Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

INTRODUCTION TO COMMITTEES


Many consumers have struggled with committees. Some of us have felt bullied, not listened to with the same sincerity as others, not adequately informed by chairs, ignored by people co-opted from business, treated as stupid, or scrutinised in ways no other committee member has to endure.

We hear story after story of bad practice. People have silenced us and shamed us in equal measure. Committee members are often rude to us or purposefully dismissive because, underneath it all, they think we have been appointed above our station. Sometimes it is just unthinking or unintentional. But too many consumers have been damaged by these processes.

At the heart of this is a fundamental contradiction. How can consumers be 'central' players in the decision-making of the state and its institutions when the consumer body of knowledge is disrespected and often not acknowledged at all? See the information sheet Committees and Power for more on the topic of power.


Representation

Decision-making and advisory bodies need to abandon the idea that a consumer can possibly be 'representative' on a committee, or that a consumer 'representative' somehow comes with 'unscientific' passion rather than a knowledge base.

See Wanda Bennetts' discussion paper on 'representatives' at www.ourcommunity.com.au/files/OCP/Dec2012.pdf for more on this issue. The information sheets Consumer 'Representation' and Consumer Perspective also examine this issue in greater depth.


Consumer Perspective

Consumer perspective and consumer views are two concepts that must deeply inform all consumers who sit on committees as consumers. We are not there primarily as 'clever orators', 'political manipulators', 'lobbying experts' or 'power carriers', although skills and knowledge of various kinds can help. We are there as consumers. The section on Consumer Perspective probes this idea further.


Consumer expertise

As consumers we are, or should be, experts in our own right, backed up by competence, facility and sound judgement. We have our own practically tested empiricism, research interests and research methods. Collectively we have years of experience, totalling many hundreds of hours of supervision from a consumer perspective, and an extensive knowledge base in the theory, politics and practice of social rights policy and community development. (See, for example, the work of consumer academic Cath Roper of the University of Melbourne: http://www.cpn.unimelb.edu.au/trash_local/cath2.)

Consumers might not use this language, but we know all too well when people's social rights, sovereignty and humanity are under threat, and this can occur even, or perhaps especially, when we are sitting on a committee.

Many consumers don't know or trust the knowledge they have. Powerlessness and shame rob many of us of the ability to truly recognise our own achievements and potential. Well-structured peer support, such as that described within the field of Intentional Peer Support, can help here (see www.intentionalpeersupport.org and www.brookred.org.au).

The key to having our expertise recognised lies not just in providing genuinely useful committee training to consumers, but in educating committees themselves to recognise and honour consumer expertise. The information sheet Committee Training explores this issue.


The language of committees

Part of the jostling that happens on committees is about language: what is acceptable and what is not. Too often the language of academic elites, bureaucrats, economists, medical scientists and clinicians is granted privileges or a status on committees that consumers' language, particularly narrative or story, is not. This is a big challenge, but we know it can be overcome, as shown by examples of successful negotiations between, say, indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Respecting points made through narrative and, at the same time, respecting that consumers bring much more than just a narrative is hard. Committee chairs need to be well educated and diligent in ensuring that this respect is granted. Otherwise, discussion will tend to default to the much more powerful discourse of, for example, bureaucracy or the medical model. The information sheet Using Story on Committees looks at this issue in greater depth.


Beyond the standard committee

We've outlined a couple of models and resources that can be used to help ensure that alternatives to the standard committee model can flourish. See the information sheets Collaborative Committee Model and Committee Agreement Template. Both of these models are fundamental to understanding the importance of the second aspect of all committees' responsibility: to be generative of new ideas and shared visions. Many committees are equipped only to make decisions.

Traditional committee structures have proven to be bad places for generating growth and testing new ways of groups interrelating. Collaborative Committees, on the other hand, are an exciting new way of understanding how committees can fulfil the breadth of their responsibility more creatively. The Agreement Template is a first for Australia. It gives consumers and others a structure to test the commitment of the organisation to consumers. The fact that it is 'loaded' is intentional, providing opportunities that will only come when all members of the committee are pushed.


Alternatives to committee participation

There are now many different ways of 'getting inside' the mental health system, as employees, researchers, outside commentators, consumers running peer services or academic appointments. One of the benefits of all this activity is that consumers whose 'thing' is not really sitting on (possibly) stuffy old committees can find other ways to influence the mental health agenda.

There is a wonderful and diverse population of consumers doing just this, whether they are nibbling at the edges of the medical model or pursuing a revolution; whether they are saying "Could you possibly please…?" or stamping their feet and saying "No!" Making a worthwhile contribution doesn't come from being important; it comes from trying really hard.

The information sheet So You've Been Asked to Sit on a Committee poses some questions we can ask ourselves when trying to decide whether committee work is really for us.