Making Consultation Real

How do we avoid tokenism in consulting people without power?

There are sometimes themes that cross a number of modules that I teach on, which on occasions make preparation simpler, although it must be stressed that each module has a different context.

Last month I was preparing teaching materials for a number of modules – looking at the role of community in social work; community empowerment and marketing. I was also involved, as part of a research team, in undertaking a literature review on looked after children. In all these areas there was a common theme and that was the need to consult and listen to the needs of service users. I think we can also make this more specific and realise that if this consultation process is to mean anything we need to understand people within their own environment.

This need to consult is enshrined in legislation such as the Children Act 1989, and also in government policy initiatives like Every Child Matters. I also have yet to meet anyone who does not think consulting people is not a good thing. I think all of us, for instance, applauded the Government’s initiative after the publication of the Green Paper to consult ‘interested parties’ to look at the future direction of the care system. This consultation process will involve the collection of a vast amount of data, which in turn will formulate the future direction of services. To make sense of the information, policy makers will make generalisations about looked after children based on the data and the trends that have been identified. This is understandable and it is natural, given that all of us put labels on situations, in part to simplify issues and make sense of them.

The problem I have with terms like consultation, service user involvement, working in partnership and even empowerment, (terms that are liberally sprinkled through social work literature) is that they are so often tokenistic.

They are tokenistic in two main ways, firstly because people often do not listen to what the service users are actually saying and the users themselves don’t feel anything will change as a result of their contribution.

Secondly, the consultation process so often fails to take account of the power imbalance. As Jo Rowlands points out, “True power cannot be bestowed: it comes from within. Any notion of empowerment being ‘given’ by one group to another hides an attempt to keep control”.1

The latter quotation really gets to the heart of the issue, which is how can we really consult when there is huge power imbalance between politicians and service users, between social workers and children, and even between parents and children.

So often there is a pretence of listening when nothing has actually been heard, because we cannot understand the lived experience of the other person. What we know of the care system is that the majority of children who are looked after have come from situations where they have experienced abuse. Years of abuse will not only leave there mark but will also affect the way a child will relate to adults; in sum years of abuse may well lead to years of mistrust.

I have no simple answer to the question how we help young people move forward, although I do feel that we must start from the point of acknowledging the child’s past life and the power imbalance in the relationship. If we do this we may be part way along the road to building up a trusting relationship.

1 Rowlands, Jo. 1997 Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras. Oxford, UK: Oxfam Publications. Cited in Fruzsina Csaszar, Power, Rights, and Poverty: Concepts and Connections 146

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