29 December 2020
I wrote this first for two colleagues in CARBS Research and Campaigns who are new to Citizens Advice. We had briefly shared experiences and backgrounds and I thought having something about my experience as a volunteer adviser might help them understand the client-facing role. Their kind response encouraged me to publish it here. All views are my own.
Mike Locke is a member of the CARBS Research and Campaigns team.
I took retirement in 2009 from a career in IT and looked for some voluntary activity that would provide a challenge as well as making use of any residual skills.
I applied to the CAB (as I will always call it!) and was very pleased to be accepted as a trainee volunteer adviser in 2010. I continued as an adviser until summer 2019 when I felt I needed a change and decided to take a break. I kept in touch, though, and when our Research and Campaigns Coordinator appealed for volunteers in 2020 I was quick to apply. My new start is underway. Here is the back story.
Our office (now demolished) was in Cromwell Road, Redhill. We had the luxury of four interview rooms and almost all client contact in 2010 was face-to-face. As a trainee, I would sit in on an interview (with client’s permission) and take notes. When the client left, I would discuss my notes with the experienced colleague. In time, I was allowed to enter these notes into the record system (then called Case). In parallel with the observations, I attended a number of courses on the various enquiry areas. These were usually in Guildford and I attended with two other trainees who had started on the same day as me.
My early client contact was usually at drop-in sessions on Monday and Thursday mornings, with appointments on Tuesdays and Fridays. The office closed on Wednesdays but for staff meetings and the occasional client.
After the initial interview with a drop-in client, the adviser and supervisor would decide whether to continue dealing with the case at the same session. The alternative was to offer an appointment to address the issues in what would ideally be a less pressured environment. This would depend on the urgency of the client’s needs, the availability of appointment slots and to be honest the length of the waiting room queue.
Taking just enough information to facilitate an appointment was known as a gateway. Some volunteers trained to be gateway assessors, with a less rigorous training schedule. When I joined you had to train as a full adviser.
So here I am, allowed to see clients all on my own, getting that strange mixture of excitement and trepidation each time I go into an interview room. A telephone adviceline service has started, based in Banstead, but most client interactions are still face-to-face. To take the motto of the unlamented News of the World newspaper “All human life is there”. I thought that in my sixties I had life experience, but I was still occasionally shocked by what some clients had gone through.
There were four stages to an interview:
In the exploration, we were encouraged to get a full picture of life in the client’s household, so we could look at the situation holistically.
There were two primary sources of information on which to base our advice to clients: Advice Guide (a website available to the general public and often sufficient for simple enquiries) and AdviserNet (much more detailed, for adviser use). We might also refer to a small number of trusted sources – Government websites (greatly improved in recent years), or the Shelter website for housing. The adviser would document each client interaction in the record system and give the source reference for each piece of factual information discussed.
The role of Supervisor was pivotal to the drop-in operation. They would:
In some enquiry areas, advisers could not give specific advice without seeing certain documents, e.g. a tenancy agreement for tenant/landlord disputes; a contract of employment for work-related issues. We would photocopy such documents and store the copies in a client file in an ever-expanding set of filing cabinets. Later we acquired a scanner and moved to saving scanned images rather than sheets of paper. Recently, a team has completed the task of scanning then shredding these historical photocopies.
At this point a clarification: we advise on a range of subjects, but do not give “legal advice” or “financial advice”. These are regulated activities for which we are not qualified but it can be a fine line.
Gradually we moved away from seeing new clients only via drop-in. Telephone advice grew, as did email and Web Chat. I don’t have the figures, but my impression was that the number of clients coming to drop-in did not fall significantly despite the alternative means of delivering advice. A new record system, Casebook, was introduced which we are using today.
A move to new premises meant fewer interview rooms but not fewer clients, putting pressure on supervisors and advisers to speed up client turnover.
I felt the holistic exploration sometimes took a hit, as there was pressure to deal with a client and free up the room for the next. In a major change to established practice, we began to offer drop-in and appointments every day. We hoped demand would even out over the five days. Fortunately, in the past year we have been able to recruit more volunteer and staff advisers.
I took a break. Six months later, along came Covid-19. We are currently not seeing clients face-to-face, but have recruited two new colleagues for community outreach in a Covid-safe environment. It’s not yet clear how feasible this will be in a Tier 4 or virtual lockdown.
I suspect few of our traditional clients are higher-rate taxpayers. They tend to be renters rather than landlords, borrowers rather than lenders, employees rather than employers.
Adviser colleagues have told me that in the current telecoms-based setup, we are ‘seeing’ (‘speaking to’ would be literally correct) a more technically-aware type of client, happy to research online, decide what to do, and just give us a call to ensure they haven’t overlooked anything.
That’s fine, but I wonder if we have lost contact with another group of clients.
Every drop-in adviser will have come across the person, or maybe a couple, who pulls a letter from their pocket, says they have been worrying about it for days, and could we please help them read and understand it. They will not have the confidence, and maybe not the literacy, to phone Adviceline and ask for help. I hope we will be able to make provision for that type of client in the post-Covid world, whenever we get there. I’m pleased that highlighting the effects of digital exclusion will be part of my Research and Campaigns brief.