In January 2021 we held our latest Better Off Calculator steering group where we were joined by a range of local authorities, housing associations, local Citizens Advice and other frontline organisations for our first completely online steering group. Policy in Practice holds regular steering groups with our customers to connect our clients with each other, and to listen and ask for feedback about our product development roadmap. Having welcomed over 50 new Better Off Calculator clients in the last year alone we were delighted to have a bumper turnout for this meeting.
How 2020 changed the landscape for our clients
Two Better Off Calculator clients gave us invaluable insights into their experiences in the past year. Rhiannon Dafydd from Grŵp Cynefin shared her team’s experiences dealing with the new and challenging external pressures that 2020 threw their way. Plus David Lawrence from Citizens Advice Kincardine and Mearns addressed how he and his team have dealt with the many changes seen this year.
We asked our clients what their biggest challenges in 2020 were and more than half of our attendees found that the greatest external challenge was an increase demand for their services.
Shifting work to COVID-19 focused and working from home were the biggest internal challenges our clients faced.
Policy changes in 2020 were also significant to our clients who found supporting their customers navigating the furlough/self-employed income stream to be the most challenging policy change in the past year.
Grŵp Cynefin’s welfare team helped tenants previously unknown to them during COVID-19
Rhiannon Dafydd, Housing Manager at Grŵp Cynefin, gave a presentation on the use of the calculator by her team and how it helped them deal with the increase in cases brought on by the pandemic. Rhiannon’s team uses the Better Off Calculator to help customers identify money they may not be claiming, and to support them throughout the process of claiming.
The calculator played an important role for the welfare team long before COVID-19. With the knowledge and dedication of the welfare team, combined with their use of the Better Off Calculator, Grŵp Cynefin successfully secured its tenants an additional £1m of household income in 2019/20, with tenants accessing vital benefits support including Universal Credit, housing benefits and council tax reductions. The housing provider’s Social Return on Investment report also highlights that for every £1 it spent on the service, there was a social return on investment of £14.10.
From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 Grŵp Cynefin immediately saw a huge increase in cases and a whole new client group in need of help to navigate the financial fallout from the pandemic. With staff having to work from home and no longer able to make home visits, Grŵp Cynefin wanted to find a way to help manage the increased demand for support.
The welfare team directed tenants to our self-serve Better Off Calculator which it has embedded on their website. This method was put in place for tenants who are more confident with technology and are able to calculate their benefit eligibility for themselves. Triaging demand for support in this way freed up advisor time to deal with more complex cases or support those needing more help using the Better Off Calculator.
Grŵp Cynefin also promoted the Benefits and Budgeting Calculator on its printed 2021 calendar that tenants receive through their door at the beginning of each year.
Rhiannon summarised Grŵp Cynefin’s successes achieved using the Better Off Calculator this year to date:
- 458 tenants helped, 251 of whom were new to the welfare team
- £660,780 financial gains for tenants
- Over 4570 benefit calculator assessments made
We have had £660,780 of financial gains which is excellent during these times to continue to find financial gains and the Better Off Calculator has helped us to do that.”
Rhiannon Dayfdd, Housing Manager, Grŵp Cynefin
Kincardine and Mearns Citizens Advice saw caseloads triple during the pandemic
We were also joined at the Better Off Calculator steering group by David Lawrence, Multichannel Co-ordinator, Kindcardine and Mearns Citizens Advice Bureau. David spoke to us about the difficulties they experienced changing from a face-to-face service to one that is completely online. However, the Better Off Calculator greatly helped in this transition as despite the caseload nearly tripling over the past few months, David and his team were able to take as many calls as they could and support a huge number of people access the support they needed.
The three main areas that repeatedly came up were benefit support, employment questions and debt advice. This was not necessarily a surprise with the number of redundancies and furloughs but as the pandemic continued debt advice became increasingly more important. This was a theme echoed across a number of our clients in attendance who also reported this trend of an initial increase in benefit support moving into debt advice as the pandemic continued.
“The volume of calls we have received on the Money Talk team regarding benefits has tripled in the last few months because of the pandemic.”
David Lawrence, Multichannel Co-ordinator, Kindcardine and Mearns Citizens Advice Bureau
How other clients fared during 2020
There was then an opportunity for other clients to offer their experiences to the Better Off Calculator steering group on the different internal challenges they faced this past year and all the innovative ways they managed to overcome them.
A Welfare Rights organisation, detailed how, even though they were primarily a phone and web-based service even before COVID-19, they found their processes were not easily transferable to home working. To counter this, they changed from a rota system to allocating a certain number of cases a day to ensure their caseworkers were able to rise to the challenge of the demand.
We heard from a Welsh Housing Association, who detailed the challenges of helping staff adapt to the new way of working, an increase in caseloads requests and a new computer system being introduced. To help staff who were struggling, they sought to prioritise mental health by advertising their partnership with Health Shield, making their staff aware that help and support is always out there.
New features introduced to the Better Off Calculator in 2020
After the break we looked at what we have successfully delivered to clients this past year as part of their subscription. Some of these many features include:
1. Improvements to the built-in Universal Credit calendar with the addition of a surplus earnings calculator
We added a surplus earnings module to the calculator to allow clients to enter irregular earnings and to estimate these for up to 12 months. The impact of irregular earnings and the interaction with regular income are shown through the calendar functionality.
This helps advisors to provide advice to people with seasonal work and zero-hours contracts, as well as people who are self-employed, and those receiving one-off larger payments (such as the Self Employed Income Support Scheme).
The new module helps advisors to explain the impact of the complex surplus earnings rules to people without the need for manual calculations. Advisors can advise clients on re-starting their UC claim, and how much they are likely to receive once Surplus Earnings are used up.
2. Upgraded log in with multi-factor authentication and single sign-on
We upgraded our login system by adding the option for multi-factor authentication (known as MFA or 2FA) to our client’s password-based login to protect against theft of login details. We also launched the ability for clients to implement Single Sign-On for organisations, using their own internal identity systems for seamless Better Off Calculator usage.
3. Free support page on Your income and Coronavirus (COVID-19)
We created a welfare support page Your income and Coronavirus (COVID-19) to clearly show what support you might get if your income is affected by Coronavirus. We are updating this page with each announcement by the Government. Encouraged by us, many of our clients linked to this page from their own websites and other communication channels to help residents understand what support they are eligible for if they are impacted by Coronavirus.
Looking ahead to the policy challenges of 2021, and how our Better Off Calculator can help
Looking forward to the year ahead it is clear the vast majority of our clients are most concerned about the end of furlough and dealing with the self-employment income support scheme.
We discussed our development roadmap and prioritised the free upgrades and enhancements based on feedback from clients. Our immediate plans to update the Better Off Calculator will include a focus on:
- Improving the user interface and building more flexibility into the calculator layout
- Ensuring underlying policy engine is updated in line with the April uprating of benefits
- Ensuring all the council tax support schemes from English authorities are updated in line with the new financial year
Be part of our plans for My Benefit Calculator app
Last month we shared our exciting news of being chosen as a semi-finalist in Nesta’s £3 million Rapid Recovery Challenge. The fund is designed to support tools and services that improve access to jobs and money for people across the UK, focussing on those hardest hit by the economic shock from COVID-19.
Policy in Practice will be working hard to scale our winning solution, the My Benefits Calculator app, to thousands of people in the next year, in order to help those in society who need it most.
We are carrying out user research to help us develop My Benefits Calculator. If you work directly with people who have flexible incomes, low incomes or unstable employment and want to help shape our solution we want to hear from you. Please contact us soon on 0330 088 9242 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to get involved with our next Better Off Calculator steering group
- The next Better Off Calculator steering group will be held on Tuesday 22 June and registration details will be sent to our Better Off Calculator clients in due course.
- If you are not yet a Better Off Calculator client and would like to know more about how the tool helps local authorities, housing associations and other support organisations to grow the financial resilience of the people they help please call 0330 088 9242 or email email@example.com