Putting the Frontline First; but the vulnerable second?

Published on 8 December 2009

Yesterday the Government set about reducing the debt burden by announcing proposals for better and smarter public services. This has to be welcomed; but at what cost to the most vulnerable consumers of public services?

On 7 December, the Government published its proposals for new efficiency savings in its publication Putting the Frontline First. These describe how public services will, in future, be delivered in better and smarter ways.

LITRG is sometimes critical of the levels of help and assistance given by government departments, such as HMRC and the DWP, to the most vulnerable people in society.

Although we clearly support greater efficiency in the public service and welcome more notice being taken of the “customer view”, we do have to question whether or not some of the proposals will make the experience worse for many at the bottom of the economic pile.

Specific proposals

Putting the Frontline First has three primary objectives:

  1. Strengthen the role of citizens and civic society
  2. Recast the relationship between the centre and the frontline
  3. Streamline central government for sharper delivery

The report then sets out specific proposals to be taken forward under each of these heads. There are many, but we just want to focus on a few which may be difficult for low income people, if they are not introduced appropriately.

Accelerating the move to digitalised public services

The rush to the internet as the solution for many cost problems is evident. We have no problem with that, provided that people without access to the internet (the paper suggests that there may be 10.2 million adults in this position) do not lose out. It will take a long time for such people to become comfortable with this channel of dealing with government, particularly older people and those with disabilities. There must be alternatives, including face-to-face help

Care must always be taken of the risks, particularly to the vulnerable, of using telephone and internet where frauds and scams are more prevalent.

Encouraging greater personal responsibility

Very often the reference to taking more personal responsibility is a euphemism for doing more for yourself (and as a corollary, the public service doing less for you). All such proposals need to be examined carefully for those least capable of doing things for themselves.

Ensure that any Civil Servant responsible for a programme has a value-for-money objective

We are all for value for money, but too often initiatives within HMRC are taken to mean doing things at the lowest cost, rather than properly evaluating the long-term outcomes.

We believe that the greatest strides could be made, in both HMRC and the DWP, by a detailed analysis of the customer journey and eliminating at each point in that journey every chance for something to go wrong. Getting things right first time would save millions.

Reduce communications and marketing spend by 25% in the longer term

This may be a good move, but too often reductions in communications have been directed to minorities on the basis of the 80/20 rule of serving most people. The trouble with this approach is that the most vulnerable people, who typically have even greater needs for good communication, consistently appear in the 20%.

Tell Us Once roll-out

The long-trailed Tell Us Once project, where it will be possible to notify a death to a central point and then have this information reach all parts of the government machine, is set for roll-out next year.

We are very supportive of this initiative. However, in our latest report on bereavement, we are not convinced that any notification will actually reach all parts of HMRC, let alone all parts of government.

Drive service improvement

We were struck by this sentence in the proposals:

“To drive service improvement and genuinely empower people, entitlements need to be backed up with strong, simple redress mechanisms which quickly remedy problems.”

The words are exemplary. However, our experience of tax credits shows that if you have a poor computer system which you cannot change for reasons of cost, then you need a lot of manual labour to support it. Reducing the manual labour means enormous delays in handling appeals and disputes.

We now get letters from HMRC in response to appeals indicating that you should not expect to hear again from them for five months. Or if you want to complain to the Adjudicator, your wait may average 11 months.

That is neither justice nor simple redress. Reducing the workforce further is unlikely to be the answer without some radical change in process.

Conclusion

Our first reaction therefore is that while there is scope for change and cost reduction, all such moves must be “poverty-proofed” so that we can all be sure of the eventual impact on those least able to cope or complain.

(08-12-2009)

Contact: John Andrews (0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)