Universal Credit - Finding Ways to Provide Support that Really Makes a Difference

Ten years ago, Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary at the time, announced the launch of Universal Credit, introducing a “once in many generations” reform.

It replaced six working age benefits: Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support, Income Related Earnings and Support Allowance, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit. It became law in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 with an aim of being fully implemented within four years. 

It’s now 2020 and the roll out is well behind the original schedule with latest estimates saying full implementation will not be complete before 2024, eight years later than the original plan. No one would dispute that the roll out has been challenging with many changes as things have gone along.

Many of those changes have been for the better and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) would argue that this shows they are listening and learning from claimant experience. 

The slow speed of roll out has made planning difficult for housing providers, fearful of the impact on residents, communities and business plans. Our initial assumptions have been revised and then revised again. Residents, who on the whole, can’t predict when they will transition onto Universal Credit, have grown weary of messages of support and preparation and it is a challenge for organisations to keep things fresh. 

Data is essential to understand the potential impact. We know, at One Manchester, that the peak impact on our business plan will be between 2022 and 2024, unless timescales change again. We know how long it will take residents’ rent accounts to recover from the change and we know the likely impact on our workload. 

But data doesn’t tell us what it’s really like for someone who goes onto Universal Credit.

Many transition successfully but for those who don’t, the impact can be severe. The DWP estimate that 75% of those moving do so easily and 25% need extra support. Within our communities, the balance is probably closer to 50/50 and it’s important not to generalise based on media coverage. Equally, though, it’s important to recognise that for those that struggle, it can be really tough. 

In our research, we looked at the journey that a new claimant undertakes, starting with their life and ambitions before things changed. We didn’t just look at the transactional experience with what they did and when, but also looked at how it affected them emotionally, charting the impact of each stage on their mental health. We looked at their life before the change and their hopes and dreams for the future. When we pulled this insight together, it gave us a number of potential concepts to look at which might help someone who would otherwise struggle through the journey. 

We are now testing two concepts. The first is our Universal Credit Survival Pack. This goes beyond our initial offer of support which we make when someone makes a claim. We already contact a claimant on the day we are notified of the claim, talk to them about the impact, offer specialist support from a money advisor and agree a payment arrangement. But we have found that many people do not want to talk to us at this stage, so we send our Survival Pack to everyone, whether we have been able to make contact or not. It contains information, branded in a different way from our normal communications, offering advice on what we can do, who else they can contact for help and place (neighbourhood) specific information about support agencies/community shops together with a voucher to help with some essentials.  

We have also set up a dedicated Universal Credit advice line with direct access to a colleague in the One Money team who can offer specialist advice on the phone. The pack is simple, eye catching and supportive. 

The second concept focuses on predicting when someone is likely to go on Universal Credit. Whilst for many people, their journey starts through the loss of a job, for others it can come through a foreseeable change in their circumstances such as a child coming out of full time education. Where we have data that allows us to predict this, we should be in a position to offer tailored help and support from those parts of the business best placed to meet their need. 

These concepts are in a test phase and may well change as we go along. We are prepared to try different things which may work but may not, and we aren’t scared of failure. If an idea doesn’t work, we will try something else. However, our initial feedback is encouraging. 

Following the 2019 General Election, we can be pretty certain that Universal Credit is here to stay, and our focus should be on helping our organisation and our residents to cope with the impacts and manage the risks. To do that, we need to understand what it really means. Data really helps us here and is at the heart of our thinking. However, data alone isn’t the answer. To understand how the journey really affects someone, we need to understand the emotional and wellbeing impact of the journey. Only then will we be able to design products that will have a real and significant positive impact.