Reflections on the London Advice Conference

Chief Legal Ombudsman Adam Sampson was right to challenge the advice sector at the London Advice Conference (3/7/12). The former Shelter CEO urged delegates to consider efficiency, investment in technology and new funding models as they grapple with grim times of funding cuts, welfare reform and increased demand.

Re-modelling advice services in the wake of legal aid and local funding cuts will be painful, but as Sampson says, the focus must be not on maintaining old structures but on clients. Former Justice Secretary Willy Bach called for unity – “it’s all about survival now”. We may do well to remember it’s really about the people who need and use advice services now and so should it always be. Technology and funding models may help but they are not the starting point. We need a method to become efficient, client-focused and sustainable. 

The posts on this blog site have focused exclusively on how we can transform advice using ‘outside-in’, client-focused methodology. It struck me while listening to the lively closing debate at the conference that the systems thinking approach to advice that AdviceUK has pioneered and promoted for several years now offers a methodology that should equip us to rise the challenges of our times. It offers the chance to really understand and act on what matters to clients, rethink purpose, understand demand, how work flows through advice systems and what conditions affect our behaviour. As my colleague Simon Johnson suggested in his workshop (‘Commissioning for Value’), to improve and thrive advice services must unlearn old rules, think again and make services people shaped. We could do better things if we stop trying to do things better (in other words, do the wrong thing righter).

We know that large amounts of demand result from preventable failure. DWP were mentioned many times during the conference as prime culprits. LAG’s Steve Hynes called on them to pay for the pollution they cause. That may be right. A financial penalty for failure would focus the mind. But as Willy Bach said, a polluter pays principle is unlikely to get far – it amounts to Government departments compensating each other for their failures. As I have argued previously on this matter, it would be better to build a constructive relationship with the likes of DWP so that advice services have real opportunities to tackle the preventable failures, waste and cost in their systems rather than simply mopping up the effects. And that includes new Universal Credit systems, which will not be free of failure, whatever the Government claims.

That’s easier said than done, I know. The point made by several delegates about the danger of making a big assumption that those in political power give a damn about improving welfare and tackling poverty is true. But we must try, in the interests of clients.

The Government has an opportunity that we must urge them to take. As Hilary Norman told us, they Cabinet Office is concluding a review of advice and about to set up a new £16.8M fund in England. While we certainly don’t need another transition fund, equally we need the new funding to encourage client centred, preventative frontline services that tackle systemic failure not just services with a new list of output targets to meet. We also need the Government to get the polluters round the table to work with us.

See more comments on the conference via Twitter #inspire12

For more information about AdviceUK’s systems thinking work, contact consulting@adviceuk.org.uk.

Phil Jew, Head of Policy, AdviceUK

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