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24 November 2020

Innovation required: distributing support funds whilst safeguarding against fraud

To give financial support to small businesses impacted by the lockdown, the Government introduced new Discretionary and Business Rate Grants for eligible businesses. It was down to local authorities to administer these, and the speed with which money could reach bank accounts was essential – businesses needed access to this emergency funding fast.

From the start there were two imperatives: set up schemes that were simple to use and which enabled prompt payment, while protecting against fraud or payments simply made in error with appropriate and rigorous governance procedures. These objectives could be in conflict – an easy to access scheme without the proper checks and balances and supporting processes becomes vulnerable to deception. HMRC has recently estimated that furlough fraud and error may exceed £3 billion.

Liberata worked at pace with its local authority clients, including North Somerset District Council, the London Borough of Hounslow and the London Borough of Bromley, to administer these grants and disburse monies on their behalf. This collaborative approach enabled councils to support businesses at a time of great need whilst safeguarding public monies.

Bringing together our expertise in service delivery, risk management, system development and project execution, we were able to develop an effective and expeditious solution that met the needs of local government and businesses, as well as working within complex Treasury parameters.

The interface for our solution was a set of electronic forms designed not only to be intuitive for users to fill in, but which could also enable diagnostics to detect potential fraud and highlight errors, inconsistencies or duplications. In this, we balanced the need for funds to be distributed quickly with diligence to protect public funds. Design, build, testing and implementation were achieved within four weeks.

Innovative use of technology and automation meant that large volumes of applications could be triaged and screened before being evaluated by skilled technicians. ‘Smart’ online forms helped to ensure applications were complete and accurate. Our time could therefore be focused on assisting eligible businesses to access support. With the majority of applications being right first time, we could deliver swift resolution and payment of grants. A consistently robust approach to governance that incorporated an appropriate balance of technological and human control played a large part in us achieving these results.

The scale of our operations was substantial. Across the two schemes, Liberata processed over 23,000 individual claims and disbursed in excess of £145 million, whilst keeping fraud to an insignificant level. The expedient process meant that eligible businesses could receive their grant within five days of their submission being approved.

Innovation in a time of crisis does not always require extensive new invention. A deep understanding of an organisation’s specialist resources, technical skills and expertise, and a vision to bring these together in the right way, can allow an organisation to adapt, overcome, and deliver.

The confluence of these, combined with the old-fashioned virtues of good project discipline, stakeholder expectation management and clear communications, can power solutions that go beyond meeting the varied needs of service users and clients alike.

In this case, large volumes of new government money were disbursed quickly to those that needed it whilst establishing strong safeguards and assurances that funds were going only to eligible businesses. Feedback from our clients has been positive, with North Somerset’s Head of Support Services, Stuart Anstead, recognising Liberata for “going above and beyond” to administer Business Rate Grants swiftly and Peter Turner, Finance Director for the London Borough of Bromley commenting, “With only 7 payments (from a total of over 3,300) requiring further investigation for fraud or error, this is real success”.

The coming months will present many more challenges which will require speedy and effective service delivery – and the careful use of public money. Liberata will work with local government through the winter months to develop innovative solutions that councils, businesses, and citizens can depend on.

Charlie BruinChief Executive Officer

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