Bureau a virtual advice haven

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Two dozen Oamaru volunteers are helping solve real-world problems, virtually, and

not just for the Waitaki community, but for clients across the entire South Island.

Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) launched an experimental online help service dubbed “Virtual Bureau” about two years ago, which had proven its ability to engage the digital generation, and Oamaru’s CAB centre was praised at a recent national meeting as the hidden hub servicing the South Island.

CAB North Otago Management Board chairwoman Anne King said the Virtual Bureau system allowed users to contact CAB and express their problem in a written message.

As soon as a CAB volunteer opens the incoming message, a real time two-way conversation begins, similar to Facebook or Windows Messenger, she said.

“It’s great for engaging the generation that do everything on their i-phones,

“We believe this is the way of the future… tech has become an integral part of life,” she said.

The system allowed CAB staff in Oamaru to identify the client’s problem quickly, she said.

“When someone comes to the window [at Community House], we get their story bit by bit as they tell it.

“When people have a chance to set out an e-mail, we can scan through it and see the problem straight away… then clarify details in real-time,” she said.

The Virtual Bureau operators could then access a database of services linked to the real-world office closest to the client and advise them where to go and what to do locally, all from Oamaru.

The only other Virtual Bureau hub was in Whangarei, and the two centres had been praised at the recent CAB national annual general meetinglevel for the success of the pilot programme.

Of the 24 CAB volunteers in Oamaru, four were currently handling the Virtual Bureau traffic and four more were being trained for the technology, she said.

Anonymity was important for many people seeking CAB’s help, and Virtual Bureau was another step in that direction, she said.

“All we have is an e-mail address.”

Another digital tool being implemented by Oamaru’s CAB office was Fund View, a system which allowed staff to match hopeful applicants – from Scout groups, school committees and playground trusts to individuals – to a database of suitable funding for which they were eligible.

After filling out a form detailing their needs, many applicant groups found Fund View was able to match them to a source of funding they may not have known existed, she said.

By Daniel Stephens