NfP advice in transition – but what to?

Late last month the Cabinet Office published its report on its review of not-for-profit advice provision in England (PDF) and on the same day released details of the £65m Advice Services Transition Fund – match-funded and administered by the Big Lottery. The report and fund potentially opens the door to the new thinking about advice we at AdviceUK have long called for, but in the real world things are tough and getting tougher. For many advice providers, the new report and funding offers cold comfort as local funding is cut, civil legal aid is largely wiped out and welfare reforms hit hard.

While we at AdviceUK are pleased to see the emphasis placed on a client-centred approach, early intervention and prevention and the acknowledgement of our pioneering work, the transition required is ultimately to a world of greatly reduced public funding for advice. The Cabinet Office report shows the reduction in central Government funding alone for advice services to be £20 – £30m per year during the next few years, even with the new Advice Services Transition funding. And only up to 25 per cent of the transition funding can be spent on direct delivery of advice services. The emphasis is on ‘developing sustainable and resilient approaches to advice provision’. By 2015-16, advice services will have to be sustainable and resilient with £40m less per year in central Government funding, probably even greater cuts in local authority funding and increased demand as further welfare reforms and Universal Credit are implemented.
Understandably, many local not-for-profit advice providers are struggling to see how, in just two and a half years time, they will be transformed into the strong, vibrant and confident services the Government and BIG wants to see.

The Cabinet Office report offers a handful of examples of transitions already being made by some advice services but overall its sixteen pages are a flimsy end to a review commenced in November 2011, to which hundreds of advice organisations contributed.

But we could moan all day about the flaws and inadequacies of the fund and Government policy and response. The fact is, the Transition Fund is currently the main show in town for not-for-profit advice services in England (together with the local funding situation) and we need to make it work.

AdviceUK’s application of Vanguard Method for Systems Thinking for advice services offers a methodology that could equip us to rise to many of the challenges of our times. As the Cabinet Office report notes, when applied in a locality it offers the chance to really understand and act on what matters to clients, rethink purpose, understand what causes demand and what conditions affect behaviour. When implemented with the full and active engagement of the local authority (a critical factor), advice providers and other services, it can achieve customer focused redesign, more efficient and effective services and better cooperation and collaboration between advice service commissioners and providers and other services. We have found that in Portsmouth and have embarked on new work to break the mould in Cardiff.

To work it requires advice services, funders, and public services to unlearn old rules and habits, think again and make services truly work for their users. All parties need to understand that advice services work as part of wider welfare, housing, care and other support ‘systems’. For too long we have funded and delivered advice services to pick up the pieces when those systems fail people, which they do with predictable regularity. We commonly find, for instance, that 30-40 per cent of demand for advice services is the result of preventable failure in DWP, HMRC, local benefit and housing systems and provision. And for too long we have been moving towards fragmented, functionally specific and specialist services that only tackle one small aspect of the many and complex problems and deprivations that affect people who use or need advice and other public services. Legal Help currently funded by the Legal Services Commission is a prime example. The restrictions imposed by the commissioner on what can and can’t be done and the funding bureaucracy surrounding the scheme have shifted the focus of many advice services (against their will) from the client to meeting contractual conditions and targets. Many advisers working under LSC contracts have become increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the restrictions they face. At best they are able to do ‘the wrong thing righter’.

There is maybe a chance, with the help of the Advice Services Transition Fund, to move to a situation where advice services do better things. Changing the role and point of intervention of advice services – giving them a greater role in preventing failure, improving systems and people’s lives and in so doing saving public money, offers a chance to make the transition to sustainable services.

AdviceUK will be looking to work with groups of advice services, their funders and related services that are open to new thinking and learning to make use of the opportunity that the Advice Services Transition Fund presents.

For more information about our approach both in terms of support in the bidding process and for potential consultancy support in delivering successful bids, contact us at development@adviceuk.org.uk.

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