During the summer, AdviceUK has been talking to people around the country, challenging commissioners and funders to change their thinking about advice. Our concept is quite simple: understand why people come for advice and act on what you see. If you do this, you will make people’s lives better and improve public services.

Waste: Our  work consistently shows that advice services deal with lots of it – the failure of various parts of our public services and welfare provision. Failure that could be prevented. That’s not news to people at the sharp end of this failure – they see the effect it has on their lives. It’s not news to those doing the advising – they are frustrated that the lessons of this failure never seem to be learned, that so often their intervention only comes at crisis point. Cost and waste are locked into a system that doesn’t learn from its mistakes.

Here’s a story related to us recently by a colleague in Wales, who was advising a client suffering from poor mental health. This client was living alone in his own home and had been receiving Incapacity Benefit.

It all started with a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) stating that Employment Support Allowance (ESA) had been stopped in April this year because the client had failed to attend a medical. The client was adamant that he had never received this letter, but DWP policy is to stop paying the benefit until an appeal is heard and determined. As someone living on a low income, the client immediately began to have big difficulties paying his mortgage, which led to a threat from the lender to repossess his home. DWP advised the client to claim Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). The client duly went to the Jobcentre to claim. However, on seeing a note from the client’s doctor, the Jobcentre said that he was too ill to claim JSA – he would not be able to take up a job if one was offered to him. In the meantime, the client received no ESA, apart from one payment of £260. The adviser managed to find out that this payment had been made in error and on the client’s, behalf appealed the decision to stop the benefit. Because the client had no other income, the adviser explained that they would need to make a new claim for ESA. Why? Because the appeal process would take a long time and there was a big backlog of appeals that had not been dealt with. DWP policy means that in this situation, benefit cannot be paid to the claimant until a new medical assessment is carried out. This medical assessment finally happened in July, since when ESA has been paid at the basic rate. The client didn’t get sufficient points on the medical, so that decision is also being appealed. Unsurprisingly, the client’s mental health worsened.

All this comes against the background of overwhelming evidence that something is seriously wrong with the system. Almost 40% of decisions made by the DWP on ESA are being overturned on appeal – for the 36% who have had an appeal heard by the Tribunals Service to date (see official ESA and WCA statistics).

Now here’s the thing. We could do something about this, with a bit of imagination, collaboration and intelligent investment. We could act on what we see.

In fact we already have. In Nottingham, local independent advice services and council officers cut benefit processing times from 100 to just 5 days. How? By working together with a common purpose and learning how systems can be improved. The result: people are less likely to get into debt and suffer hardship, cost and waste is cut from public services. It’s simple but effective. The approach could be replicated at local and national level.

On our travels we get interest and support for our proposed transformation. We hear more stories about the waste advisers deal with: the failures of the UK Borders Agency, Department for Work and Pensions, local housing benefit offices etc. The appetite for change is greater than ever. Instead of cutting advice services, which change lives, save public money and improve services, invest in them wisely.

The call is for local and national policy makers to listen and think again. But many fingers are in ears in this time of austerity. We need to shout loud and tweet shrilly!

If you agree, here are a few things you can do:

Let others know: Share the link to this blog using e-mail, the Twitter and Facebook buttons in the right hand column or other means that work for you. Suggested Tweet: How to cut waste and improve public services:  #TATL Transforming Advice, Transforming Lives http://bit.ly/oLq5Mw

Send us examples of the waste you see: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/BGP8Q7S

Hear Steve Johnson, AdviceUK CEO, talk on this subject at Civil Society Forum on 6th October (1.30-5.30pm, Initiatives of Change, 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD http://civilsocietyforum.net/site/events/

Come to the AdviceUK Conference, 13 October, Birmingham: Redefining advice – achieving real change for people

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Find out more: www.adviceuk.org.uk/bold.

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