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Chair's Blog: Shaping Our Service User and Carer Involvement Framework

This is my last blog post as BASW Chair, and I am pleased and honoured that it has been jointly written with Becki Meakin, the general manager of Shaping Our Lives, a national network of service users and disabled people and their organisations. I first spoke with Becki on the telephone in late 2015, and from that moment onwards she has assisted me, and BASW, in our journey towards involving service users and carers in all that we do. Becki and I will each say in turn a little about this connection and this journey, and about what professionals and their organisations should consider if they are to be serious about service user and carer involvement.

Shaping Our Service User and Carer Involvement Framework

Guy writes:

BASW has a proud history of promoting service user involvement in the practice of social work and social care, dating back at least to Bill Jordan’s address to the BASW conference of 1975, ‘Is the client a fellow citizen?’, which I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, possibly more than once. I’ve mentioned Terry Bamford’s book, A Contemporary History of Social Work, more than once too, but I’m happy to mention it again, as it provides a great description of Bill giving his “electrifying” address in a white suit (and also because Terry gave me solid support in my first two years as Chair, when he was a member of Council).

I quoted the 1980 report of BASW’s subsequent working party on client participation in social work, Clients Are Fellow Citizens, in essays written during my social work studies (1987-89). On roughly the same topic, I also remember quoting from pamphlets I found in the library published by Battersea Community Action, by a certain Peter Beresford and Suzy Croft (I can’t find the essays, but looking through the references of Peter’s superb 2016 book, All Our Welfare, one might well have been A say in the future: Planning, participation and meeting social need).

So it’s not an exaggeration to say I was a little starstruck when making contact with Peter after I became BASW Chair (I suspect he’ll hate me saying that). Peter was on the Steering Committee of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) and I learned that he was also a co-chair and founder of Shaping Our Lives. One thing that was impressing me about SWAN - which I’d been a member of for a while, though it wasn’t until I became BASW Chair that I really started to find out about it - was the genuine involvement of service users in their activity. While BASW had a history of promoting service user involvement in social work practice, I realised this wasn’t the same as involvement in the activity of BASW itself.

While there were good examples of BASW involving service users in some of its activities, presenting at events, for example, at the same time there seemed to be scope for development, and a need to more deeply embed service user involvement into our structures, processes and activities.

Two things helped at this stage. One was that I contacted Peter, and asked whether there was someone I could speak to at Shaping Our Lives who might work with us and help us think about how we could set about making the developments just mentioned. It was useful too to be focused on arrangements for the social work summit that we had called, for January 2016, as we wanted service users to play a full role in that, and this was something specific we could ask Shaping Our Lives about. Fortunately, Peter put me in touch with Becki Meakin, who will take up the story of what happened next below. 

The second thing involved one of my more recent social work heroes (all the above named are heroes of mine; Bill Jordan wrote the article that has still had the most influence on me as a social worker - ‘Counselling, advocacy and negotiation’, published in the British Journal of Social Work in 1987), Peter Unwin - he might hate me for saying that too. As well as being the Poet Austeriate and one of the songwriters for Boot Out Austerity, from 2014 to 2016 he was a BASW Council member, and, we discovered (we need to get better at discovering Council members’ particular expertise more quickly), immensely skilled and experienced at facilitating service user and carer involvement.

Peter submitted a paper to Council, also in January 2016, recommending a process for developing service user and carer involvement in BASW, which Council gladly approved. This led to the establishment of a Service User and Carer Involvement Framework, which coincidentally is being reviewed at a meeting of the Service User and Carer Reference Group around the time that this blog post is due to be published.

It is an ambitious framework, and we have some way to go in realising the aspirations it holds. What will be crucial above all is that we continue to talk with service users and carers, and draw on their experience and knowledge regarding how to involve them. This is what I have learned more than anything from Becki, who I will now hand over to, in appreciation.

Becki writes:

Shaping Our Lives is a user-led organisation that specialises in the inclusive involvement of people who use services. We aim to promote the voices of disabled people and other people experiencing multiple disadvantage to inform those creating policy, planning and delivering services. Service user voice in the cycle of providing services has been proven to create effective and efficient services that support people to make choices about the way they live their lives, giving them control and ultimately leading to independent living.

When Guy from BASW first contacted Shaping Our Lives, back in 2015, I was a little confused by our first conversation. What can we tell BASW about the importance of involving people who use services in the running of their organisation? It seemed to me that social workers and their professional body would know more about this than most workers and professionals  in the social care sector. However, despite the  traditional motives of social work to be a force of rights-based philosophy and person-centred skills, perhaps in the light of pressures of service cuts, neoliberal approaches and crushing austerity government policies, social work and its professionals needed to get back to basics.

So when Guy asked me how BASW should involve disabled people and service users in their organisation, the obvious response was ‘Have you asked them?’. I have come to realise over many years of working for Shaping Our Lives and listening to experts in involving diverse communities, activists from Disabled People’s Organisations and those people who are experts from their lived experiences, that asking the people with most first-hand knowledge is not the obvious route that service providers consider.

On this occasion however, Guy was eager to listen, be guided by Shaping Our Lives, and most importantly commit resources to become a respectful and responsive organisation to the views of service users.

The BASW Summit in January 2016 was an opportunity to launch the new commitment to service user perspectives. So it was important to establish the first principle of good service user involvement – to ensure that people with lived expertise are given equal opportunities to influence. There was not just one presentation from service users at the summit, but representatives taking part in each presentation, panel discussion and leading on table activities. This quickly established a top down commitment to the involvement of service users in the future of BASW’s work, while facilitating bottom-up influence of future priorities for BASW. From this positive start, Shaping Our Lives worked to support BASW in developing a formal involvement strategy, including how lived experience would be remunerated appropriately, the second most important principle of inclusive involvement.

From a three year study by Shaping Our Lives, ‘Beyond the usual suspects: Towards inclusive user involvement’, it was revealed that people are excluded because of a range of barriers to being involved. These barriers include financial constraints, the prohibitive costs of travelling and support, the practical considerations of physical access including time of meetings, and communication of necessary information in accessible formats. Getting involvement right does not start with an organisation deciding that they want to do it, but it starts with a discussion with service users to establish what needs to be done and how to make this possible.

Getting involvement right can also have considerable benefits for service users, and the intrinsic benefits for communities should not be overlooked. A recent user-led  research study about why disabled people get involved highlights that well-organised involvement activities most commonly lead to service users finding other opportunities for paid or voluntary work; and/or they experience better well-being. As one person said:

“For me it was a start to getting back out into the world and a step on the journey to being well again.”

Shaping Our Lives has published this research and two practical guides – a guide for professionals thinking about involving people with lived expertise; and a guide for service users thinking about taking part in involvement activities. This research and the guides are free from the Shaping Our Lives website.

Our ongoing work with BASW has included many opportunities for progressive and challenging discussions between people who use social care services and social work professionals. These discussions revealed that both parties shared common frustrations; not the first time I have discovered this commonality when working to develop involvement activities that promote equality and true partnership working. So from this, I was very lucky to work with BASW’s new Chair, Gerry Nosowska, in delivering a co-produced charter for disabled adults and social workers. The charter reflects these common goals and ways of working that give social workers a framework for person-centred solutions, using social approaches and promoting the principles of independent living.

I was also privileged to meet Peter Unwin on several occasions, and we quickly found some common interests; not just about the inclusive involvement of people who use services, but also about fostering. We decided to apply for funding to do a research study looking into the mutual benefits of disabled people becoming foster carers. I am delighted to say that Shaping Our Lives is now working with Peter in his role as Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Worcester University on a two-year pilot study.

The work I have done with BASW has been a fulfilling journey and it continues to be a motivating and inspiring example of just what can be achieved when an organisation takes service user involvement seriously.