First published in IRRV Insight in June 2011
In my days in Local Government the most interesting and dare I say it rewarding aspects of the job was the enforcement of debts. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of seeing a debt settled that provided that job satisfaction. It is now when we provide an independent review of collection/enforcement that it astonishes me how some Authorities are not always on top of these cases, seem to leave cases with agents for exceptionally lengthy periods and do not have efficient systems in place to monitor the cases.
The core systems for the administration of Council Tax and Business Rates are brutally efficient at issuing demands notices, reminder notices and summonses without the need for user intervention. A case could quite easily be issued to the bailiff before any manual intervention is applied or even before the circumstances of the debtor become apparent. With the volumes of cases that Authorities deal with this is certainly the most efficient method but not necessarily the most customer focused approach.
It is once the debt reaches the post liability stage that these systems seem to fall short and we have seen Authorities resort to checking extensive lists of cases (as and when time allows) and even using paper files to monitor the progress of the debts. There are obviously numerous issues with any manual checking or paper based systems such as files going missing, not keeping the paperwork up to date and of course missing deadlines and overlooking cases.
As an example Committal (when or indeed if used!) is still very much a manual process to a lot of Authorities. We see examples of warrants of arrest manually prepared, court lists manually prepared and cases manually monitored. There are examples of warrants of arrest that have been issued to enforcement companies many years ago remaining unexecuted. It is as though once the warrant of arrest has been issued that the Authority ceases to monitor how long the warrants have been outstanding. It is only when time allows that the cases are reviewed. It becomes a very lengthy and time consuming process to keep on top of the enforcement of debts.
I do not see the Enforcement process as an area that would really benefit from a ‘business re-design’ as in principle it is as simple as – Has the action succeeded? YES, job done or NO the action has failed – Wait even longer or back track and try something else! I do however see this area as an example of where new technology would be beneficial.
One possible solution is to use your existing workflow technology from within a document management system to create process rules and conditions that will take away the manual checking of the files and bring cases back to the attention of enforcement offices as and when the need arises. The disadvantage with this approach is that the systems are primarily designed to deal with ‘documents’ and document flow rather than ‘processes’, and whilst an enforcement process could be jammed into these systems the overall solution may not be as efficient as possible.
A more favourable approach is to use the more sophisticated ‘business process management systems’.
Such solutions are less rigid than the existing workflow/document management systems and allow systems to be designed at the process level. The solutions can be used to track cases, prompt staff by delivering items to users as and when follow up action is required, route cases at key points in the process, produce documentation, allow data entry using bespoke forms, issue email alerts, provide links to the enforcement agents to improve process flow and communication and of course use the sophisticated reporting solutions to provide detailed analysis of all stages in the process. The solutions can be quickly developed, deployed and require no lengthy implementation. All of a sudden there is ‘An App for that’ – to steal a well used phrase!
I strongly believe that by having tighter control of where the debt is at and reducing the static time of debts that Authorities could achieve higher collection rates. Surely in these days of tight budgets, reduced resources and high demands on staff that Authorities should be on top of these cases and looking to minimise the delays in cases sitting un-actioned?