13 April 2019
Many people see public libraries and local Citizens Advice as natural partners. In some places they even work in shared or adjacent premises. Both sides seem to gain from the collaboration which is appreciated by users. Why should we expect such partnerships to create significant community benefit?
In 2018 Citizens Advice Reigate and Banstead began once again to work more closely with the borough’s libraries. In the past, the association had involved outreach advice sessions in library premises (including at Merstham). New and current initiatives include:
Encouraged by interest in these developments, we began to look at what might lie behind the chemistry. We identified 4 sources of evidence:
1) Surrey County Council: Have Your Say Consultation
SCC has been required to make large cuts to its budget. It must continue to make savings in 2019 and beyond and hard decisions are needed. To help them make these decisions in December and January Council Members consulted residents on the future of services including libraries and cultural services.
The responses to Have Your Say were published in January Council cabinet papers (ii). They provide a valuable picture of what matters to Surrey residents.
Key themes featured in the council’s analysis of qualitative responses are:
In expert analysis of the findings – Future of services: Results from resident survey Surrey County Council – m.e.l research say: “Libraries and cultural services sharing the building with other services gained the highest support (59%), which probably reflects a desire to retain these services, albeit in shared premises.” (iv)
2) Citizens Advice local and national
Local Citizens Advice are truly local. During 2019 their heritage will be front and centre in celebrations of the whole network’s 80th anniversary. Reigate and Banstead was there at the start in 1939.
In all the years, the permanent strength of local Citizens Advice has been its capacity to engage volunteers. It draws on a deep well of people’s concern for their community and willingness to give their time and skills to the well-being of neighbours.
At the same time, as network members, local Citizens Advice have access to the resources of national Citizens Advice. Their membership empowers a committed volunteer force through training and development, quality standards and massive online information support.
The weight and credentials of Citizens Advice based on local roots and national connections make local CA charities relevant and valuable partners for county and district authorities.
3) Local Citizens Advice-Library partnerships
Colleagues at Citizens Advice New Forest relocated to Ringwood Library in autumn 2018 (v). Hampshire County Council is changing its libraries model and co-location with other services is encouraged. With space available and good relations with New Forest District Council, the move made practical and financial sense. The CA premises budget fell by 50%.
CA people share space and a help desk with library staff. Visitors have access to a self-service advice terminal as well the library’s public access computers. There is just one separate interview room in which full confidentiality can be guaranteed. Initially, this was a matter of concern to CA staff but in the event has not caused any difficulty; when clients are asked if they are happy to speak in areas sectioned off by bookshelves very few opt for the separate room. The effect of co-location may be at work here; it’s known some people are deterred from entering a CA office by feelings ranging from embarrassment to fear; visiting the library, however, as a more ‘everyday’ activity, offers a comforting anonymity.
CA management also worried that the move to different premises and a different way of working would lead to volunteers leaving. In fact, the worries proved unfounded; everyone stayed, including colleagues who have been volunteering for 30 years.
Citizens Advice Caterham and Warlingham moved to self-contained office space in Caterham Valley Library just over 2 years ago. There is a separate waiting area and 4 interview rooms. The move has apparently been a great success: the common staff assessment is “co-location works”. Benefits mentioned include:
4) Shared aims and values:
Surrey Principles / CARBS Values and Activity
We looked our own values and activities in light of principles set out by SCC in its consultation on Libraries and Cultural Services strategy (see also above). Our analysis shows that CARBS complements and can enhance Council work in every principle of the strategy.
Surrey Principle 1 Libraries and cultural services provide and enable opportunities for everyone to learn, access information, acquire new skills, improve literacy and be involved in their communities.
CARBS work aligns perfectly with these opportunities. Every year our trained volunteer advisers improve the lives of thousands of Surrey residents by enabling them to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to play their full part as citizens.
Surrey Principle 2 There is a focus on the well-being and strengthening of communities, particularly the most vulnerable, to enable them to be resilient.
CARBS purpose could easily be defined in these terms. Our service is for everyone, whoever they are, whatever their problem. A higher proportion of clients are vulnerable in one or more ways – that is in the nature of our work. However we also advise many others who have run into problems, for example at work, with a purchase or a financial transaction.
Surrey Principle 3 Libraries and cultural services are most effective and efficient when they work in partnership with the public, voluntary, community and private sectors, including through the creation of shared spaces.
CARBS service is the primary care advice service, just as GPs are the primary care health service – our unique promise is to provide positive advice whatever the problem. In many cases, like family doctors, our advice is sufficient to help clients sort out their problems. In many others, we can recommend or refer them to other organisations or individuals for more specialist advice. Our role thus puts us at the heart of a concentrated network of local public and voluntary services.
Surrey Principle 4 New technologies, including digital, enable libraries and cultural services to reach new audiences, and existing audiences in new ways, and offer 24/7 access.
CARBS advice and record-keeping benefit from sophisticated new technologies shared across the national Citizens Advice network. We fully subscribe to the importance of keeping abreast of tech developments. Like Surrey libraries, we support hundreds of clients who are disadvantaged by poor or non-existent digital skills; and we ask public and private sector organisations to recognise that the lives of a large minority of people are affected by digital exclusion.
Surrey Principle 5 Volunteers are crucial community advocates and assets in libraries and cultural services, who also gain valuable skills and relationships through the work they do.
CARBS volunteer advisers and supporters conform precisely to this description. Through our people policies and the CARBS Training Commitment we make it our highest priority to ensure that volunteers develop new skills, acquire new knowledge and enjoy helping improve the lives of fellow citizens.
With thanks to: Sarah Henke-Monti, Citizens Advice Caterham and Warlingham; Jim Sanders, Citizens Advice New Forest; and Ghazala Hayat, Redhill Library.
(i) Library links CARBS, September 2018 > present
(ii) (Public Pack) Agenda Documents Cabinet (15MB), Surrey County Council 29/01/19
(iii) m.e.l. research, Future of services: Results from resident survey Surrey County Council, Final Report, January 2019
(iv) Extract from (Public Pack) Agenda Documents, see (2) above, Page 126.
(v) Citizens Advice New Forest Twitter December 2018