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Pat - Citizens Advice

Mountains and Lifeboats: Valuing Volunteers in Advice Services 

Our researcher Jim Thomas interviewed our member Pat Coomber-Wood, Chief Executive Officer at Citizens Advice North Oxfordshire and South Northamptonshire.

Lifeboat crews and mountain rescue teams are made up of highly skilled, highly professional volunteers – each time they step into action they risk their lives to save the lives of others. Volunteers providing guidance and advice on legal issues, financial issues and housing issues are also highly skilled, highly knowledgeable people, subject to the exact same rules and regulations of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Advice Quality Standards (AQS) as people providing similar advice in paid roles such as financial advisers and solicitors. A volunteer providing financial advice has to make sure that the advice is accurate, fair and honest. Such advice is just as likely to be life-changing as the work of a lifeboat volunteer or a mountain rescue volunteer.

So why don’t we value and celebrate this group of volunteers in the same way? 

Training and Vetting

Advice Service volunteers undergo full training to deliver the role regardless of their background or experience. What is most important is that they have the people skills for the role. Experience is an advantage but not a requirement.  

Volunteer Advisers come from all walks of life – many are retired professionals, teachers, health care workers, solicitors, people with financial backgrounds and HR specialists. However, we also get volunteers who may not have a professional background or are at the start of a career. Many are trying to change or establish a new career such as people who have been out of employment for a while or students. Anyone who has the aptitude, and more importantly, the people skills, and who is willing to complete the training and commit the time, can do this role.  

All volunteers undergo intensive training to be able to give advice on all the areas on the CA website and sometimes more. Training includes induction to using the Citizens Advice online systems, assessment of people skills and interviewing techniques, confidentiality and GDPR. The advice areas are Debt and money (MAPS accredited), benefits, housing, family, employment, immigration (OISC level 1 or 2), law and courts, and consumer.  

Volunteers in training get the opportunity to work through much of the advice area content online at their own pace as well as attend in person training sessions. Some prefer to do this in the venue and others like to work from home. They also get the opportunity to practice in simulated sessions and to shadow and observe other advisers working with clients. As they work through the training, they can start testing out their skills in 100% supervised client interventions – these may be answering emails or making phone calls, before moving on to seeing face to face clients. As they develop in their confidence and competence their supervision is reduced to the level required of all competent volunteers.  

We have robust quality assurance processes in place with random samples of cases being selected and reviewed by the national Citizens Advice quality assurance teams as well as the supervisor who will do 100% case checking on new advisers and reduce this as they demonstrate competence in the various advice areas.  

Specialisms

Advisers can go on to specialise in 1 or 2 advice areas such as benefits or debt and then will have clients who have been assessed as having these issues in the triage process allocated to them for appointments to provide specific support interventions. Some of our volunteers remain with us for many years – the most recent achievement has been to a volunteer adviser who has worked for us for 25 years! Other leave to go into employment and many become staff members taking on key roles in delivering the advice service.  

What do volunteers do?

An average day depends on your role however it could be like this: 

  • Arrive at the office (if not working from home) grab a cuppa, greet colleagues
  • Log into their personal adviser online account where all the data is recorded and where they find all the information, they need to deliver advice.
  • If the Advice Session Supervisor has any updates that are critical to share with the volunteer advisers, they will share them before the session starts.

Then the typical day is as follows:  

For face-to-face advisers – greet and start to process clients who have come to a drop-in session or have booked appointments.

This requires an initial triage assessment to determine what the client’s needs are, review any paperwork or other information provided, plan and prioritise what needs doing and when, and then action it. It also includes getting the necessary GDPR consent to hold and where necessary share client data.

Wherever possible advisers try to get the client to do the work required (teach a man to fish) however sometimes clients are simply overwhelmed, or they lack the skills required to do the steps to address the issues. In this case, the adviser will act for them. This may include completing paperwork, making applications, making calls on the client’s behalf, or making referrals to our specialist caseworkers or external partners who may be better placed to address the specific issue such as preparing for a tribunal, arranging bankruptcy or a Debt relief Order.  

Whilst supporting the client, the volunteer accesses AdviserNet – the bespoke Citizens Advice adviser guide to ensure that they follow the correct procedures with the issues they are addressing. They also always have an experienced supervisor at hand to ask for assistance if they are unsure or need some guidance on the steps to take to support the client, particularly if they are new and have less experience. Often, they also have to implement emotional support if the client is upset, distressed or occasionally angry.  

Once the client’s issue has been addressed and the client sent on their way with the problem resolved or with further actions to take before returning for another appointment, the adviser will write up the case on the client database including scanning and attaching all relevant client documentation and the advice that was given. Where necessary they will book follow up appointments or put tasks that will still need doing in the task queue to follow up later or for another colleague to address. This includes writing up evidence forms where clients have specific issues that we are researching as part of the campaigning work that Citizens Advice are so well known for. All this usually takes about an hour and then, on to the next client.    

Telephone advisers do the same as above, but they log into the Adviceline system and take calls as they come in. Some advisers work from home providing the digital service (phone, email, or webchat). Advice sessions are usually about 3 to 4 hours in duration with a brief break for lunch in between.  

All advice volunteers are required to do 2 sessions a week to maintain their level of competency at the required standard. Some do this in one long day and others prefer to come in twice a week for a morning or afternoon session. In some offices, we also offer evening sessions.  

Advisers also participate in regular training sessions to ensure that they are up to date with changes in any of the advice areas. This can be either in person or online depending on the training and the volunteer availability. Often online training can be done in their own time through webinars and online training modules.  

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