26 Mar 2010

Housing Benefit success and affordable homes

Inside Housing covered a good story about Stroud's Housing Benefit section - see it here and copied below - this is Systems Thinking in action and I thought it deserved a congrats.

Photo: Pic of District Council's Ebley Mill hanging in one of the rooms there

Inside Housing is well worth a look although they've not yet covered our Green party housing policies that I'll cover briefly below - however they did cover the new league table by Shelter on affordable housing - see here - only eight councils in England are ensuring there are enough affordable homes to meet housing need in their area.

You can see Stroud's statistics here - we rank 12 out of 37 in South West and 113th out of 323 Councils in England. It is always hard to rank Council's as it is not so easy to compare however it does give an indication. Basically councils do have sufficient resources to build homes but we could be doing more - it is good to see that the first indications on the Core Strategy for our area look set to recommend higher numbers of affordable housing.

We do need to do alot more to get our housing right. Labour have failed us - especially by discouraging Council's from keeping their own Council housing - all credit to our Tory Council that they didn't sell it off - but then there was huge huge opposition from tenants and more I think it would have been a totally foolish move.

Green party views on housing

Anyhow Greens are calling for direct investment in Council and other social housing to be resumed and local authorities allowed to use receipts from sales to fund new affordable accommodation. In particular while the building trade remains depressed because of the recession Greens are producing a costed manifesto that looks set to provide £2bn in 2010 rising to £4bn in 2011 to local authorities to expand social housing - mainly through conversion and renovation, and create 80,000 jobs.

As I've said on this blog before there are 750,000 empty homes. We estimate that we could halve this number through empty property use orders. Greens would also like to see more rights for homeless people - indeed giving local authorities the same duties with regard to single people and childless couples as to families, and ending the nonsense practice of declaring people "intentionally homeless".

Again as I've said before we need steps to ensure that development is more evenly distributed across the whole of the country, so reducing pressure on housing in the South East in particular but also places in the South West. We cannot keep squeezing more houses into our already crowded land - we also need to minimise encroachment onto "greenfield sites” by re-using previously developed sites which have fallen into disuse wherever possible.

Of course as I've also said before we need to end the right to buy and introduce the right to rent. It is wholly unacceptable that we have people without homes - the knock-on effects in terms of mental health, employment etc are huge - not to mention costs to services - ending the right to buy at least ensures Council's have more homes to ensure homeless people are housed - the right to rent is also a great policy - People facing severe difficulties with paying their mortgage and facing re-possession should have a right to rent their existing home as council housing, analogous but opposite to the Tory ‘right to buy.’ The Greens proposals look set to make up to £2bn per annum available to local authorities to support ‘right to rent.’

Lastly for now - again nothing new - we want to see the introduction of a free home insulation programme for all homes that need it - with priority for pensioners and those living in fuel poverty, aiming to insulate 4 million homes every year. Such a programme would cost £2bn in 2010 rising to £4bn a year and create 80,000 jobs. Of course the knock-on environmental; and economic benefits would be huge.....but enough on all this for now....I'll leave you with that article on Stroud's benefit team....

Reaping the benefits

Tue, 9 Mar 2010

Ninety per cent of calls to Stroud’s revenues and benefits department were ‘waste’, the council has found. Peter Middleton explains how it came to this conclusion, and what it did about it.

The starting point to discovering waste, according to Anne McKenzie, head of revenues and benefits at Stroud District Council, is to define your purpose from the customer’s point of view.

Her team’s new purpose is ‘to pay the right amount of housing benefit to the right person at the right time’. Once the team had defined its purpose, they worked out how much of what they did contributed directly to achieving this purpose and how much didn’t. They did this by analysing all calls, visits and emails into their service over a period of time. To everyone’s surprise, 90 per cent of all customer demands were not contributing to the purpose and were, therefore, waste.

Ms McKenzie says: ‘Much of this waste was due to customers’ progress chasing their claims, telling us they did not understand the letters we’d sent them and - by far the most frequent – incomplete claim forms. None of this was the customer’s fault. We knew it was our responsibility to change the system.’


In the old system, the front and back office were split, with generic customer service staff responding to customers at reception points and answering calls. The split meant that dependency on the IT system that transferred work from the front to the back office (the DIP) was high.

Ms McKenzie says: ‘We didn’t realise how slavishly we worked for the DIP system, rather than using it to work for us.’

A result of the front/back office split was that assessors had very little face to face contact with customers. In the new system, there is no front/back office split. Customers are now seen by a benefits assessor or other trained member of staff when they first come in, with the option of a home visit and help with getting documents to the office if they need it. Customers develop a personal relationship with the assessors, visiting the same assessor again if they need to tell the office about a change in their circumstances.

In the old system, claims often took 40 to 42 days to process. In the new system, most claims are completed within a week, even with the additional workload caused by the economic downturn. Twenty per cent of claims are now completed within two days.


Customers love the new way of working and the team often receive letters of thanks and even flowers. Complaints are rare. Waste is also rare; phone calls from customers chasing the progress of claims have almost disappeared because people know that an assessor is personally handling their claim, which gives them confidence in the process. One customer wrote:

‘I’ve always had a fear of any kind of authority and found it a bit daunting to go down to the council offices. To my surprise, I found you approachable, helpful and considerate. I feel I owe you thanks for the way you helped me.’

Staff now see their role as ‘helping people to claim benefits’. This is profoundly different to their previous role which was ‘to assess benefits’. Sickness in the team has reduced by 44 per cent. Staff enjoy the personal contact with customers and feel a real sense of accomplishment when resolving benefit claims quickly and efficiently.

Ms McKenzie’s advice to other housing benefits teams is that a low cost, low risk start to improvement can be made by analysing why customers contact a service.

She says: ‘Understanding demand provides data on how much waste there is. This can be a very powerful lever for change.’ But she warns that this, on its own, is not enough, ‘if you want to change the results, you have to change the system. And to change the system, you have to change how you think’.

Dr Peter Middleton is the author of a new book, Delivering Public Services that Work, featuring case studies with six public sector managers, including Anne McKenzie. It is available from Triarchy Press.

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