The Challenge of Engaging the Voice of Lived Experience

A group of people participating in a discussion

Livingston James head of Public Sector and Not for Profit, Douglas Adam, discusses the challenges voluntary sector organisations face when engaging the voice of lived experience.


Voluntary sector organisations have long recognised the importance of the voice of lived experience, where ‘lived experience’ is simply having experience of the issue that the organisation focuses on solving.

The knowledge of someone with lived experience can provide both a unique and significant insight based on their understanding of how specific issues should be addressed. Whatever the issue, the perspective of someone who has had to handle it in their lifetime will be invaluable to an organisation pushing for positive change in that area.

The idea of listening to the ‘user voice’ is a topic that has certainly gained traction in the sector with NPC launching its User Voice report in 2016, but there is still a long way to go.

In recent times more organisations have started to understand that you need to work with people with lived experience, but the challenges of reaching and engaging with service users are many and varied.  Here we take a closer look at the potential challenges and benefits.


What Role does the Voice of Lived Experience Play?

More often the voice of lived experience is associated with helping shape or influence government policy, however it can also have a much wider role in shaping service design and delivery.

By placing greater importance on ensuring the voice of lived experience directly informs both current and future service design and delivery, charities can facilitate honest and open communication. This can mould service design in a manner best suited to key stakeholders – the service users.

Such an approach could be extended to ensuring true representation and the voice of lived experience around the boardroom table, though this may vary from organisation to organisation. This is due to the important role that someone with lived experience to play in terms of such board discussions if it is done well and isn’t tokenistic


The Challenge of Ensuring Engagement with Service Users is both Diverse and Inclusive

Organisations are often communicating with vulnerable people and discussing sensitive matters and it is extremely rare that there is a one-size-fits all method of building relationships.

It is imperative that where possible any stakeholder engagement strategy is not simply tokenistic, but rather embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion and takes care to avoid consistently only including the same pool of service users. Organisations should place emphasis on broadening reach and engaging with those whose voices have previously gone unheard.

Furthermore, it is also important that organisations look to engage with people and communities who could, but currently do not, benefit from their services. This has the potential to vastly improve the development and co-production of future service design as it creates a platform allowing organisations to understand why not all who could benefit choose to access their services.

This is perhaps easier said than done but such an approach would ensure organisations gain a true reflection of the people and communities who currently access, have previously benefited or could benefit from their services in the future.

By effectively identifying stakeholders who are willing to share their experiences and going on to empower them, organisations can enable the people they work with to set agendas and make decisions.

How do you Ensure the Voice is Truly Listened to?

At best, stakeholder engagement and involvement can take people on a positive journey, allowing them to feel a part of the solution to a particular issue that impacts them. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, stakeholders can be influenced by those leading the conversation, and thus the opportunity to take things in a different direction can be lost.

It is imperative that those with lived experience have a voice in the decision-making undertaken by the charities looking to support them. Their involvement must also benefit them, as well as the organisation that they are working with.

Having chosen to engage and more importantly listen to the voice of lived experience, organisations need to consider how they involve and enthuse staff and board members alike so that the voice of lived experience truly informs both their strategic and operational decision-making.

For any organisation, this serves as a strong reminder of purpose and ultimately ensures that service-users, quite rightly, remain both front and centre and at the heart of all they do.

For a confidential discussion around your public and not for profit leadership requirements, contact [email protected]

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