At NPC, we have put people and communities at the heart of our strategy, and we think they need a seat at the table if the social sector is to find effective solutions to the issues it is facing. Involving people with lived experience and enabling them to shape what charities and funders do, and how they do it, is key.

Involvement comes in different shapes and sizes though. It could be conducting research with the people you are trying to help, to ensure the services you are offering reflect what they say they need or their reality. It could look like regular consultation on key issues with a group with lived experience. Or it could take the form of shared decision-making between your staff and people with lived experience, through the co-production of a programme or service or by having trustees with lived experience on your board.

However, for the voices of people with lived experience to be truly reflected, they must have a genuine influence on decisions and not just be giving feedback on your choices.

Now is the time to do this

As we explore building back better after the pandemic, we are thinking a lot about readdressing power imbalances and about diversity, equity, and inclusion. If we are to do this well, centring the voices of those with lived experience in our work is vital.

NPC has been talking about user voice for a few years now. We have published work on putting people at the heart of impact practice; a five-stage roadmap for implementing and evaluating co-design; and presented a case for measuring the impact of user involvement in our report Make it count. Since 2018, we have been working directly with young people to shape the My Best Life programme and we have been regularly sharing our learning from that. And during the pandemic, we blogged about involving users whilst maintaining social distancing and have been working with organisations like Praxis, where we supported them to design a co-production framework for one of their campaigns.

But now is the time to drive this work forward. We want to see a charity sector where:

1. Lived expertise and professional expertise are valued equally and are used alongside impact data and information about the wider system to inform strategic and operational decisions, at all levels.

2. Genuine co-creation and co-production is facilitated by true power sharing within and between organisations and supported by effective decision-making and governance processes.

3. There is a good understanding of the purpose and benefits of including those with lived experience in decision-making, and consequently, there is a desire to do this well across charities and funders.

4. Organisations have a strong understanding of what good involvement practice looks like for their organisation and are committed to implementing this to a high standard.

5. Boards take an evidence-led approach to decision-making—which includes lived experience, alongside professional expertise, impact data and information about the external environment.

Good involvement practices are reinforced by better evidence of their efficacy and impact.

Why this can be difficult to do well

Our sector talks a lot about user voice and involvement, but involvement that follows our principles above can be hard to implement. Even those who are involving people with lived experience can struggle to move from light touch consultations with people to decision-making and power sharing relationships, seen in co-production or co-creation.

We know that it can be hard to picture what genuine influence should look like in your organisation and the practicalities of it, and so it’s easy to feel stuck on how to take it forward. Often power imbalances and unclear accountability prevent meaningful user involvement—this is where it’s easy to fall into the practice of involving people in a tokenistic way. What’s more, having an outcome fixed before beginning the involvement process prevents any decision-making power from genuinely being shared.

There must be some room to manoeuvre when it comes to the outcome of a project. Funders should be flexible to allow for this and time and resources need to be allocated to involving people with lived experience. Good co-production requires relationships and trust building, and this take time. You need to support people to contribute meaningfully.

What can NPC do?

Meaningful user involvement is a journey. Re-balancing decision-making power requires a deep culture shift. We want to help charities and funders create buy-in to do this properly and meaningfully across their organisations; and to feel more confident about embarking on this journey by being better equipped with ideas, guidance and tools, and by hearing the experiences of those who have done it. We also want to support funders to enable good practice on involvement where they can.

There are others out there who have been working in this space for a while and there are organisations who are implementing meaningful involvement really effectively. We want to amplify the work of these organisations and understand how NPC can use our resources, networks, audience, and skills to add value to their work. We want to take a modest approach and learn as we go. We want to recognise that this is about long-term culture and behaviour change, and to use the right tools to help us achieve that.

If you want to talk to me about involving people with lived experience, or think we can work together, please get in touch with me. If you want to hear more from organisations about how they have used co-production, come along to our Leading Impact seminar on co-production on Tuesday 23 November at 10am.

Organisations can struggle to move from light touch consultations to involving people with lived experience in decision-making. Here's how your organisation can implement genuine involvement: Click To Tweet

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