In many localities, independent advice services, helping people with debt, money, welfare benefits, housing, consumer and employment problems are feeling the pinch. Demand for advice has risen to record levels since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. But as benefit and welfare systems are radically reformed and people’s lives and problems increase in complexity, the services that help them are being cut back. Legal aid cuts will wipe over £50 million a year off independent advice service budgets – only partially off-set by £20m pa for two years (2013/14 and 2014/15) for advice announced in the March budget. Some local authority funding – by far the biggest source of finance for local advice service – has also reduced.
Many local authorities have also switched from grant aid to procured service contracts. And that’s where problems can really start for advice services. Too often we have seen output heavy, detailed service specifications, aimed at increasing productivity but which in fact create waste and obviate preventative work. Far from achieving better value for money, the approach actually ends up with poorer services that fail to save the money they could.
A couple of us from AdviceUK attended an ‘Outcome Based Commissioning’ workshop put on by CIPFA recently. It was attended mainly by local authority commissioning and procurement officers. Towards the end of the very informative, positive day came the salutary reminder of the thought uppermost in the minds of most local authority staff responsible for funding or purchasing services. It came in the form of a question: ‘This is all very well, but how will it save money – and now?’
Now we’re all for a focus on outcomes from commissioners and funders. As Mark Davison from Centre for Public Innovation argued, performance targets should be about customer achievement, not provider activity. They should link to desired outcomes and be in the domain of the provider in agreement with the commissioner. An outcome based approach should build in verification and learning, rapid course correction and collaboration. Above all it should enable a customer/people focus, rather than a service focus.
But we think there is something more local authorities can do to achieve better value for money from advice services and start to save money.
We have worked with Portsmouth City Council and local advice services on a very different approach to advice service commissioning and design that is already showing signs of paying off. This work built on an initiative we started five years ago and has seen us work with advice agencies and authorities in Powys, Oxford and Nottingham. Other local authorities are also interested in the work.
It starts with commissioners and advice services working together to understand demand that hits advice services, the problems people present and how the advice services respond. It recognises that advice services sit within a wider system of welfare, housing, debt and justice administration, and requires new thinking about the advice service design, purpose and measurement of success. Above all, the approach centres on the person who uses local advice services and what they need and should expect from the service in terms of positive change for them.
What we learned in Portsmouth was that 42 per cent of demand for advice was the result of the failure of public services such as Job Centre Plus, Pensions Service and HM Revenue and Customs. This is consistent with findings in other localities.
For advice services, sorting out these failures can be a lengthy process. Resolving matters for someone who sought advice about a large benefit overpayment (which turned out to be the result of an administrative error) took 16 calls and 3 letters with the benefits service over 51 days. That’s a waste of adviser time and  the benefits service time, it’s a poor service for the person concerned, does not achieve better outcomes and costs money. It takes much needed resources away from dealing with people who get positive outcomes from advice.  But it is failure and waste that often goes unnoticed. The way public service efficiency is measured and advice services are funded treats all work the same – whether it is avoidable or not – and so fails to identify the true costs in the system.
What we have also observed is that people lead complex lives and when faced with problems, such as redundancy or illness, many struggle to navigate the array of services, leading to an escalation of their problems and more intense and costly support in the long-term. Organisations tend to design services and expect the people who use them to become “service-shaped”, instead of designing against the true demand and making services ‘people-shaped’. So we design in silos around funding streams and people slip through the net. Advice and other interventions are less likely to succeed if the wider problems impacting on people’s lives are not resolved. But advice services are in a unique position to understand where things go wrong, as they are often where people turn when they can’t get what they need from the system.
So funding advice services in a way that encourages and requires them to understand demand, respond flexibly, work in active collaboration with other services and adopt a preventative and early intervention approach is essential. A service that is focused on the whole person, not on problems or output targets will achieve better outcomes.
Portsmouth City Council realised this. They were actively engaged in a collaborative effort to understand local advice services and demand. Commissioners recognised that to harness this learning, they needed a completely different approach. They moved from an output-heavy Community Legal Advice Service jointly procured with the Legal Services Commission to commissioning a service with the over-riding principle of customer focus and continual improvement. The service must respond to what customers want and understand the levels and causes of failure in the wider system of which advice is a part. It must be responsive, enabling of clients, high quality, professional and flexible to meet different levels of need. It must be collaborative; working with other services to share learning, coordinate services for people and tackle the causes of demand.
The new service will be measured against successful access, end to end problem resolution times, the number of and reasons for repeat visits, the levels of failure dealt with and customer satisfaction. But what is important is that measures are used dynamically by service managers and commissioners to learn what is happening, to understand the causes and to continually improve. Contract management becomes a partnership approach to solve problems, with a view to tackling the causes of demand of advice – with cost benefits across a range of public services.
Having won the contract, Advice Portsmouth is now working to this specification and putting redesigned services into practice. Early signs are good. The first problem the new service thought it was going to have to fix was how to cope with demand. But early signs are that by working in different, more client-focused ways, waiting times have reduced, though levels of demand haven’t fallen. The next step is to support advisers and managers to learn about what works to help people truly solve their problems, and move away from delivering individual transactions towards engaging clients in achieving a long-term fix.
When preventable failure is identified, the service will act to tackle it at source, in collaboration. Such an approach was taken in Nottingham last year: local independent advice services and council officers cut benefit processing times from 100 to just 5 days by designing services together around the needs of customers.
The result: savings for the public purse, better value for money, better services and better outcomes for people.

To find out how you could follow this example, contact AdviceUK

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