The twin aims of the Citizens Advice service are:
- helping people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free, independent and confidential advice, and
- influencing policymakers.
The first part is what most people think of if they are asked what Citizens Advice do. The second part is less in the public eye but is equally important. With over two million customers a year, the problems our customers face give us a unique insight into life in Britain – the difficulties people face and how these are changing. We get to see which new policies are working well – and which aren’t.
In Citizens Advice, we use the term “social policy” to cover those issues arising from work with customers where it appears that there is an underlying problem with a policy, service or practice. For example, if many customers are having difficulty completing a form it may be because the form is too difficult to understand. If it was clearer and simpler it may save customers time and it could also save the council or government department or utility company money as receiving forms with errors takes time to sort out.
How do we influence change?
A customer may come to one of our offices to seek advice on a particular problem and while addressing this, the adviser identifies this as an issue which could have an impact on other people as well. Having assisted the customer with their specific problem, the advisor than records information about the general issue and passes this onto a Social Policy Coordinator with any information identifying the customer removed.
We can then use the anonymous information locally if it is a local problem, sharing it with our local MPs, councillors or London Assembly members.
The anonymous report is also sent to the Citizens Advice Central Policy Unit where it is brought together with reports from other Citizens Advice offices across the country. In our policy research we combine these insights with analysis of wider social and economic trends, and set out new ideas to improve policy and delivery for citizens.
In this way social policy action can be a more efficient way of tackling the root cause of a problem than doing the same work again and again on behalf of individual customers who are all experiencing the same difficulties. Often problems individuals have will not be unique but will be part of a more general trend. Our social policy, research and campaigning means that we can even help improve the lives of people who have never visited a Citizens Advice office!
We don’t always get the changes we would like, but the solid evidence of the numbers of people we see who have problems in an area means that our proposals are listened to.
What sort of thing do we campaign about?
Sometimes our campaigns are aimed at consumers, trying to raise awareness of a particular problem. For example, used cars are the biggest single issue being reported to Citizens Advice consumer service – it deals with over 80,000 used car problems a year. So one month we ran a “check it – don’t regret it” campaign highlighting how to check a car’s mileage, see if it’s stolen etc.
Other times we think there need to be changes to regulation or government policy. Debt is one of the most common reasons for people to come to us, so from 2010 we could see how payday loans were becoming a rapidly increasing problem. Here is a summary of our payday loan campaigning from 2012 to 2014.
What are we campaigning on at the moment?
Find out more about: