Volunteer Trainee Adviser
What is your role?
I’m a Volunteer Adviser. It’s my job to give advice to clients when they have problems, and I can look at a wide range of things. We explore the issue, work out what the options are and give the clients advice on their next steps to resolve that problem, whatever it may be.
Is it your job to simply advise?
Obviously, the ultimate goal is to solve somebody’s problem, but quite often the problem is complex and you can’t always solve it in one advice session, or one meeting. If that’s the case, then you would give them the advice over a series of appointments. Sometimes you have people with different capabilities to be able to sort things out themselves, and often it may just be that somebody can’t access the Internet, or they have learning difficulties, or something like that. You may just be holding someone’s hand to take them through finding the information, or filling in a form, and those situations are easy to sort.
In more complex cases, you might have to refer them to a specialist, like an Employment adviser or a solicitor, or they might need an immigration appointment. It really depends on what the problem is, and what the person needs. It’s always better if you can equip someone with the tools to be able to help themselves, but not everybody can and things can be really complicated, sometimes even for people who know the system.
Have you volunteered in other positions here?
Initially, I was working here as an admin volunteer to get information and feedback from people who had used the service. The collected data was used when we applied for the funding from Wokingham Borough Council, so that the council had the information from clients such that they could decide whether they thought it was worthwhile to keep supporting us. Some data came through surveys that clients completed after they’d had an appointment, but the majority was through telephone calls to people who had used the service in the previous month. That was overwhelmingly positive, and it was incredible to see the feedback that people gave, how appreciative they were, and the range of situations that people find themselves in that you might never expect.
Is Citizens Advice Wokingham moving forward in terms of publicity and presence?
I definitely think that the new management have succeeded in shaking things up and breathing new energy into Citizens Advice here in Wokingham. Some of the changes are subtle; the waiting room is more welcoming and friendly, and there’s the column in the local newspaper, so that people can see that Citizens Advice is here. From talking to friends and family, I definitely think there’s an awareness that Citizens Advice is changing.
I still think there’s more that could be done to raise the profile of the service, because I’m not sure that people understand the breadth of knowledge and the range of topics that Citizens Advice can help people with. It’s vast, and there are so many people here with fantastic experience, and whether it’s benefits, housing [etc.], these are all quite complex things. A vast amount of benefits, for example, don’t get claimed because people don’t know that they’re entitled to them. When you’re already in an emotional state or you have other vulnerabilities, then having someone to take you through it is a good service.
What would you say to people who aren’t sure whether the service is right for them or not?
Sometimes there’s a perception that people who come to Citizens Advice are ‘just benefit-scroungers’, and it’s really not like that at all. Anyone could have a problem; it could be me next week, or you. Citizens Advice is for everyone! There’s no stigma to using it: it’s just a person with a problem.
Volunteer Employment Adviser
How long have you been volunteering here?
Three years now, I think.
What do you do in your role?
In my role, I specialise in employment cases. The way that tends to work is that if the general advisers see more complicated employment cases that need specialist input, they’ll refer the case to me. Occasionally, I see people who come in off the street if the ASS feels that they need specialist employment support. I tend to pick up the trickier employment cases; some of those cases we’ll obviously give advice on, and some of them we progress and support to an Employment Tribunal. I will support people who need to take their cases to law through that process.
What sorts of issues generally arise that you would handle?
I tend to get the slightly more complex ones, so these might be things such as discrimination cases, race, sex, and disability discrimination cases where it’s a bit harder to work out which piece of legislation applies. I also get unfair dismissal cases, but often they’re more complicated. They might be wrapped up in a redundancy situation, they might be wrapped up in a transfer situation, or a constructive dismissal, where specialist support would be required to look into a situation. People might have been treated badly in these situations, but have they been treated illegally? If we think they have been treated illegally, then I do a Merits Assessment. This means that I look into the strength of their case, and try to work out if I think they have a chance of succeeding if they were to take it to law.
Did you work in this field before you came to work for Citizens Advice?
Yes, my own background is in HR. I worked in that area for about 30 years, so I have a specialist background in HR. I’m supported by three employment lawyers, so if you want help on a case you can get professional support; I’m not a qualified employment lawyer, so I can get that support. They run seminars two or three times a year, so you get kept up to speed. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of good reference material on the website.
Do you think that people come here as a first point of contact or are they referred here?
It’s a mix. I see people who will have come directly; either they’ve rung in and spoken to a Telephone Assessor or they’ve come in to see an adviser who has referred them on. Also, we get people who have already initiated proceedings to go to a tribunal, and are pushed into a statutory process called Early Conciliation with ACAS. ACAS might recommend that they speak to Citizens Advice. Otherwise, they might have been to see a solicitor about supporting their case, and found that solicitors can charge thousands of pounds. I’ve had cases where people have already spent £5000 with a solicitor, but the solicitor has said that if you can’t afford it any longer, then the best thing to do is to go to Citizens Advice, so we get referrals from people coming back from solicitors. It’s a mix of cases coming.
Do you think that the public are aware enough that Citizens Advice offer these kinds of services?
Probably not. I see enough cases to keep me busy. Are there more cases out there that I could help with? Inevitably, there are. There was a regime introduced by the government about three years ago, where they imposed a fee structure on claimants: anybody who wanted to take a claim to an Employment Tribunal would have to pay between £250 to £500 to progress that claim. That got rid of a lot of complaints, because people simply didn’t have the wherewithal to progress those claims. Even though we saw them with good claims, they weren’t prepared to pay that sort of money to speculatively pursue it. Just over a year ago, that fee-charging regime was removed, so people can now go to an Employment Tribunal without paying any up-front fees. That has resolved more work coming our way, but there’s probably still a lot more out there, so there’s been a significant increase in the number of tribunal claims and there’s probably more that could come our way. Obviously a lot of claims that we take on are against local employers, so we have to be sensitive about parading our successes in terms of the local places where we’ve represented people against the employer.
How long have you been volunteering here, and what made you want to do it?
It must be about a year now. As for why I wanted to do it: it was a combination of doing something useful, plus having a little bit of an intellectual challenge and moving out of my comfort zone. Also, I had some interaction with Citizens Advice, as my friends and relatives had good experiences with them. I realised that there’s a lot of really good knowledge, and I wanted to have that knowledge anyway, because it means that I can help friends and family anyway.
What is the title of your role, and what do you do in it?
I’m a Gateway Assessor, which is essentially like a triage nurse in a hospital. I am the first to meet people, and do an assessment of their needs. I decide whether I can help them immediately, in which case I do, or whether they need more in-depth assistance, in which case we can book an hour-long assessment to go through things in detail.
How often do you manage to help clients solve their problems yourself?
I’d say about half, maybe three quarters of them we [Gateway Assessors] can solve immediately, because quite often people just need pointing in the right direction to understand where they can get information from (websites, and things like that).
Do you give any hands-on guidance to them, or is it more about signposting them?
There’s lots of really useful information on the Citizens Advice website, so that’s often a good source. If, for instance, we have a client who is dropping in with a quite specific question which can be resolved just by looking on the website, I would actually get onto the computer with them and interview them, show them the right website and ensure that they have the right link to follow it up. That often provides a simple answer to the question they have. I do this via telephone and face-to-face.
Do you think that we have a strong enough public presence, and are recent efforts to improve this going to pay off?
I think it definitely will be helpful to get a better public presence. For everyone who uses it and is aware of it, I think it’s got a good reputation. For those who aren’t aware of it, it doesn’t. Sometimes you would see Citizens Advice signs tucked away in dingy little offices in run-down parts of town, and something which perhaps gives a more positive impression would be great. For example, I would have thought that things like Cancer Research UK and those sorts of charities have a much more obvious presence as a charity than Citizens Advice does. Some of our recent work to change that will go a long way towards addressing it.
In that case, is it a question of branding? It is very clear that Cancer Research, for instance, aims to do research to fight cancer. Is that a bit more clear than Citizens Advice?
I think it is. I think that people wouldn’t know whether Citizens Advice is a charity or not, a subset of Wokingham Borough Council or what. There’s an awful lot we could do to raise awareness, and we need to be quite comfortable that, by doing it, we would get more people in. If we can do that in a way that allows us to get money in as well, then hopefully we’ll be able to handle that as well.
What I’d want people to know most of all is the amount that we can help with. I’d say to just come in and give us a try, and see if we can help.
What is your role?
Currently, I’m a volunteer Assessor, and I was about to start my Advisor training before the lockdown. The break meant that I got stuck there for a while (which is fine), but I was able to talk to our Training Manager two weeks ago, and now I’m about to embark on the training to become an Advisor. I started as an Assessor in May 2019.
Does that mean that you have to process through the stage of being an Assessor before becoming an Advisor?
Yes, that’s right. You can stay as an Assessor if you’d prefer, but I worked both at Woodley and Wokingham. At Woodley, there aren’t any Advicelines, but there are in Wokingham. I do face-to-face appointments in Woodley.
It’s very broad-based as an Assessor, so you are basically taking information from the client, and if at that point you can signpost them to our information and our website, or the website that is relevant to their issue, then that’s fine. If it’s a more complex issue, then you can make an appointment with a more experienced Advisor. It’s like a triage, almost.
What did you do on an average day at the Wokingham offices before the lockdown?
I would work with the other volunteer Assessors under the guidance of an Advice Session Supervisor, and take calls from the Adviceline. The public would ring in, and we would answer their questions to the best of our ability, or direct them to a more experienced Advisor. It was very varied. If the phone lines were quiet, and we had people dropping in, then we would also go to see if we could help them either on the day, or make them appointments.
How many people did you help on an average day?
It varies. I would say that I, personally, would deal with around four or five calls, and maybe around two people who had dropped in on a daily basis. At Woodley, it could get really busy, and we have three meeting rooms there, so we saw people constantly.
How much did the issues that clients presented vary, and how much did you need to signpost as opposed to handling on the day?
It amazed me, really, how varied the queries were. It could be anything from a simple parking fine to somebody who was about to be evicted from their home. It’s amazing how quickly you learn. There’s such a vast amount of experience among the Advisors and the Supervisor that you never felt as if you were on your own, so there was always somebody to refer to, and always a discussion that could be had, and all of us were there to help the clients. When people were obviously very internet-savvy, then you could offer them the option of emailing links to them, and telling them that if they still needed guidance afterwards, that they could just come back to us. We’re always there for the next step.
How have things changed since the coronavirus-induced lockdown?
Incredibly. Since the lockdown, things have changed; you never get anything parking-related now. In terms of clients’ issues, it’s never one issue per person. A lot of people have a lot of complex issues now, because the virus has affected so many facets of life that it’s really difficult for people. In the beginning, it was all about people getting their prescriptions and food parcels (because people couldn’t go shopping), shopping slots and food bank referrals. As it’s gone on, because that’s more established now, and people are used to how those things work, it’s become more serious. It’s people who have employment issues, undoubtedly, and debt. It’s the basic needs of life now.
Do you feel that people are comfortable navigating the systems that relate to these issues?
I think what was very clear to us from the start was that the internet was the way forward, and that if you weren’t internet-savvy, then it would be very difficult, particularly for elderly people who had never countenanced the internet before. There’s another group of people who just aren’t that into the internet, who probably had a smartphone but not laptops and computers because that just wasn’t in their realm of life. When you’re applying for Universal Credit, you need to have a computer. It’s really harsh. Even for us, as Assessors and Advisors, we’ve had a huge learning curve. I’d never heard of Google Hangouts before. I’ve learned so much about my computer.
When people were using the drop-in appointments before the lockdown, did you get the feeling that they were doing it because they preferred face-to-face interaction?
I think they wanted the human contact, and for us as Assessors and Advisors, there’s something about seeing them face-to-face rather than over the phone. We’ve had to adapt our style of communication. Some of my fellows are using Hangouts and Skype, but I think that people crave human contact when they’re on their own and they’re in a real pickle and struggling, then there’s something about a face-to-face conversation that is very reassuring.
Do you think that Citizens Advice Wokingham has really stood out to people as a prominent service during the lockdown?
Absolutely. I think the One Front Door approach in terms of us being the go-to charity has raised our profile within the community tremendously. The Facebook interview with the various charities that we interact with was really good, and Facebook in general has been a revelation in the lockdown. A lot of people communicate information on it. We’ve signposted people to Facebook support groups as well.