'Don’t let the process get in the way of the individual': meet the civil servant handling Universal Credit complaints

Written by Emma Sheppard on 22 January 2019 in Award
Award

Gerry Reardon picked up the customer service prize at the 2018 Civil Service Awards for his work handling complaints in the government’s landmark welfare reform. He tells Emma Sheppard why he was surprised to win

Gerry Reardon reviews his award with CSW editor Suzannah Brecknell (left) and DWP perm sec Peter Schofield. Photo Baldo Sciacca

A vulnerable man in hospital and destitute until his claim for £3,000 was resolved; a family that was due to be made homeless at Christmas until the service intervened – these are the stories that Gerry Reardon remembers when asked when he’s felt like he’s really made a difference. But in his role as the universal credit hub operations manager for the Department for Work and Pensions, there are many more. 

Reardon’s efforts were recognised at the 2018 Civil Service Awards, where he won praise for being an exceptional role model to his colleagues and for always going the extra mile. “I was a bit gobsmacked [to win],” he says of his customer service award. “To be shortlisted is an honour in itself but to actually win it... I was quite humbled if I’m honest.”

He leads a team of 17 in Sheffield that specialises in handling complaints from universal credit claimants. He’s been with the Department for Work and Pensions – in its various guises – for 27 years, and says he still enjoys fixing things for people who might have been let down. “The department in my view provides an exceptional service, because if it didn’t, given the number of customers we have, I wouldn’t have a team of 17, I’d have a team of 117,” he says. “But every now and again, yes there are challenges. My job, with objectivity and independence … [is to fix things] for people who feel like they’ve not been listened to.””

It’s not a job without its challenges. “Sometimes customers come to us extremely frustrated and quite angry,” he says. The nature of the universal credit system, which merges six benefits into one payment, also places extra pressure on the team to resolve complaints as soon as possible. “If we do make a mistake and the payment is affected, it affects their personal allowance, it affects their housing, it affects everything else and it’s important to get it fixed as quickly as possible.”

Currently 1.2 million people claim benefits under the new system, a number which is expected to rise to 3.5 million in 2019, and to a total of 8.5 to 9 million customers by 2023. In preparation, Reardon has trained a sister team in Tyne and Wear and expects there to be more specialist hubs in the future. This makes the most sense, he adds, because they’re able to assess complaints independently of the operations team (“so they’re not marking their own homework”), and can spot mistakes much more quickly. With the best will in the world, he’s realistic about the fact that his workload will increase with the expansion: “that’s just a matter of mathematics,” he says

After more than two decades in the civil service in customer facing roles, Reardon’s mantra is simple: don’t let the process get in the way of the individual. “We are governed by a number of processes [in the civil service],” he says. “While the process that’s been designed and developed may be fit for purpose for the majority, it’s not fit for all, all the time.

“What I do is pretty simple,” he adds. “I listen to what people have to say, I take what I’m being told at face value … every customer knows their complaint has been genuinely and thoroughly examined. Whether we’re giving them good news that we’re upholding the complaint or bad news that we’re not … the vast majority are satisfied that we’ve listened, we’ve looked at it and where appropriate, we’ve acted.” 

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Emma Sheppard
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