World beating data on access to justice – Citizens Advice, Amazon and the rest

At the base of legal aid and assistance pyramid in England and Wales has, since the 1970s been the Citizens Advice service (CA). Through a national network of offices and lay volunteers, supplemented now by a website, it provides basic triage services of identification, resolution and referral to more specialist advisers and practitioners. It does this largely unrecognised in most accounts of our legal aid schemes – which concentrate on the involvement of lawyers. Joined up thinking even within government is impeded by its funding largely outside the legal aid scheme. For example, £15m extra money (to include Scotland) to cope with rising demand during the pandemic came, for example, via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. CA is now reaping the benefits of a digital strategy developed with consultancy Sigma. One of the results has been a capacity to report on user activity which sets the standard for the rest of the world. This has been neatly displayed by a series of dynamic representations of activity during August. And to put it competitively, if your legal aid or services organisation cannot rival this degree of reporting, you are second best.

The Sigma brief included compliance with the usual design principles but also three key elements that go beyond presentation to substance:

  • A far greater emphasis on self-service, including integration with live chat, development of personalised user journeys and diagnostics, and leading-edge search functionality 
  • Community and collaboration features that enable people to interact with and support one another in a way that has never been possible before [and, crucially, in this context]
  • More focus on the advocacy and policy influencing arm of the organisation, supporting campaigns, publications, and white papers.

One aspect of the last is manifest in a drive by Citizens Advice’s external affairs department during August to publicise, largely via twitter, changing patterns of advice during the Coronavirus crisis. CA routinely publishes monthly data reports reporting on such matters as the most viewed advice pages (1 employment furlough 2-4 aspects of redundancy and 5 Coronavirus refunds for July). During August, It released a suite of five dynamic portraits of its work over a week. These came in the form of tweets:

Day 1- Katie Martin (@KMartUK) started it off with some overall statistics given graphically but not dynamically.

Day 2 – Gemma Byrne (@Gbyrne03), senior policy researcher, showed the rankings of advice pages visited over time (‘Furlough advice was the most viewed throughout – views of universal credit go up and down – Redundancy pages entered the top 5 in June and have stayed there since’)

Day 3 – Taha Abrar (@CAtahaabrar), senior data analyst, reported dynamically on one to one advice rankings – Benefits way out ahead during the whole period but with employment overtaking debt as the time goes on.

Day 4 – Tom McInnes (@tommacinnes), chief analyst, took his turn on rankings of issues raised in local offices – benefit issues were consistently the top issue between March and July

Day 5 – Laura Albrey (@Laurafromthenz), senior press officer, ended the week by showing how advice pages on divorce, wills and neighbours spiked at the weekends when they change the weekday distribution of problems.

Somebody, presumably boss Katie Martin, deserves congratulation for enlivening what would otherwise have been a slow news week with some interesting contributions. But there is more to it than that. From the bottom of the legal pyramid, Citizens Advice is issuing an implicit challenge. ‘We can produce dynamic visual information that reports on our work; offers transparency about our activity; and illustrates issues for government to address. What can you do?’

That is a call which should be heeded by others in the advice and assistance field from law centres to the Legal Aid Agency. Choose your measures of efficacy and performance, then tell us what you are doing. It is also a massive challenge to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. We know, for example, that tribunals are stuffed with benefits cases which the Department of Work and Pensions is unable or unwilling to decide competently. This is a report just yesterday: ‘The government has spent more than £120m in taxpayers’ money fighting disability benefit claims in the last two years – despite losing three-quarters of tribunal appeals, The Independent can reveal. Data shows the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) shelled out £61m on staff costs for the appeal process of the two main disability benefits in 2018-19, up from £44m two years before.’  Proper data from HMCTS will reveal that the costs are well beyond that when you include all the tribunal costs. Why should the Ministry of Justice suck up the consequences of DWP incompetence? The data should tell us what these are – in detail.

Governments are keen on comparing themselves with the private sector and ours is certainly spending more on it than ever before. But, they often only want to take some of the lessons. If you are setting standards in data and delivery than you judge yourself against Amazon. Citizens Advice seems to be doing well. Everyone else – not so much. That is a challenge to government (particularly HMCTS which is expressly undertaking a similar sort of digitalisation programme to that carried through by CA) but also to other non-government providers. Show and tell should be back in fashion.

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