Reflections after 5 years of chairing StepChange.

StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity
5 min readApr 29, 2024

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by John Griffith-Jones, Chair of the Board of Trustees

John Griffith-Jones has chaired StepChange since 2019 and will be stepping down on 30 April when his successor, Lesley Titcomb, takes the Chair. Here, he reflects on what has changed during his tenure and the landscape that lies ahead for the charity.

When I became Chair of the Board of Trustees in 2019, we hadn’t yet entered the Covid years, energy prices hadn’t skyrocketed, and the cost of living didn’t have the epithet “crisis” seemingly permanently attached to it across the media.

It’s StepChange’s hard-pressed clients who have borne the brunt of this series of unfortunate events, but the charity itself has also had to adapt to a very different landscape than the one we had planned for.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’d like to think that this is the spirit in which we, as a Board and as a charity, have sought to navigate the unexpected scenarios in which we have found ourselves. Our goal has been to protect the charity and secure its ability to continue to provide relevant, meaningful service for as many clients as possible, far into the future.

Sometimes this has been challenging. When Covid began to exert its stranglehold on the economy, we saw, despite often apocalyptic predictions, markedly fewer clients coming to us for debt advice. This trend was seen across the sector, a result of widespread forbearance and emergency support put in place to protect jobs and incomes, and all credit to the government, the regulators and the banks for so doing. Of course, many households faced reduced incomes or job losses — but for many, these were problems stored for another day.

The significant drop in new clients coming to us meant fewer clients entering or maintaining the affordable debt repayment plans that are the mainstay of our managed service solutions. This, combined with the abrupt ending of the funding put in place to support the sector through the pandemic meant we had to recut our cloth — and rapidly. It was a source of great angst that we had to make redundancies to our frontline advice team, despite knowing that service demand would ultimately rise. The funding constraints under which we operate — and had been trying to change for years — had never been laid bare so starkly in real time before.

However, to employ another maxim, necessity is the mother of invention. Realising that we had to do more with less, we really pushed hard on our ongoing transformation programme to ensure that we could deliver high quality advice more efficiently, by improving our systems and freeing up our advisers’ time spent both on admin and on getting each individual client through the debt advice process. I know that the word “efficiency” is too often viewed as management speak for job cuts. In our circumstances that would be very unfair. We know that every minute not needed on one call frees up a minute to spend on another one. Thanks to the successful, if a little painful, installation of Pulse, the ongoing efforts to fine the optimal usage of online versus telephony and society’s increasing comfort with technology, we have genuinely transformed the way we now interact with new clients. At the same time we have been keen to make sure that the clients are as satisfied with the way we deal with them as we are. Our more recent initiatives around the voice of the client should ensure that we remain the wholly customer centric charity that we want to be. This has been a signature project throughout my tenure as Chair, and will, I trust, remain so long after I am gone. While our initial focus was on improving efficiency at the front end of debt advice, our attention has now turned to back-office systems, and I am confident that my successor will see through to fruition the benefits to clients, advisers and our creditor partners of our back office optimisation programme of work.

Funding of the sector as a whole, and of StepChange in particular, has been, and remains, a perennial challenge. I shall never fully understand how the Money and Pensions Service reached the conclusion that should no longer fund us directly, and I am confident that in due course they will bring us back into their tent. Meanwhile self help not self pity is the order of the day. Our leadership team has done a superb job in persuading our private sector financial institution partners to fill the gap, at least for now whilst we collectively lobby for a change in the future funding structure. All of our colleagues should meanwhile take huge credit; the extra funding would never have been made available if there was no recognition of the importance of what we do and the effectiveness of the way we do it.

Looking ahead, it isn’t all challenge, though. There is opportunity too. The FCA’s Consumer Duty framework provides a new lens through which our creditor partners can look afresh at their aspirations for how they work with us. Our rich client data and our experience have found new value in the new environment where evidence-led, outcome-focused customer care has never been more important, nor its demonstration more essential to meet regulatory expectations. This is fantastic for us; knowing that we can add real value to our partners, as well as to their customers, is hugely satisfying and really in the spirit of creating the virtuous circle of behaviour, learning and refinement that is at the heart of the Consumer Duty.

As we look ahead, it’s to be hoped that the negative budget knife-edge on which so many households have been teetering may become less acute as interest rates and inflation fall, but there is no prospect in the near term of an end to problem debt. So StepChange and its services are going to be much needed for the foreseeable future. As the charity continues to evolve, I wish my fellow Trustees, and especially Lesley as the new Chair, every success in finding ever more effective, successful and long-term solutions to some of the embedded structural challenges in the consumer debt and advice funding landscape, to improve the operating environment for StepChange for many years to come.

I should like to thank all of my StepChange colleagues for their combined efforts and their commitment to our clients. Especial thanks go to Vikki, the executive and senior leadership teams, with whom it has been a privilege to work.

My parting thought is that during my five plus years with the charity you will have given debt advice to close to a million people. I shall treasure that pride.

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StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity

We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.