March 13, 2023
I am often contacted to support organisations improve their engagement with victim-survivors of violence and abuse (and it’s work I absolutely love doing) but there are things that come up time and time again as traps that people fall into when doing this kind of work. So here are some of the things to consider ahead of committing to engaging that will both improve your outcomes and save them time in the long run.
Co-production/lived experience engagement takes far more time than you might think. From recruiting people to take part, to building the internal processes and structures required to put the right systems, training, and support in place, to actually doing the work, it all takes time. To get really good outcomes you’re likely to need to build trust and change many internal systems which can take months if not years. If your need is to get work done quickly then you’re much better off using consultation approaches rather than co-production ones (for more on the difference between these approaches read my previous post ‘lived experience engagement explained’).
Particularly in the context of violence and abuse given 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime it’s important to remember that you may well have people with lived experience within your team. It can be easy to look outside of an organisation and devalue the experience within the organisation. That being said, we also can’t rely on those experiences alone. It’s important to give time to think about the intersections and overlaps and to ensure the right systems and support processes are in place.
I would love to be able to develop a toolkit that spells out exactly how to do co-production but the truth is it varies from organisation to organisation, and also across different work streams and tasks. If you want people to input into strategy you might need to spend a lot more time explaining decision making (potentially both for your organisation but also in the context of local/national government) where as if you want people to help suggest services that are missing, that requires a whole different input. In order to do this work well you need to think about what the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve are and then work backwards to decide how best to engage people. You should of course include people with lived experience in deciding the outcomes and method if you truly want to co-produce.
Don’t get me wrong I love co-production and wish most organisations would do more of it, but it won’t always be right for the task in hand. For example, procurement rules may mean you can’t have a survivor on your commissioning decision making panel. It’s much better to consult and be honest about that, than say you’re co-producing when you’re really not. Likewise, not all victim-survivors will want to co-produce. For some it might be really important to have their voice heard, but that doesn’t mean they want to be involved in working out the solution to the issues they present to you. Good collaboration means providing options for people to be involved in a range of ways.
Just as with staff who you know as people who have lives outside of their work, you need to be interested in the wider experiences of those who join you from a lived experience perspective too. Not just because that’s what builds trust, and shows that you value people, but also because you’re likely to find a whole range of additional skills you didn’t know about. Need a new leaflet designed? You might well have a graphic designer or artist in your midsts already. Often my biggest concern (and trustees I’m afraid I’m looking at you here) is the false narrative that those who have been abused must therefore also be of a lower income, and less able in some way. Victim-survivors are talented people who are so much more than just the abuse that they experienced.