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Participation of service users: what are you doing about it?

Goal Setting Orig 2

Charlotte Pearson blog, Social Work

qDo you consider the participation of service users or clients in service design, development and evaluation important? Does your organisation actively promote this? Do you yourself actively do anything to support this? Does it really matter?

Ultimately – the involvement of the people our services are designed to help, in the cycle of development and evaluation leads to more effective services because facilities and programmes are established on the basis of actual and not presumed need.

Framework for building participation within an organisation

The Goal

The overall goal of participation should be to make participation meaningful. That is to say that our goal should be to make participation something that is inherent to our day-to-day work. By establishing participation at the heart of daily practice, we can avoid the involvement of children and young people (families and carers) being an afterthought or particularly tokenistic. Ultimately this would mean that we may reach a point in the future when we have no functional need for participation working groups and champions because participation will be firmly embedded in daily practice. Participation events would, in this situation, become a celebration of participatory achievements, rather than a means of engagement to fulfil particular criteria.

The right not to participate should also be respected when working with children, young people and their families/carers. However, it is important that we do not presume that individuals are ‘opting-out’. We must consider the possibility that we have not yet created effective mechanisms to enable all.


Develop a culture of participation

This refers to the ethos of the organisation. A culture of participation should, therefore, demonstrate a commitment to the involvement of children, young people and their families – shared by managers, practitioners, children, young people and their families. This has been difficult to create within health and social welfare services, given their statutory responsibilities to safeguard children. In such cases, the vulnerability of children is often emphasised and their capacity and resilience sometimes overlooked. It is therefore important to balance the right to a voice against the need for protection. Culture is not a static concept, rather, something which can change over time. There are however several areas of development to consider in the creation of a ‘culture of participation’, for example: establishing a shared understanding of participation; ensuring managers actively support and sustain the development of participation; ensuring all staff are committed to participation; developing a participation charter; showing evidence of participation in organisational policies and documents; publicising commitment to participation.

Develop a structure for participation

Once participation has been adopted as a central value within an organisation, the structures necessary to enable participation need to be planned and developed. An effective structure for participation will enable children, young people and their families to contribute to the life of the organisation. Without an effective structure, the shift in processes and systems required fails to occur. In this scenario, individuals may be committed to participation but are prevented from enacting change due to organisational barriers. Therefore an infrastructure is required to support the cultural shift in participatory practice. The following areas of service development should be considered when developing a structure for participation: the development of a participation strategy; partnership working; the identification of participation champions; and the provision of adequate resources for participation.

Develop effective practice for participation

For children, young people and their families to become involved, practitioners need to be able to work in a way that enables participation and ultimately effects change or improvement within the organisation. This involves the organisation developing the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to enable all children and young people to participate safely and effectively. Poor participatory practice is frequently cited as an obstacle to participation. A lack of effective practice from practitioners will result in little or no positive change. Furthermore, if children and young people have continued experiences of adults failing to involve them in the decision-making process in an effective and meaningful way, the principles of participation will be devalued. The following key practice points should be considered: the involvement of all children and young people; ensuring the safe participation of children and young people; creating an environment for participation; using flexible and creative approaches; understanding the different mechanisms for involving children and young people in both the operation of the strategic development of an organisation, as well as individual decision-making processes; providing opportunities for both practitioners and children and young people to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

Develop effective systems to review participation

This relates to the need to monitor and evaluate the participation of children, young people and their families within organisations. This is necessary in order to establish the extent to which the standards have been achieved. The absence of a review process would mean the absence of recorded evidence of participation. Whilst a great deal of literature exists on the importance of participation, there is a dearth of evidence around how participatory practice has helped to change and improve services for children, young people and their families. The following elements should be considered when reviewing participation: the identification of proposed outcomes; the involvement of children and young people; resourcing review systems; and the establishment of systems to provide evidence of the process of participation as well as the outcomes.

What is the level of participatory practice in your service or organisation like?

Do you feel it needs improving?

What are the barriers to working in this way?​