Features: January 21st, 2010

By Richard Ellis and Steve Heappey

AS our final report nears completion, we are confident this Total Place pilot will deliver a slew of service improvements over the short and medium term.

Whether we have a model that can be mainstreamed across the country is more problematic as some of our recommendations involve change at central government or legislative level. But what we have clearly demonstrated is a collective ability to work together locally and come up with cost-effective solutions to long-standing nationwide problems.

Tackling complexity
Our proposals for improving the welfare benefits system, for example, could cut administration costs by 40 per cent, slash the time taken to pay out benefits by 75 per cent and speed up payments by 25 days. Working jointly with the DWP and JobCentre Plus, we will be able to save claimants from traipsing across town, giving exactly the same information to different offices in order to claim benefits. In addition, our plans for a ‘triage’ service will enable earlier intervention to stop problems reaching crisis point.

As it stands, the current welfare benefits system does little or nothing to encourage self-reliance. The complexities, fragmentation and duplication of the various processes – plus the inherent delays, the 85p benefit reduction for every £1 earned over the basic needs allowance and high marginal rates of taxation – actively discourage many people from coming off benefit and returning to work.

There are 51 different welfare benefits in England and Wales but no single, official picture to show the public how they inter-relate. Claimants are confused – local citizens advice bureaux estimate that nearly a third of their advisers’ time is spent signposting benefit entitlements and helping people complete the forms – and many miss out altogether.

By pooling our resources – senior managers from all our partner agencies have worked on this intensively throughout the project – we have mapped existing processes, calculated costs and, using some powerful marketing research tools, worked out a range of money-saving alternatives for a much better customer service.

Getting better value
We have also developed plans for a locally governed system to manage prolific and priority offenders. Current procedures are expensive – the burden on the criminal justice system nationally is estimated to cost £11billion a year – and often completely fail to break the cycle of re-offending. In Bedfordshire, despite an 11 per cent reduction in reported crimes last year, the estimated cost to taxpayers still remains at around £131 million a year.

National figures reveal around half of these crimes are committed by just 10 per cent of persistent offenders, many of whom have their own problems with literacy, employment, accommodation and drug abuse. Our proposals for better targeted intervention and support work could improve the way resources are deployed as well as dramatically reduce crime and re-offending rates.

Quick wins
Overall, our new models for better local services in Bedfordshire are radical and represent the combined, considered views of a taskforce of local government, voluntary organisations, fire and rescue, health, police, criminal justice, probation, employment and benefit agencies.

We are confident that a high number of service improvements are available now: some at little or no additional cost, others requiring further investment. We have identified over 50 new ways of working, 15 of which could be delivered locally in the short-term and 21 in the medium term.

Nine key proposals, involving pooling of resources, could require structural change and 12 would require change at central government or legislative level. However, with strategic commitment and operational support, the Total Place team feel strongly that positive, cost-effective results can be achieved.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. But, if Total Place is an indicator of how central government will expect public services to operate over the next decade, the Central Bedfordshire and Luton pilot could be a forerunner of the way we will all do business in the future.

Fringe benefits

Total Place has delivered other benefits too. We now have a clear, robust methodology and governance framework for tackling other local issues quickly and effectively. We have learnt much from other Total Place pilots and opened up some good channels of communication with Whitehall. Locally, strong, new relationships have blossomed across many public services and a number of opportunities have been identified for further productive collaboration. All of which augers well for future joint working.

But, having pinpointed the cause of so many problems within the system, we are duty bound to find solutions. Some of our proposals are solutions we can make locally, others will be a matter for central government. Some will be fairly easy to administer, others will require further investment.

But what is clear to all Total Place partners in this area is that we cannot now just sit back and preside over the same old ways of working. The genie is out of the bottle.

Richard Ellis is director of business transformation for Central Bedfordshire Council, and Steve Heappey is director of customer & corporate service at Luton Borough Council.