Public Accounts Committee Press Notice

7th PAC Report 2006-07

Department for Work and Pensions: using leaflets to communicate with the public about services and entitlements

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“A torrent of printed information is pouring out of government departments. Where leaflets contain information which is inaccurate, out of date or impossible to understand, then the consequences can be serious indeed. Vulnerable citizens are misled about their entitlements, administrative errors are multiplied and, in some cases, vast sums of money squandered.

“Departments have been only too ready to issue new leaflets at the drop of a hat. The Department for Work and Pensions has responded to NAO criticism by reducing the number of different leaflets it publishes: from a staggering 245 to 178, with plans to trim the total to 145. To cut the number still further and stop further leaflet creep, it must consider updating existing leaflets, rather than issuing new ones; amalgamating leaflets, where possible; and, in the case of new information, deciding whether a leaflet is really the best way of getting the message across.

“The DWP’s key leaflets can be understood only by those with a reading age above the national average. Most demanded a reading age equivalent to five years of secondary schooling. I welcome the fact that the Department is now testing all its new leaflets for intelligibility using actual customers but it should work through its existing leaflets to make sure that they also are intelligible to the people they are designed to reach. And Write so that you cannot be misunderstood should be the slogan on every departmental desk.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 7th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department of Work and Pensions, examined three issues: managing the process for producing accurate leaflets; accessibility of information for a diverse range of customers; and making information available to the public.

Information about services and benefits provided by the Department for Work and Pensions must be accurate so that members of the public can rely on it to make informed choices about their lives.  Communicating clearly with its customers can be a challenge for the Department. On the one hand, it must provide information that is complete and accurate, but on the other, it must make the information concise and comprehensible to people with very different reading abilities. Despite increased use of new technology, including via the internet and contact centres, traditional means of communication - in particular, leaflets - remain essential. The Department has reduced the number it publishes from 245 in April 2005 to 178 in June 2006 and has committed itself to an overall reduction of 100.

The risk of issuing inaccurate or out of date information is significant for both the Department and for individuals and can lead to:

• citizens not claiming something to which they may be entitled;

• additional administrative costs where customers make inappropriate claims;

• increased likelihood of misunderstandings, leading to errors in payments; and poor value for money.

Responsibility for providing information to the public is dispersed within the Department, with no individual having responsibility for the entire process. Until recently, over 1,000 staff had some responsibility for communications work and the relevant budgets were fragmented, making it difficult to align resources with strategic communication priorities. As a result, there is likely to be duplicated effort. The Department is unable to determine the exact cost of producing leaflets, which is estimated at £31 million in 2004-05. The production costs per thousand leaflets have fallen to an average of £250 for English products and £1,516 for those in Welsh although the Department's cost data remains weak and incomplete. Ensuring information is up to date and accurate is not straightforward, and the Department has in the past failed to manage this risk. The Department could not rule out an Inherited SERPS-type problem occurring in the future and keeping leaflets up to date remains a constant challenge as the laws and regulations governing benefits and work programmes change frequently.  Around 40% of the 27 different leaflets collected by the National Audit Office across the country were out of date. The Department aims to check all its leaflets twice a year for accuracy but the review process in place takes between 12 and 16 weeks and only 8 out of 20 leaflets examined had been reviewed as expected.

Many of the Department’s leaflets use language that requires above average literacy levels to understand them. All thirteen of the key leaflets tested required a reading age higher than the national average and eight required a reading age equivalent to five years of secondary schooling. Leaflets could be improved if some simple design practices were adopted in all leaflets, including: contents pages, making titles clearer and making front covers relate clearly to the content. Despite the volume of leaflets printed each year, the Department does not regularly assess customers’ use of leaflets or whether information is in accessible formats.

Overall, only 50% of the Department’s offices were able to provide the leaflets required, and leaflets were rarely stocked at the external sites visited by the National Audit Office. Those aimed at pensioners and disabled people were most difficult to obtain. There has been no agreed view in the Department of what leaflets should be available locally, and there is a complicated supply chain and no single ordering point.  The Department is letting a single supply contract by Autumn 2006 which it hopes will simplify the supply chain.

As a direct result of the C&AG’s report the Department has taken a number of positive steps to improve the accuracy and availability of leaflets but there is still a long way to go before the Department manages its communication activity effectively and efficiently.

Notes for Editors

1. Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2. The full text of the Committee’s Conclusions and Recommendations is attached to this press notice.

3. This report can be accessed via the internet on the day of publication.

All media enquiries to:

Luke Robinson, Select Committee Media Officer
Tel: 020 7219 5693
Mobile: 07917 488549