Policy in Practice was invited to accompany Lord Kirkwood on a visit to a Universal Credit service centre in Glasgow. We wanted to understand how Universal Credit policy is being delivered in practice. This followed our visit to a Job Centre Plus office in Dover that’s delivering full service.
Policy in Practice’s local authority and housing association clients have told us that their experience of support from service centres has been a key part of their move onto Universal Credit. Generally, they have reported inconsistent but improving levels of support from service centres.
The DWP operates 26 service centres across the UK and the number of JCP offices they each serve varies according to the size of the service centre. To date, 416 jobcentres have rolled out with Universal Credit. Currently around 50,000 claimants are supported by the Case Managers and Decision Makers based at the 3 Glasgow sites.
Dundas office focuses on Universal Credit full service claims, Buchanan office focuses on Universal Credit live service and new claims onto Jobseekers allowance and Milton office focuses on exceptional claims that include alternative payment arrangements (APAs), housing enquiries, families on the legacy ‘Live’ Universal Credit service, Work Programme referrals and other specific circumstances.
We met with the people responsible for the service centre overall, as well as those leading each of these teams, and spent time with Case Managers and Decision Makers, in some cases as they worked through cases. I found it incredibly valuable to see how the processes we had heard described actually operate on the ground. The context that DWP staff were working in helped me to make sense of operations.
Universal Credit Full service drives cultural change
The first thing that struck me was that Universal Credit Full service felt different to both the ‘Live service’ and the legacy benefit system. It was described differently and the staff showed a greater level of confidence in their ability to deliver a good service at the current level of maturity of the system. They saw the potential for the ‘build’ of the system to continue to improve.
From a service delivery perspective, Case Managers were linked to specific Jobcentre centres and ultimately to groups of Work Coaches, to enable them to build strong relationships and familiarity with the cases that they were working on. Whilst this approach was in place under the Live Service staff felt it had developed and they were better able to take ownership of the customer’s outcomes.
We talked about other issues that had been raised by our advisors, including whether childcare payments and self-employed claims would be resolved within the assessment period. There wasn’t a clear and simple answer, some cases were straightforward and handled well, and others could be improved on the part of both the customer and case manager.
We were told that Case Managers have much greater freedom and autonomy in how they help a customer to resolve a case. An example of this different approach was outlined with reference to the habitual residency test.
“Staff are freed to sort out a vulnerable customers circumstances on the day. For example, a vulnerable customer came in on a Friday afternoon, while we had the in the snowy weather. They hadn’t been paid because it appeared that they had no recourse to public funds. They were desperate. In this case, the advisor was asked what they wanted to do, and what they felt was right, and the customer was given an advance to allow time for the case to be properly investigated.”
“I looked into that case and it turns out that the original decision was correct. They had a three month gap in their work history, meaning they had lost their entitlement to support under new rules introduced in 2014. Our advisors have to act according to guidance and legislation, but the freedom that the work coach showed in this example means that we are still engaged with the customer, and we were able to make a referral to social services.”
There was an acknowledgement that staff are having to deal with the bad press that Universal Credit has had in the preceding years. For example, payment timeliness has improved considerably (though many argue, and DWP accept, that this can still improve), and recent changes are now coming into effect that improve the transition onto Universal Credit. However due to earlier issues, the damage to public perception had been done and it will take months, perhaps years, to change people’s minds. Staff recognised that they need to be patient and continue to work hard to improve the service before improvements will be acknowledged more widely.
Scotland has recently been given control over important elements of social security and won concessions in the context of Universal Credit. Scottish Choices means that customers can choose to have their Universal Credit paid twice monthly and now, like the rest of the UK, Universal Credit claimants can choose to have the housing element of their claim paid directly to the landlord.
Case Managers told us that while direct payments to landlords had a good level of take-up, fortnightly payments weren’t often taken up, possibly because the first payment is still only made after five weeks.
The Scottish government now also has responsibility for considerable elements of the social security system, for example Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Plans, though funding has to be raised within Scotland.
Universal Credit Live service
We spent fifteen minutes on the floor of the Universal Credit Live service with the service leader.
The team leader was proud of the work his team were doing to support Live service claims. He acknowledged, however, that since new claims to the service ended in January this year it was going to be tough to keep people working on the Live service motivated.
He focused on the people aspect of the service, a ‘once and done’ philosophy meant resolving issues that people have as they arise, meaning better customer service and lower costs. There was also a focus on people development, emphasising that there are opportunities to grow and move onto other teams.
There was widespread acknowledgement that the Universal Credit Full service was a better service, with staff having more ownership and better systems to work with. It was important to him that his team continue to take pride in their work, and felt part of an essential team.
Universal Credit Full service
We spent more time with the teams working on UC Full service. We were able to spend time with Case Managers, including one manager who has been working directly to support Universal Credit claimants for two years, having come from the Live service team.
He told us that around nine in ten claims were paid automatically, and the others would come to Case Managers like him, or be escalated to one of the Decision Makers based at the service centre in Glasgow.
We saw the screen he worked with, and saw that cases were split into five categories.
- Payments – Case Managers would have to review cases where customers had third party deductions, such as tax credit overpayments, to be repaid from their Universal Credit award.
- Blocked – Blocked payments referred to claims that had not been properly completed.
- Journal – The Case Manager could see exactly the same screens as the customer and had access to the claimant profile. This meant they could more easily support the customer and explain what they needed to do on screen.
- Accurate – The Case Manager told us that he needed to work on a claim to see if there are any mistakes
- Other – Cases where payment was to be made to the landlord or change the frequency of payments at the request of the customer or in some cases the landlord.
We asked this Case Manager about third party deductions and he explained that, in the absence of any other information, the maximum amount of 20% of the personal allowance was typically deducted. He told us that some issues are better resolved by a Work Coach, for example the case for deducting a lower amount would need to come from a Work Coach because they are with the customer on the frontline. Working in the service centre meant that he was able to assign a Work Coach and setup appointments.
We discussed the fact that a number of people would not need to see a Work Coach on a regular basis. Around one-third of Universal Credit claimants will be out of work and have no work related requirements, due to ill health or caring responsibilities, so will not be seen on an ongoing basis.
Policy in Practice believes that local organisations have an important role to play in helping these customers to manage and maintain a claim. While wider support needs can be explored at the initial interview with their Work Coach it must be difficult to fully explore these needs within the time allocated for assessments. Local support could also play an important role in helping people toward greater levels of independence.
The Case Manager told us that they do receive calls from 3rd parties where explicit consent has been given by the claimant. Typically, the majority of these third parties are landlords who call to ensure that rent is paid directly to them. Policy in Practice has argued in the past that a broader role for advocates to support claim management could be cost effective for DWP, and drive a better experience for the customer.
A call with a customer
The Case Manager took a call from a woman who wanted to understand why she had very little Universal Credit, around £70 for the month after her earnings were taken into account. She wanted to sort out her rent and felt she was owed more housing element. The Case Manager walked her through the calculation and explained that her out of work Universal Credit award, which did include a housing element, had been withdrawn by £380 due to her earnings.
During a brief conversation the Case Manager learnt that the woman has a child, and he noticed that there was no child element as part of her Universal Credit award. This was because, while she had included her child as part of her claim, this needed to be verified against the Child Benefit records. This was explained to her and she was advised she’d be paid that afternoon. She wanted to know whether to contact her landlord (a local authority) and was advised that she could setup direct payment if she wanted to, but didn’t need to contact her landlord. Her claim was verified once she was off the phone and payment made, resolving her original concern. The call was expertly handled and the issue resolved.
My observation is that there is almost certainly a technical solution to checking the Child Benefit register automatically to prevent the issue from arising. The only other improvement would have been for the Case Manager to be able to tell the customer how much more money she would get (child element of £277.08) so she could plan better for the future.
A meeting with a Decision Maker
Next we met with the Decision Maker team and spoke with one of the team who deals with the Habitual Residency Test, sanctions, appeals and other disputes. The case I saw was of a Syrian refugee who had been given indefinite leave to remain; the evidence was confirmed, she had passed the HRT and was notified via her journal as to when payment would be made. It was good to see a straightforward and positive decision, though certainly many will go the other way.
I asked about more difficult decisions, such as a sanctions, and was told that the Decision Maker would look to understand the reasons behind why the claimant failed to attend, for example, did they forget and if so, why? Was the claimant in a vulnerable or difficult situation? Decision Makers are able to synchronise with a Work Coach to get more information and they can contact the customer directly to resolve issues, for example to advise them to bring original documentation into JCP for a further evidence interview.
At the time of the visit, Decision Makers still had to go into second system to record decisions and maintain statistics, something that would be improved as the UC system improved. UC Full service was again evidently more efficient than the Live service, meaning that Decision Makers were able to manage a higher caseload. One unofficial metric that they worked to was to resolve decisions within one month, or within the assessment period, where possible.
Suggestions for improvement
Full service Universal Credit is clearly a big step up from the Live service, yet it also has room for improvement.
I saw examples where automation or integration with other systems could help to verify claims faster, and the claim process itself could be clearer, which would help reduce call volumes. However, there are more serious challenges on the frontline; identifying and supporting vulnerable people to make or manage their claim, thereby reducing the need for service centre support. Case Managers told us that their most difficult cases were supporting people with learning needs; identifying that an issue exists before being able to give a response, which can only happen locally.
Whilst there is more community support within Jobcentre Plus, it struck me that the staff would be able to make more impact if they had more flexibility with the help they could give people with their claims. The journal is a powerful tool too, but less so for people with literacy or language issues, or those who could not access the required technology.
I was surprised at the absence of a board of television screens with call targets and metrics that I’ve seen in some call centres, which I think is a good thing. Key performance indicators are used within the service centre, albeit more informally, to assess quality and review variability in service levels across teams / sites rather than as targets. In a developing service, it makes more sense to try to understand why, for example, the proportion of people paid in their first assessment period is lower in one team than another another, in order to understand what is working and how it can be scaled up.
Universal Credit full service appears to be much better than the live service and is better liked by service centre staff. It has the potential to continue to improve considerably, through automation and a better flow of information to tailor support to individual claimants.
These improvements to the service are necessary to improve the current perception of Universal Credit. It needs to deliver sustained excellence to improve its image and help service centres manage growing caseloads.