This week makes three years since I started in my role as Head of Debt Free London, and in that time my amazing team have supported over 65,000 Londoners with their debt and money worries with free, expert advice.
To mark my three year work anniversary, I wanted to stop on reflect on three things I have learnt.
Reflection 1: People are key
At Debt Free London our most important resource - our soul - is our people. I’m both lucky and constantly humbled by their hard work and their tireless determination to create a happier, fairer, better world.
The biggest development on this front I have overseen has been taking on our Trainee Debt Advisors. During the pandemic, we recruited and trained 70 new advisors to the sector. They’re amazing and add so much diversity in terms of skills and experience so that our service can be even more relatable and accessible to the communities we are here to serve.
The pandemic has of course been hard on my colleagues. Having to pivot temporarily from a primarily face-to-face service to a remote one was a real challenge. We didn’t get every decision right and, whenever we didn't, this put more pressure on colleagues who were already working flat out. Learning from this, I intend to spend more time listening and giving feedback as even the most challenging of these conversations will have a greater benefit in the long run.
Many staff want opportunities to train and grow their careers, and for them having a clear career pathway is important. But not everyone wants this, and for others having too much change and innovation is a challenge that can be detrimental to their wellbeing. Finding the right balance is important.
Our annual staff wellbeing survey and commissioning Mind to work though recommendations has been a great help in trying to make things work for our team.
Reflection 2: Building partnerships is key
When I started in this role, the service was not called Debt Free London. It was known as the ‘Capitalise Partnership’, and the public-facing brand was not good - it was essentially 26 debt advice services being delivered by different charities across the capital rather than a true, effective partnership delivering a single service for London.
The service needing transforming into one that delivered better results for Londoners. It needed transforming into a true partnership. Part of this transformation involved rebranding as 'Debt Free London' - saying exactly what we want to achieve for Londoners seeking help with debt. This new brand made the service a much more obvious destination for those searching for help online.
More than this, we needed to build effective partnerships. Connecting all the service's work to the central 'Debt Free' brand is part of how we went about building focused partnerships. The service relaunched as Debt Free London on 29 April 2019 with a new, simpler website and an advertising campaign across 700 buses, DLR trains, Facebook, and Instagram.
The rebrand, and the resulting reinvigoration of the service, helped us to gain the support of the Mayor of London and sign up a number of key partnerships with housing associations, local authorities, and grassroots organisations to seamlessly signpost clients to free advice. We've also been able to reach more indebted Londoners through advertising our ‘single service’ on TV, radio, and at the pop-up advice centre we ran on Oxford Street during Talk Money Week this past Autumn.
Going forward, I hope we will continue to work on our existing partnerships while also building new ones in order to make our service more effective and to allow us to reach more of those people in need.
Reflection 3: Innovation is key
Another major point of development for the service has centred around investment in a new IT infrastructure. At a basic level, this has meant sourcing new MacBooks for all our debt advisors, for how can we expect colleagues to deliver a five star service if they are working on outdated equipment that is two star at best? Under-equipping our advisors is setting them up to fail.
This has also included finding ways to streamline our service using open Banking and online CRA (Credit Reference Agency) checks, speeding up the onboarding process of clients that have access to internet banking.
Further, to increase access to our service for people who live too far away from our advice centres and do not have access to a smart phone at home, we have placed video advice kiosks in community locations. Existing clients are also given printed QR codes they can use to more seamlessly access rebooked appointments. Launching these at the beginning of the pandemic has been especially helpful for adapting our service to the new challenges we have all faced over the past few years.
Perhaps the most dramatic new innovation has been the 24/7 service we offered during the 2021 lockdown. Being there for Londoners at any time of day or night ensured we were there at the times when they needed us most.