Delivering better outcomes through service user involvement

Adrian Nolan, Policy and Strategy Manager, Liverpool Waves of Hope

It is an important time for service user involvement (SUI) in the Waves of Hope programme.  A central theme across governance, policy and delivery, we are accelerating the activities in and around this area of work.  Developments such as the opening in March of a Lived Experience Hub, the recruitment of a Service User Involvement Manager and an SUI Policy Statement, are designed to help further progress SUI across the city.  But what is SUI and how should it be approached?

A changing policy environment demands a shift from established norms

SUI is a phrase which many people will be familiar with, but not too many will fully appreciate or understand.  But now more than ever, there needs to clarity in what it means, as the interest around it grows, and SUI becomes increasingly important across policy development, service design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation.  In an era of flux where public resources are being constantly eroded, an informed voice, grounded in experience, will be key in helping policy makers and practitioners achieve their objectives.  The aim within Waves of Hope is to make meaningful inroads into mainstreaming this as a concept across public services in Liverpool and beyond.

SUI has to be meaningful to make a difference

The biggest challenge is to educate and inform as to what SUI actually is, and to evidence its importance in policy.

  • Firstly, it is not a ‘fluffy’ notion where a tokenistic approach will suffice; rather it is rooted in evidence and evolving policy, particularly within health where there is a growing recognition that people are better able to deal with situations when they have strong, positive relationships and are empowered – increasingly this is informing planning in design and delivery of services. Utilising asset based personal and community centred approaches, and re-calibrating services based on this, will be key to change and sustainability of services.  SUI therefore needs to be a key component of public service transformation.
  • Secondly, there is need to understand the different levels of SUI across a ‘ladder of participation’ – from providing information, consultation with service users, participation, sharing decisions and responsibility within a partnership, through to full control which can include service users planning and directing budgets and projects. Across many public services, the prevailing perception has often been that SUI is mainly about providing information and consultation, when it actually involves so much more than that.
  • Thirdly, it means equal respect between parties, based on the core principles of co-production. All views need to be equal – applying to both service users and professionals.  An imbalance either way will lead to less meaningful SUI and inevitably result in limited co-production.  This is perhaps the most important element of SUI and where it can often go wrong, potentially derailing the whole process.  SUI needs to be handled carefully by all those involved.

Values based approach

Above all, if SUI is to be developed properly then it has to be based upon a set of common values.  Without being driven by these, the impact on wider cultural and systemic change will be limited in the long term.  The fundamental components need to be based around visibility, transparency, cooperation and collaboration (which indeed should be at the heart of all public services).  These values are explored further in the Waves of Hope SUI Policy Statement.

SUI cannot be a short term process

Finally, it is important to appreciate that this process takes time.  SUI is not something that can be built overnight and it has to be developed the right way across the board.  Cultures and attitudes will be at varying starting points.  So it’s important to inform public agencies and delivery organisations, in a supportive and strategic way, how SUI is key to providing added value to current approaches, and will ultimately result in better public services. This conversation is still in its infancy, but Liverpool Waves of Hope is significantly investing in this approach – it is fundamental to the programme’s development and the important learning that SUI generates will be developed further over the next two years as we seek to take this agenda forward.

Access the Waves of Hope Service User Policy here.

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