Isla Haigh, Depaul UK

Describe your role
I am the National Participation Manager for Depaul UK, a large national charity for homeless young people. My role involves driving the strategic change within the organisation to embrace participation as well as supporting project managers and workers to integrate participation into every aspect of our service provision.

What makes a good participation worker?
Someone with the ability to really see and believe in the benefits of participation and someone who is prepared to stand up for it and persuade a very wide audience, from young people, staff, trustees and funders. Flexibility and being open minded is also key – be prepared to juggle things around if they are not working.  Whilst this is easy to tell other people it is difficult to enact yourself. So, if you have a great plan for a participation project or tool and then you get feedback from young people that they don’t think it’s any good then you need to be flexible and reassess what and why you wanted to do it; and with them come up with a new way.

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?
Many practitioners in our field do not believe that their young people either want to, or will, make the effort to be involved in participation activities. They feel that they are the experts in providing care for this client group and do not feel that they can learn anything from the young people so don’t encourage the activity. Also, some young people find it difficult to understand that their opinions and ideas are valuable and welcomed as they may never have experienced that before. 

What are the benefits?
Huge!  Once young people become in engaged in services they are using they begin to feel empowered and positively affect the success and smooth running of that project. This helps them to develop personally and enhance their life skills. For organisations that do it there is better job satisfaction for staff to know they are providing services that their young people actually want, and there is credibility given to organisations who do it by peer organisations, councils and funders. When working in residential neighbourhoods participation also fosters a better community cohesion and can help to promote a positive image of young people once others see them getting involved and changing things for the better. Essentially participation is a process and empowerment is the outcome so should be our shared goal for all of this work.

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?
Involve young people from the start. Make it fun and relevant to them.  Make it easy to get to and all materials easy to access (low reading age, type, visuals etc). Make it short and sweet – timing is key to keeping attention. Do your best to encourage the young people to attend, bringing friends often helps people feel more comfortable about attending and you get an extra young person too! Remember to explain fully why it is happening and what the expectations are: don’t let young people feel they have the final say in a significant decision only to be let down when they realise that their views only counted for 10%.

What is effective participation?
For me effective participation is when, whatever model, young people are at the centre of some significant change in a service and they are acknowledged and thanked for that but more importantly they see the benefit that their involvement has had. At Depaul I also see it as having a broader agenda of teaching young people, in our case disadvantaged, about citizenship and preparing them to live in our democratic society, and to feel that it DOES matter what they say it is just about finding the right way to say it so that your opinions get heard fairly.  This is particularly relevant at the moment with the possibility of a General Election in spring 2010 and historically a low number of young people turning out to vote.

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB