‘Voice for advocacy’ – time to reflect?

On June 26th we attended what was titled as a ‘Voice for Advocacy’ meeting in London. Arranged by the Mental Health Foundation who were commissioned by several advocacy organisations to undertake a scoping exercise on the views and options of the sector about having a national voice for advocacy.

The scoping exercise was made up of 2 online surveys, the first of which asked whether there was a need for a national voice for advocacy, whether it might carry out the same (or similar) actions and role as Action for Advocacy (a4a), which as you’ll most likely be aware, closed in early 2013. And lastly how this might look, with several options suggested. The second survey then asked a series of questions that more closely focused on particular options, how each one would be funded as well as asking about the urgency for the need for this type of organisation – the topic of the meeting we both attended.

We won’t cover the detail of the outcome of the initial survey here but you can access the scoping report by clicking on this link: Voice for Advocacy Scoping Report

As many of you will be aware Sue and I have worked in the sector for many years and worked at Action for Advocacy together on the IMCA Support Project for 2 years. I stayed on to finalise the work of the IMHA support project before the organisation closed. Not surprisingly therefore we felt our experience of working as advocates (and later leading on mental capacity advocacy) were well suited to any discussions about the future of the sector.

So the following is a summary of the key issues that we felt needed to be considered in the context of whether we need a ‘voice for advocacy’. It’s important to note that these are our thoughts and are not intended to convey the full discussions within the meeting, which was predominantly made up of a variety of advocacy providers.

First of all, we felt it needs to be recognised that there is a very strong voice for advocacy in existence. There are several organisations within the sector including (we feel) Empowerment Matters, promoting best practice, developing resources, campaigning, or leading on specialist elements of the advocacy sector (such as mental health, mental capacity, children’s advocacy to name a few). The recent House of Lords call for evidence on the Mental Capacity Act demonstrated just this with advocacy providers ensuring their voice was represented and most importantly the voice of the client group they work with on a daily basis. So – is there a need still to have a national body that ‘leads’ the sector or is the sector leading itself?

It should be noted that of those that responded to the survey, two thirds felt it was important for there to be a presence of a national body/ organisation /steering group /alliance (whichever word most appropriately represents what people wish to see). But do we need to take a moment and step back and reflect on why Action for Advocacy no longer exists? This for us is an important element to consider before steps are taken in recreating what we had before. And to be clear this is not about apportioning blame anywhere (be it the current financial climate, the legislative changes that have impacted the sector, the changing needs of the sector, the competitive situation of tenders we now experience or the senior management of a4a).

No, what needs to be discussed and analysed is, are any of these issues relevant? If they are, how can they be addressed in any future organisation? What has changed within the 13 years since a4a began and do we need to start here when having these discussions otherwise isn’t there a risk that we will be reinventing the past without stopping to question any of this?

Overall what we feel needs to be considered (and we hope will be – a steering group has now been set up) are:

• The process needs to be a democratic one; it would be remiss to not take into account the vast voice of advocacy that currently exists and the excellent work being done by a range of organisations. We need to recognise the advocacy sector has changed immensely over the years and each providers voice must count.

• What is the future work and do we need to define it? What are the priorities and how will they be achieved?

• What are the income generators i.e. how will any alliance, body etc resource the work? A4a, like many organisations, received funding for specific and time limited projects. There are few organisations that can deliver their core elements of work (such as campaigning, ongoing and accessible advice or signposting, developing free resources) without an ongoing stream of income. Children and animal charities successfully do this out of the nature of their cause and the natural way the general public wish to help out. But how does an advocacy organisation do this? Is a fee-paying membership the way forward or do we need to think more creatively and develop something that is robust and self-sustaining? We don’t necessarily hold the answer to this but strongly believe this needs consideration.

• How do we have a national alliance whilst keeping in mind the specialism’s others now hold? For example NDTi now manage the Quality Performance Mark (an important assessing process but one they have already said is as far as they feel able to go in terms of leading the sector). Sue and I work heavily in the field of mental capacity, other organisations successfully lead on the qualification. So how do we ensure that all of this work is not lost or forgotten when promoting the idea of a new advocacy alliance?

• Finally, is it time for the sector to liaise more broadly with other organisations and not just within the sector. Do we need to link in with organisations that advocate for their particular cause and seek partnership opportunities? Do we need to recognise that there are still sectors of advocacy that don’t necessarily share a voice with advocacy campaigners? For example, advocates that work in domestic violence, where is their voice in the sector? Or does it remain in the movement they’re part of? Children’s advocacy – a vital part of the sector whose work fits in to much of new or amended legislation (Mental Health Act, Mental Capacity Act, the Care Act, but who still seem to be on the sidelines in terms of inclusivity of these discussions). We don’t claim to have the answers to all of these questions but we embrace the idea that we can begin to have these much needed conversations across the board, with commissioners, other third sector organisations, regulatory bodies to name just a few. Before we run into making decisions that may significantly impact on the sector, let’s stop for a moment and start a really honest dialogue.

We welcome your thoughts.

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