The Internet has changed everything. Digital is the technological enabler of the century. 25 years into the era of digital transformation, it continues to change the organising principle of every industry it touches, in the most part for the better: finance, retail, media, transport, energy. It’s been the lifeblood of organisations that have embraced it, and often a death sentence for those which haven’t. It’s forced organisations to fundamentally change how they’re structured and these characteristics are not going away.
In the first of our Tech for Good + Institutions series, we talk with Head of Advice, Information and News at the Citizen Advice Bureau, Beatrice Karol Burks, about the UK’s largest advisory provider digitally empowering its users with new and accessible problem solving tools
As one of the UK’s most revered institutions, Citizens Advice Bureau stands as the nation’s largest advice provider. With its tagline, ‘a charity for your community,’ an open door has been given to people seeking impartial and confidential information on consumer rights, debt problems and housing issues since the Second World War.
With its affectionate image of blue and yellow leaflets, woodchip veneer tables, 1990s BT telephones and salt of the earth volunteers, the Bureau has over the last few decades carved its way into the British institutional heartland. Amid the challenges faced by charities caught up in the digital revolution juggernaut, opportunity rests on the shoulders of Beatrice Karol Burks of lifting the Bureau from, what she herself describes as “flat content into dynamic online tools.”
The practicalities of such a digitally accessibility process with the Bureau’s clients at the core has been harnessed by the launch of Digital Advice Content. Rolled out in the past month and piloted in connection to Universal Credit policy issues, the platform is in its infancy for advisor and client use.
Beatrice explains, “What we’re trying to do is change the experience of our online advice so that it feels much more like the kind of service you’d get face to face or on the phone. With our flat content, at the moment, it’s very much about educating clients with all the information about say, bailiffs for example, so that they have to find what’s relevant in that context for themselves. Changing it into dynamic content should enable us to get clients and users to the specific answer to their question or problem faster. So it’s a shift away from attempting to educate somebody about the broader issue to direct problem solving.
The remit of the Bureau is vast, with a call out made for more volunteers across the UK in the past year due to the increase in advice sought around the Government’s welfare reforms. There are current approximately 320 bureau in 3000 locations with 22,000 volunteers, many offering their time only one or two days per week. Advice can also vary greatly depending on where people live in the UK.
Beatrice chatting with us at the Citizens Advice London Office
Despite the challenges the above numbers and variations imply, empowering advisors and clients with its Digital Advice Content is paramount to the evolving structure of the Bureau. Following on from its service modernisation programme, focus has been paid to ensuring everyone within in the charity works as one service. Beatrice says, “We aim for one experience for our clients be it face-to-face, on the phone or on the website. If we can help them to ‘own their problem’ they can also own the solution. That’s the really important empowerment issue.”
In pragmatic terms, Beatrice uses a vivid analogy of how the Bureau’s digital experience aims to correlate with that of the traditional face-to-face service. She explains, “If you have a scenario in a bureau when someone runs in clutching a letter from a bailiff firm that has just dropped through their door, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ What we don’t do is say, ‘Oh right here you go, take a seat we’ll make you a cup of tea and give you a brief history of how the bailiff laws in the UK have changed.’
“You sit down and you say, ‘Okay, you don’t have to let them in. Is there anyone in the house that you need to let know. Do you want to talk about debt problems and maybe we can sort out a way to manage them?’ At the moment, you don’t get that experience on the website and the fact we give people so much information on bailiffs means that the one piece of information you need to know i.e that you don’t have to let them in is hidden and users get deterred.”
Design of the Bureau’s new digital tools intuitively takes into account the spectrum of mental health issues associated with a percentage of its clients. “Bearing in mind,” Beatrice says, “that many people come to our website in quite an agitated state, are claiming sickness benefit, or might be depressed or have other kind of issues, we need to make sure we are really conscious of that and are able to get the info to them in a way that allows for more fragile states of mind.”
Co-designing the Digital Advice Content has been intrinsic to the Bureau’s iterative research process. Explaining this in regard to the breadth of client needs, Beatrice says, “On the one hand, we might have someone who is really depressed and claiming out of work benefits or we might have someone who is trying to take a dress back to a shop that has said they can’t, and they aren’t sure of their rights. We’ve got to make sure that the look and feel of the content is consistent and accessible to both of these ‘audiences’.
Among the challenges of rolling out new digital training and skills, step in those salt of the earth volunteers who give their time freely to help Bureau clients across the UK. Beatrice says, “In many ways participating in user research is another way to volunteer and many are fantastically willing to do so because they are so bought into what we are trying to do as an organisation that they want to be part of making it better and are really enthusiastic to have the opportunity to be involved in quite a meaningful way.”
Digital Advice Content explaining issues around Universal Credit is now live on the Citizens Advice Bureau site, with further pages relating to benefit entitlement and energy providers due to be launched later this year.
" 25 years into the era of digital transformation, it continues to change the organising principle of every industry it touches, in the most part for the better. It’s been the lifeblood of organisations that have embraced it, and often a death sentence for those which haven’t."