User involvement, i.e. work which gives users power and a role in decisions about how we address social challenges, is in the spotlight. Strikingly similar conversations are happening across sectors and disciplines. Just last week, the science journal Nature published a special edition on co-production of research, the Kings Fund held an event on ‘where next for patient and public engagement’, and the Feedback Summit in the US looked at how to make user involvement the ‘expected thing’.
Participatory and influencing practices are nothing new, but they are making it to the mainstream and even becoming the status quo in areas like health, social care and research.
This is positive on the face of it if you think users should have more power to help overcome social issues–and in all the above cases that motive is clear. The trouble is, when ideas go mainstream they can get lost in translation or accepted as obvious by people who haven’t fully grasped what they’re about. This risks missing the potential of involvement, and can lead to poor practice. So, we’ve just written a paper making a case for more clarity. It argues:
- User involvement is often assumed to be the right or required thing to do, but this can mean people don’t think about why they’re doing it, what they want to achieve, what power the organisation is willing to share, and how involvement could make a different to what gets done.
- This attitude can lead to the process of involvement becoming a thing we do just to say we have done it, or to increase engagement. This fails to recognise involvements potential to actually improve services and decisions, and can result in tokenistic behaviour that erodes trust.
- The fact there is a moral case for involvement shouldn’t distract us from its practical usefulness, and we need to be clearer about the important role it can play in better decisions and services.
- Organisations can improve the quality and impact of their involvement efforts by getting clearer about what they, and their users, seek to achieve. There should be a clear purpose or objectives for involvement, efforts to monitor the quality of what gets done, and honest review of what effect this has on decisions and services*.
- We need better evidence on the effects of involvement to demonstrate its value and improve how it’s done, but that doesn’t have to mean tons of paperwork for stretched organisations. Infrastructure-builders will be best placed to invest in high-quality evaluation, while frontline organisations can make sure they’re asking the right questions upfront and getting the basics right.
A well-meaning majority probably think users have an important role to play in the direction and leadership of social sector organisations. But for that to be realised, involvement needs to be taken seriously: not just mainstreamed as a process, but as a political and practical means of improving how we work and what we do.
*We are generalising about a spectrum of approaches here, from consultation and feedback through to co-production or user-led work. That’s because in all these cases, the central issue is the same. Involvement needs to be done well for it to achieve anything–and not be of negative value–and should be assessed in some way