Caroline Davis, Engagement Manager
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing
Late last year we were treated to an early Christmas gift of a tour around Bolton’s Jobcentre Plus to get a first-hand look at how Universal Credit is working in practice. The opportunity to witness how the new system, which combines six working-age benefits into a single payment, has been making a difference to people’s lives was not one to be passed up and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
It had been a long time since I last entered a job centre and not surprisingly, things had changed.
The first thing that struck me was how both the front-facing office, where the Jobcentre advisers are based, and the upstairs area where Universal Credit claimants are seen, were unexpectedly quiet but very productive. The second noticeable change was how the bright and open-plan layout where staff received customers into the office made for a less formal and more welcoming environment to the traditional reception desk that I remembered.
The role of the staff at Bolton Jobcentre Plus is to guide customers on their way to employment, working to the ethos of empowering them to gain the necessary behaviours and skills that will equip them for work. As well as the open plan layout, a number of other changes had been designed specifically to support these values:
- The traditional bank of phone booths has been replaced with just one emergency phone
- Payments are made via the separate Service Centre, leaving just two payment desks in the office
- Banks of computers are freely available for people to search for jobs and create CVs with the help of advisers who are on hand to provide support
- An appointment-only system is in place to arrange meetings with advisers or work coaches
- Initial queries are made through the separate Service Centre via telephone
- Brightly coloured screens separate drop-in visitors from the entrance area, helping to divert general enquires with a display leaflets of useful numbers and websites
These changes have helped to create order in a busy environment that is now closer to that of a working office than a public service centre, providing customers with a relaxed atmosphere to conduct their own job searches and fulfil their claimant commitment.
Staff working on both Universal Credit and in the front-facing office explained how rewarding it is to have quality time to listen to their customers’ needs and wants, and to have the capacity to then offer appropriate support without the distraction of a noisy, hectic office.
Communication was cited as being key to making the delivery of Universal Credit a success in Bolton and this goes right from the front-line work coach to the project team and management, and vice versa. On a broader scale, regular conference calls are held with members of all teams, including the management team based in London, who use the opportunity to brief staff on developments and successes. On a more local scale, an informal daily gathering ensures all staff are well informed about news and changes.
Other information sharing processes have also been developed with the separate Service Centre which organises appointments and handles all enquiries on benefit payments. It doesn’t stop there either – a one-stop-shop to provide on-site financial advice for instant referral is available and housing services are also in development.
As you can see, with the dawn of Universal Credit, times are a changing for the role of Jobcentres, with benefits that serve both their customers and their staff. I was so inspired by this initial visit that I’ll be returning to Bolton to further explore the role that information sharing is playing in ensuring the endurance of these changes. So stay posted to hear how my second trip down memory lane goes!