If you push beyond digital, what happens next?


Written by James Plunkett, Executive Director of Advice & Advocacy at Citizens Advice

18 months ago we decided to drop the word digital and broaden our CDO function into a team we call Customer Journey.

We wanted to be clear that our digital work isn’t defined by digital technology – it’s the method and mindset that matters. Our intention was to use these approaches to pursue a deeper and broader transformation of our service to clients. To take our digital work to the next level.

It’s been a fascinating 18 months, so I thought I’d share an update, inspired by this post from Matt Edgar on the great work his team is doing at NHSX.

Start at the endpoint

In late 2017, we began to develop a new organisation-wide strategy for Citizens Advice. We wanted a clear view of what we were trying to achieve.

The outcome – our strategic framework the Future of Advice – emerged from 18 months of conversation with our national and local staff and volunteers.

As a strategic framework, the Future of Advice is helpful for a few reasons.

It’s ambitious without being prescriptive. It sets bold targets — e.g. meeting 80% of demand for our service — without binding our hands on how we do that. This allows for, and in fact necessitates, experimentation.

I also like how the strategy starts from a customer’s view. It doesn’t describe our business model or processes, it describes what it will feel like to get help from Citizens Advice in 2022. Examples are that ‘our service will feel joined up’ and ‘you’ll get the level of support you need’.

This mix of ambition, flexibility, and customer-centricity, has focused our minds, motivating and guiding us as we turn to the real strategy: doing the work itself.

Creating the customer journey team

When it comes to the role digital plays, we wanted to be clear: our first order goal is to deliver on our vision for customers, improving the experience we give people when they need us.

Our Customer Journey team is defined by that goal, not the technology it uses. It’s built around skills, methods, and ways of working that are designed with that end in mind.

The team has two main objectives, both linked back to the overall framework:

  • Help Citizens Advice deliver a seamless customer journey
  • Meet more demand by building brilliant digital services

The first objective is agnostic about technology while the second brings in digital because it’s such a good way to help people at scale.

We’re pursuing these objectives in lots of ways (as our Director of Customer Journey, Rebecca, explains in her quarterly updates). Here are some headlines:

The team led a foundational piece of work to chart our customer journey – to show where we are today and to map an ideal journey for the future. This gives us insights into the pinch-points in our journey and the similarities and differences between the services we run. It will help us build tools, from service patterns to shared technology components, to make our services more joined up and efficient.

Working hand in hand with technology colleagues, the team has also prioritised work on the underlying capabilities we need to deliver brilliant advice. For Citizens Advice two platforms are particularly important:

  • Content management – to store and surface information in flexible ways, so that our advice is easy to find, access, and understand. This is partly about escaping from an outdated content management system. But it’s more about developing a new model for our content itself – a new way to structure and organise our advice so that the information is easy to work with.
  • Case management – to show where a person is in their journey with us, and so that we can make it as easy as possible for our advisers to give a good experience to our clients. Our case management system, Casebook, was our first big in-house product development, started back in 2015, and it’s been a success. (Here’s how we built it.)

For both platforms our goal is flexibility – to free our teams to build, test, and scale new services quickly, so they’re not constrained by the underlying tech. We want these constraints to be less prominent day to day, so we can focus on customer outcomes. To support and use these capabilities, Kylie Havelock is working with colleagues across our customer journey and technology teams on our product strategy and we’re investing in delivery (see Matt White’s weeknotes here). Within teams we also take care to get ways of working right.

Because we interact at high volume with the public – there were 29 million unique visits to our online advice last year – our data gives rich insights into public policy and the performance of our service. To make the most of this, we’ve invested in our data capabilities, hiring a Head of Data Science, Dan Barrett, and a Product Lead for our data systems, Duncan Baldwin.

In a big organisation, it’s hard to protect headspace to try new things. To help, we created an Innovation Lab to test ideas, see what works, and consider how successes can scale. Our Head of Lab, Kate Simmons talks about this work here and you can read about a recent experiment on speech-to-text here.

What we’ve learned

If I’ve made this sound simple or easy, it wasn’t.

We’ve learned lots along the way. We realised how much we needed a single operating model for our digital, data, and technology teams. We learned more about how to recruit brilliant people in high demand roles. (Summary: champion our mission, be diverse and inclusive, and build credibility in the tech for good community.) We realised we need to expand our capabilities in areas like technical and data architecture.

Then there’s the common challenge of having diverse methods and cultures in one organisation. And the connected challenge of how best to flex/adapt/replace the established processes in a big organisation, from procurement to project governance, with ones that better fit digital methods and mindsets.

Funding is another big challenge. Our core funding has been frozen for a decade, so we’ve had to diversify our income, and almost all our new income is in the form of restricted grants or contracts – a common story in the sector.

This raises tough questions. How do you fund technology infrastructure when funding is tied to individual services? How do you build shared capabilities and components? These are ongoing challenges that will take the sector and its funders time to work through.

One other lesson was around the implications of dropping the word ‘digital’. This prompted people to ask: if it’s not about digital, what is it about?

Although the word ‘digital’ has downsides, at least it annoys people in a familiar way. People often interpret it to mean things like ‘the people who own the website’ or ‘the people who build software’ – ideas that aren’t quite right but that at least feel reassuringly clear and contained.

Move away from those definitions and you’re in more honest and difficult terrain: this isn’t about websites or software any more, it’s more pervasive than that.

That means discussing bigger ideas. How to name, describe and evaluate your services. How to value design and empathise with users. How to try things out and learn as you go. This is really just a conversation about how to build and run good services today.

So how can you have that conversation well? My advice is to communicate more than you’d planned to. Avoid jargon when you can. Try to agree a shared language that sits above functions or disciplines. Be clear, particularly about the division of responsibilities: the things a central function can do (build platforms/components/patterns), the things it can facilitate (reconfiguring a service), and the things the organisation as whole should always own (culture, overarching goals).

In essence, going beyond digital helped us have bigger conversations about the services we provide.

Work like this is hard but I’m glad we made the leap. If anything, I suspect the hardness is a good sign (it’s when digital transformation gets easy that you should start to worry).

We’re learning lots, helping more people, improving our advice, asking good questions, and, perhaps most excitingly, building capabilities and cultures that will keep on delivering into the future.

If you want to come join us, we’re building a diverse team of dedicated and skilful people, so keep an eye on our vacancies and follow the people I mentioned above.

Originally posted here

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