Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

CONSUMER 'REPRESENTATION'


When consumers are invited to sit on committees it is usually as 'consumer representatives'. The notion of 'representation' is hotly disputed. For an overview, see the discussion paper by Wanda Bennetts at www.ourcommunity.com.au/files/OCP/Dec2012.pdf.

This information sheet highlights some of the problems associated with '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.

Even consumers who do have a pool of available consumer opinion to draw on still often run it through a screen of unacknowledged personal interest, often wielding power over other consumers' ideas and attitudes as they do so. Traditionally the idea of 'representation' has left consumers failing to convince anyone, including some other consumers, that they are the experts in a particular area.

Clinicians are rarely asked to represent a constituency. It is more likely that they will be invited onto committees for their expertise in the area that is central to the committee's charter. It should be the same for us. Many consumers are experts in areas ranging from the education of the mental health workforce to public education campaigns and research. If we start to recognise our own knowledge bases and those of our peers, we can handball work to those who can most knowledgeably contribute.

At the state and federal level, some consumers are conspicuous by their presence as 'representatives', particularly those consumers (and 'carers') who regard themselves as representing 'the most vulnerable'. Governments encourage this, yet simultaneously there is an assumption that if you are able to speak for yourself then you are not among the most vulnerable group of consumers. However, if you 'represent' the 'most vulnerable', no matter whether this perception is cultivated or real, you become a voice that the government must hear. This is not acceptable to many anymore.

Often these consumers won't or can't speak from the first person or from consumer perspective and have very little exposure to the consumer body of knowledge or the high-level thinking that is happening in consumer academic think tanks, in consumer training, or in much of the consumer input into mental health journals internationally. Many are not aware of the issues surrounding the notion of 'representation'.

What many of these people bring to these committees is a belief in themselves and the cause as they perceive it. They may convey a sense that they are expert because they 'represent so many' when in fact they are not.

Indeed, a small group of consumers are constantly being asked to 'represent' us when we have no guarantee that these people understand the fundamentals of prejudice, oppression critical theory, or what it means to play an influential social role.

Even when consumers are appointed to particular bodies, it is sometimes made very clear to us that the committee, once formed, is not a committee of parts, with different people representing different categories. Rather, it is 'a whole', making sound decisions for multiple purposes, such as governance, steering projects or developing guidelines.

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of this for many consumers because consumers are still often seen as representatives when everybody else is seen as an expert. This is problematic for everyone. The whole will not be the sum of its parts. The whole will be the most powerful, and therefore convincing, discourse.

In fact, the very notion of representation is invalid. The most that consumers can ever can do is bring our expertise - born of private experience, grounded in theory - and a keen knowledge of consumer perspective.

Unless consumers have opportunities to educate the people sitting on these committees, our expertise is not seen as expertise, even on committees where we are co-opted precisely because we have the knowledge and skills needed.

Once we start to internalise the thought that we are (and should be) leaders in all forms of systemic advocacy related to mental health, the importance of representation starts to lack relevance.

As Brenda Happell and Cath Roper wrote in a 2006 article in the Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, "Within this model of consumer leadership, the issue of ensuring that the voice of all consumers is heard by mental health services becomes the responsibility of all leaders, not merely that of those consumers who choose to participate."