Transparency and Taking the Time: respectfully bringing lived experience into program design and evaluation

There are so many benefits to working alongside people with lived experience when designing and evaluating projects. Working with people with lived experience prompts us to think about things differently: often, people ask us questions about things that we, as evaluation practitioners, may no longer question. And, working with peer researchers challenges us to think outside the box, be more creative, and be better at communicating in plain English – which benefits everyone we work with.

In our recent work with people with lived experience, we’ve notice two important things to get right: transparency and timeframes. Attention to each of these is vital both for the success of the project, and to ensure lived experience peer researchers’ and designers’ time and expertise are treated respectfully.

What is fixed and what is open to change?

Co-design is a bit of a buzzword these days – as with all emerging practices, there isn’t agreement on its definition, or some of those other terms used for working together with people with lived experience (such as co-production, co-creation, collaboration, etc.)

So, whatever terminology is used, the key for commissioners of work with people with lived experience is to unpack what it means, what the process of working together will look like, and to be transparent and set expectations at the start about the objectives and roles of lived experience participants.

(We’ve found that project leaders, excited by the potential of working with people with lived experience, can sometimes overstate the amount of influence a lived experience group can have on a project. Even with the best of intentions, this has the potential to ruin relationships with participants, and may make it less safe for them to participate.)

(Adapted from ‘An Introduction to Co-design’ by Ingrid Burkett. Centre for Social Impact.)

If people share their experiences – which can be difficult or bring up strong emotions – with the expectation that this is part of the process of designing a new service or policy, when in reality their input is being used to ‘tweak’ an existing program model, this is both an issue of safety and an imbalance of power.

“When people don’t feel safe or valued, they can’t stay included even if they want to.” – Kelly Ann McKercher, Beyond Sticky Notes.

To engage people with lived experience in design and evaluation ethically, we must be clear about what’s open to change, and what is fixed. This provides people with an option to choose whether they’re comfortable with the stated conditions. For some, the trade-off between the time required and the emotional costs of disclosure may not be worth it for the outcome.

Getting the process and the timing right

When working with people with lived experience, to ensure participation is meaningful, we need to allow enough time at the beginning to ‘build the conditions’ for collaboration[2].

As Kelly Ann McKercher writes in Beyond Sticky Notes, it’s often tempting to skip over this step of co-design or co-production, to jump into the discovery or designing phases of a project. But this is a mistake – all of this groundwork sets the stage for achieving the desired outcome. Without the stage, there are no actors, and without the actors, there is no play.

In essence, you need to spend time at the outset developing the processes for working together. This means taking time to build relationships, to develop processes for working together,  to explain why we’re keen to use a particular approach, and asking whether that approach is best.

Only if the conditions are right and participants are clear on what’s fixed and what can change, are they likely to ‘challenge the professionals’ if they feel the process is moving too quickly, or more time needs to be spent on a particular part of the process.

And if the process and timeframes are right, we can ensure people feel valued, and have the opportunity to build skills that they can take into future projects, to ensure the benefits of their participation are two-way.

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