Everyone knows Citizens Advice. Or thinks they do.
This year we’re celebrating 80 years of providing free, independent and confidential advice for people facing challenges across England and Wales. Their empowering stories span the decades since Citizens Advice was first created on 4 September 1939, the day after World War II began.
Since then, we’ve given millions of people the knowledge and confidence they need to move forward. We’ve helped change government policies and industry practices so they work better for us all. And now we’re looking ahead at our future.
Citizens Advice has always been rooted in the experiences and struggles of real people, and will continue to be. Millions of human interactions every year have built up a rich, data-driven service, generating real-time information on the problems people are facing.
Last year we gave advice directly – whether face-to-face, over the phone or through webchat – to 2.6 million people, helping with 6.3 million problems. Throughout our 80 year history we’ve constantly adapted to provide advice to people in the way they need it - from mobilising converted horseboxes to reach people affected by the Blitz in the 1940s to providing help and advice through online chat, email and messaging services that can be accessed via mobile devices on the go.
But as a sector we face increasing demand for our services, and people’s expectations around technology are accelerating. Even with strong foundations there is more that needs to be done if we’re going to keep pace with these changes.
We’ve launched a new strategic framework, Future of Advice, which will give us the flexibility to respond quickly to a rapidly changing, uncertain and complex world. Unlike a fixed strategy, it sets out a clear direction and parameters, within which we are able to try new ways of doing things and keep adapting to what people need.
We’ve set a new vision for 2022, which remains true to our roots. When we say we are here for everyone, whoever they are and whatever their problem, we mean it. Not everyone is the same and we never judge anyone who comes to us. We are committed to reaching as many people who need our help as possible and understand that different people require different kinds of information and support. Equality, diversity and inclusion are at the very heart of this new framework.
We know our vision is ambitious and challenging. But it also sets us apart. No one else sees so many people with so many different kinds of problems, which gives us a unique insight into the challenges people are facing today.
It allows us to see how problems are linked and stops them from getting worse, which saves the government and public services – and ultimately the taxpayer – hundreds of millions of pounds every year. It also arms us with the right evidence to show big organisations, from companies right up to the government, how they can make things better for people.
We will invest more in technology that enables us to provide advice in the ways people want it, as well as to be more efficient and help even more people. We want to improve the user’s experience and deliver more with the resources we have.
After someone has found helpful advice online, they should then be able to speak to an adviser via online chat if they have specific questions around their situation. If someone can’t get out to see an adviser during the day, they should be able seek specialist advice online in the evenings with reminders via instant messenger. While we already offer advice online, via webchat, in person and over the phone, we’ll provide a seamless customer journey that allows people to move between channels without repeating themselves.
We’ll invest in best-in-class platforms to make our services more accessible. This will make us more efficient and free up adviser time to help people with more complex issues. And we’ll expand other ways to access our services whilst still delivering high quality advice, such as video-calling.
We’ll test new ideas more frequently, particularly around machine learning and automation, and scale up innovations at pace if they work. We’ll continue to design and develop our products and services based on what people need - and ensure our user research includes groups who could be at risk of digital exclusion.
But technology can only do so much. We’ll continue to build an environment that is collaborative, adaptable and innovative. We’ll share knowledge and take full advantage of the expertise and creativity of our staff and volunteers. We’ll achieve even greater diversity and equality of opportunity within our workforce by setting ourselves challenging objectives.
And how will we know we’re getting it right? We’ll use our sector-leading data and insights, and measure key indicators across digital, phone and face-to-face advice. Firstly we’ll analyse how much demand we’re able to meet. Secondly we’ll track and monitor the problems that people come to us with to see how many of them we solved. And finally we’ll ask people how satisfied they were with the overall service they received. While we collect the majority of this data already, this new strategic approach will provide us with enhanced insights and analysis into how we’re performing across different groups, to ensure that we truly are here for everyone, whoever they are and whatever their problem.
Sometimes, we will fail. Testing new technology and changing the ways in which we operate will always come with this risk.
Knowing how people rely on us, that’s an uncomfortable thought. But as a service, we understand that doing things the way they have always been done isn’t always the best way we can help people now. And when some things might not quite turn out in the way we thought, we will learn from this and become an even better, stronger and more efficient charity. Our new strategic framework reassures me that we have the right structure to guide these big changes and the right focus at the heart of it all: the people who come to us for help.
As we develop ways to meet our ambitions, we’ll make sure we stick to a few underlying principles that are already reflected in the way we work. All our decisions start with the people we help and are rooted in data and evidence. We work together and learn as we go, and we are open and transparent, sharing what’s working and what’s not.
To see the latest on our progress you can visit wearecitizensadvice.org.uk and join us on the journey as we look ahead to our next 80 years.