Vanguard Systems Thinking


AdviceUK’s work to rethink advice has been supported since 2007 by the Baring Foundation.

Our starting point was the RADICAL project, working alongside Vanguard Consulting to study advice services in Powys and Oxford. This led to the publication of It’s the System Stupid! in 2008.

BOLD was established the following year to explore our learning further and its implications for the commissioning of advice services. We were – and remain – concerned that the competitive procurement of services to tightly defined specifications reduces collaboration and causes advice organisations to be narrower in their scope, leading to worse outcomes for the  people who use them.

We have worked in other cities, developing our approach and supporting AdviceUK members, local authorities and others to commission and design advice services that recognise the complex realities of people’s lives and seek to deliver what matters to the people who use them.

BOLD is a revolution in thinking about what advice is for and what it can do. Using the Vanguard Method for Systems Thinking, we help advice services become more effective, building their capacity and independence to ‘do better things’ for the people they serve.

The Access to Justice Foundation Project supports collaboration and partnerships between community advice services and pro-bono advice schemes involving solicitors and barristers.


RADICAL marked the start of our alternative approach to the design, coordination and integration of advice and legal services. It initially involved a study in Powys and Oxford in conjunction with Vanguard Consulting, and led to the publication of the report It’s the System Stupid! Radically Rethinking Advice in October 2008.

Developing Access to Advice and Policy (DAAP) is a partnership with the Law Centres Federation to build the capacity and skills of member organisations. Funded by the London Councils, it aims to improve performance, organisational capacity, and the quality and sustainability of front-line advice organisations across London.

Governance developed jointly with the Law Centres Federation, this project aims to improve the skills and knowledge of trustees and not-for-profit company directors, and to help them function well in a regulatory, policy and funding environment that is increasingly challenging.

Working Together for Advice was a multi-stream Big Lottery funded project across several of the advice networks.

Systems Thinking

Transforming advice to improve lives

AdviceUK is leading a revolution in thinking about what advice is for and what it can do. Our approach offers real value to commissioners through radical transformation of services. It provides a method for learning how to do better things and so more effectively tackle and prevent the problems that blight people’s lives.

Advice services help people deal with the acute challenges they face, particularly as the welfare safety net is gradually removed and cuts to services bite. Demand for advice has increased significantly, but cuts in legal aid and local authority spending mean capacity is reduced and under further pressure.

Faced with such challenges, we don’t believe that trying to ‘do things better’ is good enough – we need to learn to ‘do better things’.

In recent years, we have seen local authorities and other funders move increasingly away from grant funding to procurement. Tight service specifications cause advice services to become narrower in their scope, with success measured by simple output targets. Advice services are forced to become more transactional, sticking plasters on people’s problems at the point of crisis, rather than helping them tackle underlying issues and causes. And using ‘softer’ performance management based on ‘outcomes’ doesn’t help – it’s still based on the same flawed thinking that focuses attention on making the numbers, not learning what works and doing what matters.

AdviceUK has pioneered the use of Vanguard Consulting’s Systems Thinking in the advice sector. From our work we know that advice can help public services learn where and how things go wrong. Commissioning advice to ‘do better things’ could help public bodies improve services and reduce costs.

Asking Better Questions

Rethinking the problem

Understanding the problem as one of supply and demand does not offer sustainable solutions, and leaves advice services on the treadmill of trying to do ever more with less.

AdviceUK’s approach starts with understanding demand and its causes, and finds ways to stop the ‘failure’ demand that clogs up advice services. The focus is to:

  • Understand the purpose of the service from the perspective of the people who use it
  • Analyse people’s journeys and how to deliver what matters for them in as few steps as possible
  • Design to deliver only and exactly what matters to people, which achieves better outcomes and reduces waste and cost

‘Failure’ demand is the demand placed on a service because it, or another organisation fails to do something for a customer, or to do it right. Much of the demand for advice is preventable, caused by the failure of public services or commercial lenders to get it right for people.Understanding demand

Vanguard Consulting pioneered this approach to service design in the public sector and have over 20 years experience of helping local authorities, health providers, emergency services and private business, including a number of blue-chip companies, to deliver transformational change that results in:

  • Improved services and outcomes for people
  • Increased capacity
  • Reduced costs
  • Improved staff morale

We have put together a short presentation – Designing Outside-In – that introduces the Vanguard Method in advice services.

What have we learnt?

Advice services struggle to cope with huge amounts of demand they shouldn’t have to deal with – mostly generated by public services failing to do something, or do something right, for their customers. When we’ve studied, we’ve found this preventable demand making up 30 to 40% of the demand for advice.

Addressing this failure and waste not only frees capacity in advice organisations, it also has a positive impact on the quality of the public service. In Nottingham, advice services and the local authority worked together to change the way they dealt with benefits problems. Independent evaluation showed that the time taken to process cases fell in the advice service from 142.2 days to 30.8 days. For the benefits services it fell from 56.3 to 16.3 days.

And it’s not just the drain on capacity and resources. In Coventry, we worked with new economics foundation to produce a Social Return on Investment analysis of the cost of failure in the system for the individuals (called Social Cost) and for wider public services (Cost to State).

Case study Social Cost Cost to State Total Cost
Debt – late intervention £19,207 £9,511 £28,718
Debt – early intervention £7,746 £1,521 £9,267
Housing – late intervention £8,837 £5,287 £14,124
Housing – early intervention £1,516 £1,516

More recently, AdviceUK has worked with advice providers and commissioners in Portsmouth, leading to a new advice service – Advice Portsmouth – being commissioned using systems thinking principles. By studying demand for advice together, commissioners and providers learned what mattered to the people using the service and could design to deliver just that.

Systems thinking helped commissioners agree a clear purpose and a set of principles to underpin the new service, based on their knowledge of client demand and what mattered to people. However, providers were free to design a service without prescribed processes or targets, and the results have been dramatic. The new approach also means that the relationship between the service and the commissioners has changed from a contractual one to a partnership in which measures and data are used to understand what works and to continuously improve.

Click on the link below to read about the Portsmouth experience

Breaking the Mould – Portsmouth

What can we do for you?

AdviceUK helps individual advice services, local advice networks and commissioners rethink what advice does and how it can contribute to fixing problems in communities.

We use the Vanguard Method for Systems Thinking to understand how advice services work and how they fit with other systems such as benefits administration, housing and homelessness services, support services, debt recovery or access to credit.

Because the Vanguard Method is designed to support leaders to learn, we don’t work like most consultants: we won’t produce project plans with outputs and timescales or reports for you to discuss in meetings (or leave on the shelf)! We’ll help you study and challenge your thinking, but this approach is about you getting out into your service and studying what happens, and using data gained in the work to experiment and find what works. When you start studying, what you learn dictates where you need to look next, and the amount of time leaders put in determines how long it takes.

If you want to break the mould in your local area, contact us for more information about what we could do for you.

For more information contact our consultants by phone on 0300 777 0107 or 0300 777 0108. Email us at or visit the consulting section of our website.

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