Dr Davina Cull
In 2020 we set up a lived experience advisor scheme at the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall. The scheme aims to engage people who have an experience of the criminal justice system in commissioning, policy and strategic change. Framed as an approach which contributes towards social justice by enabling people affected by crime to have a voice and influence change – the scheme moves beyond tokenism and towards a model of co-production where partners and lived experience advisors work together on discrete projects and tasks which benefit from their input, experience and skills. An example of the types of projects a participant might be involved in will vary, but over the first two years we have had lived experience advisors become a member of a strategic group, co-produce strategies and develop toolkits and resources. This blog aims to provide a short outline of the scheme and share some of the benefits and challenges of the approach in practice.
Lived experience engagement is still quite niche within this sector, so we have learnt a lot over the last two years, but we have found this work to be incredibly rewarding for all involved. One of our most notable successes has been a yearlong project called ‘altered but not defined’ which has established comprehensive guidance on how to communicate with the public about sexual harm if you are a journalist or a public sector communicator. Working side by side with us, our lived experience advisor, a survivor herself, has offered not only insight but the level of due diligence and care that comes from an insider and someone who knows what it feels like first-hand. As a result, the work becomes more authentic as it is shaped by real world experiences.
We have also been able to appoint a lived experience advisor to our strategic victim and witness board as a champion for the rights and entitlements of victims. Again, as a survivor of domestic abuse, she is not defined by what has happened to her but uses her experience to challenge stereotypes and influence change for people in our criminal justice system who have experienced harm. As she is also neurodivergent she also brings a variety of other experiences and characteristics to her role, all which offer more useful learning and insight. These are just two of the inspirational people we have met and worked with through our scheme.
However, a scheme of this nature also has several considerations which should be in place before we can say it is not exploitative or harmful. Firstly, the environment people come into must be safe, supportive and congruent with supporting people who have experienced trauma. Secondly, relationships need to be honest, open and transparent – built on a foundation of mutual benefit. Thirdly, people should be renumerated and recognised for their contribution as an equal partner. And lastly, the work must be valued by everyone who engages with it. To ensure we address these aims we provide training for staff members who support lived experience advisors, which includes training on trauma, and we often work in pairs. We have also spent time together reflecting on our roles and the challenges of enabling effective engagement which encourages mutual support and learning.
We also recognise that meeting these aims can be challenging in different contexts and for some organisations. We have witnessed this by receiving our fair share of ‘tokenistic’ requests to use our lived experience advisors. Some examples have included asking people to give their views on the content of a leaflet or attending a one off meeting – neither of which are likely to foster meaningful outcomes. But each time this has happened we have given our partners more of an idea of the sorts of projects people could be involved in and as a result our scheme has developed clear boundaries that are designed to benefit everyone involved. We have also learned that we are able to build safe, trusting and mutually beneficial relationships – enabling outsiders to come in and us as insiders to go out. The team at the OPCC were naturally nervous about whether they had adequate listening and support skills, as well as the time and resources to effectively do this work. Whilst some colleagues have recognised that they do not have the skills to do this work, many others have actively worked with lived experience advisors on different tasks and projects.
So, what are the implications of this type of work for us as a criminal justice system? Arguably, at its heart this work is restorative. It gives voice to those affected by harm, and those responsible, alongside a community of criminal justice practitioners and leaders also affected. It is outcome focused and speaks to the needs of those involved to make things better or make good. It is forward looking as it doesn’t dwell on past experiences but uses them to affect future change. But lived experience engagement is not without its critics. The accentuation of the word ‘lived’ can become the most controversial and provocative aspect of this work, provoking arguments about the superiority of one person’s experience over another’s, individualism verses collectivism, the legitimacy and value of an individual’s experience to advance our knowledge and whether having lived experience offers an individual a moral authority over those who do not.
When we hear these arguments we try to counter them with responses that show just how valuable these experiences are and how they do more than just highlight the process or experience itself. Through meaningful engagement we learn more about the struggles or the efforts individuals have adopted in order to overcome them. When we do this, we learn more about what this experience means for that person in the context of their life, but also the insight they can share with us about how different factors have acted on them and their experience, such as inequality, race, poverty, gender, or class for example. This enables us to stay connected to our work and to be better informed.
Two years on and we are currently reflecting on our scheme, what has worked and where we go next. We recognise that we need to offer more support for our lived experience advisors when they are doing more in-depth lived experience engagement work, especially where it involves a particularly harrowing type of harm. We hope to partner with an independent support service in the future. What has worked overall, is the feedback we get from everyone involved about how powerful it is and how much it makes them question and challenge their practice. Many are humbled and emotionally moved by what they hear. Furthermore, in the coming months we will be involving lived experience advisors in several important work streams around the prevention of domestic abuse through behaviour change work and the need to effect change for women and girls affected by violence. We will also be maturing our approach to commissioning new services by working alongside people who will be using them. We are currently trialling this co-design methodology in the development of a new support service for people affected by serious and fatal road collisions.
If you want to find out more about our scheme you can visit our website: Lived experience advisor scheme · Devon & Cornwall Police & Crime Commissioner (devonandcornwall-pcc.gov.uk)
Dr Davina Cull is Criminal Justice, Partnerships and Commissioning Manager at the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner Devon and Cornwall. Email: Davina.CULL2@devonandcornwall.pnn.police.uk