Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

PROBLEMS AND POLITICS WITHIN THE CONSUMER MOVEMENT


Within the consumer community, many regard the process of committee appointments as idiosyncratic, undemocratic, pretend-democratic, highly insular, conservative, single-issue-focused or otherwise problematic.

This is not to say that people appointed to committees aren't worthy or don't do a good job or don't get exhausted or aren't furious with the rest of us sometimes when we don't support the hard work they are doing on our behalf. The work is not always easy, and the people who do it need our support and encouragement and thanks.

Nonetheless, the work needs to be scrutinised too.


Committee-sitting consumers

One characteristic of the consumer movement over the past 20 years has been our inability to recognise when another person's expertise, ability or knowledge is greater than our own in a particular field. When this is the case, we need to handball committee work to the best person for the job, knowing that this will benefit all consumers.

This is one of the consumer movement's challenges. We need to avoid a situation where some consumers seem to collect committees like trophies, regardless of their skills or knowledge in one field or another.

Interestingly, the phenomenon of committee-sitting consumers has characterised other social reform movements as well: indigenous groups, culturally and linguistically diverse communities and the women's movement, to name a few. In the 1960s, for example, the women's movement split over accusations that everything was being organised by white, middle-class, well-educated, professional women. A new politics arose to enable disempowered women to be heard.

It can be disconcerting when a small group of consumers are constantly asked to 'represent' us when we have no guarantee that these people understand the fundamentals of prejudice, oppression or critical theory, or what it means to be playing particular influential social roles. Do committee-sitting consumers care that 'representation' and even 'consultation' are concepts consumers are starting to mistrust and discredit? Do they understand the difference between 'consumer perspective' and 'consumer views'? Certainly some have not experienced poverty, powerlessness or the power of the state.


Grassroots versus elites

We identify as a grassroots movement, but we have long been, and continue to be, haunted by accusations of elitism.

Too often, we yell at each other in frustration rather than yelling at the system. When we have limited institutional power, it sometimes feels too hard to critique the professor or the chair of a committee, so we tend to let rip at our peers instead. This is understandable but not helpful. The problem is made worse by lay people's interference in our debate.

Of course there are many things we disagree about. It would be very strange if we didn't. But when people accuse others of elitism, defining 'elite' as anyone with an intellect or education, and 'grassroots' as anyone with schizophrenia, we undermine ourselves. This sort of debate negates our own ambition to stop the government, the sector and services of all kinds from dividing people up in these ways.

Then there are influential consumers who don't come anywhere near 'the movement'. (For an overview of this issue, see Neami's Consumer Participation and Leadership Report at www.ourcommunity.com.au/files/OCP/ConsumerParticipationAndLeadershipReport2010.pdf.) What do we do about them? This is one of the big issues the consumer movement faces.


Abjection

Abjection refers to the real nitty-gritty of being marginalised by our diagnosis, to the part of us that is disgusting to others (and maybe to ourselves): overt 'madness', drooling, shakiness, smelliness, farting. By its very nature, abjection disturbs order, rejects neat and tidy, rejects systems, borders, positions and rules. In contrast, committees are most often all about order, decorum, rules (both known and unknown), systems and systemic knowledge.

Consumers on committees may have abject parts, but we tie these up with a 'madness chastity belt' when we perform on committees. Those of us who deny our abject selves deny the abject in all consumers. We subscribe to the hidden code within the consumer movement that the abject belong 'over there' and 'we' belong on committees. This is both understandable and undesirable.


Stigmaphobia

Consumer academic Flick Grey uses the term 'stigmaphobia' to describe the reason why marginalised groups scramble for acceptance by casting others as even more marginalised; or the way people with a marginalised diagnosis cut off their ties with an even more marginalised diagnosis to climb the acceptability ladder. (See www.ourcommunity.com.au/files/OCP/PositiveThinkingAboutConsumers.docx.)

The case study below is a good example of one group of people with a disability trying to fight for acceptance and social justice by disallowing the integrity of another oppressed group. We must fight together to rid mental health, and especially consumer interest groups, of infighting for legitimacy through committee structures.


Other moral and ethical issues

Consumers everywhere want acknowledgement, and this has several major implications for committees.

First, it makes some experienced consumers unwilling to leave a dysfunctional committee to make a point about bad process, because they would be leaving behind the recognition that committee membership provides. Furthermore, they know that leaving the committee might only pathologise them further in the eyes of the establishment. Sometimes, however, there is no other way to make the point that a committee is not as it needs to be.

The unfortunate reality at this time is that if an experienced consumer leaves a committee because of real and substantial problems with governance or bullying, for example, it typically takes less than a week for another consumer to jump into the void.

This leads to inexperienced consumers being thrown in at the deep end where there is little likelihood that they will support an ethical position taken by their predecessor. Their first experience of power may affect them in such a way that they forget they are a consumer.


Consumers as employees

Historically, few consumers worked within 'the system'. Indeed, few worked, full stop. Most activists were on disability pensions and many still are.

Over the past decade, however, and particularly the past five years, more and more consumers have been employed in the psychiatric disability rehabilitation and support (PDRS) sector and in clinical services. At first glance, this is wonderful. However, it has led to some changes in the way consumers on committees are conceived.

Some employed consumers sit on many committees linked to their employment. As a result, some find that committee work fills up their time and isn't productive, and they become jolly sick of it. At the same time, these consumers are bringing the same views to committees over and over again. Of course, the organisation is saving money because they already pay the consumers as staff.

There is a political imperative to have consumers looking and sounding as though they need the service being provided. If this is not the case, the service provider has a public image problem. So local and 'less important' committees spend a great deal of energy trying to interest consumers (who are often not interested) in sitting on them. These consumers may spend an inordinate amount of time with the organisation's PR people creating illusions of inclusiveness, not only through committee structures but also through public storytelling. Consumers need to challenge this.


A way forward: deep dialogue

'Deep dialogue' refers to a particular way of structuring talking and listening. It is intended to enable deep conversations between consumers and service providers. For an outline and examples, see www.ourcommunity.com.au/files/OCP/DeepDialogue.pdf, and also the information sheet The Collaborative Committee Model.

What is needed within the consumer movement, perhaps, is deep dialogue about how we do our work, how we appreciate others, how we critique, how we manage the workload and how we manage the power.

The problem with deep dialogue is that the process of deep listening and theorising entails allowing decisions and debate to hang in the air. It's hard. In contrast, most committees are defined by the imperatives of debate and decision-making.

The consumers who are committed to, intrigued by or adept at deep dialogue are a different group of consumers from those who get pleasure from the rough-and-tumble of standard committees, with different politics, skills and temperaments. Bringing these two different groups of consumers together respectfully using deep dialogue would be helpful in building our understanding of our place in committees.

The risks of undertaking this process include the possibility that that some might not see it as important enough to attend, and that it might trigger another period of mud-slinging between consumers locked into their opposing positions.


Self-examining questions

For consumers:

For organisations with consumers on committees:


Interesting Reading: Positive Thinking about Consumers by Flick Grey: www.ourconsumerplace.com.au/resources#recent.