Finding voice in a hostile climate
By Mary Sadid, Policy Officer
This piece is the third in a series of NSUN staff blogs that aim to go deeper into specific areas of our thinking during our period of strategic reflection in the first half of 2022. This led to a new articulation of our priorities and direction.
“A seat at the policy table comes at a cost. Too often, we are asked to be “the voice” of all survivors and service users in decision-making settings, when there is no such thing as one survivor and service user voice.”
Setting the scene
Over the past year, working in NSUN’s policy function has brought challenges, frustration, and deep conversations amongst the core team and with NSUN members that have laid the foundation of a collective vision for different ways of working and being.
Part of these challenges come from being a small organisation with limited capacity, many from being an organisation where all of our staff and members have lived experience of mental distress.
Sitting in policy spaces in the mental health sector, our involvement as a lived experience-led organisation ‘can become politically expedient and a shortcut to legitimacy, inadvertently validating harmful work’.
Consultation, involvement and co-production can also operate in ways that draw down upon or sometimes exploit our members’ limited resources. Our members experience consultation fatigue – endlessly being asked for input and information about your community, only for it to be a dead end, with no meaningful change resulting from the engagement.
Ultimately, policy norms can pull us into a dance that ‘creates a mirroring of the behaviour we are trying to change’. As Kristiana Wrixon writes, “Huge emphasis is also placed on building relationships with policymakers that do not make those people feel too uncomfortable. To do this we replicate the language and the value base of those already holding positions of power.” Our work going forward is about naming these dynamics and creating space for difference, including difference in vision.
Our experiences have shaped how we talk about and how we want to do our policy work. Some of the key issues we are prioritising are:
- Identifying traditional policy mechanisms and radical alternatives
- Critical connections over critical mass: working relationally with our members, and their self-defined agendas
- Making decisions transparently, and setting boundaries through our decision making matrix and practices
Identifying traditional policy mechanisms and radical alternatives
In our theory of change we set out that we wish to identify traditional policy mechanisms and radical alternatives, through challenging traditional policy silos and unjust hierarchies of evidence.
Through our own work and that of our members, we know that traditional policy mechanisms can be exclusionary, privileging some forms of knowledge over others through hierarchies of evidence. In hierarchies of evidence we see certain kinds of information, such as quantitative data, privileged over others, such as knowledge drawn from lived experience. This can mean that some forms of work are seen as more legitimate than others, because of how they are communicated and how well they fit with existing ways of working and understanding.
Maintaining separation, for example, of mental health and migrant justice, can mean we can avoid questions about state violence (the use of legitimate governmental authority to cause unnecessary harm and suffering to groups, individuals, and states) and the political context in the third sector. For many of our members whose lived experiences span across these siloes, these questions can’t be overlooked. We are seeking to actively name what is missed by policy work in the mental health sector, and to identify how these omissions are brought about by sector norms and practices.
Harmful demands for data and visibility
Policy can often ask us to evidence need through data. For some, evidencing need can seem like a neutral or necessary part of the process. This assumption is not upheld by experiences of surveillance, for example in mental health settings, through immigration reporting conditions, or being discharged onto a community treatment order.
Challenging traditional mechanisms is about challenging the exclusion generated by these mechanisms: what are the consequences of how policy work is structured now? How can we reimagine ways of working so they are closer to social justice approaches?
Addressing inequities in the resourcing of user-led work is a key part of this – looking at the price of admission to policy spaces for grassroots groups and how this is entangled with capacity to work sustainably.
Critical connections over critical mass: looking to our membership in finding voice
Relationships are a central part of our policy work. Over the past year, we have held focus groups, interviews and a panel to better understand our members’ experiences and needs in relation to our policy work. Out of this work came our emerging focus on mental health and migration.
Going forward, we are exploring different models of working more relationally and deeply with our members, to understand where they are coming from and how we can best position ourselves to serve the sustainability and work of our members. We want to amplify the voices of our members without falling into the traps set by policy-influencing spaces that require these voices to be made palatable in order to be taken seriously.
Working with our members might look like providing campaigns support, connecting members with our partners who have shared values and resources, or holding space for reflection on practices. For this to be meaningful, and a genuinely collaborative endeavour, we know that we must ‘move at the speed of trust’.
In setting our agenda, we are informed by our values, and our relationships. We are conscious of not going to the same voices time and time again. We want to have our understanding of our work, and the wider context complicated by the relationships we have and those we seek to build.
The boundaries of the work
Boundaries are an important part of work, for us and our members. Whilst our capacity has significantly grown, we remain a small organisation and we take inspiration from those around us who protect their time and work. Part of establishing boundaries, understanding our positionality and transparently making decisions include our decision making matrix. Whilst establishing boundaries may appear to be an exercise in shrinking, a key question for our policy work is ‘how can we frame our work more expansively?’. In asking this question, we are seeking to speak to those around us who are doing work that is fundamentally linked to our values and mission, but who may not express it in the same way, or be seen to be doing related work.
Working out if something is safe to try
I’d like to summarise this piece and our work going forward with a phrase I first heard from a colleague: ‘working out if something is safe to try’. A lot of resource can be drawn into fitting into existing systems and ways of working. In these spaces lived experience is most often an add -on, tacked on as a bit-part without necessarily impacting the whole.
In asking ‘how can we do things differently?’, I want to emphasise that this is not the same as asking ‘how should policy be done?’ but rather ‘how can we make space for ourselves and our members, and ultimately for difference?’. Space for plurality of voices, for difference, discontent, varied ways of being – these all serve to complicate our understanding and narratives and to name and disrupt our complicity in sector practices that keep user-led groups and lived experience secondary to core work. This is at the heart of our work and vision.