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Former Debt Adviser secretly tells UCAN of MaPS contract

Due to fear of being penalised by their employer,  a former debt adviser secretly explains working under Money Advice Pension Service (MaPS) contract.
'MaPS very nearly broke me, and I had to leave debt advice altogether in order to have a quality of life. '

'The MaPS contract, and in particular its nonsensically onerous DAPA requirements, ended over 20 years of dedicated service with an organisation I had expected to retire working for. The MaPS contract nearly destroyed my physical and emotional health, and that of other long-term, incredibly hardworking debt advisers, who were also left with no option but to change their career direction after 10-20 years and leave to work for other charities or housing associations. The MaPS contract turned both debt advisers and clients into faceless commodities; it was all about the numbers without consideration for the impact its unrealistic and unachievable DAPA requirements have on both debt advice staff and, as a result, clients. I had to leave debt advice altogether for my own well-being, joining a long list of others before me, and leaving just one remaining member of my original debt team in post. Almost all debt advice staff have been with the organisation for less than 2-3 years, with a high turnover rate. 

Trainees, who create heavy supervision demands and take a year to reach a normal capacity, now make up the bulk of the debt team, as it’s become virtually impossible to find experienced caseworkers who are willing to work under MaPS’ conditions and for the low wages paid in the charitable sector. I’m speaking out for the sake of my former colleagues and larger debt advice family in England who are set to experience untold new levels of stress and despair under the proposed new MaPS contracts, which are even more draconian than what I worked under, and which also proposes to cut F2F Advice provision by at least 50% across the country, and by significantly more in many areas with already high levels of deprivation.

 

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.

 

Confirmation of advice letters increased in length month on month to try and meet DAPA criteria - dozens and dozens of pages. The opening script we would have to read to clients took several minutes to say, and then had to be in the case record as well – virtually every word we said to clients in the interview was expected to be repeated in the confirmation of advice (COA) letter to the client, and then again in the case record, but re-worded to be in the third person – we were not allowed to use the COA as the advice part of the case record. The average confirmation of advice letter was easily 50+ pages and could be higher if there were varying types of debts. 

We knew our clients never read the COAs due to their ridiculous lengths, but it was impossible to otherwise include all DAPA required, and the alternative was to risk being scored with an "area of concern" or "detriment" on your file review, creating enhanced DAPA scrutiny of the entire debt team's cases for three months. 

 

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.

 

The pandemic made working conditions worse under MaPS as debt advice demand grew but no face to face advice was available. All advice had to be delivered digitally or by phone, which took considerably longer due to not being able to see documents, obtain signed consents during the appointments, or to make calls with clients present to provide third party consent. More and more time was spent outside of working hours to try to meet the mountain of work. I was not alone in putting in almost as much unpaid time as during working hours as it was the only way to keep on top of caseloads. We cherished the time created by clients failing to answer their telephone appointment calls as it was the only time, outside of working through lunch, that could be used to write up without interruptions. Even then, we would be regularly asked to cover appointments for other advisers who were off sick or whose slots hadn’t been blocked off in the appointments diary when they were on annual leave or training. Stress levels skyrocketed and debt staff began jumping ship in record numbers. 

 

I suffered from chronic exhaustion, burnout, and sleep deprivation from staying up past midnight every night to keep on top of writing up the huge records demanded under DAPA. Weekends, annual leave, and bank holidays were spent in large part doing unpaid work. I had a great manager but one whose hands were tied in terms of what was demanded of us all by MaPS. My colleagues who had found new advice jobs outside of the organisation spoke of it being the best decision they’d ever made, and feeling valued as employees again. They regained their work-life balances, were happy,  and gave me the strength and faith to start looking for a new job outside of where I thought I would never have wanted to leave. 

As a debt caseworker, I had exceeded my targets and received average IFR scores in the mid to high 90s, year on year, and loved my job. MaPS made it impossible to carry on delivering debt advice without either treating clients as commodities - simply churning out the maximum amount of numbers and light-touch, one-of advice, and sacrificing quality in the process  - or ending up off sick with stress and physical burnout. MaPS' very model of commissioning contracts through a tendering process fosters a system that undermines the core values of most advice organisations to provide a holistic service - the only way to win a contract is to pay as little as possible to as few advisers as possible to deliver the highest number of stats as possible. The planned cuts to face to face advice under the new contracts will be catastrophic for most vulnerable clients at a time when advice in the community is most needed, with the current economic climate getting worse, tax and NI rises coming, and the withdrawal of the Universal Credit uplift. Other proposed changes, including cuts to translation services and expected evening and weekend shifts, will heap untold additional pressures on the shoulders of staff who manage to survive the inevitable redundancies the funding cuts will cause, leading to a certain exodus by debt advisers into the private sector or out of advice altogether. I can only hope that MaPS reconsiders the devastating impact its planned changes will have on debt advisers, clients, their communities, and the greater economy.

***From a former MaPS debt caseworker *** 

Comments

  1. This is my experience too. It was bad enough working under MaPS before, but the new contracts will be far worse

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm still employed but have given up trying to meet the ridiculous 'standards' which are no such thing. I'm doing the best I can for clients. MaPS are unlikely to change as this has been their direction of travel for several years. If you didn't know better about their history of incompetence you'd think they actually had an agenda to destroy debt advice.

    ReplyDelete

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