Notes from the field of public involvement

Thursday, 02 March 2006

On being given a Retirement Clock

I got sent a travel clock (Swiss made no less) the other day with a nice note from some people I had been working with recently at BT. My partners and I like to take the chance of practising what we preach and so I was interested when invited to join a BT panel which would focus on "Tomorrow's Business".

No money but I was contacted about it by an old friend Jan Walsh who used to be with BT. I had worked with her setting up the first consumer panels for the newly privatised BT - an initiative new to the UK which took best practice from the US and elsewhere. BT still ran consumer liaison panels until fairly recently and also had a 'Leadership' panel stocked with reputable worthies. Val Moore set up a consumer liaison panel for young people in Brighton.

So there was an encouraging precedent and it all sounded interesting. No money but a chance to try something in listening to the customer voice out in a new version. So how it did it work out?

Good Practice Principles

The Partnership has developed some principles that underpin good practice around user representation which we wrote up with a health service PPI (Patient and Public Involvement) for the blog in December. It is worth quoting the most relevant ones:-

The way this panel was set up and shut down did not meet most of the criteria in the list. There was a long and empty silence between initial approach to first meeting and there was no attempt to use the time between recruitment and first meeting - some 6 months - to build learning and set some ground rules. The beliefs and values that might have inspired BT to take this initiative were not spelled out.

The initiative came out of HR and there seemed to be little connection with the rest of the business. There was no coherent sense of purpose and so there were no agendas focusing on issues of importance and interest.

There was no training and learning nor any sense of plans being made to bed this initiative down for the long term.

There were two meetings - the first was just to establish who we were and what we might do. No clear answers then but I was fairly relaxed about that - these things take time to build and get going.

The second meeting was attended by only two of the panel and by three BT managers - one of whom was an operational executive who seemed interested in what we had to say but who knows? We have received his thanks for our interesting comments but no further feedback on how the views expressed might be used.

It was at this meeting that we were told that we were to be put in the freezer. Our resurrection will depend I suppose on the success of cyrogenic techniques for external panel members or the emergence of some use for us in the future.

Very discouraging especially from a company like BT. They sent us all a nice little alarm clock to mark our retirement. I know now how Solomon Grundy felt in his brief Monday to Sunday existence - from engagement to redundancy in just two meetings.

So thinking about involving users, what was our most important lesson about efforts to engage and involve them? Our website article says

"Finally, the most important lesson of all - organisations get the PPI they deserve.

The organisation that gets the most from consulting with users is the confident organisation in charge of its own future with the ability to respect and welcome user/ external views and a host of critical friends and then is able to DO SOMETHING WITH THEM. If you don't ACTION THAT INPUT then the rest is just tinsel on the tree."

The other lesson to be learnt or re-learnt for a company like BT with many mansions is that best or just good practice can be created in one such mansion. Then it is closed down and the institutional memory fades. Then next door, people start one up and make elementary mistakes.

Nice clock though.

Colin Adamson | Send feedback