From ration books to artificial intelligence – charting the course of Citizens Advice Scotland’s digital revolution
Since it was established in the Second World War, the Scottish Citizens Advice network has been a lifeline for people looking for help and support at times of great personal challenge.
Whilst people today tend to be looking for help with personal debt or social security rather than ration books, the national network of 59 bureaux has been a consistent source of free, impartial, and confidential advice in the 80-plus years since it was set up.
All services evolve, however. In common with many charities, the CAB network has been dealing with an ever-increasing workload, driven in recent years by a combination of the pandemic and the rising cost of living. During Covid alone, the organisation unlocked £147m for people and helped over 171,000 clients with advice.
The CAB network therefore took the bold decision last year to engage with the Scottish Government’s CivTech innovation accelerator to look for new digital ways to augment their existing telephone and face-to-face services, staffed by committed volunteers deeply embedded in their local communities.
And the transformation has been a remarkable one: in a matter of months, the network has managed to harness tech to vastly improved its client journey capabilities, using artificial intelligence to route national helpline callers directly to their local bureaux.
“Building on our experience of launching the Scottish Citizen Advice Helpline (SCAH) service, we wanted to enable everyone wishing to use our services to benefit from an access point that consistently routes them to the correct local CAB advisers – the complete reverse of a traditional call centre,” explains George Eckton, director of advice services at Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).
“This would not only ensure that the chances of an allocation to a local advisor is the default, but also enable more local deployment of advisers. In the first instance, we knew we couldn’t buy the solution off the shelf, so we engaged with CivTech. The project was about how tech can help us create the best possible experience for people engaging with the Scottish Citizens Advice network but at the lowest cost and greatest benefit to Scotland.”
Through the CivTech procurement process, CAS engaged the services of London-headquartered SIDE Labs, a digital agency that specialises in social impact projects. Using the PolyAI platform, the AI algorithm developed with the SIDE Labs agency sought to put an end to the funny-but-all-too-common experience of the frustrated Scots duo in the hit comedy show Burnistoun trying to get their lift to the eleventh floor.
“AI is notoriously bad at recognising regional accents in general,” explains Andy Bell of SIDE Labs. “It finds Scottish accents tricky.” To remedy this, the developers recruited 40 volunteers to record a broad range of accents, so that the algorithm used in the software could then be ‘trained’ to identify them. As a result, the network’s client routing solution, which depends on postcodes, can now reliably recognise the differing lilts of Scots – not to mention migrant accents including native Polish speakers.
There was a more serious side, too: the AI system was selected because of its sensitivity. Many of the callers to the helpline are in distress, so the automated voice itself was calibrated so as not to be too upbeat, setting the right tone from the off. “The last thing we wanted to do is present them with a frustrating phone system,” adds Bell. “It was important the client felt like they were talking to a person, not a big hunk of tech.”
Months of testing and design work went into the digital project. It was further aided by a ‘no-code’ design, whereby the software could be customised from an existing platform rather than building from scratch. That approach meant the pilot in February was able to be immediately scaled across the whole Citizens Advice Scotland network.
The adaptability of the software may even lead to further efficiencies. Jane Adams, chief executive at Perth CAB and a member of the working group, explains: “We now have the opportunity to look at what other technology would help the network improve the advice processes for clients and advisers.”
“This could be anything from file uploads straight to our case management system, to using bots to support out-of-hours advice and self-help. Everyone can get involved in this.
“The no-code approach can provide tailored results without huge costs. It means we can pick and choose which parts we want and create our own unique systems that work for us and our clients.
“It’s a great opportunity to provide the best service for our clients and allow us to put our resources where they’re most needed – in the conversations we have with clients to provide them with the highest quality advice.”
And Eckton would like to see more ‘tech for good’ coming into the organisation. He added: “Taking part in the Civtech programme has allowed us to develop a unique, world-class technology suited precisely to our needs at the greatest value and benefit to Scotland. We look forward to continuing our relationship with CivTech as sponsor/co-sponsor of another two challenges this year, and relish the opportunity of working with new teams of innovators.”