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Director of business service ...
Director of business service

The term 'business services' has no standard definition in local government.

But its umbrella-like properties are useful for those councils that are restructuring their finance departments to be more customer focused.

At Harrow LBC, for example, a radical change programme last year, called the New Harrow Project, saw the creation of the business connections department. It has two arms, business and financial strategy, with a traditional finance officer, and business services.

Director of business services Carol Cutler has been in post for year. Her department deals with revenue collection, council tax and business rates, all council assessment services including housing benefit, fairer charging, student finance; and supporting people (housing). The department is also charged with improving welfare benefit take-up.

Ms Cutler is also responsible for Harrow's ICT, as well as miscellaneous areas, such as debts and creditors, insurance and internal finance support.

Unsurprisingly, what Ms Cutler finds most enjoyable about her particular portfolio is the 'real mix of services'.

'I have key internal services like ICT, which make a real difference to the way the authority operates, as well as external facing services,' she says.

Her background is in revenues and benefits - she is the current president of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation. 'It means I am technically competent in some of the areas. I also have a good network of colleagues across the country.'

She says the rationale behind the new department is to reach out to customers. 'It was a case of thinking what the customer wants, rather than what is most convenient to the council,' she says.

The shift in focus is already making a big difference in the area of assessments, she says.

'We are creating a more seamless service, with the aim of dealing with all assessments in one hit. For example, with the pensioner population, we are working very closely with the Pensions Agency. We are planning a completely merged service by the end of the year but already the agency has a one-day-a-week presence at our enquiries counter. We can also deal with housing benefit, fairer charging and income support. People can also have a welfare benefit check,' Ms Cutler says.

Bringing assessment teams together from across the council has enabled staff to help each other out during

busier times. This is especially the case in areas that have a glut of work at set times of the year.

'This time of year is very busy for student awards,' says Ms Cutler. 'In the past, the team has struggled to deal with all the applications, but now the housing benefit assessors are trained to help assess awards,' she says.

The restructure has moved Harrow away from the traditional silo mentality of local authorities, she says.

'We have thrown the pieces up into the air. It has encouraged people to think outside the box. We operate services for customers, rather than for the convenience of the council.

'I think making a radical change is good in itself because it makes people rethink what they are doing. Merging assessment services has been a brilliant idea and we are just starting to scratch the surface of improvement that can be made for our customers as a result,' she concludes.

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