Seminar report: The costs and benefits of involving stakeholders in strategy development
The following is a report of a strategy seminar jointly organised by the Third Sector Foresight project and the Performance Hub on 15 May 2006, which aimed to explore issues around stakeholder and user engagement in strategy development.
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Paul Robson, an independent consultant and Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Institutional Studies, University of East London gave a short presentation on some theories and models of user engagement in strategy within the VCS.
This was followed by a discussion, facilitated by Caroline Copeman of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, Cass Business School, which focused on sharing and building on each other's experiences.
The seminar was attended by 35 senior managers, trustees, chief executives and consultants.
- An introduction to theories and models of stakeholder engagement in strategy development
- Seminar discussion
- Case Study
- Further reading
Paul Robson, University of East London
I am starting with the assumption that a key function of governance of any voluntary and community organisation is contributing to and deciding on, or at least approving, strategy or in simple terms: big decisions about purpose and priorities.
Self-help and user-led organisations - set up by and for users - have participation built into their activities and structures, including strategy. However, for many voluntary organisations governing bodies, other committees and managers have to think about introducing service user input. Whilst there are a variety of structures and methods for involvement in governance, there is no clear evidence that any particular one works better than any other. A mixed board of users and those recruited for particular skills will often feel pulled in different directions. A board that consults with an advisory group or assembly of users may be accused of tokenism.
Different theories of governance, and more specifically board roles, imply different types of board membership, which may or may not include service users. Trends towards increased professionalism of boards by reducing their size and targeting recruitment at people with specific expertise such as finance or marketing fits with the stewardship theory of organisational governance in which the board and senior management work in partnership on strategy.
However, many voluntary and community organisations are founded on values of participation and democracy and are therefore likely to base their governance on stakeholder
or democratic theory . An aspect of both these theories is that the board is a place where any competing interests and objectives are negotiated and reconciled. Board members are likely to be a mix of lay people and elected representatives from different constituencies (Cornforth 2003, see further reading).
Research carried out by the Centre for Institutional Studies at the University of East London (see further reading) demonstrated that most user involvement initiatives can be categorised as either consumerist or democratic , a distinction usefully described by Beresford and Croft (see further reading).
|Inform, consult||Participate, decide|
|Professional control||Collective, shared control|
The research found that all the organisations studied tried to combine the two approaches, which led to confusion and conflict.
For example, a national charity may have individual membership, elections for trustees and good representation of users on the board. It is also likely to have a mission which states that users should be involved in, or at the centre of, everything the organisation does; an espoused theory that high levels of involvement can and will happen - based on democratic theory.
However, when managers in the same charity consult a group of service users about a new service the theory of involvement may well be consumerist. There may be financial, legal, practical or regulatory constraints and the options for the new service may not be popular with all users. This is more like the treatment of users as consumers with limited procedural rights and runs against the expectations of 'democratic' involvement.
A study of disability organisations in Wales found that most managers said disabled people should be involved in decisions, including those at a strategic level, but that few positions of influence in those organisations were occupied by disabled people. This gap between intentions and actions can be seen as an example of incongruence between, on one hand, an 'espoused theory' (what you say you will do) and, a 'theory in use' (what your actions are actually based on). It can be useful to reflect on our own work in organisations to identify our espoused theories of user and carer involvement and our theory in use.
Some organisations have concentrated on getting consumer feedback about services rather than seeking to engage users and carers in governance. This has led to criticisms that professionals or service providers are limiting users' ability to influence bigger decisions about priorities and direction. Devotees of user involvement may argue for it at all levels and in all circumstances. A more clinical managerialist approach might ask: Does it add value? Or, what works?
Whilst at an organisational level we may be able to say that a specific involvement method or initiative led to a positive change for users, it remains difficult to measure the impact of involvement within the sector or over time. Expectations of the positive outcomes of user involvement can be high and wide ranging, including: responsive services, empowerment of individuals through involvement itself, democratic governance, positive reactions from funders and good public relations.
The following ideas emerged from the discussion session.
Opportunity: enabling users to make a real difference
User involvement in strategy in our sector is unique. In the private and public sectors, decision-making is proscribed by either the market or central government. In comparison, VCOs are more independent and many of our strategic choices and decisions are in our own hands. Users have an opportunity to influence the strategy of VCOs in a particularly potent and lively way.
We used an outcome based approach to our strategic planning, using the Perform framework, which is an outcomes-based performance improvement tool. It enabled us to engage with our service users by using the outcomes based approach, we actually asked them what changes and benefits they wanted us to bring about on their behalf. What emerged wasn't necessarily what we expected. From that we were able to establish what activities we needed to carry out in order to meet their requirements and their desired outcomes.
Challenge: helping users to think strategically
It can be very hard to help users to think strategically, outside of their personal experience of the service and their particular concerns with the organisation. - The long-term direction of an organisation does not necessarily engage or interest users. They want a service today that meets their needs. They're not really too worried if it meets their needs in five years time because they may not be using the service then. - So, how can we engage users effectively in developing strategy?
Service users need to be trained to be able to move from the personal experience to the broader canvas. We need to build on their skills and support them, which may mean that the 'professionals' have to become less precious about the skills they have acquired themselves in managing and leading organisations.
We wrote up 8-12 fictional but realistic scenarios of different types of users. - We got our advisory body of users and split them up into groups, dished out scenarios and asked: what should the organisation be doing for this person at the moment? What should other people be doing for this person at the moment? How will his/her life be different in 10 years time if we do nothing differently to today? How can we steer it in a better direction? So this helped them to think about real things that were happening in their lives, but also to think into the future. They were talking about things on their terms but they were creating information for our organisation to use as input into our strategy.
Challenge: balancing the views of different stakeholders
It can be difficult for VCOs to ensure that users' comments are given as much weight as if they had come from a trustee, or a senior manager or funder. - The views of users are often very broad ranging and diverse so it is difficult to ensure that there is sufficient weight given to these views, as opposed to the articulate and clear responses that you sometimes get from funders or trustees.
Different organisations put a different emphasis on different values and different stakeholder groups, and that will lead to different decisions about who to involve and when.
During small group discussion, one group of seminar paticipants tried an exercise. - They mapped out their organisation's stakeholders (e.g. funders, staff, volunteers, managers, users) and looked at how they rated them within their organisations and how important they regarded them to being to strategic planning. For example, one organisation might say that their strategic planning is defined by users (so users would be a 10), whereas another organisation might say that users are a 7. They mapped not only the weight that their organisations said they give to the views of different stakeholders, but also the weight that was placed on their views in practice.
Challenge: understanding and balancing objective and subjective views
Users can often raise issues that challenge organisations. The reaction can often be to reject an opinion, however, it is important to be aware of your response, as it may be a legitimate challenge. This might need to be set within a policy to help ensure it is part of an open and transparent thinking process.
Challenge: using accessible language
How can organisations ensure that people truly understand what we mean by a strategy? - Very often the very language (and jargon) of strategy blocks the involvement of ordinary people in thinking about these issues.
Opportunity: the expertise of front-line staff and volunteers
Staff and volunteers on the front line very often have a very good picture of the needs and issues faced by service users. This is a resource that organisations can use to input into strategy development. Informal methods often work very well in engaging service users. It's hard on a large scale but on a small scale it is possible to talk to individual people, especially those who don't want to complete questionnaires or talk to strangers. A quick survey done at the beginning or the end of a users normal contact with a service is also a good way to capture views.
Challenge: engaging a representative and diverse group
Organisations need to try and ensure that the users they are listening to are representative of all their users. - However, barriers include: organisatonal capacity, staff time, willingness of users to engage and apathy. - When adopting a consumerist approach to user involvement, the users that volunteer to contribute are self-selecting, therefore there are limits to the information that is received and it must be looked at within the context of other stakeholder opinions. It is easy to criticise involving only, 'the usual suspects'. But these people are often the experts. However, a mix is needed of people who have existing knowledge and experience, and those with new ideas.
It is not possible to involve everyone, all the time, in everything an organisation does. Organisations need to think through which users they want to engage in which sorts of ways and ensure that the opportunities that are being offered for involvement are appropriate to the audience that it is being offered to.
Although we had service user representatives on the board of trustees, we were concerned that it was not fair to expect these users to be a representative voice without putting into place representative structures to support them. - Therefore, we wanted to consult more widely than those people. So we trained some trustees, some staff who were HIV positive themselves, and some other services users who came forward, to take forward various methods of consultation and act as an interface between the strategy and the board, and the service user. We prioritised the strategic issues and used a variety of methods (interviews, focus groups) with some very specific questions.
There is a wealth of guidance on how to involve service users. However, according to Paul Robson, many practitioners report difficulty in deciding which methods to use and there is a steady demand for guidance about what works. An analysis of the particular circumstances of an organisation using theories about governance and involvement can lead to a better understanding of what an organisation has been doing. This analysis can also be a building block for future planning.
The need for an organisation-by-organisation approach is supported by action research findings from four in depth case studies of user involvement development (Robson et al, see further reading) and current research with disability organisations.
The message of the research is that there is no 'off the peg' formula for user involvement. each organisation needs to plan its own journey and develop capacity to select the approach, methods and structures for involvement in strategy development.
User involvement is an imperfect art and something that you'll do better next time. Each time we need to stop and reflect on our practice: how have we done this time? What could we have done better? How do we ensure that learning is incorporated? In this way, organisations can get better and better at involving users.
- Know your organsation - what are your values, what do you do, and therefore, what sort of user involvement is right for you
- Say what you mean and mean what you say - be clear about who you are involving and when, why, and be honest about who you are not involving, reduce the gap between what you espouse and what you practice
- Don't get too comfortable - keep reviewing the process, be clear about what you are looking for, and try things out or adapt the way in which you involve users
Craig Dearden, CEO, Speaking Up! (This organisation is now known as VoiceAbility)
Speaking Up's motivation for their investment in user involvement is rooted in their early development. - 10 years ago, they were a community group working with people with learning difficulties. - At that time, user involvement just happened as a natural part of the everyday life of the organisation, the working environment was built around people with learning difficulties and they were represented on the Board. As the organisation grew and became more complex, different skills were needed on the Board and whilst service users continued to be represented, the quality of their involvement reduced, so Speaking Up! decided that other more creative ways were needed to connect users with the trustees and management.
The Big Ideas Group was created as a high profile and high status opportunity for large numbers of service users to influence Board decisions - bridging the gap between service users and trustees/management. The intention is for this group to be built into the culture of the organisation; already there is enormous excitement and willingness to listen and take action on messages coming from the BIG group.
The first BIG event was held in February 2004:
- Over 30 service users attended
- Intensive marketing took place to draw people in
- An accessible flyer went to all members outlining the importance of the event
- The event took place in a nice venue
- It was filmed
- Trustees and management attended
- Lots of thought was given to creative ways of getting people involved, getting their views and making them feel valued: a Speaking Up! tree was used along with scenes from 'Eastenders'
- People were asked to give feedback on what they like (red apples pinned on the tree) and didn't like (leaves pinned on the tree) about Speaking Up! and what people want (clothes on Dot's washing line!)
- The meeting output was written up in a 15 page report
- The top priority feedback from the meeting is already being actioned by the Board
Some ideas that came out of the BIG meeting:
- More projects in Fenland
- Support around socialising and leisure activities
- Support to get paid jobs
- The user Parliamnent was reinforced as a good idea - members wanted it to do campaigning at the national Parliament
- Extend the 1:1 advocacy project and have a children's project
- More travel training
- Promote Speaking Up! more
- Provide supported living as well as support
- Get better newer offices
Some Do's and Don'ts around User Involvement (UI) from Speaking Up!
- Get political support for the UI initiative. I have seen UI go nowhere because the process doesn't enjoy CEO or senior backing. People sense this very quickly and become disengaged from the UI process never to seen again.
- Think really carefully about the questions you want answered. UI tends to be over-general and unfocussed. Most organisations are facing a couple of big issues on which they need UI - work out what they are and what the best ways to involve people around these might be
- Value the people involved. Pay them if you can - up to £20 a week is allowed normally. This gives people the feeling that they are valued. Also reward people psychologically - make sure they feel part of something very important, write to them, call them, hold the sessions in nice venues, order nice biscuits, use good facilitators, make the whole thing developmental for them.
- Get the CEO involved in some way - even if its just to show up for lunch with the users one day - it gives the signal that the work is valued
- Put lots of time and energy into making UI sessions good. Use creative techniques to gain feedback - drama, role-play, personal stories.
- Help people to generate material that draws on their experience as users - users are not managers and their contributions may have to be scanned for strategic messages - don't expect them to say -No, the strategy should be X-.
- Once the UI work is done, support the users to present their work to gatherings of senior people inside and outside the organisation
- Make your UI work into a project with a budget and a person leading on it who reports directly to somebody senior who cares about the outcomes of the work - preferably also linked to a trustee with a lead on UI.
- Be clear about why you want UI - is UI an end in itself - or do you see it also as a means - be clear about the benefits and what you hope to change
- Track impact - boil your UI work down to key messages and track how these fare in the organisation, championing them and feeding back to the UI team when something happens.
- Give the job to somebody who isn't rated or valued in the organisation - it will devalue the UI as a whole
- Treat the work like a poor relation and under-resource it so much that people feel devalued
- Make the sessions boring
- Be piecemeal and fail to build in feedback loops and a chance for people to share the work they have done
- Make the UI too general in content - if it doesn't touch the heart of the matter in terms of where the organisation is at, it will be ignored
Overcoming resistance to change
UI initiatives have two major barriers to overcome: user apathy/cynicism and a lack of internal impact. Building political support for your UI initiative is vital if efforts are not wasted. The senior team must demonstrate support and, ideally, take part in the UI work. Motivation among users can be created by offering access to senior people and assurance that the work will be taken seriously. Making the UI rewarding, entertaining and developmental is a way of showing users their input is valued. Continued involvement is generated by demonstrating to users that their input has found its way into strategy and decision-making.
- Beresford P. and Croft S. (1993) Citizen Involvement - A Practical Guide for Change, £19.99.
- Cornforth, C (ed) (2003) The Governance of Public and Non-Profit Organisations: What do Boards Do? London: Routledge
- Robson P., Locke M. and Dawson J. (1997) Consumerism or Democracy? - User Involvement in the Control of Voluntary Organisations. Free summary.
- Robson P., Begum N. and Locke M. (2003) Developing User Involvement , working towards user-centred practice in voluntary organisations. Free summary.
- Voluntary Action Westminster (2006) Involving People: A Practical Guide . Free.
Principal Research Fellow
Centre for Institutional Studies
School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies
University of East London
4-6 University Way
London E16 2RD
Email Paul or call 020 8223 4263