Tackling problem debt advice: routemap

Sets out our vision for a user-centred, collaborative and sustainable free debt advice system in Scotland.

A user-centred free debt advice system

Free debt advice's purpose is to improve the lives of those who seek it. As a result, our actions are all aimed in some way to improve how users find and experience free debt advice. However, the actions set out below are particularly relevant to users.

The Scottish Government also recognises that these actions alone will not develop a user-centred system. That requires a cultural shift, particularly among funders. The Scottish Government therefore commits to working with the advice providers it funds to ensure that, going forward, monitoring and evaluation takes greater account of outcomes, rather than focusing on narrow performance indicators, such as advice sessions provided or call-wait times.

Action 1: The Scottish Government will work to understand the needs and expectations of those with problem debt.

The TPDG noted that, while individual programmes seek to evaluate the impact of their advice on users, it is often difficult to understand the long term impact of debt advice, or to gain a comprehensive picture of user experiences across Scotland. By definition, this work also fails to capture the experiences of those who may benefit from debt advice, but do not seek it.

A comprehensive programme of user research is vital for almost every aspect of our work to deploy levy funding – from understanding technological innovation to designing future models and interventions. It should also benefit the whole network of free debt funders and advisers so that its impact goes beyond this routemap.

We will therefore develop a programme of user-testing to understand how and why users interact with advice services, their experiences of advice provision, and expectations of outcomes after receiving advice. In developing the programme, we will build on user experience work already carried out by the sector, and will learn from other efforts, such as work to develop a new Scottish social security system. We will focus on gathering a diverse range of views to represent the population of Scotland, including those who may not traditionally engage with advice services. In particular, although user panels will be a key tool, we will explore alternative approaches to reach different audiences and ensure we capture the widest range of voices possible.

As a first step, we have funded Money Advice Scotland to undertake a user testing project to research the perception of debt advice and the client experience. The research findings will be available shortly, and will be the foundation for a longer, more in-depth analysis. This will be developed in collaboration with the sector, and, once the programme is completed, the findings will be shared.

Next steps:

  • We will publish the report on the initial programme of user testing.
  • We will use this to design and carry out a comprehensive programme of user testing.
  • We will share findings of the programme with the wider sector and ensure they influence future advice provision and funding agreements.

Action 2: The Scottish Government commits to funding helpline services that reflect Scotland's specific circumstances.

The Scottish Government currently allocates a share of levy funding to support UK-wide helplines that offer support to those in either personal or business debt. This maintains the support given to them previously by the Money Advice Service. During financial year 2018/19, 9,792 clients in Scotland were supported by levy funds.

The TPDG highlighted many benefits in remaining as part of a UK-wide system: economies of scale; intelligence sharing; and the flexibility to respond to fluctuating demand levels. However, set against this were concerns that Scotland's different debt system requires specific expertise, and that debt lines had under-developed links with the wider debt advice landscape and lower than average take-up in Scotland compared to other UK nations.

The Scottish Government recognises that there is room for improvement. Nonetheless, the current helplines are well-established and already provide invaluable support to people across Scotland. Rather than immediately build a new system and potentially add confusion for funders, advisers and users, we will work to ensure that the concerns of the sector are addressed and Scotland's needs are being met. This work will include:

  • strengthening partnerships between helplines and the wider advice landscape, particularly to increase links with local authorities and third sector organisations who may not deal directly with debt advice;
  • exploring how uptake of current services by Scottish users can be increased, including identifying and removing barriers;
  • ensuring helpline services keep pace with technological changes, while remaining committed to accessibility for all; and
  • evaluating the impacts of current helplines in Scotland following these interventions.

The launch of a bespoke service for vulnerable users in Scotland run by StepChange is an example of how Scottish needs can be delivered as part of a wider UK system, and we will build on this good practice as we go forward.

Next steps:

  • We will fund and develop a marketing campaign exclusively for Scotland.
  • We will hold a roundtable with helpline providers and those with sectoral expertise to better understand longer term barriers to user take-up in Scotland.
  • We will ensure future agreements with helpline providers are designed to overcome these barriers, for example by encouraging better referral links.
  • We will evaluate the success of the above actions in increasing lasting user take-up and integration in Scotland.

Action 3: The Scottish Government commits to using the levy funding to drive technological innovation.

In keeping with the findings of the Wyman Review, the TPDG noted that technology could have a profound impact on the delivery of debt advice, and is already altering how it is provided and received. Options for seeking advice have expanded even in the last few years – video calling and chatbot, for example, are now commonly offered alongside the more traditional options of email, phone or face-to-face. More efficient mechanisms for sharing and storing data can also give users more control over their information and improve the quality of advice sessions, for example by lessening the time taken to collect complex financial information.

Evidence is mixed on current preferences of advice users. However, Money Advice Trust research on channel choice found that service users tend to use the channels offered by the service provider they first approach, which does not necessarily reflect actual preferences[4]. What is clear is that telephone and online support is significantly less costly than face-to-face advice. This means new technology and channel shift are a vital part of any strategy to improve value for money.

Nonetheless, the Scottish Government agrees with the TPDG that we should not set rigid targets for making efficiency savings or moving users from one channel to another. Instead, we must develop a system where every user can access debt advice through their channel of choice, and can switch between these as circumstances or preference require.

To achieve this, we will focus on pursuing solutions that offer real value to users and providers. In particular, we must seek to understand how users want to interact with debt advice and design solutions to match.

We recognise that individual advice providers or local funders may struggle to support trialling innovations or upscaling technology once it has proved successful, and we will use the levy funding to bridge this gap. We have already begun, through our support of Advice Direct Scotland and Money Advice Scotland projects. To ensure value for money, we will build on these kinds of partnerships, and involve organisations that have experience in delivering technological change, such as Fintech Scotland.

Next steps:

  • We will ensure the findings of the user testing and workforce strategy projects inform our understanding of channel preferences and the areas best placed for innovation.
  • We will include technological innovation as part of the criteria for future levy funded programmes.
  • We will evaluate 2019/20 projects, sharing findings so that lessons can be learned, and upscale these projects if results are positive.


Email: andrew.mcconnell@gov.scot

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