Local authorities are feeling the squeeze on budgets like never before. A freedom of information (FOI) request by PRWeek recently revealed that the number communications professionals in local authority teams has significantly decreased over the past five years. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, spending on services in England has fallen by 21% between 2009-10 and 2017-18 and by 2019-2020, English councils will face a £5.8bn funding gap.
With such cuts, it may not be a surprise that 36% of respondents in the FOI request were ‘not very confident’ they had enough resources to meet their authority’s priorities, and 84% mentioned insufficient people resources as a reason for this lack of confidence.
When resources are stretched, it is those who are most vulnerable who are at greatest risk of slipping through the cracks. Initial communication problems, which arise due to shortage of personnel, a potential lack of information or slow speed of response, are likely to cause an uptick in enquiries and complaints to local councils – putting even more pressure onto overstretched teams. This should be factored into operational plans by all local authorities moving forward.
As a first step, councils need to take robust steps to ensure they’re able to properly identify which households are most in need, as they often require more communication than others. This can be challenging as ‘vulnerability’ can take many forms - it could be a physical, mental, financial (unemployment, indebtedness), life stage (e.g. the period following bereavement or divorce) or indeed language (not speaking English, for example). Councils should prioritise analysing their community datasets in sophisticated ways to ensure they have accurate and up-to-date records of those more in need, accessible to all front-line staff.
To add further complexity, people can move in and out of challenging situations over a period of time. Staff will have to be reactive – a community member may not flag up on the system as needing extra support but as a conversation unfolds it may become apparent that they do.
Upskilling across the board
In order for frontline staff to have this sort of insight, councils will need to invest in bespoke training that helps employees understand and identify those most at risk; know when and how to escalate issues sensitively and efficiently; deliver difficult decisions and outcomes to community members; ensure community members are treated fairly and clearly communicated to at all times.
Well-trained, knowledgeable and empathetic staff are the difference between poor and excellent outcomes for community members. It may be that a council chooses to train all staff to identify low-level vulnerability but then sets aside a number of team members to look after the most complex cases of vulnerability.
Partnering with a trusted third party
During peak times, such as extreme weather in the winter and summer months, councils might experience an increase in contact from community members struggling. During these periods, councils should consider partnering with a trusted and specialist third party to help them manage their complaints process and ensure vulnerable customers are treated appropriately and swiftly.
These partnerships can provide support councils to identify vulnerable community members at an early stage and adjust their approach, upskilling staff on the job whilst ensuring that they have the operational processes and capacity in place to deal with those kinds of enquiries moving forwards.
No cutting corners
Despite the pressure that local councils are under, they mustn’t cut corners when it comes to how they handle vulnerable community members. Council workers will often be dealing with the absolute essentials of a person’s life - through the provision of housing, health and wellbeing services, counselling and other support – and any delays or poor communication could put a vulnerable person into a state of crisis. When issues arise and people make complaints, it is vital that front-line staff know exactly how to respond and resolve complaints as quickly as possible.
Matthew Drage is director of external engagement at Huntswood