by David Dunn, CAS Board member and chair of the UK Tech Cluster Group.
This column was first published in the Herald on 16 June 2021.
As a trustee of Citizens Advice Scotland there have been two things which have stood out in the operations of the Citizens Advice network across the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first is the significant increase in demand for service across the network. Now, more than ever do the citizens of Scotland need impartial, expert and confidential advice on the things that are worrying them most.
The second is the pace at which the whole network pivoted to remote delivery. Let me be clear, remote delivery should not and cannot replace the depth of interaction gained through face-to-face advice which is vital to understanding and overcoming the multi-faceted problems people face. But when it is impossible to see people in-person technology has to step up to the mark.
The pace at which the Citizens Advice network in Scotland has rolled out and adopted this technology – in the form of website access, telephony or other digital means – is impressive. It has also been the only way the network could have dealt with the aforementioned increase in demand for services.
I truly believe these additional methods of delivery will match the changing demographics of service users. Younger people have not been excluded from the negative effects of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, yet these are digital natives. Huge swaths of our population now need Citizens Advice support but prefer to look initially online for support. Many of these will get the support they need through our self-help tools such as MoneyMap.scot, but many also need additional in-person support.
Equally, many of our service users are not used to remote and digital delivery so we have had to ensure their access is not inhibited during the pandemic. This is done by aligning remote delivery closely to the in-person experience the Citizens Advice network is renowned for.
It is this in-person support which is the cornerstone of our services across Scotland. And core to this in-person approach is local knowledge, understanding and appreciation of geographic nuance. Achieving this local appreciation of situation is easy if someone is walking into a local CAB but more difficult to get right via remote digital or telephony delivery.
This is why I am delighted that Citizens Advice Scotland is working with two pioneering projects to help advance our remote digital offer.
The first project is with the Civtech 6.0 challenge funded by the Scottish Government. A tech challenge which drives innovation in service delivery and asks the tech sector to help solve a problem for which there is not currently a solution.
Specifically, we’re asking ambitious tech companies to help us find a solution to bring that local geographic understanding to our remote services. Our ideal solution would see someone phoning our helpline and the experience being just like walking through the doors of a CAB, with their call routed to a local adviser with all the additional knowledge and understanding that comes with being part of the local community.
The second project we are involved in is the CANDO Challenge, funded by Scottish Enterprise to use Artificial Intelligence (AI). We are using this project to make our insights, understanding and provision of advice more rapid. The benefit here to citizens is our advice will be more appropriate to them at the point they need it.
We are working with a Scottish SME Deepminer and a consortium including Robert Gordon University to pilot ways of horizon scanning for new advice needs and quickly changing our website content.
This is a really exciting project for me as it connects cutting edge technology with the needs of citizens across Scotland. Very rarely are there projects which use emerging technology and place its benefits in the hands of the broad population.
We’ll be using AI to understand what advice content needs changing and to scan social media in near real-time to find out what topics clients and the public are struggling with at present. The result will be our advice content writers will have the most up-to-date information to inform their content and have more time writing client-facing content. Technology will significantly increase our research capacity with little to no additional overhead.
Beyond the immediate benefits to the Citizens Advice network and the direct value to citizens using our services, I hope that both the Civtech and CANDO projects can also help us play a part as a network in promoting tech sector jobs in Scotland during the COVID-19 recovery.
In unprecedented times, I’m proud of the network for still wanting to grab these opportunities to continue to shape how Scotland’s biggest provider of free advice delivers services in a new and exciting way, whilst retaining our existing trusted methods. I’m also delighted that we are playing our part in making Scotland an Innovation Nation.
In the wider third and public sector, this is also increasingly how organisations are going to have to work to deliver better results for people. The pace of technological change, combined with lasting social and cultural impacts of the pandemic, will see demand for services change in the years to come, but also a change in how people want to access our services.
Digital adoption and technology innovation are opportunities I have a desire to see the Citizens Advice network in Scotland grasp. However, I’d also be the first to say this shouldn’t be at the detriment of tried and trusted methodologies honed over years of positive community impact. I’m glad that CAS and the Citizens Advice wider network are leading the way in digital activity that has the individual and their wellbeing at the fore.
David Dunn is currently the Chief Executive of SSC, an organisation focused on supporting the adoption of technology across a broad range of sectors. David is also Chair of the UK Tech Cluster Group which provides grass-roots level feedback about the digital sector to Her Majesty’s Government departments. Prior to working at SSC, David held a number of senior positions at the Regional Development Agency for the North East of England producing strategies on enterprise support, social enterprise and design-led problem solving.
Based on his doctorate, David has given talks on economic development through supporting tech sector growth in a number of countries including China, South Korea, the USA and in Europe. David also holds an MBA from Durham University and BSc from Abertay University.
You can read biographies of all CAS Board members here.