Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers: a quality assurance framework

Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers: a quality assurance framework 2009.

4. Standards for Providing the Service

Services operating to these Standards must have processes that ensure an effective and efficient service for their users.

Standard 4.1

All service providers must provide an independent and impartial service that can represent the interests of its service users.

Service users should have confidence that the service is acting in the interests of service users and not for the advantage of the service itself or for some other third party. Where this is not possible, for example, where the service provider is a local authority and unable to advise the service user to take action against the local authority, the service user should be advised of alternative sources of help.

All service providers should be able to demonstrate that they are placing the interests of the service user before their own service's, or third parties', interests. This includes a conflict of interest where different family members require advice.

Where the service provider may be providing a service that places their own service or other third parties' interests above the service user's interests, the service must be able to demonstrate that the service user is made aware of these constraints and that alternative, independent sources of help are sign-posted.

In addition to ensuring the service's independence and freedom to act on behalf of the individual service user, services should ensure that their advice is not compromised by any conflict of interest. All service providers seeking to meet this Standard must also have a procedure which actively encourages identification of possible conflicts of interest to take place as early as possible, regardless of when they arise in the case. In all circumstances staff should be alert to the potential for a conflict of interest to arise throughout the case (including conflict between duty to disclose and duty of confidentiality), as should supervisors conducting file reviews. Services are required to identify specific circumstances where a conflict of interest is likely to occur in the organisation, and to set out in procedures how such instances will be managed.

TIP One accredited agency has devised a simple word based system to check potential conflicts of interest. The system is set up to allow the adviser to speedily cross reference names and addresses.

In addition to adhering to the broad Standard, which also recognises that where no appropriate national body exists, a service must demonstrate that it operates to at least the standard of independent advice set out by one of the designated national bodies, services may wish to draw up their own specific codes of practice. This code could identify, for instance, inappropriate funding sources for that service or specific local examples of potential conflict of interest. It is now accepted that for some services, certain types of funding could compromise the perceived independence of the service. This is an issue that needs to be discussed at the most senior level within a service and should be clear and transparent.

Services need to ensure that both staff and volunteers work in an impartial manner in accordance with the practices of the service. Areas of conflict can include cases where staff or volunteers may be elected representatives of an authority with which the service may be in conflict, or where they give advice which does not refer a service user on to the appropriate department for their own reasons. Similarly, cases have arisen where staff or volunteers who have allied business interests have inappropriately referred service users to their own businesses or to those of their relatives.

Any codes drawn up by the service should be included in the Office Manual. Clear procedures for dealing with breaches of instructions on conflicts of interest by individual staff, volunteers or committee members must also be drawn up.

Breaches by staff and volunteers can be dealt with through disciplinary procedures and these procedures should be reviewed once the policy on conflicts of interest and breaches of the independent advice code have been drawn up. Practices and breaches of the code which involve committee members should be dealt with through the committee standing orders. It is accepted practice that where a decision needs to be taken in committee which may involve a conflict of interest for a member of the committee, the member should offer to withdraw, and should ensure that they have registered the interest and that it is recorded in the minutes. Whilst in many cases, committees allow their members registering an interest to remain in the committee whilst discussions take place, they should not be a party to any decision in this respect. This would be construed as a breach of trust.

Any committee decisions on non-acceptance of donations, grants, or other offers of support that could jeopardise the independence of the service should be minuted and open for public inspection.

Standard 4.2

All services must have arrangements to ensure that their service has access to up to date reference materials and appropriate journals.

Good information and advice is based upon the adviser's ability to readily access up to date and accurate information.

All information and advice providers should have up to date reference materials and journals relevant to the service that they provide.

A separate and adequate budget should be maintained for this purpose.

All services should clearly designate responsibility for maintaining and updating information within their Services Plan.

Without adequate information resources, the quality of the information and advice that can be given to the service user is going to be reduced. The interrelationship of a service's access to information and the service user's consequent access to information needs to be recognised by all services.

Services must decide on the areas on which they need to have reference materials to support their work and the depth of information that should be contained in them. This forms the reference material policy. This policy should be kept under review as the service's understanding of its needs develops and as its Service Plan is amended.

TIP It is better to have no reference materials on a particular subject than using out of date information resources.

There are obviously resource implications for services in providing a comprehensive and readily accessible information library for its staff and volunteers.

Limitations on financial resources in services are often used as an excuse for not maintaining adequate information materials. This may be a constraint but the areas below should assist in the implementation of a Reference Material Policy.

Information material purchases should be properly costed and included as a separate item in annual budgets.

Where resources are very limited, services could consider networking with other services who require access to similar materials, particularly where these materials may be back-up reference materials for which there may be occasional use.

Current reference material purchases should be reviewed at least annually to ensure that they are still meeting needs. One way of making decisions about which journals to continue purchasing is to undertake a small survey of their actual use within the service. Many services continue to purchase publications and specialist journals which never get read.

Consider centralising publications purchase. In a number of services, unnecessary duplicate copies are ordered by different individuals.

Publications need to be assessed for their usefulness. Rights guides are a part of the standard reference resource that services need. However, more discursive works, such as textbooks on general social and welfare policy, may be less useful. Reading reviews of new books and publications is time well spent, as is getting on the mailing lists of networks and services who publish relevant materials to receive their lists of publications and their publicity materials for new books, and so on.

Networks, pressure groups, local authorities and other service providers will often produce free or discounted reference materials which can be of use in the service.

Public libraries can also provide a useful service in confirming the usefulness of publications (particularly more expensive ones) and accessing titles for occasional use.

The internet is an increasingly useful and cost-effective source for materials, particularly Government publications.

For large advice services, a designated post of information officer is desirable and this post could include the responsibility for the maintenance and updating of information, in addition to other tasks such as answering general advice questions from the public which do not relate to specific service information and advice.

For small services it will not be possible to appoint a full-time information officer. However, one person should be given key responsibility for this vital area of work and sufficient time should be given to them to maintain this task. This is an area where volunteer assistance is often deployed. It can be a valuable extension to the opportunities a service provides to volunteers. For those services that do not deploy volunteers in advice or casework as a matter of policy, opening up an opportunity for volunteering in this crucial area could be an important way of ensuring that the task is met.

Standard 4.3

All service providers must maintain regular contact and liaison with other providers in their locality. Referral agreements must be established between services to ensure that service users receive a consistent and seamless service.

The provision of good quality information and advice is not the responsibility of any single service. In any given locality there will be a range of providers meeting different needs. Liaison and regular contact are essential to ensure that all people within the community have access to good quality services.

To comply with this Standard, Type I, Type II and Type III service providers should be able to demonstrate a good knowledge of other relevant service providers in their locality. A directory with contact of relevant service providers should be maintained by the service and updated no less than once every twelve months. The Scottish Government Directory of Information and Advice Providers gives descriptions and contact details of housing advice providers in Scotland.

For Type II and Type III service providers formal referral arrangements or protocols should be established between services and referral of service users between services should be subject to the terms of these agreements. Formal referral arrangements should include:

  • How the referral will be made, including that it is to a named individual and the date of any appointment
  • Grounds for acceptance or rejection
  • Acceptable timescales for referral
  • The respective responsibilities of referrer and referee
  • Any information the referring body can expect at the end of a particular case and
  • The right of the individual to return to the service if they are not satisfied with the referral

In considering formal agreements it is important to draw a distinction between sign-posting an individual to another service and referral. Even for Type II and Type III services, sign-posting, or letting the service user know about other services, is an appropriate response to an enquiry.

Services should have clear selection criteria for referrals to other services, where possible the service should consult with the service user, and, in complex cases provide written instructions to the referral body. The same is true in reverse, services accepting referrals from other services should also be clear about the case they will accept and what they expect the referrer to provide.

Similarly, in making or accepting referrals there should be clear guidelines about time limits, and so on. Notwithstanding emergencies, it is generally unacceptable for a referral of, for example, a tribunal case, to be made with less than a month's notice.

The service user should be kept fully informed about the process of referral and the reasons for any referral. If possible, they should be involved in the decision to refer, for example, to Jobcentre Plus or to a debt advice partnership.

Standard 4.4

Type II and Type III services must have systems that ensure that service user information and case files are well organised.

In order to ensure that information can be accessed quickly and easily by all of those involved in delivering the service it is important that records are stored in an organised way.

This Standard does not apply to those services providing only Type I services.

To comply with this Standard, Type II and Type III service providers will be expected to have a case management system that:

  • Can identify and trace all documents, correspondence, and so on, relating to a case
  • Identifies any conflict of interest
  • Records centrally any key dates in cases (for example, expiry of a time limit) to ensure that action is taken by the adviser or, in their absence, the service in appropriate time
  • Ensures that casework is kept in a way that the records are clear to another caseworker
  • Records the advice that has been provided to ensure that the status of a file and any action taken can be easily verified
  • Ensures that there is proper authorisation and monitoring of undertaking given on behalf of the service and
  • Can generate data that allows for monitoring the number of cases, time spent and type of case undertaken by each adviser to ensure that they are within their capacity

Good case management systems underpin the provision of high quality casework. The paramount interests of individual service users can be protected through good case management.

Within this Standard, the Indicators are prescriptive, detailing all the practices that should be covered.

A large number of computer software packages have been developed to facilitate good case management. Advice on appropriate systems should be available from most national advice networks.

TIPMACS (Money Advice Casework System) is an electronic case management tool. The software is primarily used by money advisers; however, the software can also be used by those working in financial inclusion projects, for example, where Type I Money Advice is provided.

MACS enables advisers to:

  • Record notes, agreed actions and key dates
  • Produce financial statements and client, creditor and agency letters
  • Map and evaluate referrals to and from the agency
  • Access stored electronic documentation - these can be linked to the client's MACS record and easily retrieved
  • Transfer cases from the agency's main system to another computer, for example, where an adviser has to travel to clinics; transfer cases from one agency to another or to submit cases for DAS accreditation (utilising MACS transfer software) and
  • Submit DAS applications, variations, and so on, direct from MACS into the DAS Administrator's case management system and, using the same technology, software to enable the transfer of data from MACS to a payment disbursement module is also being developed in conjunction with a credit union

Agencies can tailor MACS to their own needs, for example, to collect information relevant to their own area. However MACS is also able to provide information needed by the Accountant in Bankruptcy or Scottish Government, for example. MACS also assists the adviser to produce robust evidence for DAS accreditation and spot checks, using the verification fields to establish an audit trail, thus reducing the time needed for case recording. A users' group and electronic discussion forum has been set up to provide support for users and to help drive MACS developments.

MACS is used in several council advice services in Scotland including Fife and Highland.

Standard 4.5

Type II and Type III services must have a casework procedure that can be applied consistently to all service users.

Systematic casework procedures ensure a consistent service to all users and ensure that the service user is kept involved and informed during the progress of their case.

This Standard does not apply to those services providing only Type I services.

Type II and Type III service providers should have procedures that cover the three phases of the case: the outset, progressing the case and closing the case.

At the outset of a case, procedures should identify:

  • The requirements of the client
  • What action is to be taken
  • If someone is to be responsible for the case who this will be
  • Key dates in the matter
  • Any expectations of the service on the service user (for example, any fees that may be charged including disbursements, commissions, and so on) and
  • Management information relevant to the service (for example, clients' ethnic origin, housing tenure)

and will ensure that in progressing casework that

  • If the case is complex a case plan will be prepared
  • Information on progress is passed to the service user at appropriate intervals and
  • Information on any changes is communicated promptly to the service user

and at the end of a case will

  • Report and confirm in writing to the service user on the outcome explaining any action the service user should now take and
  • Return to the service user any original documentation except where the service user has agreed that the service should maintain this information. In this case, the service user should be informed of storage arrangements and how they can access this information

Tip In one accredited agency a simple computerised diary system is used to highlight key dates, for example dates for case updates and dates for file review. A print is run off by the administrator at the start of each week giving details of the case number, caseworker and the date and action to be taken. This is particularly useful if a member of staff is on annual leave or off sick.

Good casework procedures underpin the provision of a high quality service. The paramount interests of all service users can be protected through good procedures, consistently applied. An effective system ensures that each service user will receive a service that is in line with all other stated policies. Consistency in service delivery is also ensured, so that no user will receive a lesser service than any other and the possibility of discrimination is minimised.

The Indicators for this Standard are prescriptive, for example meeting certification requirements for DAS.

TIP Services should write up current practice into a case management manual to test their procedures. Services may wish to consider a section of the Office Manual which sets out the procedures for handling files, for referrals and for file review and casework audit.

Standard 4.6

Type II and Type III services must ensure that the casework files of individual staff are subject to suitably qualified, independent review.

Independent review enables services to test the quality of advice and advice procedures to enable them to identify strengths, deficiencies and individual training needs.

This Standard does not apply to those services providing only Type I services.

Type II and Type III service providers should have arrangements for case files to be reviewed by a supervisor or other adviser under the control of the supervisor who has not been involved in the day to day conduct of the case. These procedures should ensure that:

  • Samples of work are reviewed to ensure quality of advice and adherence to the service's procedures and
  • The number of cases, time spent and type of case undertaken by each adviser are within their capacity

The file review policy should be written as a plan for undertaking internal reviews and must include:

  • Responsibility for undertaking file reviews
  • The frequency of such reviews
  • A record of the outcomes of reviews and
  • A record of any corrective action taken

All advisers make mistakes from time to time and services should have procedures to ensure that mistakes are spotted at the earliest opportunity and corrected. Systematic file reviews also enable services to satisfy themselves, their funders and other stakeholders that the service is making effective and appropriate interventions.

The Indicators for this Standard are prescriptive. Some services may have extended file review practices that include good casework practice models being written up for training purposes within the service. Other services have well-developed casework audit systems, which take regular samples of casework files, at random, to sample techniques and outcomes.

The need to conduct effective file reviews should be considered when preparing a confidentiality policy (Standard 3.9). As noted in that Standard, the need for a rigorous approach to client confidentiality should not be allowed to conflict with the need to ensure good casework practice and procedures. Where there is a potential conflict between file review and other service policies, the policies should be reviewed to ensure that good case management can be achieved through regular reviews and audits.

File review procedures should be included in the case management manual. These procedures detail the frequency of these reviews, the areas for examination, who will undertake them and how corrective action will be authorised and undertaken. Many services have established file review systems where a casework supervisor or a service's Director will examine one in five of all cases undertaken. Other services have also developed procedures which make use of external casework auditors.

Using External Resources

Some advice services may not feel adequately resourced to undertake file reviews internally and may want to explore the use of other agencies to help in this task. This may be particularly so for smaller services, those which provide advice as a part of their service, or those which are new to the field. In such cases the technical (advice specific) supervision of advisers is also likely to require external assistance. The good practice notes in Standard 5.6 on advice work supervision provides guidance on the use of external support and should be referred to in establishing external file review.

In drawing up a policy for file review it should recognise that the frequency of internal reviews may depend on the experience of the advisers and the type and frequency of the advice service offered.

TIP One Citizens Advice Bureau which has been accredited has a procedure whereby supervision in the bureau is undertaken by the manager and the deputy manager. Both also check the daily advice sheets which are kept in a daybook and get transferred into the main filing system on a weekly basis. This means that all new case sheets are available for inspection by a senior manager on a day to day basis. All of the advice workers who were interviewed during the audit for accreditation spoke very positively about the case review system.

Standard 4.7

All service providers must have robust means of recording service wide activity and service use.

The recording of service use and activity provides essential management information to inform the review of service and assist the planner of the service to assess how far the service objectives are being met.

TIP Many agencies record the financial gain to services users as a result of the agency's intervention. This figure can be useful to demonstrate value for money to funders. It can also be used in publicity to highlight the role advice services play in the asset building of the wider community.

To comply with this Standard, Type I service providers should gather data, as a minimum, on the number of people using their service, location of the service user's home, their gender, age and ethnic origin.

In addition, whilst it is not a requirement of this Standard consideration should also be given by Type I agencies to routinely or systematically gathering data on service users against the other equality groups not included above for which there is legal protection against discrimination in the provision of services. These are:

  • Disability
  • Faith
  • Sexuality

To comply with this Standard, Type II and Type III service providers should gather data, as a minimum, on service users by:

  • Location of the service user's home
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Family composition
  • Employment type
  • Housing tenure
  • Ethnic origin
  • Disability
  • Income
  • For agencies providing a money advice service, the amount of debt dealt with, split by type of debt and
  • For agencies providing a money advice service, the debt strategy chosen by the client

In addition, whilst it is not a requirement of this Standard consideration should also be given by Type II and Type III agencies to routinely or systematically gathering data on service users against the other equality groups not included above for which there is legal protection against discrimination in the provision of services. These are:

  • Faith
  • Sexuality

As a minimum service providers should gather data on the following activity:

Type I, Type II and Type III (where appropriate) interventions by topics. This should include a breakdown by time spent in client contact to follow-up work.

This should specify the count by either the number of service users, the number of cases (and, where appropriate, the number of enquiries which do not become cases) and/or the number of episodes of advice.

To provide an effective information and advice service, staff and volunteers will require sufficient time to conduct follow-up work, discuss cases with colleagues, and update their knowledge. In addition, a service with a clear understanding of the relationship between client contact time and follow-up work will be able to plan the deployment of its human resources more effectively.

TIP The amount of time allocated to client contact and to follow-up work will vary between Type I, Type II and Type III activities. This ratio will increase substantially in more specialist services and those offering more detailed follow-up work.

In establishing the appropriate ratio for a particular service, it is necessary to analyse the service objectives and current working practices. This ratio should be included as part of the performance appraisal for individual staff and as part of the service review.

This issue will directly impact upon resource requirements and the service's ability to meet any quantitative outputs expected (such as number of cases per month, and so on).


Email: Phone: 0300 244 4000 Post: Central Enquiry Unit
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