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Civil Service

How the Civil Service is transforming public services

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I want to tell you about two examples this week of civil servants transforming public services. Both illustrate our increasing confidence in using behavioural insight and in sharing data across government, as we design new services.

Screenshot of the separation app
Screenshot of the separation app

Child Maintenance

The first example is the latest step forward on the government’s reform of Child Maintenance.

The old regime involved civil servants trying to track down the income of the so-called “absent parent, calculating their financial obligation to their children, collecting this money from them, and then finally paying it to the parent with care”. This whole process not only took time, and cost a lot to administer, but it also tended to weaken the relationship between the parents.

All of which worked against both parents remaining involved in the upbringing of their children, clearly to the children’s longer term disadvantage.

The key behavioural insight behind the new system is that reforms should encourage and support parents – even as they separate – to resolve issues themselves, and so provide a better chance that both will remain involved in the lives of their children. All the evidence suggests this is much better for the children.

So civil servants leading the reforms have worked with relevant charities to develop easily accessible services to support separating parents: there’s even a “sorting out separation” app” supported and promoted by Families Need Fathers and Relate. And anyone thinking of using the statutory scheme must first use the Child Maintenance Options helpline, run independently of government.

For those who, nonetheless, still need a rule-based system to sort out mutual financial obligations to their children, civil servants have designed, built and successfully launched the new 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme. This is where the datasharing comes in. Rather than chase sometimes reluctant parents, typically fathers, for details of their income, the new scheme automatically accesses HMRC’s records for the previous tax year.

At a stroke, the time to process a new application has fallen from weeks and months to hours and days.

And, again reinforcing the behavioural learning, the scheme also offers the option for the department to do only this basic calculation, leaving the parents to make their own arrangements for paying the resulting sums. This “Direct Pay” option costs nothing; but use of the full “Collect and Pay” service now attracts fees. The early results are much better than expected: statistics published today show that almost 60% of cases on the statutory scheme have chosen to make their own payments.

The new portal for parents allows them to manage their account online, make payments and use a secure email system to contact the department – giving the experience of internet banking.

You won’t have heard much about all of this, as it has been quietly rolled out, progressively and safely expanding. The introduction of fees, and the immediate effect on behaviours, is the final step, and only a few weeks old. But the Public Accounts Committee has already taken the unusual step of congratulating all those who’d done such a good job in designing and implementing this reform. Modern policy work, great programme management, great front line delivery.

Universal Credit

I can be briefer with the second example. On Monday, the government announced that from early next year Universal Credit would be expanded to every jobcentre in Great Britain for claimants who are single and out of work. This builds on the current roll-out to jobcentres across the north west, already offering Universal Credit both to couples and single claimants, and opening applications from families before Christmas, which tests a digital service in Sutton.

By providing a seamless transition from out of work support to the in-work support currently provided by tax credits, and removing all manner of complex rules, Universal Credit is – again – designed to drive behaviours.

Our front line colleagues can now simply assert that “work pays, and more work pays”; and since this is now true, they can demand more from claimants in terms of their responsibility to look for work.

And, again, the system has been built to exploit existing data: this time HMRC’s new monthly data on PAYE earnings. So no more chasing working claimants for the twists and turns of overtime, part week earnings etc: we simply use what their employer tells us they’ve been paid.

Jobcentre advisor talking to a claimant
Vanda in the Hammersmith office

The most striking evidence of how all this works comes from advisors in Jobcentres working with Universal Credit. Vandna, one of our Universal Credit Work Coaches in Hammersmith, has explained to me how the new system is changing her day-to-day job for the better.

Her time with jobseekers is now focused on helping to get them into work – rather than moving slowly through old IT systems to check up on a claim’s progress. Both the claimant and the Work Coach know when their Universal Credit will be paid – so the focus of the time in the jobcentre is purely on building skills and finding work.

So, just two examples of reforms – designed, built and operated by civil servants – making a real difference in the lives of British people.

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