Following our introduction to service user involvement event in September 2020, Clinks held an event in December 2020 on diversity in service user involvement, as part of our offer to our service user involvement manager’s network. Our commitment to delivering these events stems from our view as an organisation that the Ministry of Justice, commissioners, and all service providers should embed the involvement of people with lived experience throughout the criminal justice system to inform policy and practice.
The voluntary sector has a long history of pioneering service user involvement in the criminal justice system, and it is rightfully becoming increasingly common to have experts by experience at the helm of developing and delivering services, influencing change, and challenging systemic inequality.
‘Diversity’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in today’s world, but in becoming a buzzword, the need for and meaningfulness of diversity risks being diluted to no more than a tick box exercise – as a corporate away-day item, or a one-time Zoom call topic.
Last year, the killing of George Floyd in the USA and the ensuing wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked an international conversation about the need to address inequality in part through diversity within organisations, decision-makers, and services. This was very much needed within the criminal justice system where black, Asian and minority ethnic people are over represented, and they along with women and people with other protected characteristics, experience systemic inequalities resulting in poor outcomes. This is even more pronounced when you consider the people facing multiple forms of discrimination through having more than one protected characteristic.
For our diversity in service user involvement event, we wanted to focus on how to make this meaningful, rather than tokenistic, and to talk candidly about how to understand when you or your organisation is missing the mark, and how to address that.
We had two incredible and contrasting organisations present at the event, who have very different approaches to embedding diversity into their service user involvement. Our first speakers were from Maslaha – Director Raheel Mohammed, and Project Co-ordinator Suleman Amad. Maslaha is an organisation which seeks to challenge the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities in the criminal justice system, as well as in education, healthcare, gender and other areas in the context of the continued climate of Islamophobia.
Maslaha consistently engages with people with lived experience to inform its work, and has experts by experience amongst its staff members. Suleman responded to questions from participants about the difference in embedding diversity in service user involvement in a meaningful versus tokenistic way. Suleman used his own examples of when he first started getting involved with organisations as a service user, where he would turn up once and then have no further engagement from organisations. Now working with Maslaha, Suleman spoke of the importance of making involvement meaningful by continuing to engage, updating service users, sharing progress and reports with them, and generally ensuring an understanding of the impact of their involvement.
Raheel spoke about the danger of treating groups as a monolith, and the lack of understanding around race and ethnicity that both charities and statutory organisations can have. An example was given of mental health campaigns that have missed the mark with Somali and Bengali communities due to their use of imagery that doesn’t resonate with these communities. This demonstrates how organisations can fail to consult people in the development of campaigns who don’t fit into the white, middle-class demographic that many mental health campaigns tend to centre on.
Following Maslaha’s presentation, we heard from Andy Williams, Head of Involvement at Revolving Doors Agency, and Nadia Butcher and Jahmaine Davis, who are members of Revolving Doors Agency’s lived experience team. Revolving Doors Agency is an organisation with a vision to end the revolving door between crisis and crime, by demonstrating and sharing evidence of effective ways to reform public services. The Lived Experience Model that Revolving Doors Agency uses includes six lived experience forums (regional and specialist), a peer research team, two specialist Lived Experience Teams, and a Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP).
Andy kicked off the discussion noting that when collaborating with decision makers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our service user involvement is diverse. That responsibility requires us to look amongst ourselves and ask, ‘who is not in the room?’ Furthermore, it requires honesty and knowing our limitations as people and organisations. Andy noted that there will be times where you are consulted to provide lived experience input into issues faced by people with protected characteristics, such as the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on black men. If you are a white-led organisation, this is a situation where you may need to acknowledge that it is necessary for you to consult and collaborate with people and organisations with the appropriate experience and expertise, who engage with service users who are impacted by those issues on a regular basis.
Nadia, who is part of Revolving Doors Agency’s women’s forum, spoke of the need to consider how to engage with service users in way that considers the context of the work, such as considering whether women are comfortable discussing the issues that affect them with men. Relating to the previous discussion on not treating people from marginalised groups as a monolith, Jahmaine spoke about the difficulty in sometimes being called upon to discuss a certain issue as a service user – when talking about the imprisonment of black and brown people, Jahmaine told participants, ‘I don’t feel like I fit into a certain area.’ This drives home the point of not using diversity in service user involvement as a tokenistic exercise, and not assuming that that one service user from a particular group can speak to the experiences of everyone else, or that a service user is only affected by a singular issue.
This event, and the views of speakers and participants, has made it clear that as long as the criminal justice system continues to impact on groups with protected characteristics in a disproportionate way, it is essential that there is diversity in service user involvement. Rather than treating this as a tick-box exercise, or a task too intimidating to undertake, organisations need to consider who they need to centre in their service user involvement, and take steps to meaningfully amplify the voices of service users who are directly affected by criminal justice policy and practice that results in inequalities.
Clinks’ next service user involvement event will be on 17th March, and will focus on adapting service user involvement during Covid-19. More information is available here.
You can find out more about Clinks’ work on tackling inequality and racism here. You can read our letter to the Commission on race and ethnic disparities here, and our response to the Joint Human Rights Committee inquiry on black people, racism, and human rights here.
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It is imperative that government prioritises and resources the tackling of race inequality in the criminal justice system. It is crucial that voluntary orgs led by and focussed on racially minoritised people are listened to, taken seriously and consulted in these conversations. https://twitter.com/HMIProbation/status/1451073306791223296