Jennifer Harrison, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Changing Lives, shares a perspective on how policymaking can become more inclusive of people with lived experience of accessing services similar to ours, and why this matters.

Today, I had the opportunity to present at a workshop in Parliament, sharing a perspective on how best to involve the voices of people with lived experience in scrutinising and challenging government. By lived experience, we mean people who are currently or have previously accessed services similar to those we offer at Changing Lives.

Each year, we support over 17,000 people who are experiencing hardships that many would struggle to imagine: homelessness, sexual exploitation, life-threatening addictions, mental and physical health problems, long-term unemployment and poverty, and more.

Raising the voices of the people we support is an issue close to our hearts at Changing Lives. We believe that the expertise held by people with lived experience is unique, valuable and of equal importance to other contributions, such as research or professional knowledge.

It is also vital to our way of working. We are proud that 20 per cent of our workforce have lived experience, at every level of the organisation. For the people we support, our focus is on their potential, their strengths and the opportunities we can give them to change their lives for the better. This includes ensuring that they are invited to contribute meaningfully to all of our policy and influencing activity – from providing input into consultation responses, to giving evidence to committees in Parliament.

For example, one person who accesses our services recently gave powerful and compelling evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into Universal Credit and Survival Sex. Their insights have helped to shape recommendations with the potential to make a difference to thousands of lives.

So what have we learned from this approach, and how can policymaking become more inclusive of the voices of people with lived experience?

Involving people with lived experience improves policymaking

This is simple, but true – the contribution of people with lived experience makes policy better. Collectively and individually, their knowledge is immense. Just as what we know about the moon is due to the first-hand experience of Neil Armstrong as much as it is scientific theory, policymakers need personal perspectives alongside more traditional forms of evidence to develop a fully rounded understanding.

However, for this to be meaningful, there needs to be real power and an ability to effect change. It is not enough, and indeed it may actually counterproductive, for lived experience simply to be used a way of illustrating an issue. In part, this is because it encourages those on the receiving end to see it an individual problem rather than one affecting many people, but also because it misses a huge opportunity for those affected to be involved in challenging existing thinking and helping to develop innovative policy solutions.

Respect and care is key

In our experience, it can be hugely empowering for people with lived experience to share their perspectives with policymakers. However, it is important to recognise that it can also be extremely difficult, not least because many have gone through significant challenges in their lives and it can be re-traumatising to be asked to revisit these experiences. Confidentiality is also important, as it may not appropriate for some people with lived experience to make their identities known. This could be to ensure their personal safety, or to prevent them from becoming labelled as a result of their experiences.

It is important, then, that policymakers and charities alike are flexible and sensitive to individual circumstances when supporting people with lived experience to become involved in developing policy. While some people may be comfortable to share their stories, others may benefit from being accompanied by a support worker, reading from a pre-prepared statement, or from meeting in a safe, informal setting. It is vital that people who volunteer to contribute can do so in a way that is comfortable for them, and that they are given every opportunity to ask questions or withdraw if they choose.

The best approach is long-term and sustainable

Creating opportunities for people to share their experiences can be challenging for both policymakers and charities working with people who have lived experience. Many charities lack the capacity to do a great deal of scouting for new policy initiatives, and likewise policymakers cannot be expected to be aware of the work of all organisations working directly with people who have lived experience. And even once an opportunity is identified, the timescales are necessarily determined by the external environment, which does not always allow sufficient time for people with lived experience to consider and prepare for their involvement. This highlights the importance of developing relationships between policymakers and charities over time, building a continuous role for lived experience within policy development.

As a charity, we are heartened to see that raising the voices of people with lived experience is a priority for Parliament. It can be an opportunity that will stay with people for years to come, particularly when they can see how their contribution has been used to create change.

It is now a shared responsibility between policymakers and the voluntary sector to ensure that the contribution of people with lived experience continues to grow, for the benefit of all of us accessing and delivering services.

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