Can the DWP’s newest feminist recruit give the ” shambolic” ministry a more people friendly face?

Elizabeth Fairburn,(right) now the Department for Work and Pensions new customer experience director

Last week I watched the polite questioning by MPs of the top officials from the Department of Work and Pensions about their latest published accounts – which I have already lambasted in a blog here.

At this hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee – see this link – once again Peter Schofield, the permanent secretary – had to apologise to the nation’s pensioners for the ministry’s failure to rectify the underpayment of pensions to hundreds of thousands of pensioners, some who may still have to wait until 2024 to get their money. He promised 1000 more staff -having started with just 100 people – to sort out this scandal.

Once again – it is the 34th year in a row – the top officials had failed to balance the books – because of benefit fraud and error reaching record levels. Again it was promised that this will be sorted – we shall see whether this is really true next year.

Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary

But the most interesting aspect of the hearing was a new face on the block. She is Elizabeth Fairburn, who is the customer experience director at the DWP. She has been recruited from Direct Line Insurance as the head of claims response – where she deals with insurance claims from customers. She is quite obviously not a career civil servant unlike Peter Schofield, her boss whose cv shows, apart from a secondment to 3i, is a mandarin to his fingertips.

What is even more interesting she is a firm campaigner for women. She recently gave an interview to mark International Women’s Day this year with Gatenby Sanderson, a head hunting agency recruiting executives for the public sector ( recent appointments included the chief executive officer of the National Cancer Research Institute and the people’s director for the London Fire Brigade).

I have reproduced it at the top of this blog. As well as talking about her career, she is committed to equal pay for women, proper career paths for women who return to work after looking after children and most importantly women having real self belief in themselves and not being put down by men. She also is a coach for women to believe in themselves.

Can Elizabeth Fairburn do anything for claimants and pensioners?

But can she do anything for the millions of claimants and pensioners who have to endure using the DWP? She admits in the interview that she knew little about the working of the organisation.

At the hearing she made some interesting comments. She told MPs:

:”We are mapping out the plans and trying to piece things together. It is a big Department, and I am trying to get my head around a lot of things. I can see some real opportunities in how we could use different approaches to map out the journey from a customer’s point of view, which would help us as the civil service understand what that looks like and therefore where we can make improvements. Peter [‘Schofield] has already referenced the work that we are doing on digital and automation, which is a real opportunity, but we cannot automate processes that are clunky or difficult. We have got to review those, simplify them and then make them available on a digital solution to encourage customers to “engage with us.

On communicating with pensioners, particularly those owed money she told MPs:

“I have a team within customer experience who are continually looking at the communications that we send to customers to make sure that they are simple. Obviously, we are reliant on listening and learning techniques, such as what we see through complaints, to identify where to look. When we see those things, we can simplify the processes, and potentially the communications to customers, to help them with that and keep them updated.”

On stopping people’s benefits she said she had a team of 36 people checking the vulnerability of people before they did this:

“They are there proactively to support the wider DWP in identifying and signposting support for our customers with the most complex needs. In the example you were just talking about, my team work closely with Bozena’s [Bozena Hillyer in charge of counter fraud and compliance] team and, when there is a difficult decision to make about stopping someone’s benefit because of potential fraud, my team are there to support the frontline to say, “Have you considered X, Y or Z to ensure that we are doing the right things for our customers and making the right decisions?”

Egregious frightening letter from the DWP to a pensioner

Can she make a difference? As this blog has shown some of the communications have been egregious. Like the one I featured last August to pensioner Rosie Brocklehurst when the department was conducting a pension review which said: ““If you fail to be available for this review and do not contact me, your entitlement to State Pension may be in doubt and your payments may be stopped.”

This was , of course, totally untrue – the department can’t stop anybody’s pension.

So at the moment the jury will be out on how successful Elizabeth Fairburn will be in changing the culture. But I will be watching to see if this determined woman from Leeds can make a difference or not. Her Linked In self description describes her as “A passionate, energetic and inspiring people leader, renowned for the ability to champion change and transformation especially in underperforming teams or functions with a need for significant cultural revolution. “

Watch this space to see if this is true for the DWP.

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