Haydn Howard puts some questions to Meritec’s Director of Flexible Resourcing Adam Gardner about the resource challenges ahead in the Revs and Bens market.
So tell me about the landscape that your service finds itself working in.
During the current national “austerity” measures, funding for Council’s across the UK has been reduced. Combined with an increasing demand for social care services, it has led to Council’s having to reduce their expenditure across other services as well as having to redesign and transform services and their work forces. In 2018 one County Council has become insolvent and the National Audit Office has declared there are as many as 15 other local authorities facing a similar risk. The outcome of a survey of leading council figures across the UK conducted by the New Local Government Network found 70% of respondents expected that they would be unable to provide non-statutory services beyond 2023 if funding remained as restricted as it has been since 2010.
I guess you could call it “doing more, with less”.
Drawing on your working knowledge of Local Government would you be able to offer me an example of a department facing significant change?
One important business area in many LA’s that has many challenges ahead is in Revenues and Benefits, experienced staff continue to move on, some into well-earned retirement, others are choosing to side step into alternative LA jobs whilst a growing number are looking away from the Local Authority and into alternative career paths. As services are redesigned and delivery methods changed in line with future central government agenda, such as the introduction of Universal Credit, working roles are similarly evolving with current trends including bringing activities that have linked skill sets together such as Housing Benefit assessment and social services assessment, and Housing Benefit assessment and Housing need. Alongside this many staff are moving from traditional back office roles into new critical front-line roles supporting citizens with the emergence of digital interaction to the council and budgeting skills.
What role does the private sector have in supporting Revenues and Benefits teams?
In recent years there has also been a shift away from long-term outsourcing arrangements with large multi service companies who deliver a ‘one size fits all/ economies of scale’ Revenues and Benefit service. Welfare Reform, localisation, continued austerity pressures, and ultimately a desire to regain day to day control of a uniquely evolving ‘local service’, being cited as significant contributors to the decision to ‘insource’ these key services areas.
Instead there has been a growing demand for what we like to call Soft Partnerships whereby crucially Councils/Senior Management retain control of their services, yet the partner works flexibly inside the service delivering the work to the standards that are set by the Council and acts as an immediate extension to the team.
All these changes and uncertainty must be difficult for the members of staff working for the council and for their management teams to maintain service delivery?
Absolutely, as sure as ‘night follows day’, staff will leave, sickness will happen, and back logs of work will spike at exactly the worst imaginable point in the year and managers are left facing a resourcing dilemma. Additionally, Council’s have access to ad hoc burdens funding to deliver various ‘case review’ work which creates a resource pressure and is very difficult to plan for.
What are councils doing to try and ensure their delivery is not impacted?
There seems to be different approaches being adopted across the UK.
For example a tender for a Housing Benefit resilience service I recently received gives a flavour of the dilemma Revenues and Benefits Service Managers are facing. quote “Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support are statutory functions of the Council that must be fulfilled. The Service must have sufficient resources in place to process claims in a timely and accurate manner. To future proof against the introduction of Universal Credit, the service has not replaced permanent staff that have left, following DWP advice. This contract will provide value for money through savings made by not having to recruit and train new staff.”
Yet in contrast several Local Authorities are seeking to recruit and train large intakes of completely new officers, often on short fixed-term arrangements, whilst others are still choosing to look for quality temporary workers from a reducing pool of increasing costly agency staff.
Are there any aspects of work that Revenues and Benefits managers would find difficult to plan for? Potential spike’s and new projects? You mentioned “burdens funding” earlier, could you explain what that means?
Sure, The Department for Work and Pensions are constantly evolving aspects of the way Housing Benefit work is administered. Partly to try and update the caseload with Universal Credit being introduced but equally to reduce the number and values of overpayments being created. In 2017/18 it was reported by the Department for Work and Pensions that there were £3.8 billion pounds worth of benefit overpayments across the UK with £1.46 billion being linked to Housing Benefit.
In years gone by most scheme and administration changes would often only occur in April and October, unless an urgent circular bulletin was released but with technology advances Revenues and Benefits managers are constantly facing new tasks that were not accounted for when budget and staffing levels were set.
To offset the additional cost of administering these new work streams the DWP began to more widely publicise the term “burdens funding”, effectively a payment in addition to the regular administration grants, to which LA’s that signed up for the new work streams would receive added funds.
Some of the early projects were described as initiatives and seemed to be sold to LA’s that there was no actual requirement to join the projects, however as time has moved on and the introduction of schemes like FERIS (Fraud and Error Reduction Incentive Scheme), RTI (Right Time Information), VEP (Verify Earnings and Pensions) and more recently the review of self employed claims for the DWP, there has almost become a situation whereby LA’s are compelled to sign up for the projects to obtain the burdens funding ( finance directors would say if the DWP are giving out money it makes sense to do so), but generally due to the short term nature of how these projects are funded, it makes it very difficult for Revenues and Benefits Managers to then put forward a business case to their directors for extra permanent staff, so they are back to trying to manage the pressure of the additional work with existing staff or looking for costly short term resource fixes.
Benjamin Franklin is credited as saying “time is money”
Yes he is very right, In today’s world the one thing that has become precious to people’s lives is time, yet at this time of austerity there is an increased reluctance to consider the value of time when a piece of work can be carried out in-house. The thing is, handling these tasks in-house isn’t always efficient, good value for money or saving money. In fact, by giving these functions to individuals who may not have the experience to do them correctly or taking them on yourself even though you don’t have the time generally can be a false economy and end up costing you more.
So why are people choosing Meritec?
Because we’re brilliant!
Joking aside, there are a whole number of reasons.
We have been delivering high quality, flexible, Revenues and Benefits processing work and Training for over a decade with an ever-growing number of satisfied customers. Our officers are years experienced, trained to the highest level and deliver outstanding performance. We don’t have trainees as the roles are so complex.
The service we provide enables Revenues and Benefits managers to optimise future staffing levels to ensure service demands are met through the year and/or at times of peak demand i.e. financial year end or when burden funding is taken.
Crucially though the Council stays in control, they know their service best but work closely with us to allow our vastly experienced staff to operate as an extension of their back-office team. We can plug the gaps, clear backlogs, administer projects and provide them with the breathing space needed to implement and deliver changes in local and national policy/agenda and other change projects as services evolve with the rapidly changing times ahead.
Furthermore, it is all under-pinned by the fact that we are a SME that prides itself on strong relationships, we’re friendly and easy to do business with and our core value being to exceed our customer’s expectations and provide real value for money.