The Quick Guide to User Involvement

Definitions

User is a broad term that covers service users, beneficiaries, customers, members, participants, residents, tenants and stakeholders.
Involvement can mean anything from merely using a service and commenting on it up to full decision making on the committee.

Background

User involvement has been at the top of the agenda for over 20 years now.  Nearly all politicians agree that user involvement is a good thing – though often for different and sometimes contradictory reasons – and as a result have been promoting it in most government initiatives involving the voluntary sector.  Other funders have picked up on user involvement as well, and you will routinely find at least one question on any grant application form relating to user involvement.

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 the choice of services on offer will meet the consumer’s demands 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.  These are clearly quite different perspectives. It will cause problems if members of your organisation aren’t clear which approach you are taking. It matters less if you aren’t sure what your funders perspective is, though it helps if you can find out.

Deciding which approach to 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.

The Charity Commission view

The Charity Commission used to take the traditional view of charities that they consisted of three groups,
1          the donors  – who gave the money,
2          the beneficiaries – who received the benefits of that money
3          the committee or trustees – who looked after the money and made sure that the donors wishes were respected and the beneficiaries received the benefits.
However, the 20th Century saw a huge rise in self-help, grass roots associations, where groups of people with a  similar interest came together to form organisations to meet their own needs.  Inevitably these organisations began to blur the boundaries between the committee and the beneficiaries.  The Charity Commission had to deal with each application for charity status on its own merits and gradually came to accept a third users on the committee as a rule of thumb.  The situation was brought to a head in the 1990s 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% if a convincing case can be made for it.

Conflicts of interest

This has always been a major concern of the charity Commission.  A conflict of interest can arise if, for instance, a proposal to introduce charges for a service may affect a service user on the committee.  They should vote for what is best for the organisation, but may be tempted to vote against the charges in their own interests.   As a matter of good practice organisations involving users should adopt a conflict of interest policy and record each committee member’s interests.  Remember, this applies to all committee members, not just the users.

How do we go about involving users?

  • 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.
  • Generally, if you take the consumer approach you may settle for a lower level of involvement as consumers may merely want to have their say about the service quality and choices.
  • Generally, if you take the democratic approach you will be aiming for full participation in the decision making process, probably as a committee member.
  • 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.  Conversely 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.

The ladder of participation

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.

A democratic organisation will already have members who elect the committee from within the membership.  In most cases such an 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 processes 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.

Where can I find out more about user involvement?

The Governance Pages FAQ 14
Further resources on user involvement

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