Friday, 16 August 2013

Our Chief Exec goes "Back to the Floor"

Carl Cooper, who is our Chief Executive Officer at Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations, writes a guest post about his recent experience going ‘Back to the Floor’ – an initiative where senior managers learn from their experiences of finding out how services are delivered locally on the frontline.

Counting the cost of people's involvement -
Carl settles people's expense claims
"As part of the 'Back to the Floor' initiative of Powys Local Service Board, I was privileged to spend a day with my colleague, Freda Lacey (Mental Health Participation Officer), at a national gathering of service users and carers to consider how best to organise involvement in the Welsh Government's new Mental Health Partnership Board.

The use of language was a constant source of discussion and debate. It was clear that some people identify themselves as carers and feel that this label empowers them to get services, respect and support. However, others completely reject the label insisting that they are not "carers" just because services/society want to define them in this way and challenge the label insisting that they are mothers, husbands, daughters, friends etc. Equally, some people accept the label service user for various reasons and, in fact, fight to ensure this term is kept in common use. Alternately, others completely reject the label insisting that those people that have been forced into contact with mental health services (i.e.sectioned and forcibly medicated) don't see themselves as "service users". Recipients of parking tickets don't say that they are using traffic police services!

My first impression was of the very high level of knowledge, experience and ability in the room. Participants contributed to the discussions from an informed and articulate perspective. This gave the contributions an authority and an integrity that was almost palpable.

I was a little surprised at the format of the meeting, which was formal and concentrated on papers and documents. We examined terms of reference, job descriptions, person specifications, and organisational structure diagrams. This way of working would not have been out of place in any board meeting or strategic partnership. I was expecting a meeting about engagement to be much less stuffy and much more participative. Were the organisers reverting to type? On the other hand, the commitment from Welsh Government and others to engage people came across as genuine, open and honest.

Because the day focused on processes and structures, there was consideration of reimbursement of expenses and remuneration. It was this element of the day that surprised me and caused me some concern. Everyone agreed that people that participate in engagement mechanisms should not be out of pocket. However, many viewed this role as a job and spoke of the role as 'working for the government'. As such, some felt that remuneration for participants should be akin to that of, for example, public appointments. I came away reflecting that, if not careful, we were in danger of professionalising engagement and creating an industry of 'engaged voices'. If this were to happen, we would lose the 'raw' voice so vital to decision making. Any commitment to co-production would be seriously damaged.

On a practical level, Welsh Government needs to adopt a consistent approach to how it supports people's involvement. For example, mechanisms are already in place with its Citizens Panel for social services. Should not these be applied to other arena? Developing different packages of support will introduce inequality and inconsistency to public engagement.

The afternoon session was not helped by a confusion within the group regarding how the procedures and mechanisms across Wales were meant to operate. Welsh Government officials and others dealt with this effectively, sensitively and with humility. Clearly, this will need to be addressed again when greater clarity brings about a shared understanding of how the process will work.

All in all, I came away from my 'Back to the Floor' experience having learned a lot and having been inspired and challenged by those I was honoured to meet."

We would be interested to know what you think about Welsh Government's engagement with people in contact with services. Do you agree with Carl, or do you have different ideas? Let us know!

1 comment:

  1. Carl,
    The issue of involvement of 'service-users' seems virtually irresolvable within the sector of mental health itself. It seems to me that those who have the lived experience and the first hand knowledge of the 'problems' are only ever valued in a subservient and individualised way.
    If people are now simply asked to represent only their own or their significant other's mental health interests then surely we need to join a few dots and start to move upwards from peer support (which is always a good start) to meaningful discussion of common interests in the face of common challenges and in an environment we did not manufacture ourselves.
    As a participant at this event I was concerned that a scramble for the few representative positions might emerge when no-one really had the chance to calmly discuss how we might start to gather knowledge of one another's lives and views.
    Outside of this forum some political parties and individuals are internally aware of the common occurence and wide reach of what we may recognise as mental health issues. Some AM's have stood up and made their experience public record. Some councillors I'm sure do this too. Whether we are anywhere near to the least bad benchmark of 1 in 4 that would be a minimum representative quota (if affirmative action was a good idea) I sincerely doubt.