Hardly a week goes by without charity advisory services somewhere in the country facing the axe: cuts to local authority budgets, combined with a radical scaling-back of legal aid, have made life hard for them. During the week of this interview, for example, the Citizens Advice Bureau in Redditch, Worcestershire, was on the brink of closure.
So it's a surprise when Gillian Guy rejects the suggestion that the 300-plus local CABs supported by Citizens Advice are in a funding crisis. Public finances are being squeezed and things are tough for everyone in the charity sector, she says, but many local CABs are not only surviving but thriving: people who need advice can still receive face-to-face support from a local CAB, no matter where they live in England or Wales.
That's not to say that CABs have been spared austerity – almost 100 branches have either closed or been lost as a result of merger since 2009, but Guy says the picture across the country is mixed: "It depends on the local authority, its financial standing and its approach to advice."
Each CAB is a separate charity, governed by its own board of trustees: between them they received funding of £167m last year. Citizens Advice is the national charity that sits above that network, providing support and development services to the local bureaux as well as setting and monitoring standards. It also bids for national government contracts – and has done so successfully since Guy took the helm in the summer of 2010.
When she joined Citizens Advice from Victim Support, the advice charity's annual income was about £62m and it faced a budget cut of 9 per cent. Guy said at the time that she had to stop hiring staff and even buying stationery. But in the past two years its income has risen to £77m, mainly as a result of securing government funds to take over some of the duties formerly performed by the now defunct consumer quangos the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Futures. It employs 427 people and has 10 offices in England and Wales.
Guy attributes much of the recent success to the ability of Citizens Advice and local CABs to deliver on their promises to government and to a willingness to move with the times. "We don't stand still and think that because we've always done it like this it must be OK," she says. "We're currently changing the way we give advice to make it more accessible through our phone lines and online."
Guy has a cool, thoughtful style and is confident talking about her organisation and its work. She appears less comfortable discussing more personal aspects of her life including her age, although she does reveal that she grew up in Ealing, west London, and goes riding in her spare time. She trained as a lawyer, a career choice influenced by her father, who was a lay representative in tribunal cases. "He instilled in me a sense of justice," she says. "He also encouraged me to have a career and packed me off to university."
She would have liked to study languages but she says her father did not regard that as a foundation for a career, so she studied law instead. But after working as a lawyer in the private sector for three years, she left to become a solicitor at the London borough of Brent, and then pursued a career in local government management. "I left law because I needed more contact with the soul of an organisation," she says.
She left the legal profession many years ago, but she believes it has played an invaluable role in her management career. "It taught me about analysis and how to weigh up arguments," she says. "I always say: once a lawyer, always a lawyer."
In 1994, she became chief executive of Ealing Council, the borough where she grew up and her parents lived for most of their lives. She stayed in the job for 12 years before moving on to Victim Support. She says the leap from the public to the charity sector was not as great as some had predicted. "The sectors differ less than people said they would," she says. "In the public sector, there was never enough money to do what you wanted; in the charity sector it's the same. It's always about getting more for less."
Her experience of working for local authorities has also imbued her with an understanding of the challenges they face. Some in the charity sector have been quick to point an accusing finger at councils for cuts to advice and guidance services, but Guy is more restrained. "It's hard for local authorities," she says. "It's difficult to convince people to invest in discretionary services such as advice when you're up against it and the public are more interested in spending on services such as bin collections."
If we have the evidence about the impact of policies, then we have a duty to present it. We're here for the citizens and consumers - not for people who fund the servicesGillian Guy
That's not to say that Citizens Advice doesn't challenge individual local authorities on their funding decisions: when local CABs are struggling to convince their councils to continue their support, Guy says, Citizens Advice will "pile in to demonstrate the value they add".
About 60 per cent of the funding of Citizens Advice comes from central government sources, but Guy doesn't seem afraid to snap at the hand that feeds her. In recent weeks she has spoken out about the effect of legal aid cuts on domestic abuse victims and how benefit sanctions can make it harder for people to get jobs.
Isn't the charity playing a dangerous game here? "It's a balancing act, but not necessarily a difficult one," she says. "If we have the evidence about the impact of policies, then we have a duty to present it. We're here for the citizens and consumers - not for people who fund the services."
The private sector hasn't escaped Guy's critical eye. In recent months she has criticised energy firms, broadband providers and credit companies. She also cites Citizens Advice's high-profile campaign against payday-lending companies as one of the biggest successes of her tenure.
The charity has its critics, however. Guy recently had to defend its handling of the soon-to- be-launched, government-funded Pension Wise service on BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme. From April, 44 CAB offices in England and Wales will offer face-to-face guidance to help people understand the new pension rules, but some pension experts question the quality of information that will be on offer and believe the charity has left the recruitment and training of staff too late.
"Some of the discussion is going on because of a massive misunderstanding of what this is about," Guy says. "We're delivering pensions guidance, not advice. It is for people at the preliminary stage who want some guidance about their options." People who argue that the charity won't be able to provide specialist pensions advice are right, she says, but adds: "We don't believe we've been asked to do that, and nor does the Treasury." Equally, Guy is confident that its "guidance agents" will be trained and in place by April.
Last year, the Low Commission report on the future of voluntary sector advice services and legal support identified areas where it felt Citizens Advice could do more. These included sharing its data and resources more widely, forming stronger partnerships with other advice and legal support bodies and taking the lead in developing a single advice helpline.
Far from working in a silo, Guy says, Citizens Advice routinely works in partnership: "We have a lot of local partnerships in different communities – some of them not even under the Citizens Advice logo, such as the one in Cambridge. We're open about sharing data. It is widely available in different forms. But we also have to be confidential. There's a barrier beyond which we can't go because it would identify individuals."
She describes the creation of a single helpline as quite ambitious and says further work is required to determine whether it would be practical. She also points out that Citizens Advice is a large organisation in a sector comprising many small ones. "We have to be sensitive about trying to provide ready-made solutions to other organisations," she says. "We have to be careful not to say that we always know best."
Volunteers remain at the heart of Citizens Advice's work. More than 21,000 people currently give their time to the charity and local CABs. "It's difficult to have a conversation anywhere without stumbling across someone who has volunteered for Citizens Advice or knows someone who has – that is quite uplifting," she says. "I always baulk at people who say volunteers are amateurs – I believe our volunteers are professionals and are well trained to help people."
But running an organisation that is heavily reliant on volunteers who can simply walk away does present managerial challenges, she says, which is why the charity does not always insist on using volunteers and will recruit paid staff where necessary.
Guy doesn't follow any particular management theories, nor does she hold a particular leader in high regard. Instead, she has learned about leadership from her previous managers. "I've had lots of good managers and one or two who were not so good," she says. "You can learn an equal amount from both types. If I had a central philosophy, it would be about being as open as possible. I always say to people that I'll answer any question and, if I can't answer it, I'll tell you why. I think that authenticity is important."
Guy was appointed CBE in the New Year Honours list for services to consumers. It was a shock, she says, but she was "chuffed to get the recognition", although she feels it is more of a tribute to the success of Citizens Advice than to her.
This summer, she will reach her fifth year in charge of Citizens Advice. She left her previous role at Victim Support after four and a half years, so does she have any thoughts about moving on? Not yet, she says: "It's an exciting time to be at Citizens Advice. We're taking on new services and we have the modernisation programme. There's so much to get our teeth into."
With the general election looming and the parties finalising their manifestos, she also has her eye on another prize: getting politicians to pledge themselves to a single advice strategy that would guarantee people in need a core menu of support, no matter where they live.
"It's important that local and national government do not to assume that advice services will just happen," she says. "We have got to nurture them. If we had a strategy that spanned England and Wales, we wouldn't have to fight individual battles. If we are able and resourced to prepare people for policy changes such as universal tax credit, then such changes will be smoother in the long run."