As of today, 30th March 2020, we are still adapting to the coronavirus crisis and figuring our way through. We have been buried in a tide of mixed emotions; shock, denial, sadness and, for some, grief as the situation involves health and literal life and death. But, as we start to lift our heads from the immediate emergency work that has been distracting us from emotions, other feelings will start to come into play.
Change is often a scary concept, but as we recognise that the way we work will probably never be the same again, we need to support ourselves and each other to tackle the daunting ‘new normal’ ahead.
Legal needs and advice needs are going to escalate. Individuals and organisations are both going to need help at the same time. Here we propose a ‘timeline’ of concerns:
- Right now – Individuals facing homelessness, domestic violence, and hunger as well as sheer shock. Organisations getting into debt, struggling with workload and facing laying people off. Priorities: Providing emergency support. Coordinating knowledge and learning and making it easy, accessible and timely.
- Soon (three to twelve weeks) – Individuals coping with unemployment, debt, and mental health issues. Organisations facing staff burnout, making hard strategic choices. Priorities: accessing emergency funding with less effort, redesigning services.
- July onwards – The impact of relationship breakdown on advice needs and court time, longer term debt and struggling for legal representation and resolution. Organisations looking hard at strategic implications. Priorities: drive for sensible mergers, taking advantage of new service delivery models which include technology and data, implementing collaborative systems.
The detail (and some questions) follow below.
I am not a lawyer but I have worked in low income and disadvantaged communities for over 20 years, I grew up in them and my family still largely live in them. I am also conscious that what used to be called the ‘squeezed middle’ but clearly includes self-employed professionals and staff in what are now ‘low income organisations’, will struggle paying high London (or other) rents or mortgages to keep a basic roof over their head as well as food and other bills.
The following may sound naïve but it is a starting point for comment. Please don’t judge me too harshly – I’m trying to frame a conversation which I think is going to be increasingly important in the weeks or months ahead. If I’ve got it wrong or missed the obvious then please correct me. If someone has done this a lot better then let’s share it. The following might not be a consideration for today, but it will need to be a consideration soon.
We are going to consider three groups here: (i) individuals, (ii) organisations focused on advice, legal and related support, (iii) the organisational ‘advice’ and ‘legal’ sectors.
Right Now – urgent
We’re in crisis. We’ve adapted (largely) to remote working, turned our face to face service delivery models on their head where we could, and come together to collaborate and share ideas. We’re in shock and working through it without always acknowledging it. But…
Individuals are experiencing life threatening risks; domestic violence, homelessness and hunger. The immediate fallout of both job loss and furlough will push more people to crisis point and put those already there in more danger. With support organisations (like food banks) closing and the court and tribunal system still figuring out their remote service delivery, people are currently limited in their access to resolutions for their problem. Access to benefits will become a priority for many but given the wait times for money to come through, many will be in desperate measures.
Immediate legal and advice needs:
- Protection against eviction
- Housing solutions for people experiencing homelessness
- Immediate access to benefits
How do we meet them better in the current circumstance?
Organisations are struggling to adapt and support and also with cashflow. Many small charities already live hand to mouth and may be dependent on overdrafts in the coming weeks. Charity funders have stepped up and relaxed grant conditions and I’m hopeful emergency funding will be flowing in days rather than weeks which should go some way to support flexible approaches. The impact of the change, shock and grief is causing overwhelm as we are faced with making ever more and rapid decisions without the amount of thinking time to consider the consequences as we would like. Key immediate challenges:
- There is more need for these organisations than ever before (http://advicetracker.devops.citizensadvice.org.uk/)
- Access to services has been drastically curtailed – no more drop-in services – and replacing face to face advice and representation with remote service delivery is not trivial.
- For legal aid providers and other organisations who provide a pay per case service cashflow will be a huge immediate risk.
- With income reduced, how do we keep paying the staff who we need to provide the support?
- Furloughing is not an option for all organisations, but which staff might we furlough?
- What opportunities lie ahead for proportionate pay cuts for those who can afford it?
- How can funders decide get additional cash into bank accounts of their grantees (and possibly recent or previous grantees) that will stave off the crisis?
- How do we find (and offer) headspace to help with the crucial decision making?
The sector has come together as never before, collaborating and sharing, but we need focus, targeted responses and we need transparency, openness and freedom from ego. This is a societal issue, not about an individual or organisation. For now we are all the same. The rule of law (already critical) and the role of regulation and compliance become more crucial.
We need to:
- Identify our leaders and rally behind them, give them all the collective, data, evidence, support and backing they need to advocate for us all.
- Pool our learning, knowledge, expertise and experience in any way that can be pooled.
- Communication, communication, communication: we need to tell people what’s going on, who’s doing what, where they can find information and how they can contribute.
- How do we prioritise and coordinate the knowledge and learning (what’s working, what’s not)? One example is the LiP Network (www.lipnetwork.org.uk/topics)? What are the other highlights?
- How and where can we make it easy, accessible and timely – more clarity and one pagers (with reference to further detail) and less extended webinars and tips repeating what’s already been said? [Yes, I realise this blog post could be snappier]
- How do we psychologically switch to sharing our learnings openly (and parking our egos) so that others can learn from our experiences outside organisational or self interests?
- How do we get behind the real leaders (they’ll be the people getting on with it not the self appointed evangelists)?
Soon – three to 12 weeks
We have largely locked down aside from infrequent shopping and daily exercise. We’ll adapt to that for the most part in a few weeks but more pain is coming. The new normal will be nothing like we’ve ever known or been prepared for.
Individuals will be coming to terms with unemployment (or for the self-employed ‘no paid work’) – expect a lot of figuring out the scope and limits of furlough. Debt will increase (and scams are already proliferating) as people borrow to eat, heat and keep the roof over their head – not all landlords or ‘lenders’ are decent, honest people, they will be demanding cash or causing damage. Benefits issues will come to a head – but as the 5 week wait for Universal credit elapses for the initial applicants, there will be at least limited support for the most vulnerable (though the system will struggle to cope with increased numbers). Support will be needed for the undoubted increase of people experiencing domestic violence. Mental health issues will proliferate – we need to support those who aren’t coping (some of them may be the strongest and smartest people you know).
- How do we deal with challenges of complex employment issues as the number of cases overwhelm us?
- How do we help people into new work opportunities and volunteering to help with mental health?
- How do we provide public education and awareness about debt?
- How can we support (and lobby) for better debt management and better debt resolution?
- How do we get domestic violence victims out of danger fast and securely?
Organisations will be faced with hard choices and need to make tough decisions. The patchwork of tools, resources, and people that provided a sticking plaster to our immediate issues will start to peel off. It’s becoming clear that continuing to try to provide services as usual ‘but digitally’ isn’t providing an effective option for organisations or users.
This is really crunch time. Do we appeal to funders to keep us going, and see us through to the other end or do we re-evaluate what we do, how we do it and who we do it with? Can we allow ourselves to break away from what we see as the destruction of the frontline to focus on what our organisations will need to be in a society that has been similarly devastated?
- How do we stay focused on our mission and the essentials?
- How can we re-prioritise work?
- How can we re-design services, iterate and learn?
- How can we access funding that will keep us going and help us prepare without overly bureaucratic application forms and a long time before we get the cash?
- How do we ensure that all the hard working staff don’t burnout and crash?
The sector (and its funders and supporters and regulators) will need to come together and rationalise. What will be the focus and priority areas and problems facing us six to twelve months down the line? We may need to rely on our funders and leaders to make the decisions we collectively cannot make; which models of service delivery are valid and which are not, which systems are we investing in and which we are not, which organisations will be working together on joint projects and who else will be brought in to ensure services are provided in a sensible holistic way. Recognise we’re not all that different, articulate our value like never before and reduce replication.
- How do we decide who is best placed to do what?
- How do we keep sharing whilst keeping the ‘marathon pace’ on supporting those in need?
- How do we support those who are making the hard choices?
- How does regulation and compliance need to adapt to keep the show on the road?
Medium Term: June onwards
This is a pandemic and the future is unpredictable but we’re already finding that some of what we thought mattered really doesn’t – pointless meetings and conferences disappear. We’re realising that in an emergency, the cause is greater than the organisation. It’s not just about us competing for survival. It’s about us helping others survive.
Individuals will have gone through homeless, hunger, unemployment, debt (and in some cases domestic violence). Hopefully jobs will start to become available as services, retail and manufacturing reopen. Money will start to flow (hopefully with government support) but debt is pervasive (I don’t see banks slashing interest rates) and will dominate. That will further increase pressure on paying mortgage and rents. The need for legal, mediation and advice services will be huge. There aren’t currently enough services to deal with this (or legal representatives) so litigants in person will increase, even assuming the courts can manage the scale of backlog. A big assumption.
- How do we scale mediation and debt advice/management for what’s coming?
- How do we monitor actual legal need and advice need over the next few weeks (Spring into Summer)? Citizens Advice query mapping could be useful here.
- How can local economies, supporting local people in local jobs, be sustained?
Organisations will have survived (or mothballed or closed for ever). We will find our sector much weakened and facing another huge increase in demand for its services, not unlike the aftermath of LASPO. Now, as then, it will be important for organisations to pull together, collaborate, even merge to ensure continuity of services. There will be a huge reliance on a shared knowledge base of who’s doing what, what works and what doesn’t and a lot of focus on planning and implementing new service delivery models for the future. This (if not sooner) will be the time to think more about strategic change, how money and effort really contribute to impact (a logic model or theory of change approach) and whether we need two organisations doing similar things a slightly different way. We will need to use technology and data even better and be more effective than ever.
- How can we think more clearly about how our income and effort translate to change and impact?
- What can we do better with data and technology (beyond remote meetings)?
- How can we better appreciate that costs of some online services reduce admin and improve effectiveness?
- How can we keep sharing and work in society’s interests and not just competition?
- How can we keep supporting those organisations that truly need it and are taking longer to recover?
- How can we build on the newfound acceptance of change and keep driving forward?
The sector will be forever transformed. And it will need to continue to change and adapt. There will be more focus on sector wide systems that can be used to draw different surviving services together – funders will need to be on the ball in terms of “choosing” and investing in these services and systems and ensuring they can be used from the frontline up to national public service systems.
This will be the time for pulling together our learnings and evidence on the contribution our services have made to be clearer about our value and impact and use it to lobby for the additional centralised support we will so desperately need.
- How can we propose and deliver intelligent mergers without ego and drama?
- How can we be clearer about our value and impact? Not just to funders but to government, corporates and society.
- How can we provide the services we truly need in 2020, not the ones some have been hanging on to since 1995, without compromising principles and value?
- How can we work together, equitably? There will be losers (some execs and managers who will need to re-purpose) and that needs to be OK.
So these are thoughts. They’re questions more than answers and certainly not right answers but hopefully they are a step towards getting there. Scenario planning, logic models (inputs to impact), risk/consequence scanning and getting on with it have never been more important – not immediately but soon. Strategy and real life implementation and change support. Don’t panic, there are people to help. The future is scary but hopeful. We will get through this and it will be different.
And a final point. If you are stuck, reach out. What are your challenges and needs? We might be able to help and, if we cannot, we’re sure others can.
Illustrating picture by Eric Ravillious. Simon has also published this piece on his own website at http://www.drsimondavey.com/journal/2020/3/30/an-implications-map-for-legal-and-advice-needs-right-now-and.html.