“Participation can’t just be seen as a gesture” – how we aim to work with experts by experience at Z2K

Outgoing Participation Officer Hannah Davis reflects on Z2K’s approach to participation and our shared vision for this work.
Attending the work & pensions select committee in parliament  – (L-R) Franklyn Jaffier, Miracle Maduforo, Hannah Davis

At Z2K, we have been rethinking how we make decisions as an organisation. We know that traditional charity models of “us” (the organisation) and “them” (people who use our services) won’t be sufficient in reaching our long-term vision – that no individual in the UK is living in poverty.

Poverty robs individuals not just of income but of agency and power too. A commitment to genuinely share our power in how we deliver our work is crucial if we are to dismantle the broken systems that perpetuate poverty and inequality.

For us, participation is when those with lived experience of poverty shape and influence organisational decisions and work together with us to influence the decisions of others. In other words, experts by experience changing how Z2K delivers its work internally, as well as changing external policies and practices.

Many of the experts by experience we work alongside have been let down by mainstream services and organisations. This includes having attended consultation events from well-meaning public and voluntary sector organisations and never hearing back from them again. We have a responsibility not to replicate structures and practices that make people feel powerless. And ‘informing’ is no less important than ‘co-production’ – offering multiple levels of participation (as shown above) allows us to meet the needs of people we are working with whilst managing competing demands.

Working in genuine partnership is hard, and requires long-term resourcing beyond individual projects. That’s why our expert by experience network have regularly met to shape our parliamentary influencing, policy, and public campaigning work. Our projects, such as Tenants Voice, have allowed us to develop the tools we use in our core work. There is work ahead to further our ambitions for how experts by experience can play a meaningful role in furthering our strategy, organisational governance and service design.

Through a series of conversations and workshops with experts by experience and staff, we have developed a set of principles of what good participation looks like for us. We know we don’t always get this right and fully meeting these principles is an aspiration for us, as well as reflecting some of how we are already working:

  1. Having a clear purpose

“Participation can’t just be seen as a gesture” – Carl, expert by experience

Participation as a gesture means doing it to “tick a box” – to make the organisation look good. We owe it to the time, expertise and energy that experts by experience share with us that their involvement serves a real purpose. Whether that purpose is to influence policy change or develop the skills of experts by experience themselves, we are committed to ensuring our activities aim towards tangible, positive outcomes.

This means:
– Beginning work by agreeing and clearly communicating the purpose and any intended outputs and actions that we are aiming for.
– Being honest about what we are expecting of experts by experience, and what they can expect of us too (including what we can and can’t do).
– Being accountable to experts by experience – feeding back the impact of contributions beyond limited project timeframes.
– Building evaluation into our work to see how far we have achieved our aims, making necessary adjustments for next time.  
Illustration of Z2K policy influencing online workshop with experts by experience

2. Sharing power: 

“a middle ground between those who make decisions and those who live by those decisions that are ultimately made for them” – Roxie, expert by experience

Z2K’s position of delivering front-line advice and policy-influencing work make us well-placed to bring the insights of those directly impacted by unjust policies directly to bear on decision-making. Sharing power for us means working ‘with’ not ‘to/for’ and ensuring experts by experience have agency and control, whatever the level of participation.

This means:
– Involving experts by experience at the earliest possible stages to ensure shared aims – we won’t consult on decisions that are already made.
– Working towards sharing power in organisational decisions (e.g. in strategy and governance) – not only at a project level.
– Actively inviting feedback and criticism – we want experts by experience to be honest with us about how we are doing, and help us do better.
– Recognising the value of expertise – we will always offer reward and recognition to those who participate.  
Disability benefits assessments campaign briefing – (L-R), Marsha de Cordova MP, Jim Widdowson, Franklyn Jaffier, Svetlana Kotova, Anela Anwar, Karen Buck MP

3. Meeting each person where they are at:

“From physical to mental to social factors, we struggle with different things on a day-to-day basis. It’s important for staff to have an understanding of all these elements.” – Jim, expert by experience

It is on us as staff of Z2K to really listen to the diversity of barriers to participation people face and learn how we can be as inclusive as possible. This should run through the way that we design and deliver participation opportunities at all stages – meeting the needs of experts by experience in a person-centred way.

This means:
– Committing resources to overcome barriers to participation – including covering expenses, interpretation and accessible formats.
– Flexibility  – providing a range of opportunities for experts by experience to participate on their terms (be that online or offline, group or individual, publicly or anonymously).
– Treating personal stories and data that people entrust us with care.
– Communicating our principles to partners (e.g. journalists, other organisations, politicians) – and saying no to work that doesn’t meet them.  
Renters Reform Coalition reception – (L-R), Jamie Thunder, Roxie Kirshore-Bigord, Sean Cook

4. Embedding hope:

the satisfaction can come from seeing how we can give back – to know that we can stand firmer and taller – we are not useless” – Lee, expert by experience

Working together towards change has the potential to be positive and transformational – building connections and capacity. In the words of expert by experience Miracle, we want to use our resources to “embed hope” – whatever that looks like for those we are working with.

This means:
– Being solutions-focused and working towards creating change.
– Recognising experts by experience’s power to influence change on our own terms.
– Taking an asset-based approach – harnessing existing strengths, interests and ideas of those we are working with.
– Facilitating spaces where people who have had similar experiences can share what they’ve gone through as part of a supportive network.  
Paper mosaic workshop led by expert by experience Lee at Z2K’s coffee morning

We are hopeful that these principles can act as an anchor and guide to help us meaningfully combine different forms of knowledge (lived and learned) to ensure our services and campaigns result in real change for those experiencing poverty.

We know that we can’t do this alone – we are grateful to the experts by experience, staff and sector partners who have generously shared their knowledge and experience to help get to this point. We continue to learn from our allies such as the Commission on Social Security. We are looking forward to working with others who have a role to play in fighting poverty, as we keep on with our journey to embed participation as an organisation.

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