Here at MAC we get about a bit. We meet all sorts of people with great ideas about how to engage well with service users and the public but every so often we meet people who are so ground down by it all that they don’t know where to turn. The frontline of user involvement can sometimes be a bit of a depressing and challenging place to be both for service providers and for the individuals who commit their time, expertise and energy to being part of it – my own experience on a range of different groups confirms this over and over again. So what can we do to raise our spirits and help each other out when the going gets tough? Before we get to grips with the solutions, let’s just take a moment to identify the problem.
A cry for help
I am a service provider in the public sector and for several years I have been dreaming of creating really effective user engagement in my organisation. I really wanted my service to be responsive to users, to show the world how good we are at listening. But of course it had to fit in with our real work, the day-to-day business of running the service. I wanted it to enhance our work, not get in the way. We simply don’t have the capacity to deal with any unreasonable demands made of me or my staff in terms of our time, money, energy or emotion. So we decided to set up a user engagement group. We serve so many different people and their needs are very complex – in reality we know more about what our diverse users really need than anyone else, but I guessed some users might have something useful to tell us sometimes so it seemed like a good idea.
The wrong people in the room?
My senior management team and I agreed that the only way this user group could have any real credibility would be to make sure it was really representative, in other words that it “reflected” the people who use our service. So what we wanted to do was find a group of people who were like a microcosm of our community -with the same proportion of men and women, blacks and whites, old and young, gay and straight, people with disabilities and those without, rich and poor, fat people and thin people, stupid people and intelligent people, etc etc. In return for their time we thought we could give them some tea and biscuits and the chance for them to meet us.
But somehow it all went horribly wrong. All our efforts were thwarted by the fact that the people that wanted to get involved failed dismally to deliver on our requirements for representativeness. They just kept turning up for meetings all keen and interested on wet Tuesday nights in the partially derelict library and eating what were certainly better biscuits than we give our own staff, whilst resolutely insisting on being unrepresentative. Where were the hard to reach? It was almost embarrassing – and since they were unable to reflect everyone’s views, you will understand why we felt we needed to keep them on a tight rein. They wanted to set up their own Facebook page but we could see how risky that would be for us so we told them we would give them a page on our website but they would need to talk to Maureen about how to get their stuff up on it (and she only works on Fridays unfortunately).
We realised we could not let them have too much power: it would have been wrong and undemocratic. So we decided that the best way to handle them would be just to keep them happy, meet with them every few months and stroke them a little. We got them to help design a couple of very nice posters asking people not to be rude to the receptionists and I think they were genuinely pleased to be the first to know that we were changing the menus. We have been trying to work with the Chair to try to get her on-side too. We hoped she could act as a buffer between us and Them but for some reason over the last few months she has been getting increasingly stroppy. Actually, it is not just the Chair. Recently quite a few of them have begun to kick off. They want to get involved in things that are way beyond their remit. They don’t seem to grasp that we are the ones running the service, not Them.
Our ball, our game, our rules
We are the professionals and some decisions are obviously not up for discussion. Like staffing. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely inappropriate for service users to get involved in staffing issues – what do they know about what is going on in terms of your staff management plan? And anyway, we cannot discuss individual staffing matters with anyone – that’s confidential and they should understand that. How would they feel if their customers at their work were discussing their employment status with their managers? So it made no sense for them to get so upset when six members of staff left in the summer. Now the meetings are becoming a real nightmare. People are making ridiculous demands, deliberately misunderstanding what is going on, failing to understand their role, calling in the press, spreading malicious rumours on Twitter. They are way out of line. The more sensible people have stopped coming to meetings and we are left with just a few people who frankly are the least representative of all – most of them have personal axes to grind and if they don’t get what they want they just keep on and on like a cracked record. They just cannot grasp the bigger picture.
Reluctantly ticking the box
We need some help but please don’t suggest we scrap the group – that would look really bad. We will just have to keep it ticking over and go for a bit of damage limitation. It’s only a couple of hours every quarter, after all, plus dealing with those stroppy emails copied to all and sundry making wild accusations about me and my team. My instincts tell me I should just hand it all over to the Comms team and get them to deal with it – they are good at cheering everybody up with positive messages which to be honest is what most people really want to hear. No-one wants to listen to all this incessant whingeing from a tiny minority of users. Having said all this, I would be a bit sorry to say goodbye altogether to my dream just because of a few slightly unhinged individuals. What should I do?
Do not abandon hope – help is at hand
Does this sounds familiar? We think there are ways to address all these problems and get back on track with successful engagement that really can make a difference to managers, service providers and the public and service users who get involved. Watch this space for our Agony Aunt’s response to the plight expressed here. In the meantime, we would welcome your comments and observations so tell us what you think!