Should we use Experts by Experience outside health and social care?

Within innovation research and practice we are increasingly seeing the service user experience being put front and centre. Through methods like ethnographyservice design, and co-production there’s an increasing understanding that it’s not enough to go and talk to a few people about their experiences, you need to really involve people in the design and delivery of services if they are going to work. Through Nesta’s work on social action we’ve also been emphasising the importance of People Helping People through models like Parents First when peers with similar experiences support each other.

So should we be taking this one step further by using Experts by Experience to inform our thinking when we design innovation programmes? 

What are Experts by Experience?

At the end of September I attended an excellent conference in The Hague on Social Inclusion organised by the Trimbos Institute. It explored the experience of the Door to Door Pilot – a control trial designed to test an approach to helping long-term unemployed people get back to work in one of The Netherland’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods – the Schilderswijk (which has recently been in the Dutch news for increasing ethnic tensions). This was a great example of conducting a rigorous experiment to see if a labour market intervention actually works. So far the evaluation has seen small but significant increased employment outcomes for participants and it will be interesting to see the cost-benefit implications once this part of the study has been completed.

Whilst at the conference I went to a very interesting workshop on the use of ‘Experts by Experience’. In this case it was about people who had personally lived in poverty, coped and who had acquired skills, attitudes and knowledge, which they could apply professionally. These Experts by Experience had four years training and then went on to work in government agencies.

How are Experts by Experience being used in the UK?

In the UK context, experts by experience are being used in health and social care involved in the design and delivery of services. This can mean people with a lived experience of mental health conditions, or caring for someone with health problems, being used as consultants in a range of organisations – going into schools to talk to Psychology students about what it is like to have mental health problems, or helping a local authority to develop a new model for mental health day opportunities. The Care Quality Commission works with around 500 Experts by Experience to take part in their inspections of health and social care services and visits to monitor the use of the Mental Health Act. During inspections, they spend time talking to people who use the service and observing the environment. As they have first-hand experience of receiving care they know which questions to ask to get as much information from the visit as possible. Local authorities are using Experts by Experience to get the views and ideas of people with experience of adult social care services and family carers. Age UK are using older people who are service users or the family carers of older people and people with dementia as Experts by Experience.

Should we use Experts by Experience in our work on innovation?

After the presentation at the Trimbos conference on using such experts in the field of poverty and social exclusion we had a very heated debate about Experts as Experience as a tool, particularly how this fitted with the role of professionals, and whether you needed to have experience of something to help someone with that issue or to understand it (a debate that’s been going on for a long time in research method discussions).

I was left feeling:

1.       that there’s clearly scope for using this as a tool beyond health and social care in the UK context, and

2.       that if you are going to use a method to understand real experience and to design services to work better, particularly services for unemployed people, then why not use an Expert by Experience and help get someone back into work as well?


Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Director, Public and Social Innovation

Jo led Nesta's Policy and Research work on public and social innovation, working closely with colleagues in the Innovation Lab and Investments.

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