Experts by experience in poverty and social exclusion

Submitted by Kirsti Battista on August 17, 2016 - 8:58am
Case studies from Belgium's Federal Public Service

“Nothing about us without us” is the concept that those of us who are affected by a policy or policy change, should be able to fully participate and directly inform that policy before it is accepted. In the context of poverty reduction, this means that people who have experienced living in poverty should be invited and allowed to fully participate in discussions about policies and programs that directly affect them.

The “Experts in Experience” Project

In the book, “Experts by Experience in Poverty and in Social Exclusion” (2010), authors Casman, Vranken, Dierckx, Deflandre and Campaert write about an “experts by experience” project that was developed as an innovative strategy whereby people could draw on their personal experience of poverty in a professional context, within the public service, to combat poverty by being a “missing link” between the social welfare administration and the poorest citizens in Belgium.

Experts by experience were called upon to find new ways to reduce the divide between Belgium’s poorest citizens and the rest of society, to help actualize their rights, and exercise their citizenship.  At the core of this theory is the understanding that experts in experience are uniquely positioned to contribute to “better frontline reception and better identification of the needs and sources of misunderstandings between administrations and people living in poverty”.

Traditional vs New Engagement

Belgium's Federal Public Service (FPS) for Social Integration, the body responsible for the preparation, implementation, and assessment and monitoring of inclusive federal policy in favour of social integration was motivated to take on this project through an existing desire to dialogue with stakeholders, to develop partnerships, and implement and monitor social policies that guarantee fundamental social rights for all.

What was most innovative about their approach was the desire not just to draw on this expertise in an ad hoc approach, but to turn “experts by experience” into a new occupation with a defined role in the public service.

In traditional stakeholder engagement, governments generally begin with the assumption that their services are already sufficiently accessible, and that small tweaks to their current programs and services, based on standard stakeholder input, will help them achieve improved outcomes.

By contrast, embedding experts by experience into administrative offices that develop and implement policies, allows them to shed new light on problems with service delivery and systematic faults in administrative processes, as their experience and training allow them to observe what changes from the “inside” might better support people living in poverty. 

 

Addressing Gaps in the System

In the pilot project Belgium’s FPS recognized that existing day to day business was not properly addressing the gaps that separated people experiencing poverty (their target audience) from a “standard citizen” profile. The identified gaps included:

  • Structural gap: a discrepancy in the satisfaction of realizing guaranteed fundamental social rights amongst people living in poverty, due to structural infractures
  • Participation gap: exclusion from genuine participation in society, where economic dependence is a driving factor
  • Feeling gap: psychological and social traumas which end up marking the individual, on a deep level, and can create major obstacles to accessing or mobilizing any aids that may be available
  • Knowledge gap: limited knowledge of how society functions, particularly administrative regulations; unknowingness of their eligibility for a program or service and how to seek out this information; service providers not realizing that the individual does not understand things that seem to be obvious
  • Aptitude gap: experiences leading up to lack of aptitudes such as social, learning, emotional or management skills required for participation in society.

The FPS “experts by experience” project set out to fill these gaps through putting individuals at the centre of the organizations and processes, to inform changes that would benefit the target population by working to change the outcomes from inside of the Federal Public Service for Social Inclusion.

Methodology

Experts by experience were chosen to participate in the project based on their life experiences of being disenfranchised, having been on welfare, and/or living on the margins.  Because experiences of poverty are wide ranging, they were asked to not only mobilize their own experiences with poverty, but to draw on the experiences of others to inform their own stories as they took part in the pilot.

For this project, individuals were given specific training for three years prior to their entry into the public service through a part-time training course. They trained to develop their skills and bring themselves up to the level that is necessary for working in governnment administration.  Mentors and coaches were also available to them as they prepared for and initiatied their employment.

To test the theory that applied experience could be implemented to help the FPS develop services that could better comprehend the needs, specificities and expectations of the poor, the experts were placed in ten different offices:

  • House of Justice in Brussels
  • Jan Palfijn general hospital in Ghent
  • Crossroad Bank for Social Security
  • Selor (selection office)
  • National Employment Office (NEO)
  • Auxiliary Illness and Disability Insurance Fund
  • Federal Public Service Economy, S.M.Es. Self-Employed and Energy (FPS Economy)
  • Termonde State Prison
  • National Pensions Office (ONP) in Charleroi
  • Pension Office in Hasselt

The experts by experience were integrated into business-as-usual activities, rather than “peripheral” work, which is sometimes separated from regular department duties. They were recognized as fully fledged colleagues in their work responsibilities, and were asked to show how their expertise could lead to structural innovations to address the gap between public office administration and supporting the poor.

They were given five principle axes of action and intervention, of which they would focus on some but not necessarily all of the axes in their duties:

  • To improve the reception and the information provided to target public;
  • To guide, accompany, and stand in for the users in their administrative activities;
  • To improve, in general terms, the quality and accessibility of the services carried out by their department for the target public;
  • To encourage interdepartmental collaboration thereby strengthening the general objective of combatting poverty; and
  • To relay the needs and expectations of the target publics at the political level.

Conclusions

The experts by experience pilot project showed positive results and was accepted as best practice both in Belgium and at the international level. The ten offices where the theory was tested have each been captured as case studies in the book, and provide an assessment of the value of the expert by experience in each case.

Overall, the rationale for training and hiring experts by experience makes good sense, as the gaps which separate the poorest from the rest of the population can be more properly addressed when experts by experience are trained to communicate and support the intended beneficiaries.  Of course there were challenges and obstacles associated with the project which are also mentioned in the book, but overall the project serves as an example of how experts by experience can be hired into the public service to benefit of service recipients.

The case the authors make is that hiring experts by experience should become a standardized and even legislated practice and that other organizations, such as municipalities, social housing agencies, aid services, poverty roundtables and others should also consider hiring experts by experience to inform the gaps in their own planning and service delivery.

In summary, poverty will not be ended without the participation of those who have lived or are living the experience of poverty first-hand. These experts are necessary partners in determining new ways of working that will lead to more social inclusion and less poverty, and more vibrant and healthy communities.

Click here to download a PDF copy of the book “Experts by Experience and in Social Exclusion” and tell us your thoughts about the role of experts by experience in the comments section below.

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