26 November 2014

People's lives can be complicated, and their paths towards more stable, fulfilled futures can be difficult. Here Helen Ryman, Learning and Evaluation Manager at the Birmingham Voluntary Services Council, and current member of the Connecting Policy with Practice cohort, introduces her work for the programme and explores two different approaches to understanding the needs and assets of people with multiple needs.

There are many different policy and service delivery decisions and actions taken that help or hinder people with multiple needs to achieve a more fulfilled life. A person may take drugs to give them better control over their physical and emotional pain. The pain has roots in poor mental health related to childhood trauma. The person wants to change, but can’t access mental health services until they are ‘clean’. Yet some drug services require mental health to be addressed before they can help. So the person falls between two services and their lifestyle becomes increasingly chaotic – they may end up sleeping on the street, frequently visiting A&E or spending time in custody as the situation gets more difficult and entrenched.

Birmingham: Changing Futures Together is one of 12 BIG Lottery Fund Fulfilling Lives: Multiple Needsprojects seeking to provide more holistic support to people whose lives don’t fit into just one area of service provision. We tackle the multiple challenges of homelessness, addiction, mental health and offending by helping with access to appropriate services and providers who have agreed to work, collaborate and learn together.

Changing Futures is a ‘user-led’ project. Our ‘Experts by Experience’ are volunteers with lived experience of multiple needs. They develop the project in significant ways such as business planning, partnership development, recruitment and procurement. Through this group, we have a genuine opportunity to explore how service users’ assets, experience and engagement can improve design and delivery of services for the long term.

My role is in Learning and Evaluation at Birmingham Voluntary Services Council, who lead on the delivery of Changing Futures. For the Connecting Policy with Practice programme, I have been working with Eleri Pengelly, who covers digital policy and engagement at the Cabinet Office. It’s brought to life the reality of our job roles – we both want to play our small part in addressing these big issues. Yet how often do I really consider the significance of the ‘disconnects’ between policy and practice and the difference it would make if I encouraged a change in practice? My thinking has really been stretched in this area in a positive way.

Eleri’s team work to find the best routes to support digital inclusion. How can the skills, motivation and access to online activity be provided to people who are digitally excluded? In contrast to using ‘Expertise by Experience’, Eleri’s team often use an approach we have called ‘Expertise by Examination’ to find the answers to these questions. This might include grassroots organisations, research pieces and consultations, but does not involve direct challenge and input by service users. We are exploring the risks and benefits of these two different approaches. We were also recently assisted by a roundtable event that brought together a wider cohort of those with long experience of working on these issues at policy and practitioner level.

As a result, the questions we are now exploring are:

  • Do ‘Experts by Experience’ have something better or different to offer decision making?
  • When and how might they be most effectively involved? When wouldn’t they be involved?
  • How can we assess the value of user-led experience and ensure this approach is affordable/sustainable?
  • How likely are Experts by Experience to connect directly with Whitehall? Is there a local alternative or suitable brokerage?

Working with Eleri and the Changing Futures Experts gives us an exciting opportunity to consider the issues practically and at first hand. Please let us know your thoughts and experiences of multiple needs. And watch this space as we start to draw our first conclusions…together.