Personal-debt busting proposals bag Whitehall innovation prize

DWP, HMRC, DCMS and Cabinet Office staff win 2017 Reimagine Challenge for joined-up approach to aiding poor people in financial crisis


By Jim.Dunton

07 Nov 2017

The winning team

Proposals to create a cross-government safety net to identify people most at risk of falling into a spiral of debt – or those already there – and offer co-ordinated help have won a prestigious innovation award.

The 2017 Reimagine Challenge was won on Thursday evening by a team bringing together staff from the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, the Cabinet Office and HM Passport Office.

It was tasked with finding new ways to help low-income families with little or no savings make better financial choices, particularly in relation to debt with public sector bodies, such as council tax, or with their utility bills.


Its solution is to create a joined-up intervention model, with an ethos similar to that pioneered by Louise Casey’s Troubled Families Unit within the Department for Communities and Local Government, in which the most vulnerable individuals and families would be targeted and brought into a turnaround programme with a range of interventions.

Among them would be peer-to-peer mentoring to improve financial management, and a support worker who would be the single contact point for liaising with all public-sector bodies to which a household owed money – streamlining the interaction process. The programme would also give participants access to better utilities rates and discounts from selected retailers.

A “technology-enabled debt-risk indicator”, integrated with the Universal Credit benefits system, is also proposed as a necessary element for targeting those most at need of support for the national rollout of the programme.

Payment lags of several weeks for the claimants migrated to the combined benefit, which is the brainchild of former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, have prompted concerns from across the political spectrum over the hardship the rollout of Universal Credit has caused for low-income families.

Nevertheless, the winning Reimagine Challenge bid points to analysis by consultant Baker Tilly that the cost to society of the 2.3m people in problem debt in 2013 was £8.3bn. The paper found that targeted debt support could reduce the total cost by £3.1bn for an annual investment of £250m.

The cross-Whitehall team is currently working with Newcastle City Council, Sheffield City Council and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham on pilots aiding 20 families in each area. A second wave of pilots is envisaged before a national programme commences. 

The 2017  Reimagine Challenge finals assigned five different policy goals to cross-government teams, each of which were assisted by consultants from event partner KPMG.

KPMG consultancy partner and UK head of infrastructure, government and healthcare Kru Desai said each of the teams had produced innovative policy concepts in an accelerated collaborative process that was built around real-world delivery.

“We hope that many of the ideas generated during this process will produce an impact inside government,” she said. 

“Certainly the engagement and enthusiasm of civil service leaders has demonstrated government’s appetite for fresh thinking.”

The other Reimagine Challenge finalist projects involved helping ex-offenders into work; boosting public confidence in immigration enforcement; reducing bureaucracy for exporters; and better matching the supply of new homes with demand.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim.Dunton - Windsurfing to Whitehall: How Alex Allan sailed through a 1980s rail strike

Share this page