(Back in September 2011, we asked readers of this blog to give us their examples of waste or failure – and how to tackle it by early action and/or collaboration. So we’re very happy to welcome our first guest blogger, Tamra from Bristol Debt Advice Centre (BDAC), where she currently works as a Money Advice Caseworker). Here’s what she told us).

As a debt adviser, there are certain situations where you feel that everyone is following a script. Here’s one that I often encountered at BDAC when I started working there. Client comes into the office, worried sick about a council debt that has been passed to the bailiffs to collect. I have to phone the bailiff on his mobile out on his rounds. You can imagine how the conversation went…

Advisor (me) – “Mrs Band is in receipt of Income Support, and can only afford to offer you £3.50 per week”

Bailiff – “Oh no, I can’t accept that. I need at least £100 up front, and then £50 per month after that.”

Advisor (me) – “But Mrs Band can’t afford to pay that, and she is suffering from depression and anxiety, and this is all making it worse.”

Bailiff – “Well, I really can’t do anything about that. She will have to pay me my money, or I’ll be going in to take her goods”

If we tried negotiating with the council we were told that “once it’s with the bailiffs, there’s nothing that we can do, sorry”. In short, refusal to intervene. I would then try to reassure my client that the bailiff wasn’t genuinely interested in removing her second-hand furniture and microwave – he was using the threat of removing them to apply pressure, so that she would go and borrow money from her granny to pay them off. A poor result all round (except maybe for the bailiff).

Regular re-runs of this script, along with all the complaints we got from our clients about bailiff behaviour, led us to undertake some social policy work to improve the cumbersome, slow, and unsuccessful process for dealing with council debt.

If you are struggling to get your council to talk, you may need to present them with hard and fast figures alongside the anecdotal evidence that agencies are used to collecting. In Bristol, we carried out a survey of local residents who had been visited by bailiffs acting on behalf of the council. Once presented with these results, the council starting thinking seriously about the problems that residents encountered.

Increasingly, both advice agencies and local authorities are beginning to understand the benefits of quicker processing of payment arrangements and conflict resolution. This means there needs to be a move towards increased use of telephone and e-mail rather than paper letters which are both time-consuming to produce and expensive to send. If you don’t already have a direct telephone line to the council, try and get this set up – good communication channels are vital.

When you have been through the script so many times, it can be easy to rant and rave. Advice agencies also have a responsibility to make a constructive approach to their council – for the sake of their clients – and improve the relationships between advice agency, local authority and bailiff. Councils are looking at ways to save money, and it is up to advice agencies to demonstrate how more joined-up relationships and a holistic approach to people’s problems can save money and recover debt, whilst at the same time helping local people to sort out financial problems and stop them happening again.

Even bailiff companies may be more likely to win contracts with local councils if it can be shown they are working collaboratively with advice agencies…

Last month I was invited up to Newcastle by the local Citizens Advice Bureau to facilitate a meeting of advisers, council officers and bailiffs. The CAB had carried out a bailiff survey after hearing me talk at the Institute of Money Advisers conference, and the meeting was the first time that most of people involved had met face-to-face. It was a good opportunity to build trust and have constructive discussions on how to do things better, and I was delighted to see that everyone participated with an open and constructive attitude. They now report that the new direct telephone line is working exceptionally well.

If you are looking to back up your arguments for the benefits of a more joined up approach, you should direct your local authority to the research carried out by Community Finance Solutions at University of Salford on behalf of Leeds City Council, Economic Impact and Regeneration in City Economies. One noteworthy statistic is that “for every £1 invested in financial capability, affordable credit and an integrated service between local authorities and advice agencies, a total of £8.40 is generated for the local region”.

Perhaps the most surprising element to the work we undertook in Bristol is the shared goals identified by what have traditionally been seen as opposing sides. By making the case for collaboration, we have been able to help increased numbers of clients and provide them with a quicker, less stressful experience when dealing with their council debts.

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