Managing change is always hard, and the LGPS have had it harder than most recently. We found out from one scheme how it had used communications to keep members engaged

It’s been a busy time for trustees at the Environment Agency Pension Fund.

In April 2013 the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) faced unprecedented changes. After prolonged negotiations, the LGPS and the government reached a compromise agreement. Future members of the LGPS would receive a pension based on career average revalued earnings (CARE) rather than the generous final salary agreement of the past. In addition to this, increases were also made to members’ retirement ages and contribution rates.

This slew of changes needed to be implemented by April 2014 giving pensions manager Craig Martin and communications manager David Williams just a year to communicate the necessary changes. Martin and Williams work for the Environment Agency Pension Fund, which is part of the LGPS.

Matters were further complicated by the need to wrap three previously separate employers, the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and Shared Services Connected Ltd into one tripartite arrangement.

Prior to April 2013 we were just one employer. We’ve gone from one to three in the past two years”

This shift was a result of restructuring within the Welsh government, and meant the EAPF transitioned from a single, to multiple employer. This change of status has meant separating the identity of the Pension Fund from the Environment Agency to better represent its employers as a whole.

Martin explains, “Prior to April 2013 we were just one employer. We’ve gone from one to three in the past two years, so that’s impacted us as well in terms of implementing all these changes.”

As if dealing with three separate employers wasn’t enough, the fund also needed to deal with a number of different interest groups when deciding how to execute changes.

The changes were introduced to comply with wider public sector pension reforms”

It was no easy task, says Martin. “There was a lot of engagement between the local government association, the department of the community of local government, which is our sponsoring department in terms of the local pensions scheme and also the trade unions. So it’s like a three-way type of agreement in terms of what the changes would be.”

The changes were introduced to comply with the wider public sector pension reforms recommended by Lord Hutton’s Public Service Pension Commission in 2011, but the LGPS was asked to put them into action a year before the rest of the public sector pension schemes.

Making change happen

The first step, says Williams, was to create a strong brand for the scheme.

“We had the unions, fund employers and the DCLG on board so at least we knew that the communication messages were fairly consistent. Obviously something that we had to make sure was that the consistent messages were getting through to all parties.

We had to make sure that the consistent messages were getting through to all parties”

“So part of that was to redesign an interim brand so that our members could easily recognise the new materials coming through.”

As well as rebranding to help members understand the new reforms and communications, keeping them engaged was easier said than done.

Martin explains: “I think trying to keep members engaged in the process was one of the real challenges of it, keeping them engaged and keeping them informed, because there’s quite a bit in the press about public sector pensions schemes changing.”

A new approach

At first the scheme communicated the new brand and changes through a series of face-to-face briefings. But later when the changes were bedding in, Martin and Williams decided to switch to webinars.

Williams explains: “Because we’re a nationwide organisation, doing face-to-face work is quite time consuming, so the kind of responses we had back from our webinars were absolutely fantastic.”

The webinars were well received by members with a total of 1,071 attendees across the three core topics. The scheme used feedback forms to gauge success with excellent results.

The majority were in favour of the webinars, which did come as a bit of a surprise to us”

Williams was surprised, if relieved, by the members’ responses: “It’s been borne out by the statistics in that the majority were in favour of the webinars, which did come as a bit of a surprise to us.

Martin agrees that webinars are the way forward for scheme communications, particularly schemes with a large and diverse membership. “It was our first time doing these kinds of webinars. We’d previously done quite a lot of face-to-face activity. Face-to-face is not something we’d discount, but if you’re getting the message out quickly to lots of people in the most efficient manner then I think webinars have proved that for us.”

The team also held focus groups to glean information on the kind of pathways the scheme needed to build into the website. The EAPF have been using key personas and customer journeys to improve the online experience of members and used the focus groups to find out what was effective, and what was falling flat.

A segmented future

Looking to the future, Williams thinks that audience segmentation will form the bedrock of the scheme’s communications strategy. Specifically, he is looking at new uses of rich media and more intelligent website design.

Other priorities for the scheme will be creating a digital strategy that takes members paper-free and encouraging members to register and use their personal spaces within the website.

Neither Williams nor Martin is too concerned about whether LGPS funds will be forced to co-operate more with each in the future. This may be because the Environment Agency Pension Fund has already been leading the way with multiple collaborations through the South West framework with a number of other (LGPS) Funds

It just made so much sense from a procurement angle and a cost angle to get everybody working together”

Martin explains, “It’s probably about five or six years ago now that we actually did most of this work on it and have followed it through since then but I think it was quite straightforward. It was quite groundbreaking at the time, to be fair, but I think it just made so much sense from a procurement angle and a cost angle to get everybody working together.”

Williams concludes: “As a fund, we have fully embraced the challenges of the new LGPS. Our employers have been left with a workforce who are more engaged with their pension savings and regular processes that don’t disrupt their business.”