Exploring and enhancing the role of lived experience

The Wales Centre for Public Policy is delighted to be hosting an 18-month collaborative UKRI Innovation Policy Fellowship to explore and enhance the role of lived experience expertise at WCPP, in the What Works Network and in policy making more broadly.

The WCPP Fellow, Dr Rounaq Nayak, from Bournemouth University, is one of 44 policy fellows being seconded by UKRI from university departments to civil service departments and What Works Centres around the UK. What Works Centres are independent evidence centres which exist to provide government and public services with robust, accessible and useful evidence to inform policy and practice. Together, the 13 What Works Centres, make up the What Works Network. WCPP is a ‘place-based’ What Works Centre, specialising in supporting Welsh policy makers, particularly in relation to Tackling Inequalities, Environment and Net Zero, and Community Wellbeing.

In Wales, the principle and practice of involvement is embedded in the public sector through the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015) which compels all public bodies to ‘involve people with an interest in achieving the well-being goals, and ensuring that those people reflect the diversity of the area which the body services’.

And there are good reasons why policy researchers might want to and often do involve people with lived – as opposed to just learned – expertise of the issues they are working on. Lived experience refers to ‘personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement’ (Chandler & Munday, 2016). Whereas ‘learned expertise’ is gained through professional or educational experiences, and is the kind of expertise that policymakers, academics and practitioners have, though some people have both lived and learned expertise.

Some of the reasons why policy researchers involve experts by experience include a desire to make progress in embedding equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in their work (The Young foundation, 2021). But there are broader arguments for incorporating lived experience evidence and expertise in policy research, including a democratic rationale which emphasises that people should be able to influence the decisions that affect their lives (Bell & Reed, 2021); and that people’s direct experiential knowledge should be valued alongside other sources of expertise and insight (Beresford, 2003). It can also improve policy decisions and outcomes, by ensuring that the evidence and expertise that informs policy is better attuned to the experiences, needs and context of the people it seeks to impact (Smith-Merry, 2020), resulting in policy decisions which are more workable, relevant, and legitimate (Institute for Community Studies, 2020). For these reasons we have been working with a group of lived experience experts as part of our work to address poverty-related stigma in Wales.

However, there are also challenges and risks related to involving lived experience experts in policy research, including:

  • Ethical challenges such as ensuring that participants have a positive and meaningful experience of involvement and gain from as well as contribute to the process. There are still too many instances where involvement can be felt to be tokenistic, traumatic and facilitated without adequate safeguarding and wellbeing training.
  • Logistical challenges such as accessing relevant people and finding ways to remunerate participants fairly without, in some instances, jeopardising their social security payments.
  • Resource challenges such as ensuring that sufficient and skilled staff resource can be deployed to enabling participation.
  • Methodological challenges in terms of balancing ‘evidence standards’ and ‘scientific rigour’ with insights based on very small or individual sample sizes, and combining lived experience with other forms of expertise. Applying concepts such as ‘rigour’ and ‘validity’ to lived experience evidence or expertise is also a highly contested approach.

To support WCPP and the wider What Works Network to grapple with and overcome these and other challenges, the Policy Fellowship will involve four key stages:

  1. Learning from within the What Works Network (WWN) to explore current understanding and practices in relation to incorporating lived experience expertise and understand current practice, views and knowledge about lived experience participation across the WWN.
  2. Learning from beyond the What Works Network by reviewing literature and expertise in the broader sector to explore whether, how and in what ways, lived experience experts can inform the policy research and policymaking process.
  3. Experimentation and innovation within the What Works network by drawing together learning from three action research opportunities to share and apply relevant methods for involving lived experience experts.
  4. Sharing learning and increasing capabilities more broadly by producing case studies on the action research projects, presenting to the What Works Network and policy makers, and producing a briefing for policymakers.

As well as being led by WCPP, the Fellowship will be guided and supported by a working group made up of representatives from a range of leading UK evidence centres: the Youth Futures Foundation, the Centre for Homelessness Impact, the Centre for Ageing Better, the Modern Slavery Policy Evidence Centre and the International Public Policy Observatory. The Fellowship will be advised by Sarah Campbell, Head of Participation at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

For more information about the Fellowship, please contact Dr Rounaq Nayak – nayakr@wcpp.org.uk