Yesterday, at our ‘Doing more with less’ roundtable, we brought together charities and funders from across the advice services sector to discuss the challenges of meeting increased demand with reduced resources. We kicked off with speakers from the CAB, Shelter and Baring Foundation; other contributors included representatives from Mind, Beat Bullying, Community Links, Cripplegate and Step Change. It was a rich and fascinating session, so before my pen runs away with me, I’ll attempt to draw out the key points:

Coping with cuts

Cuts to legal aid and local authority budgets are forcing charities to think long and hard about whether they are delivering the best advice services in the best possible way, and some have already made tough decisions to reduce or change existing services. Appealing to a broader range of funders and potential partners to attract greater funding was a hot topic—there was even mention of CSR arm-twisting, along the ‘polluter pays’ line of thinking. In terms of rationing, many do not advertise their services, and still demand outstrips supply, creating the need for a queuing system online or on the phone, and in some cases literally causing a waiting line outside the centres. A point that really rung home though is that just because demand falls (for example if you stop advertising a service), this doesn’t mean the level of need has too.

Face to face vs telephone and digital

This is a huge issue for the advice services sector, as clearly face to face services are far more resource intensive than telephone or online support. Many in the room reported switching to phone or digital services in order to meet increasing demand. There has led to some interesting innovations, for example, playing recorded information and advice to people on hold, offering the option to ‘webchat’ or speak face to face using secure video conferencing. However, there was also a strong sense that we would all ‘stand at the barricades’ of face to face, personal advice. Aside from the fact that it delivers more resolutions, (it’s all very well someone getting advice, but they need to follow through with it) there are a myriad of reasons why it remains the only option for some people, from digital exclusion and communications issues through to the sheer complexity of some clients’ need.

Advice first aid and early action

Sitting in a room full of advice experts it was easy to assume that if someone needs help, they seek information from the relevant provider. In fact, most people who seek advice, ask their friends, family or colleagues, or someone else in their community. The advice they receive is often wrong; understandably, most people do not know the ins and outs of employment law, debt or benefits. If someone in dire straits does seek professional advice, and they receive help and things are resolved, then this is considered a success. It is, of course, but surely it would be better to receive help long before reaching that crisis point? I think these two points are related, and boil down to availability and the promotion of advice services—we need to be more engaged in prevention to move away from always picking up the pieces. A suggestion was made to train people in giving basic advice support so that they can signpost to other, more specialised sources of support and information. There were also some interesting case studies of local centres doing outreach work in the community. I’m sure there’s more we could do here to help people get the right advice—before it’s too late.

Independence

Some organisations feel their ability to speak out and campaign on behalf of their clients is being stifled. A reference was made to the work of the Panel on the Independence of the Third Sector, which stated earlier this year that the independence of the sector is being undermined, and  there was a keen sense that charities should not feel that their right to use legal tools, such as judicial reviews, to prove important points (without fearing for their funding) is compromised.

Fragmentation of the sector

The advice services sector is terribly fragmented—everyone is so busy thinking about their own issues and how to adapt and evolve to meet need that very few are taking the time to look up and work through what the sector could achieve if it worked as a whole. As one participant commented: ‘It’s great when we have an event like this, and we talk to each other about all the things we have in common. Then we walk out the door and we’re a fragmented sector again.’

I understand why charities are preoccupied with their own issues, but Government is much more likely to listen to a united front. If we organise into a coherent movement encompassing the big names as well as those vital small, specialist players, then we would be more than the sum of our parts, and more of a force to be reckoned with. That’s my hope, anyway.

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