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You can’t fix what you don’t understand - exploring the culture of policymaking in the UK

Chloe Juliette - SDM spokespeople (1)
Chloe Juliette - SDM spokespeople (1)

Author: Chloe Juliette, Sounddelivery Media spokesperson

We fund Sounddelivery Media's Spokesperson Network training programme to work with people with lived experience of social justice and inequality. Developed collaboratively with a network of grassroots leaders, the programme boosts people to be visible public spokespeople for the communities they represent. 

Here spokesperson Chloe Juliette shares her insights into the complex relationship between lived experience and policy development.

I recently contributed to an edition of the BBC Four Radio series Fixing Britain presented by Baroness Casey, Louise Casey. This series looked at the challenges facing whoever wins the next general election. Delving into the reasons why five major social policy problems on which she has worked remain unsolved, Louise looked at questions of governance and political complexity, and asked what we need from our government, at every level, to make things work better.

Children in Care was the episode I was featured in, given my experience of growing up in care and background conducting research to inform policy. Preparing for my interview with Louise meant pulling my thoughts together on our culture of governance, how policy is created, and how research informs it. My time at What Works for Children’s Social Care taught me a great deal about all of this, as has my time working in research agencies for government clients.

I’ve boiled it down to four key points. Rule of three be damned.

1. Government wants to fix people that it doesn't understand

There is a strong desire in government to ‘fix’ problems and ‘fix people’. By ‘fix’, I mean get people to fit better into acceptable social norms as defined by those making the policy and wider society. Government is not diverse. The civil service, and even more so the political class, does not reflect the diverse demographics, characteristics or lived experiences of the general public. There is often no-one within the team working on a policy that has lived experience of the issue they’re trying to address, such as services for children in care or interventions for those exposed to domestic abuse. Groupthink is inevitable, and invariably leads to a poor understanding of the ‘other’.

This poor understanding then informs the design of policies, and the objectives of research conducted with end-users. Any knowledge created by engaging those with lived experience comes back into a system that doesn’t understand it. Their words, already reworked to be more succinct and familiar by researchers (who practice reflexivity - the practice of unearthing and challenging your biases - to varying degrees), will then be interpreted through the lens of however those working on the policy problem already think about it, which is often informed by ideology.

There is often no-one within the team working on a policy that has lived experience of the issue they’re trying to address ... Groupthink is inevitable, and invariably leads to a poor understanding of the ‘other’.

Here’s an example. The term ‘intentionally homeless’ came about to describe someone who, from the point of view of those with no understanding of what it’s like, has either refused housing or, despite warnings, has continued to behave in ways that led to eviction. From my perspective, it only takes an ounce of empathy to bring us to thinking about why that person has refused housing, or why that person can’t hold down a tenancy. If you’ve never been loved, and you haven’t had any physical contact apart from a restraint hold in years, and you find yourself with your own flat and some people who want to hang out with you - regardless of how they behave, you will let them come round. Any connection is better than nothing when you’re fading out of existence. If you can’t cope, perhaps you drink. Drinking numbs the pain, but the trauma pours out - and it’s loud. To label someone intentionally homeless is both misinformed and deeply inhumane. But it happened.

2. We need to embed lived experience, without overburdening the people we bring in

If the government wants to help this ‘other’, even if that’s only to save public money, then it should include us. We should be part of the sense making, research and policy design so that decisions are made in a room that better reflects society. We are not as hard to reach as the government is. I’ve had to come to you, and I am very tired.

People like me, i.e. those with lived experience working in a professional capacity to inform policy, do lots of difficult things that aren’t seen. We observe ideological positions or misconceptions that don’t align with our experiences. We gradually challenge thinking, making sure we don’t push too hard, too quickly and become an outcast, but not so slowly we just become part of the problem - we try, anyway. We change the way we talk, we change the way we look, we change the way we think. I didn’t have a childhood, I had a series of placements that broke down and impacted my outcomes.

Applause and thanks at how wonderful we are isn’t enough, you’ve got to make space to learn about what it’s like to be us, and how to support someone doing the work.

My experiences, and stigmatised conditions, are so helpful in my work. They help me to understand how an intervention or a research event will feel for those on the receiving end. Top tip: agency. Always look for agency. Give the participants in your engagement exercise as much agency as possible, and keep it chill - be a human, not a lanyard. This is especially important for those who have experienced powerlessness in traumatic circumstances, and even more so if they were handed a load of formal meetings with strangers talking a weird language in response. It’d be very helpful if workplaces could embed trauma-informed thinking that sees emotional labour and embraces diversity. Applause and thanks at how wonderful we are isn’t enough, you’ve got to make space to learn about what it’s like to be us, and how to support someone doing the work.

3. Government wants measurable interventions with quick, clean, impact.

Definitive answers are desirable so that policymakers can confidently roll out solutions at scale. We need to know if public money is being used well, so civil servants must make a case for the money they want to spend then evidence the impact using ‘hard’ data i.e. numbers. Numbers of resources spent, people reached, outcomes achieved, and cost savings. Complexity is thus less desirable, but it is present in the lives of service users and the issues presented to practitioners, and the way interventions actually work. To test interventions and define them for roll out, they must be simplified. These simplifications can, unless considerable care is taken, miss crucial nuance in favour of having something that can be more easily measured.

Mix this in with a woefully fast-paced culture (that somehow simultaneously travels at snail-like speed) that’s driven by elections, and we encourage policies that focus on quick fixes of current problems where impact is (relatively) easy to demonstrate. Government is incentivised to focus on achievable goals that keep them in favour, while people with a range of beliefs inform a policy carousel as the civil service and political class chop and change with the seasons.

4. We need to understand what social research is and isn’t for.

Research tells us a story. Just because your research has some numbers in it, doesn’t mean you haven’t told yourself a story about what they mean. What if an increased number of placement moves is because therapy makes things worse before it gets better? What if I’m eating less crisps because I’m doing crack instead? (couldn’t resist) What if your sample doesn’t reflect the population? What if your cognitive testing wasn’t thorough enough?

I’m not saying the best of us don’t account for the pitfalls. I’m just saying that research is never going to give you the whole picture, and any intervention worth its salt for a complex problem is going to be complex. You can’t neatly say x is causal for y for all people for all time. You can’t say z is truth. It’s only ever going to be x works for these people in this context at this time, probably.

Research tells us a story. Just because your research has some numbers in it, doesn’t mean you haven’t told yourself a story about what they mean.

Researchers (mostly) understand this, but policymakers and civil servants often don’t. Researchers write things in a reassuring way that gives the impression of fact because policymakers want a sense of safety in a decision. The devil’s in the detail, but if you don’t have the language to understand the detail it may as well not be there. And we can’t win, write honestly that this provides some insight but isn’t a fact and they’ll wonder why they’re reading something that doesn’t provide them with definitive answers.

I mean.. *insert swear words here*. We’ve framed our world as if it’s a laboratory of things we can measure, and we have absolutely no idea what consciousness is. The thing that you are with the senses that are observing, counting, interpreting - what is it? We don’t know! But we’ve all agreed to pretend we can measure and name everything. An insight can be useful, but that’s all it is.

So what does the future hold?

I’m wondering - can the government take responsibility for decisions without the comforting illusion of fact? Can we build a culture that allows mistakes and unpicks ideology?

All the world’s a stage. What part do you want to play in our future?

About the author

Chloe Juliette is a care-experienced social researcher and facilitator. She is an associate director at Thinks Insight & Strategy and was previously a senior researcher at What Works for Children’s Social Care, leading on qualitative inquiry and research ethics. Chloe is part of the Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Programme.