The study, part of the Audit Commission's Learning from Inspection series, draws on best value inspections of councils' benefits departments to help struggling authorities learn from examples at the best. There is a marked variation in service: three quarters of councils take an average of more than five weeks to process claims. Some, particularly in London, take 100 days or more.
The report shows that costs of administration also vary widely, from less than£50 per claim on average, to more than£200. Local factors do have an effect - but the report shows wide variation between the performance of similar councils, which points to organisation and management being equally important.
Contracting out housing benefit administration will not by itself, turn around failing services - but councils should consider contracting out some functions when they review the service.
Authorities should recognise the importance of housing benefit departments and avoid them being a 'Cinderella' service. Specifically, they should:
* understand claimants' needs to ensure details are 'right first time'
probe management effectiveness (strong leadership and good performance management are critical factors)
* build capacity to deliver improvement (especially in IT, where systems are often outdated)
* cut down on error and delay by re-evaluating relationships within the council and with external agencies.
But the commission points out that housing benefit regulations are complex and may be part of the problem. The government has made a welcome commitment to reform the scheme, including a single claims process for housing and other benefits. But these proposals may not be enough to help councils reach a consistently high standard.
Controller of the Audit Commission, Andrew Foster, said:
'Housing benefit is a lifeline for millions of households. Poor organisation and management is not a good enough reason for long delays in administering claims. Some councils are successfully solving problems and the Audit Commission's report shares the lessons they have learned, to help those that are struggling to improve.'
* Housing Benefit Administration is available from Audit Commission Publications on 0800 502030, priced£15.