You’re all individuals! You’re all different!

In a well-known scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the dangers of conformity and peer pressure are satirised through humour that may still have the potential to make us think – and perhaps even make us uncomfortable.

AdviceUK Consulting’s Dal Warburton and Enrique Saenz explore the question of conformity.

At first glance, too much consensus seems like an unlikely problem for AdviceUK’s diverse membership.  At various points colleagues have commented (more or less appreciatively) that working with independent advice services is like herding cats…  Our ‘diverse font’ logo reflects the very different organisations that make up AdviceUK: student unions, housing associations, local advice centres, national telephone services, black and minority ethnic community groups, community interest companies, and user-led organisations to name just a few.  So how could conformity be a problem for advice today?

Some readers will already know about AdviceUK’s interest in systems thinking and systems change.  This recognises that even within a diverse range of organisations, there can be unhelpful assumptions and preconceptions about what social welfare advice is there to do, how it is delivered and how it is funded.  One way of countering this is by sharing what our members have learnt and promoting conversations.  Our hope is that AdviceUK can help facilitate discussions that may sometimes be uncomfortable, but will help us do better for the people we support.

The Wiser£money partnership between AdviceUK members Wessex Resolutions and Encompass Southwest provides money and debt advice to people in rural Devon and Somerset.  Back in 2015, the partnership found that some people living in the area, typically those reliant on working age incapacity benefits and without access to a car, were finding it increasingly difficult to travel to larger towns to get advice.  Wiser£money successfully applied to Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund to address this issue, with projects originally envisaging that face-to-face money and debt advice would be given at outreach locations scattered throughout the district.  However, attendance at outreach was low: people seeking advice felt exposed when attending specially-arranged sessions in local community venues; sometimes, their health meant that making even short journeys was a barrier.  Even when appointments were made, clients often didn’t turn up.

Wiser£money had already anticipated limited provision of advice through home visits, but as they reviewed their approach to outreach, it was quickly found that home visiting was much more effective in engaging people in the advice process.  This particularly applied to services where clients are referred in by a third party, for example by tenancy support officers or health coaches.  We know that home visiting will not be an option for many AdviceUK members, but for us this was an important reminder to think hard about where advice is delivered, and what impact this has on the service.

Another insight developed by Wiser£money was ‘front-loading’ expertise in service delivery.  Many advice services still operate using systems where the person who first assesses what a client wants and how the service can respond, is the person with the least experience and expertise in that service.  The assumption here is that initial triage is a simple business of making an appointment with an adviser, giving someone a ticket, working out if a client meets basic eligibility criteria, filling in basic contact information and so forth: the really important work starts when the person gets in to see the adviser.

Driven by a need to make sure that referrals were appropriate, and its desire to establish constructive working relationships with referral organisations, Wiser£money found that having their most experienced members of staff involved in the service’s initial assessment and response was more effective.  Hidden issues and gaps in information were more likely to be identified and addressed early on, and decisions on what the service could and could not do were able to be made much more quickly, with support being pulled in from other sources where necessary.  Clients were reassured by the obvious experience of the person they were speaking to: they felt that they were being listened to carefully right from the start.

This is just a snapshot of learning that is happening across the AdviceUK network.  We know that one of the strengths of our diverse membership is that different organisations find different ways of doing things.  There is increasing awareness of the dangers of online echo chambers where we only interact with people who think in the same way.

Do you have a question for AdviceUK Consulting?  Have you learnt something that you would like to share with other AdviceUK members?  Get in touch via 

Next time: What does the co-production movement mean for advice?

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