The Citizens Advice service has dual-aims — we provide the advice and information people need for the problems they face and we work to improve policies and practices that affect people’s lives.
When I first joined the service at another local Citizens Advice back in summer of 2014 training our volunteers, the research element put me off. I am not a statistician or able to interpret complex data.
There is a really important role for that and it is made easier through the variety of reports that are able to be produced on a national scale right down to individual postcodes.
Our research & campaigns can be — and often is — a lot more simple than that.
Take our situation in Wokingham. Council tax debt is the most frequent debt problem we see, and has been for a number of years. This is something that is not unfamiliar to local offices across the country — with Citizens Advice stating that as other debts have fallen, council tax arrears has risen sharply since 2013.
I took on the role of Chief Executive at Citizens Advice Wokingham in November 2018 and attended my first research & campaigns meeting run by our volunteers just a few days later.
We looked through our top-line data where we can see the topic issues we see, along with the top benefit and top debt issues. Council Tax arrears comes out on top in terms of debt. So the team identified it as a priority.
Our other priorities identified where:
- Promote Big Energy Saving Week, where we can help educate people on saving money on their fuel bills
- Mental health — as the most common health problems our clients have, how can we more appropriately respond to this additional need
- Universal credit — helping national Citizens Advice fix the system
Part of the work of our research & campaigns group is to raise the profile of our work, by hosting stalls in town centres and supermarkets — which can be really enjoyable and rewarding (especially in the sunny weather!)
Following the meeting identifying our priorities, we organised a meeting with the leader of Wokingham Borough Council — our local authority, and discussed some of our key issues and what could be done about them.
On Council Tax it was immediately agreed that:
- All letters relating to council tax arrears — from the earliest stage, now have a paragraph about contacting your local Citizens Advice if they need help with debt or understanding the letter
- Monthly surgeries would be held at the Citizens Advice office with our Debt Supervisor and staff from the Council Tax collection team — so that the client, and our residents, can have one meeting to discuss a way forward and agree an action-plan/next steps together
- A review of Citizens Advice council tax protocol to consider signing up to it as a Borough Council
Although quick wins, and very quick in our case, this makes a big difference to those in need. Rather than letting the debt escalate, residents are encouraged to seek help at the earliest opportunity, before it snowballs — so that we can work together to resolve the issue(s).
Research & Campaigns work also focuses the minds of trustee boards and managers, identifying funding bids or priority areas of work to ensure we support our local communities in the best way we can.
I would encourage you to give it a go. Volunteers and everyone who works across the Citizens Advice services have a significant impact on peoples lives — we’d love for you to be involved.
Our Research & Campaigns work is a flexible way of doing that. Some volunteers work it around their full-time job, through activity on an evening or a stall on a one-off weekend.
Contact your local Citizens Advice for more information: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/support-us/volunteering/