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Smart minds thought lockdown would change the way people accessed services. They were wrong.

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This column was first published in The Herald on 8 June 2024.

Regular readers of this column will know we often talk about how the CAB network is embracing new technologies to improve and extend our service offer, about how you don’t have to physically go into a CAB to access our advice: you can do so by phone, email or online. We recognise that different people want different channels and offering choice is paramount to what we do. 

In explaining all of this however I sometimes worry that we might seem to imply a down-grading of our face-to-face advice, as though there’s something out-dated about it, or worse still that it’s being phased out. Nothing could be further from the truth. And I came across a remarkable statistic in our data recently that underlines this.  

Since the lockdowns, provision of face-to-face advice across the Scottish CAB network has increased by 249%. Isn’t that remarkable? 

During lockdown, it wasn’t possible for people to physically visit a CAB, yet people needed our free, impartial and confidential advice more than ever. As a result, our 59 local CABs in Scotland – along with many other organisations – had to transform their operations, practically overnight, to offer their service only by phone, email and online. 

And if you remember, there was a lot of sage talk around that time that this would be the new normal. “Ah yes,” went the argument, “it’s a shame it’s been forced on us in such an unfortunate way, but lockdown has just hastened the inevitable. People will get used to accessing services remotely and they won’t want to go back to travelling into towns to actually talk to people.”  

In 2021/22, the proportion of Scottish CAB clients who accessed our help at least once in person was 12%. The following year it was 30%. This year it had grown to 41%. 

Meanwhile a recent YouGov poll has found that 68% of Scottish adults think face-to-face advice on complex issues is important or very important - an 11% increase from a similar poll in 2022. Those saying it is ‘not important’ fell from 30% to 24% over the same period. 

But this doesn’t surprise me. Yes offering new platforms is important, but the heart of our service has always been based on the value of - often local - connection. Of being able to see your adviser face-to-face, seeing their expressions, accepting a tissue or a cup of tea from them as you talk through your problems. 

So sometimes the wise old sooth-sayers of social trends are not as smart as they think they are. It turns out that people have their own plans, which means those sorts of predictions don't always age well. If you find something pleasing in that, you’re not the only one. 

Indeed there may be a message in all this for those agencies who are so keen to move to digital only platforms, getting rid of the local face-to-face option altogether because they claim people don’t want it any more.  

For the Citizens Advice network, that has never been – and never will be – the plan. Yes we are constantly striving to find new ways to enable people to access our advice. But these will always be in addition to our face-to-face offer, never to replace it. That’s a prediction you can count on.