Meaningful involvement: who needs to be involved, how and when?
Different people see and think differently and radical ideas can come from many sources, so it is important to tap into this diversity and uncover creative, new ideas in response to a problem that has been identified. But who are the right people to bring in, how should they be involved and when is the right time to do this?
Throughout the development cycle, enormous value can be gained from involving the users and beneficiaries of the innovation, as well as the developers and service providers. Why? Because users are often best placed to identify their own needs and come up with ideas about how to meet them, their involvement gives practitioners a better understanding of the challenges they face, and the development of collaborative solutions leads to better innovations. When developing Future You, early activity focussed on adapting Beat Bullying's Cyber Mentors platform so that it had the same look and feel. However, in response to user feedback, a mobile version of the site was developed as this offered greater flexibility and would be easier to access. This has subsequently increased engagement online and made it easier to sell the tool to new clients.
This raises many questions about the nature and form of participation and what is the best way to engage and involve people. How do you tap into these sources and engage citizens, users and others in the design and development of solutions? There is no one solution, but public services need to consider moving beyond the range of traditional approaches they are comfortable with, such as surveys, focus groups and evening meetings, to consider new approaches, such as ethnography, crowd sourcing or user-led design processes, which offer a more detailed and in-depth perspective of a problem or solution.
The team from Patchwork used an ethnographic approach to observe social workers when developing their early stage ideas for the platform; the idea for FLiP emerged from the Jail Break weekend run by Nesta and the Social Innovation Camp; while the Buddi team tested the tag they use with older people on offenders who volunteered to take part in a pilot to understand how it needed to be adapted for this user group.
Participation and involvement from a wide variety of stakeholders also raises important questions about when the best time to involve people is. No one person knows everything, but equally all people cannot be involved all of the time. A key challenge then is involving people at the right points in the process.
Often to develop an early stage idea, it is most appropriate to work with a core group as it means you can quickly develop rapid prototypes of your initial idea. However, to embed these within a service and at a later stage scale them, wider stakeholders need to be engaged and brought into a process.
For example, the team from Buddi worked closely with Herefordshire Police's Choices and Consequences programme to test the tagging system, but also involved the Courts at appropriate points in the process; Patchwork set up multi-agency working groups to ensure frontline workers could contribute to the development of the platform without taking up too much of their time or adding to their workload; while the team from Buddy worked closely with the South London and Maudsley Mental Health Trust to develop the prototype of the platform, which is now ready to go to market having linked up with the NHS Confederation to promote the tool and help it scale.
Developing collaborative technologies to support the delivery of public services requires deeper involvement from the users of those services. However, the snap-shot perspective offered by traditional engagement methodologies will not provide this on its own, and public services need to display a greater willingness to do things differently and embrace principles including collaboration, transparency of process and plurality of participants.
There is a wide and growing range of methods designed to engage the public in shaping what public services do and prove that perhaps the experts do not know best. Although many of these methods remain untested in this space, they play a crucial role in the innovation process and are as much about creating a culture of openness, shaping ideas and building support as they are about gauging public reactions. Traditional methods remain important, but trialling new and different approaches will bring in different perspectives, surface new ideas and increase the likelihood innovative and shared solutions will be reached.