Embedding participation in the work of the Poverty and Inequality Commission
“Amplify the voices of experts by experience to make sure they are part of identifying issues, developing and designing solutions, and scrutinising progress.”
This is the overarching principle in the Poverty and Inequality Commission’s Strategic Plan 2020 – 2023, and this blog is about the Commission’s commitment and approach to embedding participation in its work.
The Poverty and Inequality Commission was established through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. The statutory commission came into being on 1 July 2019. It is an advisory non-departmental public body which provides independent advice and scrutiny to Scottish Ministers on poverty and inequality.
The Commission’s work falls broadly under three areas: advice, scrutiny, and advocacy on poverty and inequality.
Experts by Experience Panel
When we say ‘experts by experience’ we mean people who are experiencing poverty.
In August 2021 the Commission established an Experts by Experience Panel. This work was guided by recommendations from Members of the Poverty Alliance’s Community Activists’ Advisory Group and supported by funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The purpose of this panel is to shape and support its work in developing and providing advice, scrutiny, and advocacy on poverty and inequality.
“I want to join the Panel to use my lived experiences to exemplify problems that exist, to assist policymakers in understanding these issues and to act as a critical friend.” – Panel member
The Commission wanted to establish a panel of 15 – 20 experts by experience who were:
- from across Scotland, based in cities, towns and rural areas
- diverse in terms of their identity and experiences of poverty
- from groups most likely to experience poverty in Scotland
Between July and August 2021, the Commission worked in partnership with local and national groups, organisations and practitioners. They provided information to people who were interested in joining panel, and invited them to apply. In August 2021, the Panel was established.
“You know, you think your own life is difficult but listening to other people’s experiences here not only shows you what other challenges are out there in the world but also really gets the brain going and thinking, where could the solutions be for this?” – Panel member
Since being set up, the Panel has been involved in identifying issues, developing and designing recommendations, and scrutinising government action.
Between August 2021 and September 2021 the Panel was supported to learn about the Commission. They also learned about legislative and policy context, and worked together to develop terms of reference and a group agreement.
From October to December 2021, over seven sessions, the Panel worked alongside the Commission to develop its advice to Scottish Government on its Child Poverty Delivery Plan.
The Panel is currently working on a response to the Rented Sector Strategy consultation.
Valuing lived experience
“People with lived experience are the experts. Their voices need to be heard to ensure any decisions made are the right ones.” – Panel member
The Commission’s overarching principle about amplifying that voices of experts by experience demonstrates its commitment to listening and responding to those ‘embodied and affective ways of knowing, judging and acting that cannot be grasped by discourse analysis or by other objectivising approaches to “experience”’ (Kruks, 2014).
The Strategic Plan makes clear that not only will lived experience be valued alongside other forms of knowledge, but that lived experience should be seen as central to all of the Commission’s strategic priorities.
“I really enjoy the structure of the panel meetings and the way we discuss complex issues but can relate these to our own experience.” – Panel member
The role of the Commission is to support Panel members to share their experience. They also help Panel members engage with and analyse information and material in a way that is systematic but digestible. That will mean different things for different people, but applying an intersectional approach to the process means identifying and addressing constraints and barriers to equal participation from the outset, and making adjustments as the process evolves.
Different experiences, collective understanding
“We have lots of different perspectives but also a lot of shared experiences.” – Panel member.
The Panel is about inquiry and sharing different experiences of poverty and inequality, but it is also about producing new knowledge and solutions based on collective understandings.
“I have enjoyed being able to put my views and experience of living in poverty as a disabled single parent. Also to hear the issues other people are facing and, collectively, to find solutions we can put forward as a panel to the Scottish Government.” – Panel member
The Panel is made up of people from across Scotland, with different identities and lived realities of poverty and inequality. Sharing and hearing individual stories means the group is continually highlighting the connections and disparities between their experiences, and the focus of discussions in a meeting can range from the very personal to the structural causes and consequences of poverty, transforming what C. Wright Mills called ‘private troubles’ into ‘public issues’.
From lived experience to social justice
For those interested in participation, it is an exciting time in Scotland.
In the Programme for Government there is a clear commitment to participatory democracy and to involving communities (of place, interest and identity), and the wider public in the development of Scotland’s policies, practice and legislation.
Without evaluating and critically engaging with participatory processes though, there is the risk that anything participatory is seen as good enough, as an end in itself, regardless of the impact it has. So how do we know when participation is meaningful? Is it enough to be given space to share our experiences?
Providing space for people to share their lived experiences is important but Freire, one of the key contributors to participatory theory and practice, argued that only by engaging critically with our personal and collective experiences could we understand and change things. It is through dialogue and collective critical thinking that people can move ‘beyond the present, soaring beyond the immediate confines of one’s experiences, entering into a critical dialogue with history, and imagining a future that would not merely reproduce the present’ (Giroux, 2010).
Sunday 20 February 2022 is World Day of Social Justice. Social justice is a concept that is often tied up with participation. When I say ‘social justice’ I am talking about the redistribution of power, resources and opportunities. Participation is often described as a key principle of social justice. Equally, I would argue that, for participation to be meaningful, it must be underpinned by a commitment to social justice, to supporting collective learning and action with the aim of redistributing power, resources and opportunities in both the process and the outcome.
This chimes with what Panel members said when asked why they wanted to join the Panel. For them it was about having their voices heard, yes, but most were motivated by the potential for wider change, for fairness and for social justice. I will end with words from some of our Panel members.
“I want to help shape future thinking and policy around Poverty and Inequality as it is something which has affected and influenced my life.” – Panel member
“Poverty is a topic that affects many people, but is often very hidden and I am passionate about changing this and tackling the taboo, but also the root causes for poverty.” – Panel member
“My reason for applying is because I am living in poverty. That horrible dirty word that makes you feel degraded and you are living in it. It is exhausting and it is soul destroying and my passion in life is to do whatever I can to try and make life fairer for everyone.” – Panel member
For more information on the Poverty and Inequality Commission’s Experts by Experience Panel, you can contact Órlaith McAree, Senior Participation Officer at email@example.com
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