If Data is the New Oil, Dispute Advice and Resolution Needs a New Engine

It is a bit hackneyed to say that data is the new oil. This usually refers to its commercial value – amply demonstrated by the digital behemoth that is Google. However, in public policy terms data may more be new oil in terms of a lubricant that calls for a re-engineeering  of services from information provision to the courts. You can get a sense of the possibilities from the Advice Trends published by Citizens Advice (CA) for England and Wales. Its monitoring of website hits is so sensitive that CA can correlate queries with external events. As the BBC reported for coronavirus: ‘The charity has … witnessed online traffic decrease during key press conferences and broadcasts by the prime minister and chancellor before page views “surge” again afterwards.’  CA has now published data on ‘3 months of a global pandemic’.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has led to an increase by almost a quarter (24 per cent) of people consulting the Citizens Advice website – reaching a total of 15.8 million times. This presumably is a combination of the closure of physical advice offices and the pressing nature of users’ queries. The trends in advice sought are understandable: ‘Searches on the charity’s website .. show this evolution of people’s concerns. In the first month, (11 March – 10 April) the top search term was coronavirus, in the second month, furlough, and last month, redundancy …  In the first month the charity saw a lot of changes in what people were looking for advice on – from flight and accommodation cancellations to sick pay and what to do if you can’t pay your bills.  By mid April, when the lockdown was well underway and government interventions in place, Citizens Advice saw the top five issues become very clear. Furlough, self employment, benefits, not being able to pay bills, and Universal Credit were consistently the most viewed pages. But over the last month, as things are moving towards a new phase, the data shows the pattern reverting to being more volatile. In the last four weeks [from 12 June] , as well as redundancy page views being on the rise, pages on ending your tenancy have crept into the top six most viewed. While numbers are lower, the page on divorce has been in the top five most viewed pages on Sunday’s since mid-May.’

The monitoring of data encourages both retrospective analysis and forward prediction: ‘As lockdown measures continue to be relaxed, and government interventions start to wind down, Citizens Advice expects to see continual changes as problems re-emerge. The charity anticipates it will see issues similar to the start of the pandemic like people struggling to pay bills and seeking advice on sick pay and benefits.’ So, the collection of post data can promote prediction and, thereby, forward planning.

Citizens Advice is in prime position for this level of digital feedback on the problems of the nation. It has a national network and website; and, in recent years, has developed a sophisticated national digital strategy. These were its ‘technology ambitions’ for the three years to 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 …’

The success of Citizens Advice as the nation’s premier provider of initial information invites the question of whether lessons can be learnt by three other related sectors involving in the resolution of disputes: other more disparate advice and information providers, those providing legal assistance and advocacy, and the final tier of courts and tribunals. Just asking this question implies another – what body or person might lead such a process?

Jump to the end point: courts and tribunals. They are proceeding to digitalisation at speed but there remains the question as to whether those driving this process (largely motivated by the need for savings) realise sufficiently the way in which digitalisation can release data. And, in particular, how relevant that may be both generally from the courts (feeding back, for example, on matrimonial law policy) but particularly in relation to tribunals which reflect disputes with, and deficiencies of, the State. 

Tribunals dealing with social security have, for example, traditionally been seen within a justice paradigm – something which justified their fairly recent integration with the courts. However, they are also a regulatory mechanism on a government service which chart its failures in ways which it would be helpful so that defects may be remedied. Even in relation to consumer disputes coming through small claims procedures, it would be helpful to know which provisions are causing difficulty and might benefit from government intervention of one kind or another. Similar lessons might be taken from feedback from legal practitioners and lay agencies into the policy process. 

Citizens Advice has had the luxury of making its own decisions on data and digitalisation.  For courts and tribunals, we have the possibility that the Ministry of Justice to jump in and provide a lead to the administrative agency that is Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Agency. Little sign of that yet, though. For legal services, the Legal Services Commission might once have taken the lead on data from legal aid: that would seem well above the interest of the administration-focused Legal Aid Agency.

So, who could lead on justice data? No one is going to buy setting up a new agency – or reviving an old one. The most practical option might be a Ministerial Advisory Group led either by a Minister him or herself or – controversial this – a figure that would garner the respect of ministers and providers. Tory grandees of a liberal bent and interested in access to justice – like David Gauke, once Lord Chancellor, and Dominic Grieve, once Attorney-General – may be due for a re-emergence once the current administration reaches its term (which might be rather sooner than it anticipates at the moment). No need for a great list of staff: just a couple of seconded civil servants who knew what they were doing.

Whoever leads the drive, Citizens Advice has done us a favour in showing what is to be done.

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