17 September 2013

Those of you who read my last blog may remember that I talked about the scouting movement in the UK. As an adult volunteer, I see young people involved at all levels in the organisation and know how powerful that is.

But knowing it to be a fact is not enough. I wanted to find out how it happened and whether there were any lessons for government policy makers and those who deliver services. Involving service users is something we’ve discussed a lot on the Connecting Policy with Practice programme, and both myself and my learning partner Andy Crossland from Humber Learning Consortium work on policies and projects to support young people.

So Andy and I made the trip to deepest, darkest Epping Forest in Essex to the Scout Association HQ at Gilwell. Actually it wasn’t scary at all. It was a gloriously sunny day and we were warmly welcomed by Steve Peck, Director of Programme and Development and Charlie French, Programme and Development Adviser.

Steve gave us a quick walk through the recent history of the movement in the UK. There was a realisation in the 1980s and 1990s that the organisation was steadily decreasing in size. And it was often discussed but probably consigned to that space that many of us would recognise…the ‘too hard box’ or the long grass.

The catalyst for change was in the late 1990s when the organisation started thinking about its plans for its centenary in 2007 and the messages it wanted to put out. Around this time there were also changes at the top of the organisation with a new chairman, a new chief executive and a new chief scout. They were clear things had to change – and things did.

Steve and Charlie were keen to point out that the organisation didn’t get everything right from the start – it learned as it went on. They realised there was no one ‘big thing’ that makes the difference, rather it is a whole series of changes.

One learning point is that sometimes you do have to make rules to get a change to stick. The Association introduced a rule that there must be two young people (aged between 18 and 24) on every board of trustees. This means from the national board right down to every local Scout group – thousands across the country.  But legislating for something doesn’t necessarily change behaviour.

It gradually dawned on the Association that young people were not really participating in the process or feeling they were adding value. And the adults could not see the value either. What both parties needed was advice and training. So this was built into formal training modules and additional resources were developed to help adults help young people be involved in decision making. And the impact of this? That other adult volunteers have said they find it useful in helping them to engage as well!

The Association is now thinking about types of roles and how to ensure they are selecting the right young people. Obvious, you might think. But is it? Do we all tend to select people on the basis of what looks right for us rather than whether it’s right for them? Will the dynamic and bubbly innovator really be the right person to sit on a finance committee? In most cases of service user engagement, it is about working with volunteers. So the litmus test in the Scout Association has become – will they enjoy it? And if it’s not the right role…find one that is.

Charlie told us that they are now taking this thinking on and asking themselves how else young people can be involved in decision making. I know it may come as surprise to some of you but there are lots of people out there who don’t find sitting round a table in formal meetings a great way of expressing their ideas! Social media channels and interactive engagement are ways of working that we must all understand how to use effectively.

So what were the insights I took away that will translate into any organisation or service?

There is no silver bullet – you have to do lots of things:

  • You have to help service users to do the role you are asking of them with training and support
  • You have to ensure that people in the organisation working with service users have the skills and support to do that too
  • Select the right people so that they enjoy it
  • Don’t assume the way you do business works for everyone.