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Turning around housing services

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Serco redesigned the council’s housing service which transformed it from a poorly performing service to one in the top quartile for local authorities.

With Serco’s help, Peterborough carefully managed bold, city-wide moves, resulting in a 66% improvement in the speed of processing housing benefit claims and significant other benefits for some of community’s most vulnerable residents.

The transformation was a whole team effort and staff engagement, which is measured annually and independently, has improved by more than 30% since the start of the project.

This transformation was recognised at a national level when the Peterborough Serco Strategic Partnership team was named Most Improved Team of the Year at the Institute of Revenues Ratings and Valuation 2016 annual awards ceremony.

In 2011 Peterborough formed a strategic partnership with Serco to support transformation and deliver a number of operational and strategic functions, including the administration of housing benefits.

Performance at this time was well below national averages and the proportion of claims waiting to be processed often standing at 25-30%. It was not unusual for customers to have to wait over 13 weeks for changes to be made.

Against this backdrop, the council was starting its transformation programme, which aimed to improve user experience and deliver improved outcomes for residents whilst delivering savings, managing demand and streamlining services. To achieve this, Peterborough and Serco focused on opportunities to increase self-help and self-service.

The benefits team’s key objective was to improve the overall performance of the service but at the same time it wanted deliver against the council’s overarching objectives.

The process of improving the service has been iterative and although the benefits are bearing fruit now and will in future, work over a number of years has supported the improvement.

Turning around a service requires the participation and commitment of the whole team. From the outset, management sought the team’s views and opinions and this continues on all aspects of the service.

Although there are three teams processing benefits claims, each covering a different aspect, a one-team ethos has developed, with everyone working together to meet the objectives.

Previously, the service was heavily paper-based. Claims forms could be more than 40 pages long and require several items of supporting evidence. The team agreed the first focus should be to look at digitisation and introduce an e-claim process to simplify the processing and make making a claim easier for the customer.

The introduction of risk-based verification was key to the success of the e-claim. This is a process where an online form is risk-scored in real time for fraud and error as the claim is submitted. This allows the team to email a personalised evidence list to support their benefits claim back to the customer at the point of submission. It also allows customers to submit evidence via email. Historically everyone had to provide a full list of evidence, whereas with ‘risk based verification’ they only have to provide certain documents depending on their level of risk.

Next the team created a well-informed network of public, private and third sector organisations to act as enablers in this change to claiming benefits. The network included for example Housing Associations, Help the Aged, Citizen Advice Bureau, private landlords and specially set up forums. The team shared the concept and vision with more than 100 delegates and held training to show the proposed end to end solution.

Prior to launching the new service, the team conducted a trial. The benefit of this was that the first customers were supported to use the e-claim service and teething troubles were ironed out at this stage. This meant when the service went live, there was 100% take-up within weeks.

The change in the evidence requirements alone resulted in a reduction of paper documents by 40%. This in turn meant that:

  • Benefit processing times for new claims reduced from 45 to 16 days
  • Claims that had been outstanding for more than 50 days reduced by 30% to below 1%
  • Claims paid within 14 days of receiving all information increased from 57% in 2012-13 to 89% in 2015-16.

With the success of the e-claim, the team encouraged customers to submit all other changes, for example change of circumstances, and all other forms of contact via email. Evidence to support documents was encouraged by email – scanned or photos - where formerly it would have been paper.

In 2015 the team developed online forms for a change of circumstances. Before the end of the year they had introduced eight different online benefit forms.

There has been a huge service improvement as a result of channel shift, whether customers are claiming for the first time, reporting a change to an existing claim, making a general enquiry or requesting information about a claim. Almost all interactions can now be done online 24/7.

The ease and availability of the new methods and improved outcomes has seen more and more people choose to access our services digitally by default. This has freed up capacity within the team, making it more effective and efficient and can respond to complex cases faster, while the backlog of work was removed.

Channel shift wasn’t the only outcome. The team recognised that customers accessed the service via various routes, so they developed a joined-up approach with other service areas. Benefit assessment officers were placed in the call centre to train phone staff in the simple assessments and how to process these changes. This means some assessments can now be done while the customer is on the phone, improving outcomes for both the customer in terms of ease and speed and similarly for the service but in addition a more efficient and cost effective service.

In addition assessment staff have worked in the call centre answering calls. This has enabled both teams to understand better the customers presenting issues and how better to work together to enable an improved customer journey.

Driving the changes in service delivery has given the team a real ownership of their service and inspired a commitment to do more. They see that their efforts make a difference and as a result morale has increased tremendously. The team has embraced the concept of change and continually looks to improve.

In 2016-17, the team will:

  • Introduce a simpler registration process to encourage more people to self-serve
  • Design a simpler, single-page notification letter, making notifications and awards easier to understand
  • Maintain top-quartile new claim performance, but also focus on improving the processing of change of circumstances queries
  • Streamline the recovery process for overpayments to create a quicker and more effective recovery action. This will prevent future hardship for the customer and help identify underlying entitlement to reduce overpayments.

For further information please contact Mark Sandhu on 07920 160010 or

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