Features: June 25th, 2004

Starting Local Before Going National Delivers IT Success

Many processes are repeated across groups of similar organizations throughout the public sector, but the one size fits all IT solution has repeatedly failed. Providing seed corn funding from the centre, first for the local and then for the national product, is proving much more successful. This example of collaboration between the Department of Work and Pensions and Bradford Council to speed housing benefit payments makes the point.

Bradford is a large, metropolitan borough approaching 500,000 residents in the North of England. Although mainly urban, it is surrounded by a fairly sparsely populated rural area. The Council is a forward-looking Local Authority that recognises the importance of the Benefits Service in terms of socio-economic inclusion factors and as a consequence it is continually seeking to improve standards for its 45,000 benefit customers.

The Rent Service is an executive agency of the Department for Work and Pensions which provides specialist rental valuations for property, particularly in support of Housing Benefit claims. The Rent Service works with around 350 Local Authorities, all requiring rent referrals to be handled quickly and efficiently. Each referral is one to two pages in length and a typical Local Authority can receive 30 referrals per day. Bradford has a total caseload of approximately 45,000 per year, with potentially 17,000 of these cases falling under the Rent Service’s scheme.

Bradford’s commitment to improve its Benefits Service includes performing against the Best Value Performance Indicators. Currently, the Department of Work and Pension’s performance Indicator for processing new claims is 36 days. The average processing time can vary depending on a number of factors, including data quality, delivery mechanisms and whether a rent referral needs to be made to the Rent Service.

The challenge

The Council, in a search to improve processing times and other performance indicators and offer the best benefit service possible, began to look at where bottlenecks existed in its system. Mark Widdowson, business development support manager at the Council explains. “The existing manual rent referral system relied on paperwork and post. There were really three main issues with this. “Firstly, the system relied entirely on the postal service, which, compared to electronic communication, is neither cost effective nor time efficient. Secondly, forms were often completed incorrectly, which meant that the Rent Service had to return the forms, again by post, causing further delays. And finally, it was not easy to control and manage the system, to identify the status of referrals or clarify if they had been processed within the allotted time frame.”

Norman Foster, Head of IT Support and Development for the Rent Service, states, “If a serious mistake was made in a referral it could take five days to receive and realise the mistake, five days to return and correct it and then five days to receive and process the referral. That could be 15 days in total before the Rent Service even processed the referral.” In order to improve these processes, the Rent Service, using funding secured from the HM Treasury ‘Invest to Save’ initiative, developed a system that would allow the electronic transfer of rent referrals via the Internet. The council therefore needed a mechanism to enable its existing workflow system to interact with the Rent Service system. It applied to the Department of Work and Pensions Performance Standards Fund and chose Comino, a leading supplier of E-Government solutions, to be its technology partner. Comino and the Rent Service submitted a joint proposal to the DWP detailing the development of a system designed to benefit Local Authorities who used Comino’s EDM and Workflow solution and others who wished to undertake similar projects. Paul Smith, core development manager, Comino, comments, “The manual processing costs are high and delays inevitable, therefore the rent referrals process was ideal for electronic automation.” The DWP bid was successful and secured funding of £340,000.

The Solution

Comino developed the solution in partnership with Council, working to specifications provided by the Rent Service. Comino’s Workflow system uses automated business rules and checklists to route documents, cases and tasks to staff allocated to carry out specific actions. Through Comino’s underlying EDM and Workflow technology, an XML message- based solution was developed to tie in with key stages in the existing process libraries and communicate with the Rent Service’s web site.

Widdowson explains, “A stage within the claim process will be a decision whether or not we need to send a rent referral. The assessor, having made that decision, will click yes or no. If they click yes, a workflow process will initiate a series of on-screen templates. Where possible they will be pre-populated with data. If not, then the assessor will fill in the relevant fields. The referral is then sent securely through the Internet to the Rent Service when we next log on.”

Foster adds, “When Bradford logs on to the Rent Service we receive everything they have for us and we send everything we have for them. It is very much like email. The queue system is automatic, so we know that it will go to Bradford without intervention from us. The Local Authority drives the whole process. This way only the Rent Service has to have an always-on presence so others can just dial up when required.”

Foster illustrates, “With the new system a referral arrives similar to email, in an inbox. The data is already captured in our system, so there are no possibilities of introducing inaccuracy or creating duplication. The data looks like our database and we can choose to either automatically write it to the Rent Service database or manually initiate the activity. For all new EIS (Electronic Interface System) users we use the manual option and will implement the automated process at a later date.”

Benefits of the system

The greatly reduced turnaround times for the Council’s referrals to the Rent Service ensure claims can be resolved more quickly and efficiently, benefiting claimants and the Rent Service. There are also benefits from reduced processing costs, as a costly, time- consuming manual process is rendered obsolete.

Foster comments, “The time saving benefits and the improved delivery to the end customer can be massive with this system. The Rent Service has a statutory target of five days for a housing benefit claim if it is not being inspected. We can now expect to turnaround most cases much more quickly and our aspiration is to do so within 24 hours with the new system. This is an internal objective, but in terms of the speed we anticipate saving more than 50%. Plus there are no postage, fax or data storage costs, data accuracy is greatly increased and if there is a mistake with a referral it can be returned and corrected quickly.

An added advantage is that if there is no paper involved Local Authorities can consider the centralisation of their whole function. Widdowson illustrates, “Because everything is dealt with so promptly on the electronic system, we now know how many record fields we have sent out, how many have come back, how many are outstanding and how many are hitting the legislated targets. This gives us much better control over the whole process. Also, as it is all handled over the Internet, we are not waiting for paper deliveries so we can turn things round much faster.”

The way forward

The Council is keen to continue its development partnership with Comino and has recently been awarded £680,000 from the DWP Performance Standards Fund to produce a national product. The product will involve modules that will allow Local Authorities to create a more efficient process to meet the DWP intervention time and volume targets.