I used to complain to myself, and anyone else who would listen, that I was being overloaded with policy papers, invitations to consultation exercises, and requests to represent disabled people, or service users on innumerable committees. If these weren’t coming from the local health and social services, then they came from the various acronyms – CSCI, DRC, PPI…
It was almost like having a full-time job – without being paid (please don’t tell the Benefits Agency).
In many ways, it was also very flattering. Just imagine, people actually asking for my opinion! For a grumpy middle-aged man like me, it was like having a prayer answered – although I have had enough of a sense of perspective to try to limit my rants to what was on the agenda at the time.
Unfortunately, for many of my colleagues in the service user/disability movements, these opportunities were just too good to miss, so, rather than focusing on the issues at hand, too much time was wasted on individuals seizing the moment to give vent to whatever was bothering them at that time, irrespective of its relevance. Although it must have been frustrating for the organisers, who wanted particular kinds of information, I hope they understood that this is what happens when the hereto voiceless are given a chance to speak.
Now, I seem to be invited to fewer meetings, committees and consultations increasingly, these are being replaced by questionnaires. What does this mean?
Face-to-face consultation is expensive. Training and preparing service users adequately, arranging transport and venues, reimbursing (or even paying) people for their involvement, let alone the time involved is, I realise, a huge commitment of resources for any organisation, even those as big as a local authority, or Health Trust. In these times of overstretched budgets, the people in the finance departments would, predictably, question if this was value-for-money.
But questionnaires aren’t the same as active participation in decision-making: it’s the kind of thing marketing companies do – it’s the kind of consultation commercial organisations conduct – in a word, its consumerist, rather than inclusive.
I’m beginning to feel that service user participation has been just another trendy bandwagon which is getting a little tired, a little old, and that there are new trends to follow. Having ticked that box (“we’ve done user participation – what’s next?”), has consultation just become about ticking boxes?
Please tell me I’m wrong.
Simon Heng is a wheelchair user and is involved in user-led organisations