progress towards finding a good job. But in our qualitative interviews with residents who participated in the travel prototype, we didn’t only ask about how access to a travel card impacted their job search. Instead, we took an open-ended approach and explored the impact of access to travel on their general day-to-day lives. This meant we heard many stories we probably wouldn’t have otherwise, like how it was easier for a resident to get to a food bank or how another resident was able to see her family and friends more often, which helped her feel happier and less lonely.

This approach generated a much broader set of insights than if we had focused exclusively on how free transport impacted residents’ work lives because, of course, our work lives are just part of our wider lives. This, in turn, enabled us to make a strong set of recommendations for what future work in this space might look like. Ultimately, looking beyond project-specific insights to the broader ways an intervention impacts people’s lives means we can design and deliver better projects, locate these projects within people’s wider lives and imagine a system that works better for people.

#3 — Understand why you are prototyping to inform what you do

A prototype is a sample or draft of (part of) a service, policy, product, or process to test with residents to improve the final version. This might be a very small part of the service/product or it may be closer to your intended final version; what you prototype is dependent on what you want to learn. Ultimately, the aim of prototyping is to learn through real world testing to improve the quality and impact of the final product/service. In our work, our transport prototype was quite different to the digital one. This was because the insights we were seeking from each prototype were different but also because of the ethical implications of prototyping different types of products or services.

When prototyping, we must ensure that our research is not harmful to the people participating in the prototype or to anyone else. To conduct an ethical prototype, we should ask ourselves a series of questions relating to consent, potential harm, potentially misleading communications, etc. For example, we need to be clear with participants that what they are testing is just a prototype and not a service they can currently access long term. We also need to make sure that the test isn’t communicating a false promise or setting unrealistic expectations about what a fully developed version might be.

In our case, in partnership with FutureGov we tested our access to transport concept as a ‘live’ prototype, providing 10 residents with a free Oyster card that they could use however they wanted over a month period. We chose the ‘live’ prototype approach because we wanted to understand what impact this type of travel access would have on people’s decisions, activities and experience — and, ultimately, on their progress into employment. Testing at a small scale gave us away of validating (or disproving) our working hypothesis. And we considered a month-long prototype to be ethically appropriate, given participating wouldn’t require people to make long-term changes to their lives that would make short-term testing and participation disruptive.

For our access to the internet prototype, on the other hand, we used a ‘paper’ prototype — mock-up of different options simulating choices people might make about a service offering. We wanted to understand different residents’ current access to the internet and to explore potential benefits and trade-offs of a universal access offer. We also wanted to hear from ideas residents had for how a digital intervention could work in practice. In this case, testing the impact of short-term free internet connection, for example, was less likely to give meaningful insight into the longer-term impact, or answer our questions about practically how a universal offer could be implemented — and it also had the risk of disrupting someone’s existing internet connectivity arrangements (for example, causing participants to cancel their existing subscription). So, in this case, we ‘paper prototyped,’ offering participants the option of ‘choosing’ between different options to understand people’s needs and priorities, and the trade-offs people were most willing to accept.

#4 — The importance of building on, and learning from, existing work

A big takeaway from our experience is that there is always good work to build on and learn from. While some of the ideas or approaches we developed through our prototypes broke into new ground, a lot of what we were trying to do had been tried previously, both within and outside the Council. For example, we knew that Camden had previously developed some digital inclusion interventions so connected with the people involved in that work to learn what had worked and what hadn’t. We also used good theory (including the IGP’s work on UBS) to inform our prototype design and connected with others who were developing similar work. For example, we linked up with Poplar HARCA, an award-winning Housing Association in East London, to learn from their experience rolling out a digital access offer to their residents.

Reaching out to others to learn from their mistakes and best practice helped shape our work and meant we could avoid re-inventing the wheel or making the same errors others had. Of course, as in all public policy, it’s important to not just ‘lift and shift’ good ideas but to think really carefully about how they need to adapt to work in a different context.

#5 — Scaling up a prototype is rarely straightforward

During the pandemic, the Inclusive Economy service built on the prototype insights to design a pilot to provide digital access to unemployed residents. The pilot takes a 3-strand approach, offering access to appropriate devices, a home internet connection, and digital skills — based on our insights from the paper prototyping, where we heard from residents about the most important factors to facilitate digital inclusion. The team is working closely with various other Council services, including Data, Digital, and Adult Community Learning to ensure the pilot is deeply embedded in existing Council structures.

We’re pleased to see the work scaling up, but it certainly wasn’t a straight line from prototype to pilot. Instead, we learned that scaling up a prototype involves bringing together many different pieces of a puzzle, trying to figure out how it all fits together. In our case, it involved tapping into different funding pots and services to build a pilot that provided a ‘wrap-around’ offer. It wasn’t the neatest process, and it involved a lot of stakeholder management and cross-Council collaboration but we know this ‘messy’ work provides an important foundation for landing the pilot within the Council and laying the foundation for future sustainability of the work.

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Camden Inclusive Economy

Thoughts and reflections from the Inclusive Economy team at London Borough of Camden about our emerging work.