Corporate Performance Assessment

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					Thurrock Council
Benefits service




Comprehensive Performance
Assessment –
Improvement reporting




October 2003
                                           Thurrock Council’s Benefits service



Comprehensive Performance
Assessment – improvement reporting
Background
1.1   The government’s White Paper Strong Local Leadership –
Quality Public Services, sets out a revised performance management
framework for local authorities. Comprehensive Performance
Assessment (CPA) is an assessment of each authority’s performance
across the full range of its services, its financial integrity, its capacity
to drive improvement, its underlying systems and processes and the
way in which it relates to its community and partners.
1.2 The aim of CPA is to form a view of an authority's performance
at a corporate level and of the services it provides. The Audit
Commission undertakes the corporate assessment. The Benefit
Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) undertakes an assessment of the Housing
Benefit (HB) and Council Tax Benefit (CTB) service.
1.3 BFI uses a 5-point scale to measure the performance of the
Benefits service:
•     poor
•     fair
•     fair towards good
•     good
•     excellent.
1.4 Assessing current levels of performance is done primarily on the
basis of the BFI and Department for Work and Pensions’ (the
Department’s) Performance Standards. But other information is also
relevant, such as the authority’s comparative position using Best
Value and other performance indicators as reported quarterly to the
Department.
1.5  Assessments are based around the 7 functional areas used to
group Performance Standards. These cover the life of a claim from
the point an individual becomes interested in claiming HB or CTB to
the point when eligibility to HB or CTB no longer exists.
1.6 In 2002 BFI assessed the Benefits service in all single tier
authorities. This provides the benchmark against which
improvements can be measured. This report sets out the changes in
Thurrock Council‘s Benefits service since the original assessment,
together with our assessment of the current level of performance.
1.7  It is important to note that we have undertaken this assessment
as part of the overall Office of the Deputy Prime Minister CPA
process and it does not represent a full inspection of Thurrock
Council’s Benefits service. Our assessment is not intended to be a

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Thurrock Council’s Benefits service

definitive assessment of Thurrock Council’s Benefits service and
should not be used for this purpose.




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                                           Thurrock Council’s Benefits service



Summary
2.1 In 2002, the Benefits service in Thurrock Council was assessed
as Fair towards Good. Although the service had a number of
strengths, some areas needed further development to meet
Performance Standards. These included:
•     developing a more explicit strategic commitment to deliver an
      effective Benefits service and counter benefit fraud
•     improving the HB and CTB claim form
•     improving the speed of processing new and renewal claims
•     extending the telephone and personal caller service on all sites to
      a minimum of 36 hours per week
•     assessing the local risks of benefit fraud and reviewing the claims
      control process in light of the results.

Improvements
2.2   Since the 2002 assessment, Thurrock Council reports the
following improvements have been made:
•     developing a comprehensive Service Plan that details specific
      tasks and actions needed to deliver the objectives set out in the
      Benefits service Statement of Intent
•     achieving an ISO9002 accreditation for the Benefits service
•     developing a Race Equality Scheme and a Diversity Action Plan
      for 2003/04
•     taking part in Benefit Roadshows aimed at promoting take-up by
      advertising the availability of Benefits to the public
•     ensuring that the Head of Revenue Services is consulted on the
      areas to be reviewed in the annual Auditing cycle
•     introducing recruitment checks and vetting in line with Audit
      Commission guidance
•     detailing Counter-fraud priorities in the annual Fraud Business
      Plan
•     undertaking a risk analysis of the results of fraud referrals to
      inform future operational decisions
•     reviewing and updating Counter-fraud procedures
•     improving the percentage of recoverable overpayments recovered
      in the year.

Current performance
2.3 Overall, we found that Thurrock Council’s Benefits service is
providing a Fair towards Good level of performance. This
assessment takes account of the changes since 2002 and is based
on the completion of the BFI questionnaire. We have also taken

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Thurrock Council’s Benefits service

account of the Best Value performance indicators and the increased
number of prosecutions, administrative penalties and cautions
imposed by the council.
2.4 There are some areas where Thurrock Council still needs to
develop to meet Performance Standards. These include:
•     developing a specific policy statement for HB and CTB that sets
      high-level objectives to meet, over time, the full range of
      Performance Standards
•     replying substantively to 80% of letters within 14 calendar days or
      an equivalent target and monitoring the quality of responses and
      time periods
•     improving personal callers and telephone service times
•     improving the quality and clarity of letters and notifications
•     improving the speed of processing of new claims, changes of
      circumstances and renewal claims
•     further developing working relationships with landlords
•     improve the recovery of overpayments.
2.5  We would like to thank Thurrock Council staff, particularly the
Head of Revenue Services, for their assistance and co-operation with
the assessment process.
2.6 This report has been produced pursuant to powers contained in
sections 10 and 11 of the Local Government Act 1999.




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Findings
Introduction
3.1  This assessment is based mainly on information supplied by
Thurrock Council which provided a response to the BFI
questionnaire, which covers the key components of Performance
Standards.
3.2  Information for this assessment was gathered from a range of
sources, including:
•     Thurrock Council’s summary of progress since the BFI
      assessment in 2002
•     a copy of its Service Plan 2003/04
•     Best Value performance indicators
•     statistical information provided by the Department
•     BFI reports.

Benefit expenditure and caseload
3.3 In 2002/03 Thurrock Council’s HB and CTB expenditure was
£32.1 million paid to approximately 18,269 claimants. This represents
15% of the Council’s gross revenue expenditure of £220 million.

Current level of performance
3.4 We set out our detailed findings against Performance Standards
which are:
Strategic Management – clear stated aims and action, resources
and monitoring to deliver those aims, with effective training and IT
Customer Services – providing an efficient and prompt service that
meets the needs of all claimants
Processing of Claims – speedy and accurate claims processing
with effective verification
Working with Landlords – so private landlords have the confidence
to let to claimants and supporting delivery of social housing
Internal Security – preventing internal fraud
Counter-fraud – deterring, preventing, detecting and pursuing fraud
Overpayments – preventing, identifying and recovering
overpayments.
3.5  Thurrock Council has not completed a full self-assessment
against Performance Standards, but it provided a response to the
BFI questionnaire which covers the key components of Performance
Standards. We have used this as the basis for our assessment.




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Thurrock Council’s Benefits service


Strategic Management
3.6    The weaknesses that we identified in 2002 had been addressed
by:
•     introducing an annual report to Members on the performance of
      the Benefits and Counter-fraud sections
•     developing a Service Plan that details specific tasks and actions
      needed to deliver the objectives set out in the Benefits service
      Statement of Intent.
3.7 In addition the authority told us that it had now made further
improvements by developing a Race Equality Scheme and a
Diversity Action Plan for 2003/04.
3.8  In addition there are 3 other major improvement projects under
way, 2 of which were the result of successful bids to the Standards
Fund. These are the:
•     replacement of the current Revenue and Benefits computer
      system with a more modern system
•     selection, procurement and implementation of a Document Image
      Management System
•     recruitment of two additional temporary members of staff to be
      trained in Benefit administration.
3.9    Areas requiring improvement were reported as:
•     developing a specific policy statement for HB and CTB that sets
      high-level objectives to meet, over time, the full range of
      Performance Standards
•     ensuring that HB and CTB and Counter-fraud priorities are
      reflected in the Community Plan.

Customer Services
3.10 The authority told us that it had now made further
improvements by:
•     enhancing the translation and interpretation service offered to all
      customers whose first language is not English
•     taking part in Benefit Roadshows aimed at promoting take-up by
      advertising the availability of Benefits to the public.
3.11 However, the authority is still to introduce a Benefits claim form
based on the BFI model. This has been included in the Service plan
for 2003/04 and it is planned that a revised form will be introduced by
March 2004.
3.12 In addition, other areas requiring improvement to meet
Standard were reported as:
•     replying substantively to 80% of letters within 14 calendar days or
      an equivalent target and monitoring the quality of responses and
      time periods

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                                           Thurrock Council’s Benefits service

•   improving personal callers and telephone service times
•   improving the quality and clarity of letters and notifications.

Processing of Claims
3.13 Thurrock Council told us that speed of processing performance
had been affected in the latter part of 2002/03 by staff vacancies and
retention of staff was identified as a problem, to resolve this a new
grading structure was introduced in April 2003 and most vacancies
filled.
3.14   The checking process identified that staff were wrongly
categorising new claims, thereby giving an unrepresentative figure
for the number of days to process a claim.
3.15  Staff were made aware of this issue and specific instructions
issued. This has led to an improvement in the speed of processing
new claims with first quarter of 2003/04 performance being 52 days
and year-to-date (up to the end of August 2003) 43 days.
3.16 However, to meet Standard the authority needs to further
improve the speed of processing of new claims, changes of
circumstances and renewal claims.

Working with Landlords
3.17  The weaknesses that we identified in 2002 had not yet been
addressed. Further improvements to the working relationships with
landlords are required and a consultation exercise with landlords has
been included in the Revenue Services Service Plan for 2003/04.

Internal Security
3.18   The weaknesses identified in 2002 had been addressed by:
•   ensuring that the Head of Revenue Services is consulted on the
    areas to be reviewed in the annual Auditing cycle. Additional
    specific audits are agreed between Auditor, Head of Service and
    the Benefits Manager
•   introducing recruitment checks and vetting in line with Audit
    Commission guidance
•   reviewing access rights for users, evaluating the effectiveness of
    management checks and the adequacy of system back up
    procedures.

Counter-fraud
3.19 The weaknesses that we identified in 2002 had been
addressed by:
•   detailing Counter-fraud priorities in the annual Fraud Business
    Plan
•   undertaking a risk analysis of the results of fraud referrals to
    inform future operational decisions. This had identified areas of


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             Thurrock Council’s Benefits service

                 high risk and a successful joint operations bid has led to
                 additional staff resources to target living together cases
             •   reviewing and updating Counter-fraud procedures
             •   developing working arrangement between the Counter-fraud
                 section and the rest of Benefits administration.
             3.20 Figure 1 provides a summary of Thurrock Council’s Counter-
             fraud performance for the last 2 years and demonstrates significant
             improvements across all sanction activity.


 Fig. 1: Numbers of prosecutions, administrative penalties and cautions
                                                           2001/02             2002/03
 Cases submitted for prosecution                               4                  15

 Successful prosecutions                                       1                   2

 Administrative penalties offered and accepted                 6                  10

 Formal cautions given                                         11                 39
Source: Thurrock Council


             Overpayments
             3.21     Thurrock Council reports that overpayments is a priority area.
             3.22 An overpayments officer has been recruited to strengthen this
             function and improvements to the monitoring of overpayments have
             been made with performance monitored on a monthly basis.
             3.23    The authority has identified that it needs to improve the
             percentage of recoverable overpayments recovered in the year and a
             full review of the effectiveness of recovery action will be undertaken
             by March 2004.

             Best Value performance indicators
             3.24 Figure 2 details Thurrock Council’s Best Value performance
             indicator performance for the past 2 years.
             3.25  Thurrock Council report that staffing problems had affected
             performance against Best Value performance indicators as well as
             specific issues identified with new claim processing.
             3.26   Speed of processing performance for new claims had
             deteriorated and the authority report that this was due to processing
             categorisation errors and that the figures do not represent a true
             reflection of actual performance. This problem has been addressed
             and performance for the first quarter of 2003/04 was 52 days and
             year-to-date (up to the end of August 2003) 43 days.
             3.27 The speed of processing changes of circumstances and
             accuracy levels had deteriorated and are not at Standard.


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                                                                      Thurrock Council’s Benefits service

                           3.28 Improvements were made in the speed of processing renewal
                           claims but this is still below Standard.


 Fig. 2: Thurrock Council’s performance against Best Value performance indicators
   Performance                Description              Standard/        Performance       Performance
    indicator                                         Top quartile        2001/02           2002/03
 BV78a                Average time for                   36 days           50.67 days      75.21 days
                      processing new claims

 BV78b                Average time for                    9 days           8.49 days       11.58 days
                      processing change of
                      circumstances

 BV78c                % renewal claims                     83%               37 %            48 %
                      processed on time

 BV79a                % cases processed                    98%              98.2 %           97 %
                      accurately
Source: Thurrock Council




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