Breaking the cycle of debt – Transforming debt advice in the UK

On Monday the Money Advice Service (MAS) published the headline findings of our recent qualitative study of debt advice services across the UK – the most robust of its kind ever conducted.

The report underpins a new draft commissioning strategy for debt advice (also published for consultation this week), intended to help the sector better assist those most in need of support.

The strategy draws directly on some of the opportunities identified in our research, including:

  • Focusing on long-term support for clients: By better helping clients to improve their financial decision-making, there’s an opportunity to build on the great work being done to alleviate immediate financial challenges and crises – matching short-term resolutions with empowering, longer-term solutions
  • Addressing the root causes of debt: By overcoming existing barriers around confidence and capability levels, advisors will be able to better address the core issues that lead to people falling into debt (e.g. addiction, mental health, family pressures) – providing more holistic, tailored and impactful support
  • Matching solutions to clients’ specific needs: By taking account of personal levels of knowhow and confidence – and not resorting to assumptions about vulnerability, or one-size-fits-all fixes – advisors will be able to deliver solutions that work at an individual level: better enabling clients to help themselves
  • Increased consistency & continuous learning: By resolving systemic challenges regarding consistency of support – and creating stronger mechanisms for sharing learnings – services will be able to eradicate existing inequalities in good practice

To identify these solutions our team interviewed more than 120 debt advisors, as well as 100+ clients, in over 250 hours of place-based fieldwork. This included shadowing some clients as they appeared in court – following up observation of proceedings with one-to-one interviews a few weeks later.

The key was triangulating the advisor perspective with the experiences of clients themselves. By thinking in broad terms about individuals’ wider circumstances and needs, we were able to gauge the impact of services on clients’ longer-term situations – highlighting how, and why, existing support was and was not working.

Many of those we interviewed had emotional stories to tell about their paths to over-indebtedness, and the cycles in which they had become trapped. We’re very proud of the research, and excited to continue supporting MAS as it uses our findings to bring about innovation in the debt advice sector – helping people better manage their money in the long-term, and begin to escape the spiral of debt for good.