Citizens Advice Manchester launches first WhatsApp advice service
Initiative is latest attempt to reach growing numbers in need following budget and legal aid cuts
Citizens Advice Manchester (CAM) is launching what is believed to be the first WhatsApp advice service as part of a deployment strategy targeting groups excluded by conventional advice channels, Solicitors Journal can reveal.
The new debt advice service, to be run in conjunction with the Money Advice Trust and funded through their Innovation Grants programme, is aimed at hard-to-reach groups and, if successful, will likely be rolled out to other areas, says Dan Pye, head of specialist advice & legal services.
'Resources have become scarcer but advice needs have massively gone up in the city,' Pye says. 'We've been doing a lot of work around how people access and use our services, and looking at how we can provide an assisted digital service around Manchester. We've also been testing new delivery models, starting with this new initiative using WhatsApp to keep clients more engaged, especially younger people, to try and deliver further advice that way.'
The WhatsApp widget will be promoted on CAM's website and social media platforms as key around-the-clock entry points for users. The main step after that, Pye says, will be to assess the new service's efficiency.
'Does it keep clients engaged and can we use it to keep them on track? When a client comes through, whether by phone or face to face, the caseworker will ask whether they have access to WhatsApp, and if so, if they can take a picture of the court summons, council tax bill, or other relevant document and send it through WhatsApp.'
Even more important will be whether this improves casework efficiency when it comes to keeping in touch and following up with client. One particular hope is that it will help reduce user drop-out, a recurring issue with traditional advice channels.
'After the initial advice has been provided, we can go back to the client, say, three months later, and check with them whether they're on track or whether they need further assistance,' Pye explains. 'That's a way of routing them back into the service if needed.'
The WhatsApp debt advice project comes in the wake of a number of office closures for Manchester CAB over the past few years. But chief executive Andy Brown says it doesn't mean the organisation as a whole has been shrinking.
'It's a growing organisation with an income stream of more than £3m,' Brown explains. 'We have a presence in virtually all the wards. There are no fixed buildings anymore but we co-locate with other organisations such as libraries, health centres and SureStart centres, which enables us to save money that would have gone into bricks and mortar and that we now channel into frontline advice.'
One example of this approach is the digital hubs' project, developed last year with 12 community partners around the city. 'It's about empowering people in the first instance to use online resources to potentially resolve the problems on their own,' says the development manager, Hayley Hughes. 'If that's not working, for whatever reason, we refer them to any of our existing face-to-face services.'
Public libraries are a typical venue for a digital hub: embedded in the community and with a high footfall, they're a natural access point for clients. In a dedicated area of the library are Citizens Advice branded leaflets and self-help documents '“ as in most libraries around the country '“ a few computers and a member of staff, often assisted by volunteers.
'The idea is to be able to support a number of people at any one time. Often we start with showing people how to use a computer. A lot of people in Manchester are digitally excluded, so you get them online, then show them around our website, also some of our partners' sites, such as Shelter or the local authority.'
Essential to the success of the scheme is strategic positioning, both in terms of advice requirements and geographically. This has involved partnering with like-minded voluntary sector organisations in areas where there is an identified need. The results speak for themselves, according to Hughes, with 2,000 people supported during the first quarter of 2016, the pilot phase of the project.
A similar approach has been taken with doctors after a year-long study with the local clinical commissioning group. The research uncovered that a lot of GPs' patients come in with non-clinical issues. In response, a number of surgeries have now agreed to have a small separate area with a free phone to the organisation's helpline that patients can use to dial in for advice.
If the adviser cannot resolve the issue, the caller will be put through to a specialist adviser or a face-to-face meeting will be arranged at the central Manchester hub. Likewise in more complex cases, such as those where the client has vulnerabilities or requires offence advice.
This triage process also means legal advice caseworkers are not involved in low-level work and ensures their skills '“ and costs '“ are applied to cases that need them. They intervene where legal advice is required '“ that is, where a decision is appealed and goes to a tribunal.
Housing cases are then handled under CAM's legal aid contract. Welfare cases '“ about one-third of calls are welfare related '“ are sometimes referred to the Citizens Advice Bolton, which has a legal aid contract for phone-based advice.
Citizens Advice Manchester employs 100 staff, 64 case-worker solicitors, and 30 frontline triage assessors. Last year, the organisation delivered 4,000 face-to-face appointments, including some home visits. It dealt with 830 controlled work new matter starts under its housing legal aid contract.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal