Dame Gillian Guy interview: All change at Citizens Advice

The leader of the advice charity, who steps down this month, tells Rebecca Cooney about the changes the organisation has made in the past decade – and where progress hasn’t been quick enough

Gillian Guy
Gillian Guy

As Gillian Guy prepares to step down this month to become the independent assessor for the Financial Ombudsman Service, one theme emerges as perhaps the defining feature of her 10 years as chief executive of Citizens Advice: “I quite like change.”

When Guy joined the umbrella organisation – which leads 270 consumer advice charities in England and Wales – in 2010, one thing she was conscious of was the “enormity of its reputation” as a charity founded just days after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Like many people, she had grown up with an awareness of the organisation and what it did.

Nonetheless, she knew the charity would need to modernise – not just to survive, but also to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

“You don’t survive just by being and being famous,” she says. “We needed to be able to grow in a time when people were not growing.”

The immediate issues for the charity, says Guy, were the need to expand capacity to meet demand and to ensure the charity's financial stability. 

The first solution she found was to “get much more sophisticated” about the charity’s data- and evidence-gathering for government.

This allowed the charity to both build a convincing case to influence policy and practice on behalf of its beneficiaries and demonstrate to its biggest funder that it offered a return on investment. 

She thinks of these shifts as “maturity, taking up our role in society”. 

The charity also embraced technology, introducing webchat, WhatsApp conversations and other online services to supplement its face-to-face advice sessions.

At the same time, Guy is proud that the charity has been able to modernise “without damaging any of its history” by staying true to its core values and not taking on work outside its core purpose, she says. 

It has maintained its volunteer-focused model and federated structure, in which the central charity operates as an umbrella organisation for the independent local charities.

Its technological innovations have stood Citizens Advice in good stead this year, enabling it to continue and build on its work even during the coronavirus crisis. It is looking to introduce video consultations in its branches to emulate face-to-face meetings.

Since lockdown, the charity’s advisers have supported more than 800,000 people with one-to-one advice, and its website has seen its highest ever traffic levels, with nearly 35 million page views.

“Whenever there’s a government announcement, people turn straight away to Citizens Advice,” says Guy. 

“Particularly when there’s uncertainty, people search for the word of the day – it used to be 'furlough', currently it’s more like 'redundancy' –  so we had to very quickly mobilise teams who were writing the advice and the content to deal with a rapidly changing situation.”

Despite seeing rising demand as new demographics – particularly people who are self-employed – turn to the charity for advice, it has so far been insulated from the worst effects of Covid-19 due to receiving the vast majority of its £109.8m income from government.

But it will have to strive to continue demonstrating the value for money it provides as local and national government budgets are squeezed, Guy says – although this will be a job for her successor. 

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about change at Citizens Advice and not mention the Twitter row that sparked a new racial equality movement in the charity sector. 

In August last year training guidance developed by the charity surfaced on social media and was branded “horribly racist”.

The guidance, called Working with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, was published in 2017 and used by training managers preparing staff in local offices to deal with members of the public.

It included a section on "barriers we find in BAME communities", which listed several racist stereotypes.

The furore led to hundreds of charity workers from BAME backgrounds sharing their experience of racism and discrimation in the charity sector under the hashtag #CharitySoWhite. 

A campaign group, established under the name CharitySoWhite, has been encouraging discussion and action on racism in the charity sector ever since.

The incident was an uncomfortable wake-up call for Citizens Advice, Guy says, but ultimately a welcome one.

She maintains the guidance, which a report found had been produced without going through the proper approval process, was “not indicative” of the charity.

But, she says: “We sometimes think we’ve moved on a tremendous amount as a charity and as organisations, but actually, when the mirror is held up to us, we haven’t made as much progress as we think.”

The controversy “engendered a really good reflection and then discussion within the organisation about our approach to equality, diversity and inclusion, whether we’ve been moving at a sufficient pace, and how we could really change things”, she says.

“We thought about the pace of progress and realised it wasn’t fast enough and we should put renewed energy and focus on it.”

Since the guidance emerged last year, Citizens Advice has adopted an approach rooted in social justice and equity, focusing on power and privilege, and has thrown resources into “moving things forward sensibly, but at a faster pace”, according to Guy. 

“We’ve equipped people within the organisation with the confidence to talk about racism – not with blame attached, but actually an open conversation about what it means to be at the receiving end of it, what it is and how we can combat it," she says. 

This is still very much a work in progress but she’s determined that the incident will spur the charity on to becoming a sector leader in equality.

Guy’s biggest regret as she prepares to leave Citizens Advice is “that some things maybe didn’t move faster”. 

She says: “But when you’ve got nearly 300 separate organisations, you have to take it at the pace that makes it work – you can’t just run and leave people behind.”

For somebody who enjoys change as much as Guy does, she admits it’s a surprise that Citizens Advice has kept her motivated for 10 years.

Part of the reason for that, she says, has been the passion and commitment she has experienced among the charity’s staff and volunteers.

“Until you’re in the organisation you don’t realise how strong that is. It’s not just a common purpose, it’s a cause – and if you can tap into that, it’s an incredibly strong movement as well as an organisation.” 

There was never going to be a good time to leave the charity, she says, but she was conscious of wanting to go before staff began to wonder when she should be leaving. 

“I wanted to get Citizens Advice to a place of resilience and security and with a very bright future, where I could leave it in very safe and capable hands. I didn’t want to decay on the shelf, you know?

“But the regret I’ll have as I walk away is that there are so many exciting changes in progress and I’m not going to see the end of them – but someone else will finish them off.”

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