How consultants ruined a good Benefits service

Once upon a time, there was a local council benefits service that had a serious backlog of work. Claims took several months to sort, and claimants were understandably angry. There were insufficient staff to deal with the work, and they were demoralised and unappreciated. Eventually, new money was found, more staff recruited and better training provided. Gradually, the backlog was cleared and the department went from being one of the worst in the country to one of the best.

This ticked along well for the next few years. This council went through several chief executives during this time, and in 2010, another one was appointed. He came from another council and prior to that, the private sector. As usual, he had his own ideas about how to run things, so he ordered yet another “restructure” of the council to fit in with them. This chief had friends called Vanguard, and they prided themselves on going into organisations and improving the “customer experience”, using what they grandly called “the systems thinking ethos”. He used them wherever he worked, and this council was no exception. The benefits manager decided to ingratiate herself with the new regime and volunteered benefits for an “intervention”. Staff weren’t worried as the service had a four star rating.

The logical thing, you would think, would have been to look at the existing (successful) system and suggest improvements. But no, Vanguard thought they knew better and had a more brutal solution: scrap the old system en bloc and restart with a blank sheet of paper. Re-invent the wheel, re-discover fire, that’s what it felt like to the staff: their years of hard work and achievement flushed away like so much refuse. It counted for nothing.

For example, under the “old” way, documents given in by a claimant in support of their claim, were scanned onto computer. This meant a staff member could view it on any council PC with the correct software. And what was the new improved method? Nothing was scanned, paper documents were taken and their receipt logged on a spreadsheet. Thus, if a benefit assessor wanted to view the document, they had to phone the back office and request that someone else waded through the mass of paper to find it! Not surprisingly, the incidences of documents going missing increased sharply.

Vanguard’s main idea was instead of assessments being done in the back office, they would be done while the claimant was visiting the front office counter. This meant that most assessors had to be redeployed to front counters, first at the main one stop shop, and then in an increasing number of local housing offices. Now, in theory, this is no bad thing, as it meant that claimants would not have to travel so far to get their claim sorted: local bus fares are not cheap.

It was clear (except to management) that this new way would require more assessment staff, but Vanguard thought it needed less.

In the derided “old” way of working, an assessor in the back office could easily deal with at least 20 pieces of work in a day, which would be a mixture of claims, responses and simpler things like rent increases. Working on the front line, an assessor would be very unlikely to match this performance. Most of the work would be claims or changes of address etc, and even the simplest claims (say a pensioner on pension credit (guarantee) claiming council tax benefit only) can typically take around 30 minutes to complete. Most claims are more complex than that, so take far longer to sort. Assessors had the discretion to take the claim and process it next time they were in the back office.

Vanguard made great play of their ethos being “bottom up”, namely that the improvements would be suggested and delivered by front line staff, i.e. assessors. In this council, this is not how it played out in practice. Management decided early on what they wanted and consistently refused to listen to anything to the contrary. Assessment officers did the work and were thus in the best position to know what worked and what did not. Contrast this with the managers. Most of them had either never assessed or had not done so for several years.

All this went on for months, then for one, then two, years. And very quickly, the department returned to backlog. Management remained in denial about this for several months, until finally, even they had to accept what had been clear to everyone else for months. They even finally accepted some of the changes made had been mistakes (e.g. not scanning documents), but it was too late by then.

Not surprisingly, staff morale sank to an all time low during this time. Under the initial Vanguard proposals, 10 assessor jobs were to be deleted. Six staff were allowed to take voluntary redundancy, then the manager realised this had been a mistake so no more were allowed to leave. Despite this loss of staff, more local centres were opened up to the new way, so assessment staff were spread very thinly indeed.

It was clear from the start that the face to face way of working did not suit everyone. Some staff thrived on it, and were keen advocates of the new way. Many staff, however, were not keen at all. Initially the manager said this would not be a problem as there would always be plenty of back office jobs for such people to do. This did not last long, however. It very quickly changed so that everyone would have to work that way, or else. Several staff in particular had issues over it. Management were aware of this throughout, and although they made great play of trying to be “supportive”, staff concerned felt bullied into doing something they did not want to do. Not surprisingly, stress and sickness levels increased, and this writer knows of several staff who could only cope with it with anti-depressants.

Set all this against the wider picture of severe government cuts and the recession. This council had to endure multi-million pound cuts for several years in a row, with several hundred jobs being lost each time. At the same time, the corporate culture of the council had changed for the worse, with an authoritarian and bullying management style taking root and thriving. It’s no surprise that staff felt scared for their jobs, and management played on this: play ball or your job will be at risk.

I’d like to say this story could be one where everyone lived happily ever after, but that seems more and more unlikely. Two and a half years after Vanguard, several more experienced staff have left the department. The workload hasn’t reduced of course, and seems unlikely to do so. And the managers responsible for the mess are still in post. Across the council, despite high unemployment in its area, staff have been queueing up to leave. To anyone with eyes to see, this suggests that something is seriously wrong with this council.

The benefits service is a vital one, helping as it does people in financial difficulties. Yet the council took a successful service and destroyed it. Worse still, this destruction cost several million pounds of tax payers’ money. In this writer’s opinion, this represents a massive failure by the council. It has failed its staff, and it has failed the people it is supposed to serve. From the chief executive down, the management should be hanging their heads in shame.

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