How would you describe Research and Campaigns, and how does your role fit into it?
Research and Campaigns covers one of the twin aims of Citizens Advice: it is about trying to tackle problems at source and influence policy and law-making. If clients come in with similar problems – be it delays in processing disability benefits, problems with repaying high-interest loans, etc. – we try to address the root causes. This may involve writing reports for the DWP, raising complaints with loan companies and so on. My role is to co-ordinate gathering evidence to support national campaigns for change, and to work with our management team to make sure we are taking effective action locally.
What made you decide to volunteer in this role, and did any previous experience contribute to this?
When I lost my job in the NHS I felt that I still wanted to do something useful with my time and looked for volunteering opportunities. A friend recommended Citizens Advice as she had worked there herself and found it rewarding. And the overall ethos of campaigning for social justice appealed to me. Over the years I have worked as a finance manager in both the private and public sectors and have gained skills and experience which could be readily adapted to this role: analysing data, report writing, dealing with the public and general management experience. But I would say that almost anyone could find a satisfying volunteer role here – we all have different skills and there are a range of roles available.
Could you briefly sum up a typical day?
A typical day is spent answering emails and queries from advice volunteers; reviewing bureau evidence cases and sending them to Citizens Advice’s head office; analysing client evidence for reports and for planning actions, and looking for case studies for press releases and to support particular campaigns – at the moment we are looking at delays in processing benefit claims. Often, I will visit another bureau to support members of the Research and Campaigns team, give a presentation to a team meeting or lead a training session. There is a lot of variety and I never get bored!
What is the most challenging campaign you’ve worked on at Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice?
The most difficult aspect of this role is to overcome people’s reluctance to accept that change is needed, then to persuade them to make that change. I think the toughest challenge I have had was to confront a bailiff company with evidence about their reported heavy-handed practices and failure to agree realistic debt repayment plans. But following a meeting with the MD, I’m pleased to say that we received the offer of an escalation process, whereby a Citizens Advice adviser could ring a special number in their firm to negotiate on behalf of a client. And that process had worked well.
What have we achieved locally that you’re most proud of?
There is a very good Research and Campaigns support team who have helped raise the profile of our work throughout the bureau, so we are producing a lot more evidence to help Citizens Advice campaigns. We have also had various ‘hits’ where our casework and campaigning has been praised on the national Citizens Advice website – in relation to payday loans, disability benefits, scams and housing issues.
Regarding local actions I am proud of the success we have achieved in improving local housing benefit delivery, and in the bailiff escalation process I mentioned before.
What are the main challenges you face in your day to day role?
Well, there is always too much to do, with so many client issues be tackled! But I would say the main challenge is to get good evidence that has impact, to local Government bodies and agencies at the right time to influence decisions. It’s a matter of keeping up with events – legislation, changes in policies etc. – and trying to have a say in the way these are implemented locally to ensure fairness and to protect vulnerable individuals and groups. Welfare Reform changes have created particularly difficult challenges for us.
And finally… what are the top three words you’d use to describe volunteering for Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice?
Rewarding, stimulating, great teamwork.
Worthing volunteer adviser Trevor tells his story on the Citizens Advice website: read it here.
Our volunteers come from all works of life and levels of experience. Emma, who is one of our youngest volunteer advisers, shares her experience of volunteering with Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice below.
Why I started volunteering
I first volunteered at the Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice because I hope to study Law at university and the bureau had been recommended to me as good work experience. I thought volunteering would mean a few weeks of office observations, where I would see how the bureau was run and maybe witness a few client interviews. I hadn’t expected that I could be capable of running the interviews myself within a few months. But the Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice offered me the chance to train to be an adviser with specific help to prepare young adults for the role. I was wary at first dealing with clients much older than me, because I was worried I lacked enough life experience to succeed at the role. However I’ve found that Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice volunteers are respected and welcomed by both clients and staff. I find that Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice is a wonderful organisation, and I find it a satisfying and broadening experience to offer my help by volunteering.
What I enjoy most about the role
Though the job can be a bit stressful at times, there is a lot I enjoy about volunteering at Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice. Working with my Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice peers, the staff and also the clients has enabled me to meet some wonderful people. Furthermore, this role has taught me a lot about my society and community that I hadn’t fully recognised before. I’ve learned how laws passed by the government really affect the individual lives of people, for example, when benefits are reduced. Training and volunteering at Central and South Sussex Citizens Advice has been an enlightening and educational experience and I’ve enjoyed gaining more knowledge and information.
As an initial adviser, my role is not to try to solve the problem immediately, but analyse what steps the client could take to help them sort out their situation. However, my favourite part of the role is when a client leaves the interview with a smile on their face and a calmer demeanour, especially if they were previously nervous and anxious. Though I often don’t get to see the end result, I enjoy being able to reassure a client that they can have more help during a subsequent interview, or are a step closer to fixing their situation. Similarly, I enjoy being able to give clients information that can simply answer their questions and I gain a sense of gratification to see someone leaving with clear steps of legal action forming in their mind.