Debt advice over the years used to be, first and foremost, about clients. About the clients’ interests, about using a holistic and comprehensive approach to provide clients with the best service possible. Under the LSC and FIF contracts, though entailing the usual bureaucratic and administrative processes, this was possible. Targets and quality standards could be met within normal working hours, and there was a fairly consistent level of job satisfaction across the sector. The then-Money Advice Service contracts replaced FIF, and while our targets were increased by 25%, they were achievable through use of the Common Initial Assessment by triage and generalist level staff to count toward targets, freeing up valuable time for caseworkers to provide specialist-level debt advice to clients with complex cases and/or who could not self-assist. The quality framework was rigid but fair, and all clients received a confirmation of advice record in a durable medium.
The confirmation of advice was straightforward, easy to understand, and free of extraneous information and complex jargon. Debt teams were audited by funders, our organisation’s head office, and the FCA, and we always passed with flying colours. Morale was steady and we gained a great deal of job satisfaction from seeing how our clients’ lives were changed for the better and their quality of life was improved through the advice we provided. The clients came first.
That changed around 4 years ago with the introduction of the current DAPA scheme, as mandated by MaPS. Targets also increased yet again by 20%, without any pay rise. DAPA audits increased from once every 3 years for organisations who’d scored well to every 3 months, and the file review criteria became significantly longer. Recognising Excellence, the body who administered DAPA on behalf of MaPS, would scrutinise cases to find fault rather than taking a fair and balanced approach, and would mark down cases for inexplicable reasons pertaining in no way to the advice provided, such as if an adviser used the “they” and “their” when referring to clients, rather than “she” or “he.” This led to us having to create twice as many templates and take even longer writing up case records to make them gender-specific, but in no way impacted or benefitted the advice provided to clients.
We were marked down for things we had previously been told to include in case records and marked down for omitting things we had been told were unnecessary. We now had to tell clients in detail about enforcement consequences that were 10 stages away from the current circumstances instead of focusing on how to stop them from ever getting to that point. We were marked down retrospectively for not having adhered to new IFR criteria that hadn’t even been introduced at the time the advice took place but did at the time of the quarterly assessment, or which we hadn’t been informed of.
Scoring of independent file reviews (IFRs), which used to take 1-2 days per month for a manager or supervisor to do, was soon taking nearly 2 weeks per month to complete due to the increase in the number of files per team that MaPS required to be audited across the sector, and the ever-increasing IFR criteria.
Extra supervisors had to be brought in to do the IFRs and free up managers to manage. Supervisor scoring began to lack consistency, as supervisors worried about the files they’d reviewed being selected under DAPA for “technical supervision”, whereby a certain number of IFRs themselves per quarter would be reviewed and picked apart by RE. One supervisor would score you favourably for including in-depth information and advice in order to meet DAPA requirements, and another would mark you down for the same thing, labelling the advice “generic” and not “tailored”. One supervisor would mark you down for implementing what another supervisor had advised was essential in a previous IFR. One supervisor’s tailored and concise advice was another’s “not met” or “area of concern” for insufficient information and advice present. The advice could be thorough, correct, and meet all of DAPA’s IFR criteria, but you would get a lower score for the overall case record, including the COA, being too long – when the length was a direct consequence of having to meet the IFR requirements themselves. Getting file reviews back became an incredibly demoralising experience, with staff having to constantly challenge unfair scores. Other advisers simply stopped caring, wrote up shorter case notes, hoped their cases weren't DAPA'd, and took the hit with lower IFR scores.
Writing up cases to meet the ever-increasing DAPA criteria soon became the primary focus of advisers’ time, instead of actually providing advice or doing casework itself. 9am-5pm soon became 8am-6pm, then 7am-8pm when our office was unlocked for the day and closed at night, and taking a lunch break away from your desk just put you further behind as often that break was the only period of the day free of interruptions to try and write up. Time limits were introduced for all cases to be written up in or a file review would automatically fail, but no provision was made for annual leave, training days (even though these were essential for CPD points), or anything apart from sickness or bank holidays.
Targets also weren't reduced for any training or meeting days, even if attendance was mandatory – you just had a day less in which to do the same volume of work. This added a whole new level of stress and pressure to the debt team, as only 30 minutes was allocated to write up cases that routinely took hours to do to DAPA standard, and if your appointment ran over 90 minutes - which was the case with virtually every appointment - you would have no time to write up or do casework within working hours. None of the other specialist advice teams in the organisation had these conditions – it was 100% due to the MaPS contract.
Debt advice staff began going off sick with stress. One found an external job while off sick, and three fantastic managers left the organisation for external jobs. New caseworkers would often leave within a year, and some within days or weeks.