Advice services face a double squeeze. The recession has led to an increase in demand for their services with more people being made redundant, more people falling into debt, and more people at risk of losing their home.

At the same time sources of funding for advice are changing in structure or drying up completely.

The BOLD project was set up to explore a more sustainable approach to commissioning advice. It was led by AdviceUK, working with the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Directory of Social Change, and active partners in Coventry and Nottingham.Based on the experiences of BOLD we suggest that commissioning must address the drivers of demand for advice, not concentrate solely on reforming supply.

The new challenges of the current economic climate have added to pressures that were already facing the independent advice sector. Recent years have seen a move from local authority grant funding of voluntary organisations towards greater service commissioning. Often this has been reduced to the introduction of competitive procurement, rather than the application of the full commissioning cycle. More specifically for advice services, reforms to Legal Aid funding have been underpinned by market principles.

This has brought about changes in the landscape of provision, with some community services disappearing and new entrants to the market. It has also led to a shift in focus towards a target-driven, price-based, transactional approach, which has affected the purpose and delivery of advice.

The BOLD project aimed to develop new approaches to commissioning of advice services that would place service users’ needs at the heart of the process and focus on outcomes. This report brings together the key experiences and insights from this project from two pilots in Coventry and Nottingham.

Reducing the drivers of demand

Whilst the recession has led to an increase in demand for advice services (value demand) it is not the only pressure facing the sector. Failure demand’ and revolving door demand’ are also drivers. Advice agencies deal with the fallout from the failings of public services and public administration. Complex benefits procedures, long application forms and impenetrable customer service centres cause many people to seek independent advice. We call this failure demand’. This type of demand is already high, and is likely to increase with wide scale public service and welfare reform.

It is important that advice agencies are there to enable people to uphold their rights and contest incorrect decisions. Even so, we think there is scope to substantially reduce the drivers of failure demand. The pilot in Nottingham demonstrated that collaborative working by public services and advice agencies to deliver what matters to clients can improve service delivery and reduce the preventable demand on advice organisations. This can free up capacity for advice agencies to focus on their core mission of supporting more people to overcome legal and financial problems.

A third source of demand can be generated by the way advice is commissioned. As cuts have been made to the provision of advice those agencies that survive are under pressure to meet short-term targets. There is a risk that people won’t have access to quality advice, which can lead to revolving-door’ demand where problems aren’t solved over the longer term and people have to keep coming back for more advice. This is costly not just in terms of stress and anxiety for people accessing advice but also because it leads to knock on costs for other state services. Commissioning for quality is crucial here. In Coventry we quantified some of these costs for housing and debt cases. We also calculated the economic value of high quality advice which demonstrates a return of approximately £9 for every £1 invested.

Where Next?

It is important not to underestimate the challenges facing the independent advice sector. The worst case scenario is that services continue to be salami sliced despite rising demand. This will leave those services that survive under increasing pressure, overstretched and unable to respond proactively to people’s issues over the longer term.

The experiences of BOLD suggest an alternative is possible. This will need a shift towards service design and commissioning based on an understanding of real demand. Agencies must be resourced to deliver quality advice and work with other statutory agencies to switch off sources of preventable failure demand. Encouraging and supporting collaboration will result in advice services having a bigger impact on wider priorities such as indebtedness and homelessness, financial inclusion, and health and well-being.