by Doug Drinkwater

UK debt charity CIO banks on low code for scale amid uncertain future

Jun 13, 2021
IT StrategySoftware Development

StepChange CIO Lorna Allan has the unenviable task of scaling to future market demand, facilitating omni-channel experiences and supporting a changing workplace — all while the charity faces its own economic uncertainty.

lorna allan
Credit: Lorna Allan

As CIO of Leeds-based StepChange, the largest debt charity in the UK, Lorna Allan has a lot on her plate. In the face of a national debt crisis, and yet surprisingly low demand for free debt advice, she’s looking to build a scalable, digital infrastructure to support clients for when demand rises again, while simultaneously adapting the organisation’s IT infrastructure for the hybrid workplace.

If that wasn’t enough, this needs to be done as cost-efficiently and flexibly as possible. The non-profit has come under its own financial pressure of late, and this has, in part, pushed Allan’s team to take a low-code approach to application development, through which the charity can build new services quickly, take advantage of new technologies and improve the client experience across multiple channels.

The charity, whose mission is to eradicate problem debt, and which does this through the provision of free debt advice and repayment plans, has helped clients repay creditors £4 billion over its 28-year existence, and says that the number of people with problem debt has tripled over the last year.

Debt is a growing problem

Separately, research from the Legatum Institute has shown that more than 20% of the UK population is now in poverty, with the Financial Conduct Authority reporting that the number of people struggling with ‘low financial resilience’ — meaning over-indebtedness, low savings and low or erratic earnings — increased by a third to 14.2 million last October.

On paper at least, it would appear as if the charity was perfectly positioned to help amid such financial woes. But, as Allan describes, the situation is not necessarily that simple.

For the StepChange CIO, COVID-19 changed the dynamics of her role. When she joined as the charity’s first CIO in 2019, her to-do list was seemingly more straightforward.

“If you think about the reason I joined StepChange, and the reason StepChange even created a CIO role … it was largely about modernising and improving our clients’ experience, and continuing to transform our digital services for our clients and creditors,” Allan says. “Now, we’ve got colleagues that we have to mobilise to completely transform how they work.”

CIOs gain influence, driving strategy

Allan — who reports into the chief executive Phil Andrew — says her influence has grown over the last 18 months, and she believes that most CIOs are now well positioned to drive the strategic direction of the business, rather than being satisfied with a seat at the table.

For the non-profit, that has meant a continued modernisation of its debt advice platform, Pulse, the launch of its Covid Repayment Plan (CVPP) and even the overhaul of its offices.

In the transition to remote working, alongside some staff furloughing, the charity consolidated office space — down from four offices to one in Leeds, in the Northeast of England.

“Now we’ve got half the square footage we used to have,” Allan says. “We’re looking at estate strategy across the piece, and thinking carefully about: how do we balance the need to have a physical space for people to collaborate and work together, but also the need to be as cost efficient as possible? And to do those things, how do you then leverage technology?”

Long before COVID-19 accelerated the change of facilities and the charity’s technology estate, StepChange had introduced its Debt Advice Platform.

Developed by in-house developers in 2006, the platform had tried and tested workflows. Creditors would refer clients to the charity, and debt advice journeys would typically start over the phone.

Aging service platform develops cracks

Cracks would appear in time. Services were available via telephony and online services, but back-end systems didn’t talk together, while debt journeys were long and arduous. Those seeking help would often have to relay the same information multiple times, to different members of staff, while the platform struggled with growing demand.

In 2019, prior to Allan’s arrival, Pulse was born — replacing a mix of on-premises services, and offering phone, email and web chat services consolidated through one hosted platform.

Workflows could adapt to the user’s response to cut down on call times and information duplication, while the system — built on Pegasystems’ Pega Customer Service application, running on Pega Cloud — would pull in additional information from other data sources, without having to leave the client session. Staff could share information with creditors, view clients’ debt progress bars and complete calls up to 20% faster than before.

Low-code environment speeds development

“We needed to take all the learnings from our in-house development, and look at how we can do something in a more low-code environment, so that we can make quicker changes and take advantage of emerging technology solutions and services — without having a big overhead of a long-change curve,” says Allan, who adds the charity reviewed Appian, SAP and Oracle before contracting Pegasystems for its robust workflows.

The economic fall-out from COVID-19 pushed StepChange to introduce the COVID Repayment Plan (CVPP) late last year, helping clients reduce payments towards monthly financial commitments, such as credit cards and loans.

Built on Pega’s Customer Experience application by reseller Aaseya — on a separate Pega Cloud instance — CVPP assesses candidate suitability with six online questions, before inviting those that qualify to complete a more detailed income and expenditure analysis. This, in turn, helps StepChange tailor its assistance plan.

Today, these debt journeys are omni-channel, with 70% starting from a mobile device and CVPP also supporting web chat functionality to improve client experience and resolution times. Scalability is catered for future demand too, with CVPP supporting up to 10,000 concurrent users an hour.

Once clients choose one of StepChange’s recommendations, they are dropped into a legacy workflow. The charity’s API layer architecture calls between Pega systems and StepChange’s in-house case management and disbursement platforms — which pays client debts back directly to creditors, and also connects to third-party systems to collect bank details and addresses. StepChange’s data warehouses manage data collection for RMI purposes.

As the charity pushes further into the debt-activation market, new platform developments emerge.

API interface leverages open banking

There will soon be support for e-signatures and a new document portal, so clients can submit their bank statements and balances, as well as manage their own debt plans. Through Boomi’s API interface, the charity hopes to leverage open-banking information to visualise financial information and break down other barriers —namely, clients who have poor financial recollection or feel ashamed of their debt.

“Right now, our dialogue is ‘Tell us about your information. Tell us about what’s going on’. We are going to transition digitally to say, ‘This is what I found about you, is this right? That’s why I understand about your debt. Tell me tell me about this’. That’s a game changer,” says Allan.

However, this is not to say such modernisation has come without difficulties, for StepChange has had its own financial concerns of late.

Demand for debt services decline

Despite the growing debt problem, the number of clients coming through StepChange has declined.

Less systematic pressure from banks and bailiffs, as well as payment and mortgage holidays, have eased pressure on prospective clients, meaning that the typical ‘triggers’ to get help — like a bailiff knocking at your door — have been removed. This has had a knock-on effect on charity donations and government funding.

The charity receives funding from the Money and Pensions Service, which is part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but also receives donations from creditors through the ‘Fair Share’ system.  Both income sources have declined as fewer people have sought help.

StepChange reports that demand for debt advice fell from 300,000 people in 2019 to 200,000 in 2020 and projections of 400,000 in 2021 are ‘not going to materialise’, according to StepChange CEO Phil Andrew. Last month, the Andrew announced that the charity would lose up to 170 staff in Leeds and Newcastle, representing approximately 10% of its workforce.

Allan says that while national debt is building, these lack of ‘triggers’ are having an impact on StepChange financing.

“The banks are far more tolerant and supportive for us as individual customers. Debt collectors are not operating, bailiffs are not operating. What we’ve learnt as a sector is that without those triggers, you’re not prompted to go and sort your debts out. We’ve seen the volume of the demand drop through the floor,” Allan says. “We’re not getting the volume [of cases]….so our donation volumes have dropped.”

Future planning amid financial uncertainty

Still, Allan must plan for the future, despite the uncertainty, focusing on providing consistent client experiences to cater for possible growing demand, even within the charity’s own financial limitations.

With debt building, and government and bank measures only an interim solution, there’s a growing belief that cases will return as a ‘slower burn’ in 2022.

“Our focus is very much on the challenge and, for me as a technologist, it’s to make sure we are in the best possible shape to cater for that demand.”