In March 2016, we published Unlocking the helpline, an independent analysis and evaluation of our confidential peer-run helpline carried out by Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York.

You can:


 

Introduction by Unlock

Ever since Unlock started as a charity over 15 years ago, we’ve provided peer advice to people with convictions. Eight years ago we employed our first dedicated member of staff to run our helpline and for over 7 years we’ve been recruiting volunteers from the community in Kent (including from nearby open prisons).

Although a lot has changed in that time, one thing has remained the same – people with convictions continue to come to us looking for information, advice and support to try and deal with the stigma and discrimination they’re facing because of their criminal record.

We speak to thousands of people every year – people facing a wide-range of issues relating to their criminal records. Finding a job, getting insurance, renting a house and going abroad on holiday, to name but a few.

However, as an independent service that’s charitably funded and reliant on trusts, foundations and donations to continue operating, it’s important that we can show that what we’re doing is making a difference and that it deserves support. As is the case with many helplines, it’s hard to show the impact it has on the people that contact us.

So we set about trying to find out more. It wasn’t really about numbers. We know how many people we speak to. We have a good idea of who they are, where they come from and what problems they’re having. What we didn’t know was answers to questions like:

  1. How useful is our helpline?
  2. How helpful is it that it’s peer run (i.e. run by people with convictions)
  3. What works well?
  4. Where could we improve?

That’s why a couple of years ago we embarked on undertaking an independent evaluation of our helpline with the support of Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York; she’s an expert in conversational analysis. We worked hard to make sure that the system we set up would enable a robust evaluation to take place without getting in the way of the confidentiality we attach to the helpline.

Over the space of five months, two of our helpline advisors recorded over 200 calls (with the callers’ permission). We then handed over the recordings to Sue and her team and waited for the results.What you can read below is a summary of the report and its key findings. You can also download the full report, which has been independently written by the author, Sue Wilkinson.

We are delighted with the findings in Unlocking the helpline – with this report we have strong, independent evidence to show how our helpline works and how it operates. It shows the value of having people with personal experience, the benefit of having a supportive voice at the end of the phone and the importance of knowing you’re speaking to somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

We hope that this report will support our efforts in continuing to run our helpline in a way that is independent, confidential, high-quality, peer run and reliable.

Some of the findings and comments in the report that stood out to me were:

“Overall, the helpline appears extremely effective as a source of information, and it is clearly also providing callers with a significant amount of non-informational support.”

 

“The Unlock helpline is relatively unusual in that the call-takers do not strive for neutrality: rather, one of its ‘hallmarks’ is the degree of understanding and empathy that is displayed by the call-takers, as part of the process of providing non-informational help and support for callers.”

 

“Call-takers promote positive thinking and discourage negative thinking.”

 

“Offering reassurance and boosting confidence fit well with Unlock’s aim of empowerment of people with convictions.”

 

“Call-takers clearly draw on their personal and professional experience”

 

We are grateful to Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York and her team for all their hard work on this report. We hope you find the report an interesting read.

If you’re interested in supporting our helpline, you can donate to us here or visit the ‘get involved’ section of our website.

 

Written by Christopher Stacey, Co-Director of Unlock


 

Summary of the report

The below is written by Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York, author of the report

This analysis and evaluation of the Unlock helpline has provided an overview of the service; and a more in-depth analysis of some key conversational features of the calls.  It has shown that most calls to the helpline are from male people with convictions, convicted for violence, theft or motoring offences.  Most are making enquiries about the need to disclose a criminal record, including specific questions about CRB and/or DBS checks.  It is likely that the large number of requests about disclosure and record checking relates to the timing of the study: just after changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

The study has shown that call-handling primarily entails providing information (in 100% of calls), but that two kinds of non-informational help are also commonly offered.  Advice & encouragement are provided in more than half of calls; and understanding & empathy in more than a third.  Both of these entail mobilisation of an impressive range of strategies, and are reflective of the peer support aspect of the service.  These kinds of non-informational help also help to fulfil the charity’s key aim of empowering callers to move on with their lives.  Callers are clearly appreciative of the service: around a quarter of calls contain extended praise or thanks, and some of these comments (about reassurance and confidence) are also suggestive of caller empowerment.

Overall, the helpline appears extremely effective as a source of information, and it is clearly also providing callers with a significant amount of non-informational support and assistance.  This kind of support and assistance draws on, and reflects, the peer support nature of the service.   It would, of course, be possible for Unlock to develop and extend this aspect of its service, but the present study suggests that the helpline as it currently operates provides an effective balance of informational and non-informational assistance to people with convictions.

 

Key findings

  1. Unlocking the helpline is a report that follows an analysis and evaluation of conversations on the Unlock helpline, based on a sample of recorded calls.
  2. It provides an overview of the service; and a more in-depth analysis of some key conversational features of the calls.
  3. It shows that most calls to the helpline are from male people with convictions, convicted for violence, theft or motoring offences.
  4. Most are making enquiries about the need to disclose a criminal record, including specific questions about CRB and/or DBS checks.
  5. The study shows that call-handling primarily entails providing information (in 100% of calls).
  6. However, two kinds of non-informational help are also commonly offered: advice & encouragement (in more than half of calls); and understanding & empathy (in more than a third of calls).
  7. Providing advice & encouragement, and understanding and empathy entail mobilisation of an impressive range of strategies, and are reflective of the peer support aspect of the service.
  8. These kinds of non-informational help also help to fulfil the charity’s key aim of empowering callers to move on with their lives.
  9. Callers are clearly appreciative of the service: around a quarter of calls contain extended praise or thanks, and some of these comments are also suggestive of caller empowerment.
  10. Overall, the helpline appears extremely effective as a source of information, and it is clearly also providing callers with a significant amount of non-informational support and assistance.
  11. The study suggests that the helpline as it currently operates provides an effective balance of informational and non-informational assistance to PWC.
  12. It also suggests that the non-informational assistance draws on, and reflects, the peer support nature of the service.

 

Full evaluation

You can download the full evaluation here.

You can read the news update we posted when the report was published here.

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