With service user and public participation high on the social care agenda, two councils are cost effectively improving their public information through real and simple involvement. Graham Hopkins reports
Some time ago I came across a leaflet. Despite a swish of jargon and somewhat bloated style it seemed the type of information that would generally be understood by social care workers. For example, one part ran: “The current programme overleaf offers a choice of work and skills training in the small work group principle. Our aim is to enhance your social skills sufficiently in order to enable you to take an active part in your personal development.”
However, the leaflet wasn’t for social care workers; it was for people with learning difficulties who used a day service. It might as well have been written in Old Norse. Quite simply, if this had been tested first with its intended audience it would never have seen the light of day.
And, in essence, that is the role fulfilled by readers’ panels. They look at social care information and comment on what works and what doesn’t. They are a simple but effective example of service user and public involvement in action.
Information is the signpost which helps would-be users of services gain an under standing of what is available and where. So it should be a perfect place to involve them.
Yet, according to publications officer at Blackpool council, Peter Marsden, scepticism remains. “Partly this is because of their poor experiences of being asked their views and then being ignored; of ‘tick box’ consultation exercises with no intention of taking on board people’s views; and a failure to start a genuine and open dialogue,” he says.
So can readers’ panels get it right? “Their strength lies in the fact that all members can bring something to the table – namely their direct experiences of trying to identify suitable services and then navigating their way through the maze of social care structures,” adds Marsden.
The first panel in Blackpool was set up three years ago to review existing information for carers, since when three more panels – covering people with learning difficulties, people with physical disabilities and older adults – have been created. “At our first meeting we didn’t just jump straight into detailed work, but instead spent time agreeing what work the group would do and how to go about it, its role and powers, and how decisions are made,” explains Marsden. “This is a crucial building block for any form of public engagement exercise. Get it wrong and your group will most likely struggle to work effectively and at worse fall apart.”
It was essential to prove to the panel its worth. “Only by bringing back amended drafts, producing a final product that bore carers’ own fingerprints, and spending time listening, did we build up trust and a mutual respect. It will always take time and energy,” says Marsden, “but it’s been worth it, the panel helped to improve dramatically the quality of carers’ information.”
That has also been the experience in Cumbria since 1996 – although the set up is significantly different. “Being a large rural county, we decided to operate the panel by post,” says public information manager, Peter Knock. “This meant panel members didn’t need to travel to meetings and could do panel business when it suited them. It is cost effective and practical – we save on travel and venue expenses. However, it means we can’t benefit from discussion of drafts between panel members. Also feedback is a set of responses which takes time to review.”
Panel members – who are mainly older people – prefer hard copy drafts to be posted to them; e-mail has yet to convince. This style suits the county. Says Knock: “The panel works very well. After 10 years, responses continue to challenge our use of language and jargon – where it creeps in. Panel comments also tend to make drafts shorter than the original. We put a thumbs-up readers’ panel logo on the back of all information that has been sent to them.”
Indeed any positive commitment to readers’ panels should receive a thumbs-up from us all.
● Contact: Peter Marsden, publications officer, Blackpool ; Peter Knock, public information manager, Cumbria
● Members need to be volunteers and broadly representative.
● Staff and service users need a common understanding about the purpose and process of undertaking work.
● Make sure service users have real power; keep staff in a minority.
● Value members: listen to them, meet at their convenience, pay expenses and provide something to eat and drink.
● Make sure the author of the leaflet or report attends: members can then ask direct questions.
● Use a skilled and patient chair and staff with a real commitment about the value of involvement.
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