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What is the overall debt owed to the Council?

First Published in IRRV Insight in April 2014

Other than the Accountants, who I hope do know this, do you really know where the debt resides, which citizens owe debt to more than one Council department? I imagine that in the majority of cases that the answer to this question is no. Why, well I believe that departments continue to work on debts in isolation rather than pooling together information across departments to create a global view of debt. Why is this? Could it be that the Data Protection Policy within the Authority does not allow it? Well I am sure this may well be the case, in some Authorities, but I am also sure that this is just a front and an easy shield to hide behind, as of course such an issue can be overcome. I believe at times the main issue is the perceived threat that a joined up solution would ultimately erode department’s independence and threaten their existence.

There are numerous benefits to drawing this data together to create a single view of debt solution, namely offsetting credits from system A to system B;
– why refund a large credit on Council Tax when the same person owes a fortune to Housing, having an approach that if a citizen wants service B from you that they should at least pay the debt for service A they had a while ago
– why continue to compound the debt by allowing more and more debt to accrue, identifying cases for joint action that have overall debts above say the Insolvency Action thresholds, issuing cases to enforcement agents at the same time
– why send the Bailiff to enforce Council Tax one day and two months later send the Bailiff back to the same address to enforce a Parking Fine.

With Customer Contact Centres operated by a number of Authorities surely it would seem wise to at least understand exactly what the person in front of you owes the Authority as a whole rather than just looking into discussing the issue they have brought to you.

How can this be achieved? The key is to draw together the information held in the separate databases into a single solution. Whilst there may well be no common reference that simply links debt A to debt B there are elements within the individual debt systems that can at least be analysed to accommodate the ‘missing link’

To make such a system useful there seems little point in undertaking a one off exercise to draw together the information and to create the dreaded snapshot of debt at a point in time. Why, well as soon as this is produced the data is out of date and what use is an out of date report to those staff on the front line? A more sensible and useful solution is to have a solution that draws together the data daily.

Yes there would still be the issue of what to do when a customer makes an offering when they owe more than one debt and Authorities would need to draw such rules together. I do however hold the view that the first step should be to at least understand where the debt lies. As after all creating such a data set and using the information correctly should lead to a more joined up approach to debt collection, which in turn should lead to an increase in collection.

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