Book cover: Making Partnerships with Service Users and Advocacy Groups WorkJackie Martin is Principal Lecturer in Social Work, De Montfort University, UK. She works with service users and carers on the Post Qualifying Social Work Award and carries out research with service users. Julie Gosling, as Director of Advocacy in Action, has developed and delivered teaching at universities across the UK and Europe, and has over 20 years’ experience at the forefront of community involvement and in creating and supporting partnerships. 

In this interview they discuss their new book Making Partnerships with Service Users and Advocacy Groups Work: Why the word ‘partnership’ is often an empty rhetoric and what is needed to make meaningful and true partnerships work between service users and social care providers.

Can you both tell us a bit about yourselves and your work? How did you first come together to work on this book?

Jackie: I am a Principal Lecturer at De Montfort University, where I have worked for six years. Previously to this I was a social worker and then Team Manager working for Nottinghamshire County Council. I have always worked with disabled people, adults and children and their carers. I met Julie at a Revalidation event at De Montfort where she was a service user representative working with the General Social Care Council. At that time I was looking for service users to work with me on the then new Post-Qualifying Award for Social Workers working with adults. Julie and I spent a lot of time together planning, teaching and discussing issues related to this award. We talked more widely about service user involvement and how to include people in a meaningful way in the programme. I learnt a lot through these discussions. We used the theme of a garden growing to explain some of our ideas at a conference on service user involvement, and I had the idea then of doing some writing on this subject. I suggested to Julie that we could write a book together and try and mirror our ideas in the way that we worked together.

Julie: I am a woman of Irish heritage – a musician and a writer. I am a survivor of severe domestic violence and homelessness in the 1970’s, and still I live with the impact of this upon my emotional well-being. I am now physically disabled, but previously shared my home for 20 years with three friends who were all severely learning disabled – we lived together as a ‘caring household.’ It was during these years of sharing and caring that our household joined forces with other survivors-on-the-edge, to form ‘Advocacy In Action’ – a small but potent action / educational group with an international profile. I now teach across Europe and I am involved at undergraduate, post-graduate and post-qualifying levels in developing and delivering shared learning within social work and social care education. I have held various academic and public appointments, including university posts of visiting lecturer and consultant on service-user participation, member of the Nottingham University Teaching Hospitals clinical ethics committee, adviser to Nottinghamshire Police Authority, executive director of Nottingham Racial Equality Centre and Chair of Nottingham Irish Centre.

It was through my involvement in the East Midlands Adult PQ Partnership stakeholder board and teaching commitments at De Montfort University that Jackie and I recognised an affinity of principles and creative solutions. We often met outside of the university to plot ideas and Jackie persuaded me to write a book jointly with her about a concept we were both developing independently of one another – that of ‘growing spaces’ as a way understanding and developing genuine partnership between people who want to achieve individual and community well-being, empowerment and growth.

Your book is about partnership, and has lots of advice on how to involve service users in a genuine and respectful way. Are there common misconceptions about what service user involvement means?

Jackie: I think that some people think that service user involvement is just a matter of inviting service users to meetings. However, this is not correct. This could be like inviting people to a party where they don’t know anyone, are not sure of what to expect and maybe no one talks to them – the result would be a miserable experience for them. Others may think that they cannot involve service users as it is too difficult a task, so they don’t bother in the first place.

Julie: In the first question, I referred to ‘genuine partnership.’ Actually, it worries me that although there is an abundance of involvement chatter, there is not so much evidence of good partnership in action. The emphasis appears to be around bringing people into already established frameworks and dogma, instead of mutually building dialogue, space and values where partners explore, discover and create. As one practitioner told me: ‘It’s as if the words themselves are sufficient.’ He then went on to describe how he used words like ‘partnership’ and ‘choice’ routinely, while knowing that they disguised the reality within the rhetoric – that services were actually becoming more rigid and inflexible. This continues to worry me on a number of counts:

Firstly, the original values and innovative partnership solutions – though firmly rooted in service user and community movements – have now been incorporated, colonised and commodified by more powerful partners who have little understanding or commitment to genuine power-sharing.

Secondly, some will only ever be ‘invited guests at the party’. The whole notion of involvement implies a benevolent bringing into, with all the accompanying permissions, largesse and hand-outs. Involvement is not sufficiently rights-based. We need to move towards collaboration when we talk partnership.

Thirdly, and most worrying, the brave ideologies, innovations and responses of service user and community activists risk a dumbing down, if we do not wake up to the fact that our own words have been employed by partners with power to package up their less than liberating services. The service-user lexis of emancipation and change is now being used in reverse to shut us up. Language has become the invisible tranquilising shot that dulls our hearts and minds to the harsh truth that very little, very little indeed has changed for the better.

Of course there are abundant and shining examples of partnership practice at its best – both inside and outside of our book – and I would not wish to imply for one moment that service user, self-advocacy forums and community groups hold the monopoly on these. However, I am dismayed by the number of instances where partnership is being used precisely to avoid power-sharing. Overall, I am not convinced that the great juggernauts of social care and health have got into partnership in any major sense of the word, unless it is with those institutions and individuals that mirror their own inward-looking thinking and practices. I’d better stop it there I think!

Why is it important for health and social care services to involve service users?

Jackie: I think that service users can give a perspective which can be lost without their inclusion. Service users can help to cut through some of the professional ‘jargon’ which excludes people, even other professionals sometimes. Professionals are often under considerable pressures to meet targets or stay within budgets, and even with the best will in the world they can start to lose sight of why they came into the profession in the first place. Service users can help to keep that perspective and keep values sharp.

Julie: This is a question I ask every class of learners I work in partnership with. They give me inspiring answers about expertise by experience, respect, dignity and choice. It is now legislation of course. But decades before the government made it mandatory, ordinary folk were organising to insist that their voices were brought to the table with policy makers, academics professionals and practitioners.

I suppose my one-liner response to this question would be: ‘And why would you not involve us?’ – but with the proviso of course that partnerships are mutually grown within those respectful and accommodating spaces where everyone is recognised and rewarded. Otherwise partnership becomes yet another professional procedure, something that practitioners ‘do’ willingly or otherwise to the people who use their services.

You are both involved in educating prospective social workers – do you find that most students are aware of service user perspectives?

Jackie: Some are of course and some may have been service users themselves. I think that students who are on qualifying training course are quite aware of service user perspectives. Where it can get lost is when social workers qualify and then get caught up in a relentless system where they experience heavy work loads. I have found that social workers who are already qualified have really valued the chance to re-visit their values and work alongside service users as part of post-qualifying training.

Julie: I personally find that many learners think they understand about partnership and that most are willing to know more. I have to say however that students travel the most amazing journeys when they explore issues of partnership alongside service user educators. My twenty-one years’ experience with Advocacy in Action has convinced me that this is the only way to celebrate and share the perspective of people who use or are eligible to use services. I will let our students speak for us on this issue:

‘It is hard for me to admit that my practice, though good at times, has not been great at others, in fact crap at times. I don’t think anyone likes to be wrong, but I’ve learned more from my assumptions and my own prejudices than from any book.’

‘I realise the degree to which I have cut myself off and become numb and have taken my knowledge for granted. I can now, and will now, link into my own experience to understand and enable others. I will pass on my experience and knowledge to others just as Advocacy in Action has done for me. Knowledge and experience are there to be shared by all. Advocacy in Action has helped me know what services feel like.’

‘It is their life, not mine.’

‘I realise how we expect people to tell us very intimate and personal information without building up rapport or trust. Imagine me, the individual who finds it difficult to open up, now me the practitioner, trying to listen to other people’s stories – when I myself cannot be open in the same way!’

‘Some people would rather not talk about their lives, any more than I want to talk about mine, but they are put into situations where they are obliged to. It is part of my job to ensure the process does not distance me from them. I acknowledge the importance of memories, and I remember when I leave someone that they will be left with their own memories of me. I commit to work in the trust that they will remember my involvement as being relevant, respectful, useful and positive.’

What do you hope that readers of the book will take away from the book?

Jackie: I hope that readers will take away the enthusiasm which is evident in the partnerships in the book. I hope they will be keen to make their own partnerships into ‘growing spaces’ and see that every partnership is different but that there are principles of respect that are key to making partnerships work. I hope that they will take away the willingness to take risks and to learn from mistakes as we all make these. Most of all, I hope they take away the idea of the riches that working in partnership with service user can bring.

Julie: My own wish when writing this book was that anyone – learner or practitioner, academic or expert by experience, professional or community activist – would find it accessible, respectful and useful. I do not believe we have written a ‘quick fix’ solution on how to ‘do’ involvement, but hopefully readers will take away from the stories all the truths that enriched my thinking and Jackie’s too. I wish for our readers the courage to challenge their own values and the confidence in their own good ideas and partnership principles, and finally I hope that the stories inspire everyone to work towards good power-sharing within great growing spaces of their own.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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