According to ONS figures, a third of UK households were already under pressure before the pandemic with outgoings exceeding earnings. As job security worsened and businesses had to shut their doors, local authorities were central to the successful delivery of the government’s economic support.
And now as a cost-of-living crisis not seen for decades is upon us, local authorities will once again be at the forefront of getting a cash boost to households whose budgets are being squeezed to the brink.
Although the pandemic-triggered roll out of government initiatives like self-isolation payments and business grants was not without its challenges, local authorities already had direct financial relationships with these residents and businesses. The mechanisms to collect revenues from council tax, business rates and administer financial assistance to those in need in their community were good to go.
The energy crisis has once again put local authorities in the spotlight as the mechanism to help get support to those who need it most. How can they ensure they are effectively employing technology to identify and target the people most in need?
The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that more than one million households who qualify for the £150 payment could miss out as they don’t pay council tax via direct debit. Whilst many who could qualify for discretionary payments might not be easily identified or could be overlooked due to a deluge of claims.
Direct debit payers will receive the rebate automatically but for those that don’t they will need to rely on their council proactively seeking them out and inviting them to submit a claim. What if you are a single parent who lives in a multi occupancy home and don’t pay the council tax? How can councils ensure residents with these types of profiles can be identified?
One way will be to analyse resident information across the different council departments to proactively identify and categorise households according to vulnerability. This could help to determine who might qualify for a discretionary payment and invite applications.
For example, cross reference data to see which houses might be in receipt of a disabled council band reduction, or pull-out data to see who is in receipt of benefits or specific council tax disregards in higher tier council bands, like student nurses, carers and care workers.
Given the scale and impact of the spiralling costs, local authorities will be supporting a far larger cohort of people than they normally would be expected to do, along with the more routine business as usual work.
This means it’s more important than ever to utilise the technology to do the heavy lifting and free up staff from routine tasks. It’s important the digital offering is seamless and unified so that the people who are comfortable and able to go online and self-serve will do so.
Having a joined-up approach will be vital going forward so councils can intervene earlier if a resident has not provided their bank details for an energy payment. This will enable staff to have more time to spend assisting those who feel digitally excluded or who need the extra help to access support.
In times of crises the public expects and needs a rapid response. Local authorities rose to the challenge and embraced digitalisation to provide the government’s fiscal relief to residents and businesses during COVID. But now many more in the community will need to quickly access support, as some will be forced to choose between eating and heating.
Local authorities need to ensure they have the right tools and information at hand to keep customer centric and swiftly safeguard those residents who will face financial difficulties. Whilst at the same time optimising and unifying their digital presence for those residents who are comfortable and expect to communicate with their council virtually, as well as adopting a more hybrid approach to free up staff to digitally assist those who need it.
Like much in local government it is a balancing act.