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Emergency measures introduced for the pandemic can lead to new ways of working

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This column was first published in the Herald on 26 May 2021.

With the easing of restrictions, the roll-out of the vaccine and the hope that lockdowns are a thing of the past, a lot of us are looking forward to what comes after the pandemic in terms of how we live and work. Are there lessons to be learned, and good practice to continue?

The Citizens Advice network faced huge challenges over the course of the pandemic. But looking back on it, I believe we have been a model for good practice in how a national network can quickly respond to a sudden change in the environment and keep delivering for their clients. I know that every business, agency or charity has faced challenges this year, but I believe our response holds useful lessons, as we emerge from this pandemic with a structure and service offer that is stronger than ever before. Let me explain how.

The initial lockdown last spring posed a huge challenge to the Citizens Advice network in Scotland, as all of our CABs – like every other organisation - had to physically close their doors. But CABs as individual charities can’t simply shut down – especially in a national crisis. With the huge uncertainties created by Covid, people needed the CAB network more than ever. It was clear that we needed to quickly transition to offering advice in whatever ways we could.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of the network’s staff and volunteers, Scottish CABs didn’t miss a beat, switching swiftly to remote working and offering advice by phone or email. This meant there was practically no break in our service, and over the course of the pandemic we have helped over 165,000 people, with a total of nearly 1 million pieces of advice.

That transition wasn’t easy though. Indeed the initial lockdown saw our network briefly becoming a temporary courier service, ferrying laptops and other equipment across the country so that the CAB advisers could work from home. In just a few weeks last March and April we delivered around 900 laptops to ensure people would get the help they needed.

The other major change our network instituted was to establish Scotland’s Citizens Advice helpline (SCAH) as an emergency response to the pandemic. Again, no easy task to do in a hurry.

What people might not always appreciate about Citizens Advice in Scotland is that we’re a network of independent charities, with each of the 59 local CABs organised and run locally to best suit their needs of their community.

However, as lockdown happened it was clear that demand for advice was going to be significant, and while we pushed our Advice for Scotland website as a way for people to self-help, and local CABs continued to offer advice over email and the phone, we also took steps to establish – for the first time in our 80+ year history - a collective helpline, staffed through local capacity but delivering for people nationally.

And it soon became clear what an important decision that was. Over the past 12 months, hundreds of advisers have answered tens of thousands of calls, dealing with a vast range of needs for advice on the line and doing more for clients through referrals to their local CAB.

That again is an incredible achievement from our volunteers, advisers and managers during an unprecedented national crisis, helping a huge number of people through a new gateway to the CAB service across Scotland and who may not otherwise have had anywhere to turn – and all the while maintaining consistently high levels of quality advice.

The helpline – like all Citizens Advice services – is free to call and staffed by local experts. But it wasn’t free to set up or run, and we’re grateful for the funding, which we managed to obtain from a range of sources, including the Robertson Trust and the Scottish Government.

So now, as our local CABs gradually return to delivering more face to face advice, the next question for us as a network is whether such a collective gateway could be further developed . What we want to do is ensure we can deliver the advice that people need in a way that suits them best – be that in their local CAB, through our website, or helplines. So we’ve begun the process of ensuring the collective gateway remains. 

It will work of course as an additional option for people to meet increased demand: staffed by the local CABs. Indeed, some of the work we’re doing with the helpline will be about making sure it’s possible to re-route callers, web-chatters or website surfers to local advisers in their own area, who will be best placed to help them.

Our mission is to support people to access what they are entitled to and improve their confidence so that they develop resilience, enabling them to improve their lives. 

While we have made progress on our transformation journey, we won’t forget the origins of the CAB network: face to face advice delivered for people in communities by the people of those communities.  

Even in an increasingly digital environment the holistic advice service CABs deliver through face to face advice is impossible to replicate over the phone or webchat. 

So while we’ll ensure that people can access our services digitally, it’ll never be at the expense of face-to-face advice, which is the human and very local value of CAB work and essential for vulnerable people with complex cases. 

The experience of the past year has shown just how much people need access to free, confidential, impartial advice - and we’ll work to ensure that people can always access that advice in a way that suits them.