Value of a Social Policy Network

Value of a Social Policy Network

17th June 2024

The value of being a social (policy) network

by Gillian Fyfe. Head of the CAS Strong Communities team

This column was first published in the Herald on 1 June 2024. 

Monday sees the start of national Volunteers Week, which gives us a chance to say again that our volunteers are the very backbone of the Scottish Citizens Advice network. You may think this is an army of trained volunteers helping CAB clients on a daily basis with advice to help tackle their problems, and on the one hand you would be right. But on the other hand, did you know that there is another vital part of our volunteer base, and that’s our social policy volunteers? Their work is no less crucial than those giving front-line advice to CAB clients.

Those who volunteer to work on social policy issues with us have an important role to play in tackling many of the issues that clients come to the CAB for help with. Within the network we consider a social policy issue to be any policy or practice that negatively impacts on the wellbeing or welfare of our clients. Social policy work is about identifying these problems and then influencing and changing the policies that are causing them, for the benefit of both existing and future CAB clients.

This is what makes it crucial work. It’s about tackling issues further upstream to stop them causing problems for people on the ground now or in the future. For any policy geeks out there, this is often known as early intervention and prevention, where issues are addressed earlier (which often costs less) to prevent harm being caused down the line (which can often cost more to address at that point anyway) and the outcomes are often better for people. Our advice-giving is one type of early intervention - helping people before problems escalate. But so too is social policy work, by stopping harmful policies or practices in the first place.

Social policy volunteering could involve trying to change policies or practices of government agencies, local or national, to make it easier for CAB clients to access services - maybe by preventing them accruing debt for instance. To give an example, Aberdeen CAB, like other CABs, has worked collaboratively with their local authority to make improvements to policies and processes on Council Tax debt collection, and this is something that could influence other Councils across Scotland to do likewise. That’s a real change that is not just benefitting CAB clients now but will benefit people going forward.

Other examples of social policy work by CABs have included research by Nairn CAB to understand issues of digital exclusion in their local areas and how the CAB can help to address that skills or access gap in their community. Likewise Glasgow Parkhead CAB, who run an outreach service in HMP Barlinnie, undertook social policy work and research there to understand common issues that those on remand required advice on, and whether there were other ways this could be provided. This resulted in changes within the prison to accommodate this.

These are just a few examples of social policy work going on in CABs across Scotland, and shows how varied this work can be, and the difference our social policy volunteers can make. Our network will always be there to help people with their problems, but we also work to try and fix the system to stop these problems happening in the first place.