The importance of representing the voice(s) of the public in decision-making has never been more widely acknowledged. We can be proud of the shifts in recent decades that have helped to embed meaningful public participation and engagement in a range of fields in the UK, including local and national policy making, health and social care design, and research. There are now more opportunities for the views and needs of different communities to be considered and accommodated in decision-making thanks to the work of many different advocates and organisations across the voluntary, charity and public sectors such as Shaping Our Lives, Healthwatch, Citizens UK, and INVOLVE.
Yet, in a recent article by Peter Beresford for the Guardian (14th January 2019), austerity and widespread funding cuts to the public and voluntary sectors are highlighted as worrying threats to the status of public participation in policy. Peter argues that policymakers are retreating from “meaningful involvement” of the public while making damaging cuts to key social and health services. In doing so, he states, trust in participation and capacity to support the engagement of those whose voices should be heard are further undermined.
So what should be done to limit the negative impact of austerity on public participation? I agree with Peter Beresford that central government support for the development of a network of organisations committed to supporting user and public engagement in policy is important. However, I also feel strongly that strengthening organisations’ capacity to draw out and communicate the voices of their communities effectively and with impact, is equally important. At a time of stretched time and resources it makes even more sense for organisations to consider carefully how to help feed public views into policy making and service design.
This is where I think qualitative approaches to gathering public views are vital. Qualitative methods are designed to draw out personal stories that can have real impact. While statistics are useful for understanding the scale of issues faced, qualitative data are rooted in real lived experiences which are compelling in helping policy and decision-makers understand the realities of the issues faced by communities and service users. Also, by their very nature qualitative approaches are a form of meaningful engagement with the communities and publics whose voices should be heard. By asking someone to tell their story in their own words you establish a real connection with them that can continue beyond that first encounter.
So what might help voluntary, charity and public sector organisations to make the most of qualitative approaches for supporting public participation, at a time of shrinking resources? Here at Capacity Q we can offer a range of services which will support you, including:
- Helping you develop a clear and resourceful strategy for engaging with communities in a meaningful way;
- Training in designing and conducting qualitative data collection that allows real stories to be told;
- Techniques and resources for managing and making sense of qualitative data efficiently but with authenticity;
- Tips for communicating the stories and experiences of your public(s) in the most compelling way for influencing policy and decision-making.
At a time when trust in participatory democracy is under threat and increasingly worrying decisions are being made about our public services, the need for compelling and authentic views of the public to be heard by those in power is ever more important. Strengthening capacity to use qualitative data is a key step to supporting that.
To find out more about how Capacity Q can help your organisation with maximising opportunities to make the most of qualitative data – and make voices really count – please get in touch.