Universal Credit and behaviour change: whose behaviour is changing?

One of the primary goals of Universal Credit (UC) is to change the behaviour of claimants. The Government wants them to become better money managers and more motivated to find, and hold down, employment. There is little evidence to suggest that this is happening, although, reflecting the relatively small number of claimants in receipt of UC, the evidence base on this subject is under-developed.

In the rhetoric and discourse associated with the introduction of UC, there was little reference to how the initiative might impact on social housing landlords, and housing associations, in particular, and changing the behaviour of associations was not an explicit aim of the initiative. And there is little evidence to suggest that it was an implicit, ‘covert’ goal, either. However, one of the key findings of a recently published CaCHE study on the impact of welfare reforms on housing associations is that UC is contributing to the ongoing transformation of associations’ operational practices, a process, which, it should be acknowledged, began before its introduction. The study, which was carried out by myself, Ben Pattison and Jenny Preece, drew on a review of the academic literature on the impact of welfare reforms and 21 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, including representatives from housing associations, Government, professional bodies and lenders.

It concluded that:

  • UC has contributed to associations changing their operational practices by putting more onus on them to: i) maximise their rental income, with more resource being allocated to rent collection activities; and, ii) make cost savings in order to accommodate this cost and offset the financial impact of higher rent arrears under UC: “The rationale for modernising those services…. [is to] offset some of the risks of the increased arrears through UC”.
  • Associations have increased the level of communication they have with their tenants and employed new communication methods, with digital and text message communication becoming more commonplace. These developments have been driven by necessity – i.e. in order to manage the direct demands of UC – but also by a desire from landlords to get to know their tenants better (see below).
  • UC has prompted some associations to give tenants more responsibility in relation to key aspects of the housing service, like repairs and the rent payment process. Prompted, in part, by a desire to make cost savings, they have done so in the belief that, with the step-change in the roll-out of UC, an increasing proportion of their tenants would be comfortable with taking on some responsibilities. However, it was noted that some tenants had found it difficult to adjust to this change.
  • Many associations have digitalised their services. The desire to secure costs savings and to provide a better service were the main drivers behind this process. Although it is unclear whether the desire to responsibilise tenants was a factor behind the move to digitalise services, it is important to the note that two agendas are compatible: “But the rights and responsibilities thing, that will become more of a bigger issue here and we would probably push more that if someone has responsibilities they get rights…. We’ve got a digital agenda as well which fits in with that”.
  • Associations have diversified and upskilled their staff base. They are employing more staff who do not have ‘traditional’ housing backgrounds. The introduction of UC (along with other welfare reforms) had required existing housing staff to upskill and broaden their knowledge base in relation to a number of issues: the mechanics of welfare reforms; benefit maximisation; support provision; and money management and budgeting advice.
  • UC (and other welfare reforms) have resulted in associations significantly increasing the level of support they provide to tenants in relation to helping them to manage their tenancies.
  • Associations are now adopting a more proactive approach to income collection, which involves them intervening at the earliest possible opportunity after arrears have accrued, an approach commonly referred to as ‘early intervention’.
  • Interestingly, given the criticism the widespread UC has faced from a range of commentators (including myself!), it was reported these changes had resulted in a number of positive developments: an improved and more efficient housing service; associations innovating more; and, associations ‘knowing’ their tenants better: “I think it [UC and welfare reform] has meant that many housing associations have made the effort to get to know their tenants better: who’s living in their properties; what are their wants, what are their needs and what can they do around that. I think that in and of itself is a good thing”.

The full report can be viewed here

Professor Paul Hickman is Professor of Housing and Social Policy at Sheffield Hallam University and a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. 


Date: September 18, 2018 4:53 pm


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