Joining up local support in preparation for Universal Credit: the evaluation of Universal Support delivered local trials

8 July 2016

This week, the Department for Work and Pensions published our evaluation of the eleven Universal Support Delivered Locally Trials. These ambitious trials were designed to test ways to provide digital and budgeting support through partnerships led by Local Authorities, local Jobcentre Plus and third sector providers.  All local trials had a remit to design approaches to identify and support claimants who might struggle to make and manage a claim through the Universal Credit digital platform and manage the monthly payment schedule of benefit and housing costs.  

When thinking about who might most benefit and where to access these people, trials took a variety of approaches.  Some focused on those thought most likely to have high needs (typically those on Employment and Support Allowance or in touch with local support services), while others took a more open approach and used forms of triage and needs assessment at service access points to find people who might need help.

Delivered locally

The evaluation shows that there is clearly no one-size-fits all approach to organising support for claimants with digital and budgeting needs.  Just take a look at all the different customer journeys in the annex of the report.   With limited funding available, local trials made the best use of their existing support services and undertook a partnership approach to delivering the services, hosting these in either Jobcentres, Local Authority hubs or reaching out through outreach or local support organisations to find those who might need support.  When we toured the country on our fieldwork visits, I was struck by how the spaces and places chosen to host support were defined by what was available and what would work locally.  It was clear that a centralised customer hub would work well for a large urban area in London but simply wouldn’t work in a place like Blaenau Gwent in Wales.   Any future framework for Universal Support will need to be mindful of the local context and the available infrastructure.

Joining up support

It was also clear from trial visits that supporting claimants with needs through the transition to Universal Credit would require a multi-agency approach.  Many of the trial participants we spoke to for the research had multiple issues and needs that went far beyond more straightforward digital and budgeting needs.  Language and literacy needs were common and these prevented participants from being able to engage with mainstream services.  The most vulnerable we interviewed simply didn’t have the confidence to access support from a complex network of organisations and services and relied heavily on friends and family to get them through critical transition points (like making a claim for housing benefit or Universal Credit).   Where participants were in contact with support services, these were often dealing with issues in a siloed fashion or people were only sporadically engaging (particularly at moments of crisis).  As such, before the trials engaged with participants only partial needs were being met and there didn’t appear to be any one organisation holding overall responsibility for the individual.  There also seemed little capacity to help individuals with potential to become independent, as such, individuals appeared continuously dependent on different forms support.

Rights and responsibilities

Universal Credit presents both a challenge and an opportunity for future support under Universal Support and potentially a reconfiguration of claimant rights and responsibilities and the reciprocal state responsibilities to support these.  Universal Credit will make individuals more responsible for managing their claim and finances and to do this Universal Support has a responsibility to enable individuals to do this.  There are clear benefits for both sides.  Claimants who can read and write, are free from debt, with stable tenancies and able to manage their finances will be much closer to finding employment and be much more able and empowered to access support and participate in society.    As such, accessing Universal Credit presents an important moment with which to pick up these needs and seek to address them sufficiently to give claimants better opportunities in the future.   This will be especially important to consider for the transfer of Employment and Support Allowance claimants in the next few years.   

Co-ordinating support

Our evaluation found that participants didn’t appear to mind where support was located (be that a Jobcentre, Local Authority hub or third sector setting) but certain key factors to engaging were found to be important.  Participants – perhaps based on their experience of being passed about from organisation to organisation – really wanted to have one locus of support.  This could be a place or person or having a clear idea of the support offer and the tangible outcomes they could expect to achieve.  They wanted to be able to tell their issues once, have these dealt with in a sensible order and to be able to come back if they had further issues.   The trials responded to this need by testing a variety of case management systems and integration of partnership staff.  Underlying these arrangements were time limited agreements to share data between Jobcentre Plus, local authorities and third sector providers.  Again, case-management presents a challenge and opportunity.   Sharing data will be a pre-requisite of any future system that can build a decent picture of claimant needs and outcomes achieved from support.  Moreover to ensure that organisations only have to input data once.  However, claimant confidentiality and data security are clear challenges that will need to be resolved to achieve this.  

A holistic approach

There is so much potential under Universal Credit and the Universal Support gateway to take forward a much more holistic assessment of claimant needs and address these holistically.  The trials demonstrate a variety of ways of achieving these and looking forward I hope that many of these lessons are taken forward into policy. 

Dr Jane Colechin is Senior Researcher at Learning and Work Institute