The challenge of communicating welfare reform

From the 1st April this year, changes to welfare benefits will start to affect the incomes and lives of people all across the UK.

Polly Cziok: Reform will present a' huge challenge' to communicators
Polly Cziok: Reform will present a' huge challenge' to communicators

Later in the year, the introduction of Universal Credit will see the most radical upheaval of the Welfare State since its inception in the 1940s.

The Government’s welfare reform agenda will touch the lives of millions, and local councils are set to be on the frontline of that change.

Housing benefit, which has always been administered by councils, is changing hugely, and the localisation of Council Tax Benefit and crisis funds will place an even greater responsibility on local authorities. 

There is an important job to do in communicating these changes to claimants and to the wider community, but equally important will be how we communicate with and support our staff, especially those working directly with the public. 

Change on this scale always presents enormous challenge, and there will be many benefits claimants who become distressed or angry when dealing with that change.

Vulnerable people with literacy or mental health issues, or those who are simply confused by the potential impact on them, will attend council offices seeking help and advice. 

In areas of deprivation, where digital exclusion affects as much as a third of the population, that face to face contact will be vital.  And by its very nature, it will put a huge pressure on frontline staff. 

The internal comms must be clear; staff must be armed with the information they need, in the right formats, and they must feel supported by their employers in coping with the impact of the changes that are coming.

Local authorities have been preparing for these changes for some time, but it seems to be only now that the wider debate around welfare reform is starting to hot up.

The watershed issue has been the so called ‘spare bedroom tax’, or as the Government would have it, ‘the under-occupation penalty’. 

So far, the coalition have had a fairly easy ride on welfare reform, with most mainstream media buying quite comfortably into the ‘shirkers v workers’ rhetoric.

The bedroom tax, however, has hit a collection of political raw nerves. Suddenly it’s not just 'benefit scroungers' being affected but armed forces families, disabled children, and foster carers. 

Suddenly the Sunday People is organising a national campaign, with rallies. 

There seems to be a dawning realisation that welfare reform will affect what the tabloids might describe as ‘ordinary, decent people’ rather than just a demonised underclass.

The Government’s hasty u-turns on exemptions may lessen the long term damage and commentators are split on whether the spare bedroom tax will become David Cameron’s Poll Tax.

What the spare bedroom tax furore really shows is the nation and the media beginning to wake up to the sheer scale of welfare reform, something that we in local government have been grappling with for many months.

The coming months will present a huge challenge to everyone working on the frontline of local public service, and it is up to us as communicators to provide the best strategic and practical support to assist our organisations, and the residents we serve, through this intense period of change.     

Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney

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