Thursday, 8 October 2009

Nottingham rethinking advice?

Last week people from the advice world travelled to Nottingham to be taken on a journey through systems thinking (to paraphrase the blurb), the new model of planning advice services which AdviceUK, the national organisation representing independent advice centres, is pushing. While it sounds like the jargon of management speak, the Nottingham experience seems to demonstrate that the approach is worth looking at, though in Nottingham it is limited in the areas of law it covers and does not include private sector solicitors.

Nottingham City Council currently spends £3m on advice services. These are spread across an in-house welfare rights team, which specialises in benefits and debt, and the voluntary sector. A Law Centre®, a Citizens Advice Bureau, a Housing Advice Centre and an independent advice centre have signed up with the council for this experiment in advice services planning. Four hundred and eighty four interviews with clients were observed by researchers. What they found was that 280 interviews dealt with a life event such as a client losing his/her job and needing advice on benefits. The big revelation was that 204 interviews were to do with a failure in the system - in other words government agencies getting it wrong.

An example of a systems failure given by the council is the procedure over benefit appeal tribunals. Once a client appeals, a TAS1 form is sent to him/her which s/he has to respond to within 14 days. Many do not. This results in advisers having to apply to reinstate the appeal. AdviceUK argues that by adopting a systems thinking approach such waste can be reduced by joint working and the spare capacity which is freed up can then be used to improve services.

The researchers found that 15 per cent of clients presented with multiple problems. They also found evidence of the need to triage cases. For example, straightforward enquiries, which would only take a few minutes to deal with, were having to join the same waiting list of a few weeks for interviews as those clients with more complex cases.

A few alarm bells did ring when LAG interviewed advice workers at the Town Hall event. There seemed to be very little referral to solicitors, apart from some cases going to the Law Centre. Even in disrepair cases, advisers seemed to believe that expert reports and experience of litigation were not generally necessary. Another problem was the lack of understanding regarding the potential for conflicts of interest with council-run advice services.

What the Nottingham experience does show is that systems thinking can be used to improve advice services by identifying waste caused by systemic failures and act as a way to galvanise services to work more effectively together. The overriding impression of the Nottingham experience is that the advice sector had a unity of purpose to serve people more efficiently. This is perhaps the systems thinking project's most useful achievement.

No comments: