How tech innovation can keep Citizens Advice Bureaux helping people


Written by George Eckton, Director of Advice Services, Citizens Advice Scotland

There is a common misconception that innovation doesn’t happen in the voluntary sector – we somehow lack the spark, but it does, the two aren’t polar opposites. If Innovation is a process by which a domain, product, or service is renewed and brought up to date by applying new processes, introducing new techniques, or establishing successful ideas to create new value. I will detail why I think we do this but why we can’t do more of it in this blog.

We have the potential, a storage of good ideas but it takes longer to release, not due to lack of commitment, nor consistent leadership for successful innovation it’s the lack of constant financial power. This can drain even the most committed leader or visionary innovator. 

We’ve engaged in a number innovation challenges to fuel our digital augmentation strategy. Our first challenge looked at using tech to help our traditionally in-person service. This project saw CAS and CABs identify how we can continue to improve and develop our use face to face, digital and telephony capacity to build a relationship with citizens with them to meet their needs over the channel of their choice – by using no-code/agile service design to digitally augment our services, at large scale e.g. AI helpline but also small scale in terms of Notion App for event scheduling but also building out Chatbots.

Enthused by the results of working with the Civtech programme we moved onto two more challenges last year. One around developing a Volunteering app we think could form the basis of something which could be amended to provide better connectivity between our members which engage with volunteers to deliver projects at a local level and improve volunteer wellbeing. The second Challenge will help CAB advisers offer high quality advice to as many people as possible, by providing a solution that will help them to record case information more easily and allow them to draw upon the experience of other advisers, through the wealth of data held within the network’s case management system. Also, by improving personal data capture, CAS will be able to improve its ability to influence and campaign for change. 

This year we entered our third consecutive Civtech challenge process. We run a UK wide vulnerable energy consumer service and having an audience of clients where everyone is vulnerable makes prioritisation more difficult and missing things can have a huge impact for the consumer, cause serious harm or even be life threatening. Consumers who are vulnerable don’t always clearly and succinctly outline their concerns or feelings, which can make detection and identification of priority cases difficult under a load of information, some of it more relevant than others and the sheer volume can hide those in need of greatest help. We need a tool developed that allows us to quickly and reliably detect those consumers who have the most pressing needs which if undetected could have serious harm for consumer and also the colleague dealing with it. A successful product will help identify the consumer at most risk of harm, allowing targeted support to help those in need.

I also believe that automating elements of the horizon scanning and production processes for how we write our advice site content would deliver significant benefits for advice content writing and publication and we are working to apply AI to this process with partners. From the viewpoint that automated initial stages of production, would allow experts to focus on quality assurance, user experience design and future systems development, to ensure CAS can keep pace with change in the medium to long term in web content.

However, in the end the question remains how do we fuse the outcomes from our previous innovation projects into our core funding model? There isn’t the commercial cash to put in the meter once “innovation” stage is over, which means for charities its hard to keep progress it going long enough through the whole wiring of our service. This financial voltage is especially important for our sector where we could prevent/intervene early to disrupt and reduce detriment to citizens. We are a source of innovation as a sector, but my conclusion is that when it’s citizens and not shareholders you serve, it does make it harder to attract follow on funding after R&D and we need to change those models, as we can give wider commercial returns but charities need the funding to continue acting as an innovation test bed whilst investing their time in caring for citizens.

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