Meet the co-stars

Consulting properly and meaningfully with service users can take
time, effort and energy, along with a chunky slice of resources. So
much so that managers can be tempted to treat such exercises
minimally, as a way of ticking the “service user consultation” box
and leaving them free for their core business of meeting other
like-minded managers in other like-minded organisations – something
which not only ticks the “working in partnership” box but colours
it in as well.

This kind of cynicism is refreshingly absent from an approach
adopted by one learning difficulties partnership board. Made up of
representatives of those involved across the client group, these
boards exist to put into action the Valuing People ideas aimed at
improving the lives of people with learning difficulties.

With so much to cover – person-centred planning, direct payments,
work, advocacy, and so on – consultants for Buckinghamshire Council
recommended grouping everything into four main categories:planning
for lives, support for everyday living, life outside the home, and
cross-cutting themes. The subgroups (of which there are 19) feed
into the main groups to influence the county’s learning
difficulties strategy.

To give the whole thing organisational credibility, senior managers
were nominated to chair each of the main groups, with other named
staff taking the lead on each of the subgroups.

To allow service users a say, representatives from Talkback, a
user-led, self-advocacy service in Buckinghamshire, were drafted
in. “We speak up for other people who find it difficult to speak up
for themselves,” says Talkback member Peter Bolton.

But despite being involved from the beginning, service users
struggled to make sense of it all. “With all the paperwork, I
didn’t know if I was coming or going,” says service user Rob

Fellow service user Fred Charman agrees: “It was nice to be asked
but we had to be experts at everything and be everywhere – a bit
like Superman.”

Early on, Beattie was also puzzled by the idea of a partnership
board, asking tongue-in-cheek: “What is a parsnip board?” And
indeed that is how the board is now known informally.

Service users asked for a slower process. This gave time to
introduce the idea of having service users co-lead on the four main
groups with senior managers. “This made sure there was one of us up
there who knew what it was like,” says Stephen Baughan.

But with so much to get through, partnership board meetings were

“Now we split the day up,” says Peter Loose, head of adult care
services in the county. “In the morning we have workshops followed
by lunch, which is also used for networking. In the afternoon we
have two hours of reports from each of the main four groups; one is
detailed and three are short. And we leave space open for what we
call ‘hot topics’ so anything that has become a real issue for
users can be raised.”

Service users have a strong say in co-led monthly planning meetings
and hold people to account. The discussions also throw up new
ideas. Baughan asked why, now service users were involved in staff
recruitment interviews, they didn’t get to contribute to a worker’s
annual appraisal too. The meeting agreed that perhaps this should

Stuart Mitchelmore, who has overall responsibility for producing
the learning difficulties strategy, also suggested that perhaps he
should have a service user co-lead for that role. This, too, will
be acted on.

“We still have a way to go but we’re heading the right way and
that’s what is so pleasing,” says Mitchelmore.

Beattie agrees: “They’ve got used to us,” he smiles.


  • Move at the pace and understanding of people with learning
    difficulties. If they are truly to inform service plans they must
    understand how they can do that and challenge any failure to act on
    their ideas.
  • Everyone involved needs to be kept informed of what’s going on.
    For example, the minutes of the partnership board meetings are
    summarised in a two-page newsletter and sent to everybody.
  • Find ways for people with learning difficulties to express
    themselves. Talkback members make powerful use of picture stories
    and video presentations.   

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