GovDebt 2022 blog: From debt collection to debt resolution.

GovDebt 2022 blog: From debt collection to debt resolution. The GovDebt Conference, organised by GovNet Events, brought together government finance, debt and risk professionals to discuss the challenges of public sector debt management.

With the economy declining and the government hinting at austerity measures against a backdrop of increasing numbers of households in problem debt, it seems an impossible situation for government agencies to navigate.

Take the tax gap, which is the difference between the amount of tax that should be paid to HMRC and the amount actually paid. In 2019/20 it stood at £35 billion, or approximately 5% of total tax liabilities. This figure excludes outstanding arrears for council tax, business rates, vehicle excise duty and the London congestion charge. There is over £4 billion outstanding in unpaid council tax alone.

StepChange Debt Charity reported that 12% of adults, or six million people in Britain, are currently behind on at least one household bill. 2.4 million people report that they are behind on their energy bill.

With rising costs, stagnant wages and benefits cuts central and local government face challenges in public debt collection. The age-old dilemma is how to ensure fairness to taxpayers, robust and effective debt recovery, while maintaining vital public services, such as adult care and children’s services.

The solution was hinted at in the government’s tax strategy published in July 2020, which aims to make HMRC “one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world” through its Making Tax Digital programme.

The development of technology that has been pioneered in the consumer credit market following the financial crisis of 2008, presents a huge opportunity for the public sector.

A series of experts from the Cabinet Office’s Government Debt Management Function, credit reference agencies and local authorities lined up to expound the virtues of technology with a clear message that data is the key element of responsible debt resolution.

What began in financial services under the Treating Customers Fairly ethos has been adopted by the energy sector, followed later by the water utilities and enforcement agencies and is filtering through to public sector policy as ethical debt collection.

This enlightened use of data is shifting the emphasis in the public sector from hitting collection rates to better debt resolution. Finance officers are responding to the appeals of collection teams faced with the task of recovering arrears from households with deficit budgets by restructuring debt. In-year collection targets are being replaced longer-term repayment plans. Although this means shortfalls in annual budgets in the short term it could lead to significant efficiencies in the longer term, the cost to the public purse when people in financial hardship need welfare support can be avoided through debt resolution to help people manage their debt with minimum payments over a longer period, while meeting their on-going liabilities.

Previously recurring debt such as utility bills and council tax was left to accumulate debt on debt in an endless cycle. More recently, government departments and local authorities are interrogating the wealth of personal data they hold individuals.

Pioneering local authorities are using data analytics to segment their customers. They recognise that not all individuals are the same and there is no effective one-size fits all approach. Within a single community there will be those should be able to pay but need some guidance with budgeting, others who are just about managing but on the verge of financial difficulty, and those who are struggling to pay their bills and need welfare support. By drawing on multiple data sources held by local authorities and central government departments, like the Department of Work & Pensions, it is possible to target resources to vulnerable households where they can be most effective. The Cabinet Office has had proven success at recovering aged debt by accessing data across government under the Digital Economy Act.

Improved data technology needs to be coupled with better communications. Most people want to pay down their debts but struggle to engage with their creditors. Communications are sometimes restricted to letters and phone calls that are ignored. Technology offers multiple ways to talk to people on the platform that is most convenient and comfortable to them. For example, people sometimes were more open on webchat than over the telephone. Chatbots were more efficient at resolving simple inquiries leaving call centre agents to respond to more complex inquiries.

Technology also allows people to self-serve if they feel capable to manage their debt themselves but require a more flexible approach. The evidence is that self-help apps and flexible repayment plans using behavioural insight reduce the occurrence of broken arrangements.

The cost-of-living crisis will add to the pressures on local authority budgets. Responsible collection is an opportunity to achieve fair outcomes for government and the public purse, those who should be able to pay and those who need additional support. It requires a new mindset to invest in technology that prevents short-term harm and leads to long-term cost savings.

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