The Scottish Government's Advice Services Working Group commissioned Blake Stevenson Ltd. to undertake a review of publicly-funded advice services in Scotland, to support its on-going review of the assistance given to advice services, with a view to providing a more co-ordinated approach in its engagement with service providers. This research took place between October and December 2016.
Specifically, the research sought to:
- identify how advice services in Scotland are publicly funded and delivered;
- provide an overview of the client groups who use the services and, where information is already available, how they engage and any barriers;
- identify where any overlaps and gaps in services exist;
- highlight any areas that have been identified for possible improvements from the existing evidence, and any specific recommendations made.
The focus of this research was limited to Type I and Type II advice  . In addition, the brief for the research specified that the advice support to be considered would relate to welfare, money and consumer advice but recognised that advice seekers often require advice across multiple and varied issues and therefore the review should cover publicly-funded advice given in a range of situations.
Overview of methods
We applied a mixed methodology to collect and analyse quantitative and qualitative data from a range of sources. A rapid review of secondary research on advice provision in the form of a literature review was undertaken alongside primary research undertaken through an online survey of advice providers and funders  . Meetings were also held with a number of key organisations, and a number of follow-up telephone interviews with survey respondents. Qualitative data gathered through a stakeholder event organised by Scottish Government also fed into the review.
This review takes place at a time of significant change to public services, with the environment within which publicly-funded advice services are being delivered shifting considerably in recent years. The advice sector is broad in its scope and a wide range of public policy issues provide context for its work. Legislative changes related to social security and consumer affairs are among the most significant, but the breadth of advice means that a wide range of policy areas impact on its delivery. There is significant evidence that actions coming out of these legislative changes and commitments have had an impact on both the number and type of people accessing advice services, and the types of issues with which they require support.
Key findings from the review
This review has considered a large number of documents relating to publicly-funded advice provision in Scotland, and in combination with the data gathered through our survey, interviews and the stakeholder event, several consistent key messages have emerged:
- The demand for advice is growing, and will continue to grow as the impact of changes to welfare reform take effect. Reduced household income is leading people who previously would not have required it to seek advice, and the advice that advisers are being required to provide is becoming more time-intensive and complex in its nature.
- Funding for advice is limited, and is likely to be cut further. Whilst advice providers are aware of this and are taking actions to deliver their services in as cost-efficient a manner as possible, significant challenges and uncertainties over their futures remain.
- One-year spending review cycles within the public sector have had a significant impact on the ability of the advice sector to plan and staff services, and have resulted in loss of skills and resources.
- With specific reference to funding mechanisms, the literature suggests that budget reductions coupled with increasing demand mean a different approach to the funding, development and delivery of advice services is required. Additionally, the literature suggests that more must be done to promote the added value of advice services in order to protect budgets.
- The literature places an emphasis on the importance of prevention and early intervention to address some of the issues associated with increased demand.
There are significant challenges facing the advice sector currently, resulting from an increase in demand and cuts in funding. It is also a time of change in other ways – with new powers being given to Scottish Government to implement legislation, such as consumer advice and social security. These changes will directly impact on the way some advice services are delivered (for example through legislative specifications about specific agencies to be tasked with advice provision, and for additional statutory provision of advice).
There is now an opportunity to re-position public investment in advice services to support innovative collaboration, not only amongst advice providers but also across the public sector in a way that furthers wider objectives related to social inclusion and health improvement, based on a robust understanding of need.
Current approaches to advice provision
Advice provision is currently delivered by a wide range of agencies (with a mix of local and national providers) – most delivering a holistic, person-centred service across the range of advice covered by this research (and beyond), and a smaller number focusing on single issues or individual target groups.
Providers use a range of mechanisms to deliver advice – with some offering a multi-channel approach to delivery. Face-to-face support (including outreach-based) remains common, and is evidenced to be an effective way of supporting clients with complex cases and/or complex personal circumstances. A range of other channels are also used, including email/written support, telephone and web-based support.
Evidence suggests that there is an over-provision of face-to-face support for clients who could access advice through other channels if encouraged and supported. Channel shift is encouraged by the literature, where appropriate, however, the literature recognises the importance of maintaining face-to-face support for those hardest to reach, and indeed encourages better targeting to address unmet need.
Routes for advice provider selection
Routes to advice vary – and include referrals between agencies, and self-referral by individuals. The literature and survey feedback suggest that referral routes are being continuously improved and that increased partnership working between organisations will enable these to be further refined.
However, the literature and feedback from providers suggest that current advice provision is not sufficiently visible to clients, and that as a result clients' choice is not as well informed as it could be if they had better awareness of the type and range of services available.
Early intervention and prevention
The available research advocates for an increased emphasis on early intervention and prevention to avoid additional demand being created, and to avoid clients presenting to advice services at the point of crisis. There is a clear sense from the literature that the level of need for complex support could be reduced by more effective prevention and early intervention work.
Use of new technologies to provide advice
Many organisations are already exploring new ways of delivering advice, and use of new platforms such as social media is becoming more common. The literature and primary research suggest that there is significant potential to grow the extent of advice provided through new technologies, but the sector (and advice clients) will require support and funding to ensure this is done effectively.
Approaches to future funding decisions
The literature indicates a need for intelligent, strategic and longer-term funding decisions to be taken in relation to advice provision. Emphasis is placed on a need for greater evidence-based and outcomes-focused funding decisions being taken, and for more joining up in relation to funding decisions across public funders, to ensure quality and avoid duplication.
Collaboration and co-operation
The literature encourages funding providers who are able to demonstrate a collaborative approach to delivery (including locating advice services in a range of settings). Whilst partnership working and collaboration is considered key to more effective delivery of advice services in future, the literature and feedback from providers suggests that the current, highly competitive funding environment acts as an inhibitor to this.
Quality of advice provision
The literature confirms that many of the existing advice providers have a track record of providing high quality advice based on recognised quality standards such as the Scottish National Standards for Advice Provision, and advocates for all advice providers to follow good practice and work towards accreditation where this is appropriate.
The following set of recommendations, which summarise key high-level recommendations identified in the literature and in consultation with advice providers, address these key points. The recommendations are grouped by their target audience: policy makers, public funders, and advice providers.
Recommendations for Policy Makers:
Recommendation 1: Advice needs to be considered at policy development stage in line with practice contained within the Funders' Framework.
Recommendation 2: Policy makers to ensure clarity on statutory obligations, and opportunities for considering new ways of meeting these obligations.
Recommendation 3: Policy makers to ensure evidence-based policy decisions.
Recommendation 4: Improved understanding of need related to advice provision to inform policy development.
Recommendation 5: Policy makers to focus on prevention and early intervention measures.
Recommendations for Public Funders:
Recommendation 6: Better understanding of demand to inform future funding decisions.
Recommendation 7: Joined-up decision making to avoid duplication and improve identification of opportunities for collaboration.
Recommendation 8: Funding decisions to focus more on early intervention.
Recommendation 9: Funding decisions to focus more on prevention by supporting interventions which develop capabilities and address areas of low skill.
Recommendation 10: Funders to pro-actively encourage collaboration between organisations, and ensure that the funding environment does not act as an inhibitor to this.
Recommendation 11: Funders to examine funding application and monitoring processes to enable a reduction in the bureaucratic burden associated with multiple reporting arrangements.
Recommendation 12: Funders to work towards achieving more consistent measurement of outcomes using common indicators to enable measurement across service providers
Recommendation 13: Funders to ensure consistent application of Funders' Framework.
Recommendation 14: Funders to ensure outcomes-focused grant agreements become the norm.
Recommendation 15: Funders to continue to gather evidence of good practice that can inform future funding decisions and can be shared across the advice sector.
Recommendation 16: Funders to continue to encourage advice interventions that are embedded across sectors ( e.g. involving the Third Sector and the NHS).
Recommendations for Advice Providers:
Recommendation 17: Providers to improve targeting to address unmet need
Recommendation 18: Providers to continually review channels of delivery to ensure best use of resources, for example, ensuring that resources going into face-to-face support are reserved for clients who can benefit most from this type of support.
Recommendation 19: Providers to continue to develop digital channels of advice provision.
Recommendation 20: Providers to collaborate effectively with other advice providers, and co-locate advice services in other settings where appropriate.
Recommendation 21: Providers to ensure greater sharing of lessons learned around successful approaches (and what does not work).
Recommendation 22: Providers to improve visibility of services through improved marketing and awareness raising.
Recommendation 23: Providers to continue to develop and improve referral between services.
Recommendation 24: Providers to ensure provision of high quality advice through working towards advice standards.
Recommendation 25: Providers to ensure improved outcomes data collection to demonstrate impact, and ensure that data can be disaggregated effectively to provide detailed understanding of impact on different client groups.