Policy in Practice with the Welfare Reform Club recently hosted a networking event that provided an opportunity to reflect on the events of the last year, and make our predictions for welfare reform as we look to 2015 and beyond.

Welfare Reform Christmas EventAlong with the opportunity for people from a range of organisations to meet, chat and debate some of the issues as they see them, three speakers were invited to talk about their experiences. The theme from each of the speakers was the need to take an outcome-focused, needs-based approach. However, given we had speakers from different local authorities, they each had their own experience with putting this into practice.  The speakers were Ronan Browne (People & Place Manager, Melton Borough Council), Steve Carey (Chief Officer Welfare & Benefits, Leeds City Council), and James Pickering (Welfare Reform Manager, Oxford City Council).

Relationships with Residents

The underlying theme of all three presentations was that local authorities must build relationships with their residents. They all agreed that support for customers both now and with the introduction of Universal Credit should be based on specific customer need, rather than on imposing routes the customer must follow, or simply processing payment transactions. It was great to hear about the relationship with the customer taking centre stage.

Steve Carey recognised that this change in emphasis is long overdue:

“I’m tired of hearing about shaving a couple of days off of processing time. I mean, who cares, really? Is it making a difference to people’s lives?”

Alongside this relationship between the customer and the advisor (and probably the only way to make it work) was the relationship between different local delivery bodies (e.g. housing and benefits and CAB etc.).

There was some debate about whether work should be the focus of this relationship. We know from our work that some local agencies do not think this is appropriate. Examples in both Leeds and Melton said that employment is not always where the conversation begins. Oxford also said that it might be best support to help confidence by helping someone join a social organisation etc.

“We don’t mention employment, it puts people off. We work with them based on their needs, and let them reach their own conclusions.” Ronan Browne, Melton Council.

Councils need to understand more fully what people need, not what services they can or want to deliver ‘at’ them, and therefore work is not always the first step.  Whilst there are incentives and penalties (carrots and sticks) such as ensuring engagement or risk the loss of council tax support, the initiatives start with the local authority. Steve Carey gave the example of a resident they had supported to take regular gardening classes. He also discussed the pro-active approaches made to residents in tower blocks.

The theme from all the speakers was to ensure that there is an ‘outcome-focused approach’. The service should be personalised and bespoke, developed by building a relationship with the customer. And perhaps the shock for many local authorities is that it is no longer about processing Housing Benefit. To adopt a more outcome-focused approach, different skills are needed and these include the ability to work with other partner agencies.

Was everything painted in a rosy hue? Not at all. Ronan from Melton mentioned the costs of changing the culture to deliver services in this proactive way and that this comes over time. This cultural challenge was echoed by James from Oxford who mentioned that being outcome-focused means more than processing Housing Benefit claims but helping people back into work. Work might not be where then conversation starts, but digital, financial and social inclusion are all part of the support package, and the end goal must be independence and employment.

Overall it was a very inspiring session.

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