The Citizens Advice Service’s Strategic Framework: some answers and some questions

The Citizens Advice Service of England and Wales has set out its strategic framework until 2022. This kind of document is now pretty routinely produced by organisations in the public and not for profit sector. In the hands of government in particular, there is  often a struggle between a clarity of strategy and an opacity of measurable outcome designed to avoid hostages to fortune – setting not too many specific targets that might be missed. Citizens Advice’s offering is more interesting than most in terms of presentation and substance – particularly in regard to technology and international comparisons of performance. 

The Citizens Advice service, though it gave rise to similar bodies in some parts of  Australia and Canada, is a uniquely British institution. It is often ignored in studies of legal aid because it does not come from a legal aid tradition and culture. It arose from volunteers who gave advice about wartime regulations and has evolved into a volunteer-based national advice network. A national spine franchises locally administered provision and provides central services. To its basic advice provision, it has added a number of more specialist services for court witnesses and on pensions, consumer and money advice, debt provision and consumer championship for the energy market and is the statutory consumer watchdog for the postal service. 

Financially, the Citizens Advice Service is by far the biggest not for profit provider of advice in the country. For inexplicable reasons, its 2018/19 annual report is available on its website only for these with authorised access. But, the previous year is publicly available. Total income was £93.8m ($US122m) – all but about £10m coming from government departments and none through the legal aid budget of the Ministry of Justice (which did contribute £11.6m for the witness service). The result is a service that is a mix of volunteers and paid staff: ‘Our service is run by 800 national staff, 6,100 local staff, 19,000 trained volunteers and over 3,600 Witness Service volunteers.’

Over the previous five years, the service set out to develop its digital services. First it tasked itself with improving its advice websites (2015-7) and then to provide ‘Digital self-help that works seamlessly with other services’ (2017-9). The reward for that includes the most comprehensive and, frankly, best general legal advice website in the world. This includes a feature that I have raved about before: in time tracking of what users are searching for. Impressively, in addition to all this front line activity, the service has maintained – and even fostered – a willingness to gather information and campaign on a range of issues that include the controversial but flagship government benefit reform of universal credit. The website currently lists six issues on which it is currently working in addition to universal credit from bailiff reform to smart electricity meters. And the numbers suggest that Citizens Advice is doing well. In 2017/18, it assisted 2.6m people in person.

The service has poured resources into making a success of digital operation. It has developed its own case management system. The website has been significantly upgraded in presentation and substance. It attracts 25m visits of more than 30 seconds duration (in 2017/18 – CA will, no doubt, publicly reveal last year’s statistics in due course). The top six topics in last year but one ranged from benefits and tax credits (4.3m), employment, consumer issues, debt, relationships and family and housing (1.8m). And it has blended digital into its delivery and management seemingly rather well. 

Citizens Advice’s unique service has allowed it to escape the massive cuts which have been made to legal aid since 2012 – particularly initial legal advice. Its historic strength – combined with a powerful Law Society that obtained from government an open-ended legal advice scheme in the 1970s – is why law centres in England and Wales never became mainstream in the way that they did in other jurisdictions such as some states in Australia or provinces in Canada. 

Let us return to the service’s strategic framework to 2022. The first thing to say is that it has been really well designed for digital. It is short – 761 words on my count – but has drop down further content. So, it can combine an overview with more detail. It is addressed to potential users eg ‘You won’t ever struggle to get help from us’ is the first element of the vision. In its detailed drop down on its ‘ambitions’, it articulates a coherent vision of integrated delivery and measurably improved services:

  • ‘We’ll provide a seamless customer journey that allows people to move between online, phone and face to face support without repeating themselves
  • We’ll expand alternative ways to access our services, for example through video-calling and chat.
  • We’ll double the number of calls we’re able to answer and quadruple the number of chat queries we’re able to respond to
  • We’ll set ambitious targets for minimum waiting times for face to face appointments
  • We’ll ensure that our services are accessible and relevant to a diverse range of people, including those at greater risk of disadvantage, detriment or harm’

And there are impeccable technology ambitions for 2022:

  • ‘We’ll invest in best-in-class platforms to support a seamless customer journey, make our services more accessible and free up adviser time to help more people
  • We’ll test new ideas – particularly around machine learning and automation – and scale up innovations at pace if they work for our clients
  • We’ll continue to design and develop our products and services based on what our users need
  • We’ll ensure our user research includes groups who could be at risk of digital exclusion’.

All this is genuinely impressive and Citizens Advice is to be congratulated on establishing itself as an organisation whose advice and information offering can be compared with the world’s best. But interesting questions arise if you do just that and, for example, put the online advice of citizensadvice.org.uk against the assistance provided by Illinois Legal Aid Online or Citizens Advice referral provision against the gateway project of Australia’s JusticeConnect. The strategic goals of Citizens Advice open themselves up to questioning on whether they are a bit too self-referential. For a start, what is CA’s unique selling point? Is it a point of preliminary information, a provider of full casework services or a referral agency or, more likely, is it different elements of each of these for different users with different problems? And, in entitling its strategic planning document ‘the future of advice’, where is it positioning itself against other providers of national (eg Law for Life) or specialist (eg Shelter) advice or, indeed, lawyers whose low income client practices have been shattered by cuts to publicly funded legal advice. And it is good to see CA wanting to invest in ‘best in class platforms’ but is it interested in proving in any objective way that its own services are best in class, either nationally or  internationally?

Behind CA’s strategic thinking on delivery must be some thought on how to preserve its unique balance of lay volunteers and specialist advisers. Were I one of the 6000 volunteers I might want to see evidence of some strategic thinking about how my role and value was to be preserved as the service as a whole became more professional. Against international comparators, the Citizens Advice service manages superbly well without the institutionalised lawyer back up – pro bono or employed – that is the hallmark of most of them. But it must be a struggle to maintain that.

All these, however, are issues that can be explored in the next strategic cycle. This one concentrates on users; makes no inflammatory remarks about the legal aid cuts; articulates a coherent vision in the integration of digital in multi-channel delivery. And is a credit on a very British service – though it might be opened up by a bit of international comparison.

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