Back in 2019 Citizens Advice Gateshead recognised that it needed to overhaul its technology-based equipment and systems. We needed to take full advantage of technology developments to improve our efficiency and agility, and at that point the cost of IT to the charity felt disproportionate, with our reliance on IT as a charity delivering both local and national services (the latter being wholly digital) presenting seemingly insurmountable barriers to change. However, towards the end of 2019 we felt the fear and did it anyway.
Like any charity, cost, and being certain of a return on our investment, were a significant priority for our trustees. Managing the risk associated with everything going wrong (would the lights go out?!) was also a real and daunting challenge. However the bigger risk, we felt, was inertia.
Doing nothing, although we had outdated equipment, a system based on old technology (that we were still adding to and that was also at risk of falling over), just didn’t make commercial sense, for a charity that has committed to the aim of being an enduring and dynamic charity that never stands still, until we have a fair society for all, with lives well lived.
So we set off on our journey of updating our IT and telecoms infrastructure. With the guidance of a ‘trusted friend’ of our leadership team who generously gifted pro bono advice to help us to unpick our existing systems so we could find our starting point, we started the process of procuring a new supplier, with the heady aspiration of being ‘server free’ within 2 years, and able to evolve into agile working by 2023. In late February 2020, after a robust tendering process, we appointed our new IT supplier (we’ll not name them here but if you would like an introduction please let me know), with a mobilisation plan that would kick in at the end of April.
You know what happened next ... here’s our story
Two-thirds of the way through March the technology we had in place was no longer fit for purpose to respond to the challenges thrown at us by the pandemic. Continuing our service digitally, enabling every member of our staff to work from their homes, was now critical. This was not written in any plan we had developed to this point! And we did it. Within days we mobilised Microsoft 365, sent our staff home with whatever computer equipment we could put our hands on (and through covid relief donations we managed to access the equipment we were short of). Within a few weeks, we had all but dispensed with our server through the transfer of data into the cloud, and by June we had a new intranet system up and running that has, I have to be honest, revolutionised the way we communicate with our teams.
By the Autumn we managed to secure some pilot grants to trial softphones and now as we stand this will be business as usual for our telephone communications with a full roll-out planned for completion by the end of the Summer. We do, I confess, still have some mobile phones operating in the background until then, but they are definitely now in the minority).
We are now well on our way to being truly agile – the majority of our staff are still home-based, improving their work/life balance and wellbeing whilst maintaining a high level of service for our clients and other stakeholders. If they want to work in the office, subject to social distancing legislation, they can, but that’s turned out to be a small minority only. The server room is now all but empty, and the cost reductions associated with our improved IT and telecoms infrastructure are now starting to show on our P&L.
The crowning glory has to be that, as a local charity, we were selected as winners of the CIPD North East Award for People Innovation Through Technology in June 2021, showcasing how we have embedded technology not only in our service delivery but also in the introduction of our Mobilising Brilliance Programme (a new online learning initiative for all staff and volunteers) as well as in our communications, including our wonderful new intranet and 3 online ‘Team Talk’ events that have enabled whole-charity participation for staff and volunteers in celebrating our successes and learning about the activities of our 180-strong workforce and growing community of volunteers. Our last event, based on our value of Rock the System, spanned 4 sessions over 2 days and provided a wonderful opportunity for our teams to demonstrate how they have rocked the system through their work, including a 5-minute video from our national adviceline team providing spine-tingling examples of the way they are making a difference to people’s lives through their work.
Technology can be scary, particularly for charities where there’s so much at stake. However with the right people behind you (we can make introductions if you need them) you can only win, and if you win so do your staff, volunteers and, critically, your clients. So my message to you, when it comes to technology, is to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Jayne Graham MBE, Commercial Director, Citizens Advice Gateshead