Citizens Advice can be a difficult entity to pin down. It is one organisation, and many. Chief executive of the national infrastructure body for the Citizens Advice network Gillian Guy sometimes describes the organisation as a “movement”.
“We’ve tried to work even more closely as an entire service, and make sure people understand us as a national organisation that is delivered locally and get the benefits and impact of both ends of that story,” Guy says.
“It puts us in a good position to help people and to make the weight of all the information we get from those local organisations count. I wouldn’t underplay that there are challenges to holding all that together, but the importance for all of the network is that they are part of one large movement which is very strong, and there’s all of this support behind it.”
Movement is a useful term for Citizens Advice, not least because it is an organisation in motion. The charity is carrying out a modernisation process to ensure that it remains appealing to those who could benefit from its services, at a time when those services are likely to be in more demand than ever.
The first Citizens Advice bureaux opened in September 1939, with volunteers providing assistance to the public during wartime. Today more than 300 individual local Citizens Advice charities support the public from more than 2,500 locations across the UK.
Last year more than 7,000 staff and 24,000 volunteers helped 2.5 million people with 6.2 million issues. Face to face advice accounted for 48 per cent of enquiries, 45 per cent were dealt with via phone, and 7 per cent through email and webchat.
In a sign of the times, a further 20.7 million people went to the Citizens Advice website for help.
“The advice I suppose, crudely, principally rests with the bureaux network,” Guy says. “But we have come into that area because other channels have opened up. In terms of the campaigning, whereas we have the resource to help bring all the data to bear and to spearhead some of the campaigning we also encourage people to undertake this kind of work locally where they can influence local policymakers.”
Citizens Advice is rigorous in measuring its impact, to demonstrate the value of the early interventions it can provide. Its data shows every £1 invested in its service yields a £1.51 saving for Government through reductions in service demand, and £8.74 of wider economic and social benefits such as improved health, wellbeing, participation and productivity outcomes.
Individual clients receive £10.94 in benefit from each £1 invested through income gained in benefits, debts written off and consumer problems resolved.
“We spend a lot of time looking at data and talking to people to make sure that we’ve got this right and understand the impact of what we’ve done, then we can translate that impact through a well-recognised economic model,” Guy says.
While preserving the rich history and legacy of Citizens Advice is important, Guy says the organisation is developing to meet the evolving needs and preferences of the general public.
The modernisation process cuts right across the organisation from back office systems to branding, and the channels Citizens Advice uses to deliver its services.
It is partly a response to the difficult climate, Guy says. As funding gets harder to come by it is especially important for a charity to demonstrate it is providing the maximum possible value from each pound granted or donated to it.
“We’ve really worked hard on the business case for investing in modernisation. It’s really important that it is a no brainer and we can demonstrate the benefits to people,” she says. “When you’ve got funds coming in from the public in one way or another, there’s an accountability there and you have to be transparent about what you’re doing with it and what value you’re producing with it.”
Unsurprisingly, technology is playing a major role in the process. Citizens Advice is getting more creative about the way it delivers services, but it would be a mistake to assume that means a flight to digital in an effort to streamline services or reduce costs. Citizens Advice is working to make advice easier for everyone to get.
Guy says the modernisation process represents an expansion rather than a rationalisation of what the charity offers, “making more things available to more people in a more suitable way”.
“We took a decision some years ago that we weren’t going to try and move people from one channel to another. There are organisations that have done that and we don’t subscribe to that. We think it’s important for the foreseeable future to protect face to face, because I can’t see a time when people won’t need this.”
Citizens Advice also prioritised a complete service, where clients can move between channels to suit their needs. The charity still gets the efficiency benefits online channels can provide, because allowing people to engage that way takes pressure off the face to face network so it is less stretched when people need it.
Where people are increasingly accustomed to being able to access whatever information they choose when they need it, naturally this has implications for Citizens Advice. The digital content is being designed with this in mind, allowing people to access advice according to their own circumstances.
Significantly, around half of the people who engage with Citizens Advice online do so via mobile technology, and the charity has used this information to guide how it designs its content.
As well designed and flexible as services are, how a charity is perceived has an important influence on whether people will choose to take them up.
Accordingly, part of the modernisation project has involved a rebrand. Guy says the decision was made early on that the charity would not be undertaking a “wholesale rebrand”. Rather, the aim was to refresh the “recognised and treasured” Citizens Advice brand.
Feedback from focus groups revealed that while the charity was well known, the brand was somewhat “tired” or “old fashioned”.
“We don’t want to be off-putting in any way, or exclude people. That was of concern to us,” Guy says. “So we set about trying to make it something that we could take forward rather than keep looking back at.”
Consultation with the Citizens Advice network members returned a range of views, unsurprisingly considering more than 300 individual organisations were involved. But Guy says the broad consensus was that a “facelift” of the brand was the right thing to do while services were being modernised.
And at a time when charity expenditure is under such close scrutiny, it is important to justify the costs of any exercise other than frontline service delivery. The pace of the change has been set so as to keep costs down, with the local Citizens Advice charities phasing in the rebrand as changes are due or required anyway.
“We thought the rebrand was worthwhile because it is the public facing part of the modernisation process that gets people to feel this is attractive. We did some testing before we went ahead with it to see if it hit the criteria we set in the first place, and people did receive it very well. It is the public that we’re worried about here. In terms of the expenditure we were very modest in the way that we did it and that was fitting and appropriate for the organisation.”
The millions of contacts Citizens Advice has each year generate a huge amount of data, putting the charity in an excellent position to identify patterns of problems and then go about seeking change.
It is the data and evidence that inform Citizens Advice’s campaigns that give them an edge in effectiveness Guy says.
“I certainly think that we have the ear and attention of policymakers and indeed the media because we always rest our views on evidence and facts, and I think that’s really important to hang onto.”
And the charity can count on recent success. A campaign to ensure payday lenders treat their customers more fairly and stop irresponsible advertising contributed to significant regulatory change. Much stricter rules now govern the practice and a number of the less responsible lenders have exited the market.
In the policy and welfare space, a campaign on the workplace capability assessment saw the Government change systems to make it easier for claimants, and a commitment from Government the new assessment provider to improve the assessment experience and decision making.
Guy says Citizens Advice’s government funding does not impact on its campaigning activity, as the charity remains clear it works for the clients and public, not funders. Neither did the lobbying act have an influence, although the charity did look “long and hard” at it to ensure none of its activities would fall foul of the law.
“We involve different parties in conversations, and we’re equal in our criticism around political parties as well if that’s required. It’s all about what our evidence shows us, what the facts are, what we think should change, and then we rally the people around that.”
The modernisation process will continue and Citizens Advice faces an ongoing challenge to ensure it delivers services to people in ways that suit them.
As for the future, Guy says making sure the service is ‘joined up’ for clients is crucial, as people themselves too often have trouble ensuring things are joined up in their own lives.
Finding more seamless ways to deal with all the issues that individuals present with, or effective means for referring them to where they can find help, is also an ongoing challenge.
“Lives are complicated and the simpler and more accessible we can make advice the better,” Guy says.
“We’re at a point in time where I don’t think the service has ever been more required or has more potential really to change things for the better. That is a fantastic opportunity.”