14. User Involvement and Participation on Committees

What is user involvement?

User involvement means getting the people who use your services or activities involved in the decision making process.  This is therefore a very broad definition.  The users could be service users, beneficiaries, members, participants, residents or tenants for example.  Participation could mean anything from going to a meeting once a year to being on the committee and making decisions.  For more information read on in this section of the FAQ or have a look at The Quick Guide to User Involvement.

Why should we do it?

Pressure has been growing over the last two decades on organisations to involve users more.  Nearly all politicians agree that user involvement is a good thing – though often for different and sometimes contradictory reasons.  As a result, funders have picked up on this idea as well and are generally keen to see user involvement in voluntary organisations as well.

Consumers or Owners?

There are two basic approaches to user involvement; a consumer approach and a democratic approach.  The consumer approach sees the user as a consumer and assumes that services will improve if the consumer’s wishes are responded to.  The democratic approach assumes that the user will be empowered and better served if they are involved in the choice of service received rather than be a passive recipient of a service selected by others.

Which approach should we take?

It is vital that you decide which approach is appropriate for your organisation first.  Generally the consumer approach is taken by traditional ‘philanthropic’ organisations where the committee members and the users are quite separate.  The founders and the committee will be made up of people who wish to do good for the beneficiaries (users) who are a quite different group of people.
The democratic approach is taken by organisations that are already democratic either in structure or values or both.  Organisations that are self-help and user-led generally fall into this group.

We’ve been told that the Charity Commission don’t allow it

No. The Charity Commission have been changing their thinking as the situation has evolved and have gradually been relaxing their view of ‘beneficiaries’ (as they see users) being involved on committees.  The situation was brought to a head by some user-led self-help groups which were set up on democratic lines changing, democratically, to member control of the committee.  Since 2000 the Charity Commission has permitted committees to be made up of a third of users in most cases and up to 100% in certain cases.

What about conflicts of interest?

It is true that there is potential for conflicts of interest to arise.  For instance a proposal to introduce charges for a service may be resisted by a service user on the committee purely from a personal point of view rather than taking a decision in the organisation’s best interests.  As a matter of good practice it makes sense to adopt a conflict of interest policy and record each committee member’s interests.

We’ve decided to take the consumer approach.  How do we do it?

Consumers may well be happy just being able to influence a service and may see participation in decision-making as unnecessary.  Typical mechanisms allow feedback as a minimum – such as evaluations either via a form, on-line or by telephone.  The next level is a focus group (one-off) or user panel (regular meetings).  The next stage might by to make the user panel a sub committee.  Finally, members of the user sub committee could become full members of the main committee.

We’ve decided to take the democratic approach.  How do we do it?

This approach assumes that both your values and structure are democratic.  If so, then you will already have members who elect the committee from within the membership.  In most cases such as organisation will have been formed with a self- help/ citizen participation ethos and so the members are also the users.  Provided the democratic process is working then user involvement will occur as part of the normal working of the organisation.  In rare cases the members and users are different groups of people and you will need to encourage users to become members and participate in the process in order to get users involved.  If necessary you could reserve a percentage of seats on the committee for user-members.  If you aspire to being democratic but don’t have a democratic structure you will need to change your constitution accordingly.

Some of the committee/volunteers/ staff are very against this idea

With either approach to user involvement there will be a tension between efficiency and responsiveness.  The pressure on organisations to be efficient has led to professionalised committees and staff who may feel that organisational efficiency will be compromised by involving users.  The opposing argument is that increased responsiveness will make the organisation more effective.  Some staff may fear that time and effort will be devoted to getting users involved with little material benefit.

We’ve tried to get users involved but it never seems to work.

~ First be clear whether you are involving users from a consumer or democratic perspective.

~ Be clear who you are referring to as users in your context.
~ Think of participation as a ladder.  What is the minimum and maximum level of participation that you are aiming for?  Then make a plan to start with the minimum level and then gradually climb the rungs of the ladder to the maximum level.

~ Consider the barriers to user involvement:  if there is a large gap between the existing committee and the users you are hoping to involve – either socially or professionally – you may need to offer support, and training to enable users to become involved.

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If some members of the committee are hostile to the idea of user involvement you will need to clarify the committee’s intentions and seek to educate resistant members.
~ If your users have special circumstances (such as ill health, learning difficulties, no time etc.) you may have to devise specific strategies to enable their participation.

Where can I find out more about user involvement?

Next FAQ: Councillors on the Committee
Previous FAQ : Job Descriptions for specific roles – chair, treasurer, secretary etc

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A Word About Words

This site is aimed at those who govern (control) small organisations - whether they are charities, companies, both or neither. Those who govern them may be called a variety of names. We have chosen to use mainly 'management committee' and occasionally 'committee member' or 'trustee'. more...
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