Cuts to budgets and a raft of policy reforms have left local authorities at a crossroads.
With hard choices to make between different innovative and cost-effective solutions, working more closely with Citizens Advice can be the way forward for councils.
For 75 years our service has provided communities around the country with free, trusted and independent advice and helped them work through their problems. Citizens Advice is on hand when people need help with a range of problems, from appealing incorrect work capability assessments to payday loan debts and disputes with their landlord. With this insight, bureaux can offer councils three crucial opportunities on data, outcomes, and a whole-person approach.
First, Citizens Advice can be a local authority’s eyes and ears on need. The front-line nature of our work means we know all too well the issues facing households struggling to get by. Our data can be filtered down to a local level to highlight the problems on a single council’s doorstep. This kind of evidence can provide local authorities with the tools to meet the requirements of joint strategic need assessments.
Second, new evidence shows our advice gets the desired outcome for most people. Recent research shows that we solve two in every three problems. When problems go unsolved it is most often because of external barriers. Councils have an opportunity to look into these obstacles and see if any are within their control.
Third, we are part of local partnerships which ensures no problem is treated in isolation. The success of these services is that they cater for people with a whole-person approach that tackles the links between problems.
On average people who seek our advice for debt need help for between three and four different issues. Over half of people we speak to with money worries find their debt affects their physical health.
Our team in Derbyshire works with the local GP service to help tackle the causes of some people’s health problems. GPs trying to help patients are able to refer them on for practical support to tackle underlying issues. The bureau has found that people have been able to come off their medication for depression after the bureau helped them sort out their money problems.
We also recognise that sometimes people’s problems are issues affecting the wider community. Consumer empowerment partnerships run in 20 bureaux around the country to help inform people about their rights. A second key part of their work is providing evidence to trading standards to crack down on scams and rogue traders. By strengthening their own partnerships with Citizens Advice, local authorities should be able to tap into these networks and ensure that all parties who need to be involved can work together to get the best results.
Our staff and volunteers have a strong tradition of working closely with local government to meet the varied needs of local people. This partnership is invaluable when it works well, providing a safety net of support for residents and ensuring they can access the local services that will help them.
Bureaux can also help save councils money. In Hammersmith, the bureau was able to turn a local library facing closure into a community hub offering advice and library services. This is a model that we hope can be reproduced to pool resources in other areas. By sharing the workload of local need, bureaux and local authorities can be each other’s backstop.
Each year, more than a million people turn to their local Citizens Advice Bureau for help with debt problems, welfare and housing issues, employment difficulties, and many other concerns besides. With shrinking budgets, neither local authorities nor Citizens Advice Bureaux can afford to operate alone and both have much to gain from working closely together.
Gillian Guy, chief executive, Citizens Advice