Nigel Blair, Head of Product Management and Innovation, Northgate Public Services
A recent opinion piece in a leading daily paper predicted mixed futures for dealing with rogue landlords measures in the council.
Yes, UK councils now have greater legal means to combat fraud, so the argument went, but after years of austerity how many still have the teams or the time to enforce it?
It’s an interesting perspective, and one not without merits – it’s no secret that council resources are often stretched. Yet it’s not the full picture.
We’re seeing a slow revolution at work in local government. Interest in partnering with the private sector has never been greater. But bringing in agency staff is typically too expensive, particularly where you can get a team of experience industry specialists for far less.
Which is why Central Government’s push towards greater online collaboration and improved efficiency is being met by resource strapped councils with tough, innovative private sector contracts that directly increase revenues and decrease fraud.
Last year Northgate Public Services worked with Sandwell Council on an empty properties review. About one in every seven of the properties it reviewed were found to be occupied, when they had been claimed to be empty.
Regarding the ‘empty’ properties, this could be fraud, it could be a mistake. What’s certain is that not doing the empty property review would have led to substantially reduced revenues for the council, at a time when the words ‘local’ and government’ are constantly being followed by their unbeloved siblings, ‘budget’ and ‘cuts’.
What actually happened?
In the case of Sandwell Council, a special team came in and worked almost as an extension to the council’s team. It looked at market leading credit reference data, then it managed the review process, including handling all customer contacts, system updates and, where required, carrying out physical property inspections. This was delivered without up-front fees, and on a risk and reward basis.
The entire review was done in 10 weeks. It ended up generating an additional £1.8 million in revenue for the council.
The first of its type
Tower Hamlets has engaged in an innovative solution that looks well beyond the narrow boundaries of its borough. Last year they helped create a framework agreement that can be used by any London Council. It creates an ongoing, working agreement that enables a council to engage a ‘virtual’ team to help with benefits processing.
What’s actually happened?
Currently the team of close to 20 is dealing with some 4,000 benefits cases a month, typically for change of circumstances. It works directly to prevent the overpayment of benefits, for example in childcare and non-dependent costs.
To be on the team you need a minimum of two years benefits experience, though some have been working in the area for 15 years.
While figures aren’t yet available, it’s clear the work is helping reduce fraud and the overpayment of benefits – more than this, it’s flexible, giving the council an option to flex the size of the team up or down depending on the needs of the council.
The best part?
Because of the way the framework was established, new councils are able to join the framework and enjoy the services without going through the pain of a separate procurement process. Waltham Forest has joined, and is currently supported by a team of 12, as have Greenwich with a team of 18.
Some councils are unsure whether it’s worth their while partnering – in a world with finite resources, they don’t know if their problem is big enough to make it worth their while fixing. Others are unsure how much it would cost, or they’re already feeling stretched in terms of time and resources.
These are serious questions, and there’s no one size fits all response. It’s clear that in some areas it simply may not be cost effective for the council to keep things in-house. Ultimately, councils should look carefully at the issues facing them and put their resources in the places that benefit them best – but there are real economic wins for many councils out there.
This article originally appeared in IRRV Insight Magazine