Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Making advice 'sexy'?

Citizens Advice held its social policy law conference this month in London. The theme of the conference was 'Tackling poverty - taking action now', but one of the undercurrents in the conference was the controversy over Community Legal Advice Centres (CLACs)- the Legal Services Commission's tenders designed to tackle clusters of problems or to undermine the not-for-profit (NFP) sector depending on your point of view.

Guest speaker Lisa Harker, co-director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, asserted that '[Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx)] were one stop shops before the government started thinking about one stop shops.' Perhaps she was trying to stir up some controversy as the founder and chairperson of A4e, Emma Harrison, was also a speaker.

A4e was established in 1986 by Harrison in Sheffield to provide employment training to the unemployed. The now internationally successful company recently won the tender to run the Hull CLAC at the expense of Hull CAB. Harrison deftly avoided any discussion of CLACs by saying that she did not want to be drawn into a discussion on running advice services as 'much smarter people than I work on that'. Her main message seemed to be that A4e wanted to make it 'a cool thing to seek advice, glamorous, even sexy'. She said: 'Too often people see advice as a last resort rather than a first port of call.'

In a bout of what may be described as CLAC shadow boxing, Teresa Perchard, director of public policy at Citizens Advice, put questions to Harrison on 'persuading local councils to fund advice'. Harrison parried these by criticising the sector: 'I saw an advice centre the other day at which the first four people waiting outside were let in and the rest were sent away. Wrong, wrong, wrong.' Harrison also castigated centres for 'not even having nice chairs for people to sit on', adding that, 'the new advice centre in Hull will be the new way for advice to be offered'.

While delegates seemed annoyed by Harrison's comments, debate rightly swung back to the issue of poverty and the difficulties CABx clients are facing. Harrison's main experience is in employment training and so maybe the NFP advice world is a bit of a culture shock to her, but as for A4e making advice 'glamorous' or even 'sexy', it is hardly something you could accuse employment training of being. Harrison's story of only four people being let into an advice centre does have a ring of familiarity - such rationing of advice services is usually forced on providers through lack of resources rather than any lack of commitment to serving clients though. What would A4e do if the money is insufficient to provide a decent service or any new chairs for that matter, when the Hull CLAC is up for tender again?

Too often NFP advice services have proved their commitment to their clients by struggling on in such circumstances, not very good from a business point of view, but then people tend to work in advice services because they are motivated by more than just making a profit.