Wigan Council

Cost of Living Crisis – Targeting Support Through a Data Led Approach 

Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives

As a council we recognised the cost-of-living crisis, combined with the impacts of Brexit and lasting impact of COVID-19 had placed and continue to place, severe pressure on household budgets. Pressure that impacts on our residents immensely, especially in light of the increased levels of deprivation already observed within the borough. This coupled with the fact that research shows that low-income households are the hardest hit, spending more of their income on essentials such as food, energy and rent, all of which have higher than average inflation rates, resulted in a heightened needed to prioritise support to those who would be most impacted. As the cost of living crises deepened, we also recognised that many who have previously coped and managed effectively, would face difficult choices when managing their ongoing finances and trying to make ends meet.

Our post-pandemic Welfare Collections Framework, which was introduced in 2022 to promote a greater level of engagement between resident and council following payment default, serves to make residents are aware of our support offer and facilitate access to it. The framework seeks to breakdown any barriers and generate contact from residents, who can be linked into our welfare offer whilst ensuring a fully holistic approach to income maximisation and arrears collection is undertaken. We have a strong welfare support offer, a cash first approach which seeks to provide our most vulnerable customers with additional support and income. Utilising the Household Support Fund and in collaboration with partner organisations such as Citizens Advice, we offer a fully holistic approach to Welfare Support, Income Maximisation and Debt Advice. As good as our offer is, we recognised that it is estimated there is around £18.7bn worth of unclaimed benefit across the UK, and that approximately £3.8bn of that is funding which Local Authorities administer.

We are fully aware that stigma and overly burdensome application processes mean residents don’t always make claims and miss out on funding they may otherwise be entitled to. We appreciate that no matter how promotion materials we send via the post, issue via social media or publicise in wider communications that not all eligible residents will contact us to claim support. The task was how to ensure that those with underlying eligibility for benefits, reductions or alternative income streams could be supported to access them, focussed on ensuring those most in need were helped first. Knowing the traditional methods were falling on deaf ears in some respects, we recognised that unlocking the power of our data to provide bespoke, targeted supported would be key moving forward.

Our Assessments team have responsibility for administering Housing Benefits, Discretionary Housing Payments, Blue Badge awards and conducting Adult Social Care Costs Financial Assessments. Our Collections team have responsibility for Council Tax, Business Rates and Housing Rent billing, recovery and administration processes. Our Welfare Rights & Support teams provide specialist income maximisation advice and administer short term support mechanisms such as the household support fund, providing support with the costs of food and energy. Those teams hold a mass of customer information, data on those who have accessed support, benefits, discounts, reductions and where they have previously been supported to access wider welfare benefits from partner organisations such as the Department for Work and Pensions. To harness the power of our data and realise its potential, a single view of residents was created by connecting a range of disparate datasets held with Assessments, Collections, and Welfare functions. We now had a full picture of whom had accessed support across a range of disciplines in a single dataset. This data is refreshed every 24 hours to ensure officers are
working with the most up-to-date information possible. This combined dataset was then matched against Experian’s Household Income data to identify households with low financial resilience and low / no benefit take up. We now had a complete, up-to-date picture to identify who were most likely be the most effected by the cost-of-living crisis, view the levels of support accessed previously and identify where it was likely underlying eligibility for further support existed, but had not been claimed. To improve engagement further, we also supplied customer insight data that classifies social factors, consumer classification and behaviour. This enabled us to personalise engagement approaches using different techniques to better connect with residents and improve take-up.
All this information, combined, was fed direct to Welfare Rights Leads as a single data view to prioritise cases for attention. By adopting this approach, we had generated the insight to facilitate a more proactive approach to supporting residents through the cost of living crisis. As stated.

What are the key achievements?

– Nearly 55% of customers were successfully contacted, with 338 residents awarded over £139,301.
– The highest award values were made for Council Tax Reduction, were over £32,000 was awarded, helping customers to meet their Council Tax liability.
–  £954 of weekly ongoing awards being paid to 122 people.
–  83% or 213 of the 253 customers eligible for Household Support Fund awards had never applied for support previously, these residents have been advised about how they can access further awards in future. The total value of Household Support Fund awards was £8,365, providing support towards food and energy.

In addition to this, 231 residents who may be entitled to wider income maximisation have been referred to Customer Experience and Support Welfare Rights and Advice experts. This is a more complex and lengthier process requiring appointments to undertake reviews and support in completing applications, creating a necessary lag in this element of the pilot. Early indications are that residents are successfully having their income maximised.
The complexity of welfare benefits does mean that many customers may receive one award that can lead to an accessibility to additional ongoing benefits also, so monitoring regimes will be ongoing to identify the full details.

As the Assessments, Collections and Welfare team do not process these claims residents will be in a potential 12 week claim process administered by The Department for Work and Pensions. Residents who could not be contacted had an initial request to call us to enable a review of their circumstances to take place and pop-up events were arranged for 687 customers to visit Wigan and Leigh Life Centres where residents were offered
entitlement checks and awarded claims. Partner agencies were also there to help with other areas of advice such as debt advice and guidance The new data led approach enabled those most likely to need support to be targeted and provide access to a holistic environment where all the relevant support agencies were, meaning the potential for impact on their outcomes was at its highest.

The events on the 18 and 19 July resulted in 18 customers being supported with some ongoing support being
provided over the following days. Having a locally developed, dynamic data model brings us significant benefits over existing off-the-shelf products. Not only is it cheaper to produce, our model is updated overnight meaning services are able to react to the changes in resident circumstance immediately. Outputs from the data model are also being used by policy makers. Having a more complete picture of resident financial vulnerability is allowing them to deliver better services and will be used to target future government support packages.

Off the back of the success of phase one, phase two was implemented. Further analysis of the data resulted in customers whom had previously contacted the council for support with energy costs, who were shown to have a discretionary income level of less than £50 were targeted for income maximisation. For the purposes of these pilots, we initially attempted to contact customers by a personal phone call and conversation. As the pilot phase developed, further drop in events with key partner organisations were held, with targeted invites to those with low incomes whom would be hit hardest by cost of living increase issued. Those partnership events facilitated a joined-up approach to provide the maximum level of benefit to customers, they were held in partnership with Citizen Advice, Green Doctor, Age UK and wider council teams and provided wider support with:
–  Energy efficiency measures
–  Installation and advice on Smart Meters to reduce energy expenditure
– Dealing with Energy debts
– Fuel efficiency options
– Energy tariffs and switching options
–  Available Energy grants

These events served not only to provide customers with a direct positive financial outcome, but wider advice on how to reduce costs and save money through efficiency measures. Of the customers successfully contacted across phases one and two, the following awards have now been made:
– 60 customers supported to claim in excess of £336,000 in Attendance Allowance
–  £95,700 Council Tax reduction applied to 167 customers accounts
– Over £80,000 of Housing Benefit awarded to 30 customers
– £33,062 Pension Credit claimed by customers
– 1625 further awards of Household Support Fund awarded, totaling £16,069

At the time of writing, of those successfully contacted 2017 customers have benefited from awards made to the value of approximately £649,000, with those awards levels only likely to grow as DWP processing regimes catch up. A hugely successful proactive pilot programme which provided invaluable levels of support to those residents identified, without which many would have experienced increased levels of stress, anxiety and ill health off the back of rapidly rising cost of living. 

How Innovative is your initiative?

It is not common place to combine factual data about residents, with behavioural insights and modelled data across local authorities. We knew that the cost of living would impact or residents immensely, so decided to invest in integrating data sets, and purchasing access to some modelled data to supplement out analysis. We decided we needed to push the boundaries of what had gone before if we were going to make a real difference to our residents lives. This resulted in a laser focused approach to ensure that those most likely to be impacted by the cost of living crisis, were prioritised in a structured and calculated way. This led to excellent outcomes on scale for our residents as outlined below. 

What are the key learning points?

We need to consider how we can successfully replicate the work of the pilot phases, the positive outcomes for our customers make this essential. New ways of working to help develop resource capacity will assist and will need escalating as a priority. Learning from our experiences of the pilots and trialling how we use our datasets differently to have a positive impact on our residents, has the potential to deliver even more value and support customers to live a happy, fulfilling life. We know that many customers can interact with us digitally and will develop incorporating emails, text messages and voicemails to those more likely to make online applications themselves. This would mean more customers who are digitally excluded, reluctant or lacking confidence can receive the help they need.

Adopting age profiling analysis to undertake a more forensic targeted approach will allow a filtering of customers into smaller groups to model improved outcomes, incorporating a contact approach that could include spaces customers are likely to visit. Enhancing the where, who and how will develop as we understand more of customer preference. The complexities of wider Welfare Rights and Advice result in the need for either a phone call or face to face appointment with a customer to take place, to fully understand the residents circumstances. Often these can take up to 45 minutes, making them resource heavy for a small team of expert professionals. Enabling more of this work will be crucial in the future and conversations with our partners and community groups of how we may share resource to maximise capacity can form part of the plans.

To breakdown the stigma that is attached to claiming benefits we need to gather customer feedback and use quotes and short videos of the difference having their income maximised has made to them. We can use these real-life outcomes on social media, in communications and marketing materials. Further developing our partnership working with both wider internal teams and third sector organisations, such as charities and the voluntary sector, will be vital in ensuring customers access all support available not just that administered by the Local Authority or DWP. 

Additional Comments

Please not, due to the criteria of the award being related to a data led approach, the person named for the nomination is Sean Melling. However, this nomination also goes to Paul Downie and Andrew Brunditt and Jo Mitchell, all of whom led ad delivered the service to residents, and worked closely with us to develop the data model that underpinned it.