The Hidden Cost of Benefits
Over the years, I have worked with many individuals in Housing Benefit systems – a system originally designed to help those unable to pay their rent, by giving them the means to do so. Each time I work in these systems I see, broadly, the same design.
A person who wants to claim housing benefit comes to the front desk and is provided with a hugely complex application form. They are often given some guidance on how to fill in the form, then sent away to gather proof of their address and income, etc. The form and the proof, when received, is then sent via internal mail to the back office housing benefit team.
After waiting in pigeon holes for a number of days, a team leader allocates the work to a housing benefit assessor. The housing benefit assessors are experts in assessing housing benefit and know exactly what information they need to make their decision. However, in one system, 99% of applications in the back office were found not to have all the information needed – as the front desk does not have the expertise to ask for the correct information. However, it is usually only around 33% of cases that do not have all the necessary information to progress the application.
It is not uncommon to find it taking an average of 2.3 attempts to get the correct information from the applicant, which adds delay and frustration for both the housing benefit staff and the person making the claim.
Overall, due to this front office – back office split design, it can take up to 85 days to process a housing benefit application – a very long time to wait for your money, when you have very little money in the first place.
A consequence of this wait is that private landlords can, and do, evict tenants while they are waiting for their housing benefit claim to be assessed. Legal Aid is currently available to fund advice agencies to provide advice to tenants in this situation. The good people at Shelter Cymru, kindly provided me in the past with some figures showing the scale of this problem: a staggering 24% of people contacting Shelter Cymru have housing benefit problems.
So a delay in housing benefit has enormous consequences on individuals, the court system and the advice sector. It is proposed to remove Legal Aid for many of these cases – although these cases will not go away.
This can all be prevented, however, by redesigning housing benefit systems using a different logic. When this is fully understood, the system can be designed so the people with the expertise talk directly to the applicant, face-to-face, dramatically improving the way the work is designed and managed – and reducing the costs associated with assessment. It is possible, for example, to reduce the time it takes to pay somebody to an average of 11.4 days, (or up to 30.7 days in particularly complex cases). This is a dramatic improvement, and also saves all the costs associated with eviction and advice services. Some housing benefit systems in Wales are achieving this today.
Unfortunately, this front office – back office split logic is being carried forward for Universal Credit. Online applications are to be the norm, with call centre support. However, computers are not very good at absorbing the variety inherent in people’s lives. (Human beings, however, are very good at this). So the same problems with housing benefit systems seen today will be magnified. We have proposed – and in fairness to the team looking at Universal Credit they have listened – that Universal Credit can be delivered locally and efficiently in the same way that housing benefit can be delivered. This will also be done without spending the estimated £2billion it will take to bring in Universal Credit. It remains to be seen if this is taken seriously.
As Einstein so famously stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. As such, I would urge anybody in Wales with any influence over the direction of Universal Credit to support this alternative, more effective way of delivering the service.
Thanks for reading, and may I take this opportunity to hope that you all have a restful break.
Simon Pickthall worked in the public sector in Wales for many years before joining Vanguard Consulting Wales. He has been fortunate to have worked with many leaders in Wales to help them understand their organizations from a Systems Thinking perspective - and improve them as a consequence. Simon was privileged enough to work on the Munro Review of Child Protection, and is committed to helping the public, private and third sectors deliver social justice. firstname.lastname@example.org
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