Robin Morrison, chair of Engaging Communities Staffordshire and its associated Healthwatch organisations, explains why the business of community engagement is paramount for a strong and accountable future in health and public services.
“For an organisation born out of a high-profile crisis, it is not surprising that Engaging Communities Staffordshire (ECS) is passionate about communicating effectively and facilitating change for a greater good.
They were vital skills in those early days, when we were established as a response to the damning Mid-Staffs Hospital health crisis and the ensuing Francis Report.
But a learning curve of such magnitude has stood us in good stead to become a force to be reckoned with in the rapidly growing field of community engagement.
It is just five years since I took the helm of the newly established Engaging Communities Staffordshire and Healthwatch Staffordshire, and in that time we have grown from nothing to become an award winning £1.5million turnover organisation.
We have 34 highly experienced staff, more than 100 volunteers and a membership approaching 4,000 individuals and organisations – ranging from Citizens Advice, Age UK and Safer Communities to Hospices, Housing Associations and highly respected Universities.
In those tough early days of dealing with the aftermath of the Stafford Hospital tragedy, we learned many things; most importantly to give the public a voice on health and social care issues and, of course, to act upon what they told us.
Those early lessons charted our course and certainly paved the way for a successful model. Community engagement has become our everyday practice – experience has shown us that this is a powerful catalyst to inform and transform public services, decision making and ultimately people’s wellbeing.
We quickly realised that the research skills developed in the healthcare environment are robust and transferrable. So, in 2014 we adopted a five-year business plan to build on that framework and share our expertise in a wider sphere.
However, we have remained true to our roots in maintaining a clear mission to be: ‘the voice of the public in the delivery of public service’.
Our strong credentials enabled us to grow our Healthwatch portfolio to bring neighbouring Walsall, Wolverhampton and Solihull into the fold, while we also operate Staffordshire, Wolverhampton and Telford’s Advocacy services. In addition, we collaborate with many other Healthwatch groups across the country.
Local authorities also quickly recognised the value of compelling community engagement and we have built partnerships with Birmingham City Council, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Nottingham CCG, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue, Derbyshire Sport and Dudley and Walsall Mental Health Trusts to name a few.
Essentially, we provide an innovative, independent platform to engage with your public and put their voices and opinions at the heart of decision making. There are a whole host of tools to reach out to people, from social research and insight, straightforward project evaluations, impact assessments, peer review services, community events and public consultations.
Working in an accredited environment with the backing of the Market Research Society, Investing in Volunteers, Social Enterprise UK and others gives even greater weight to our work.
We are all guilty of often thinking we know what is best for people, but consultation brings a fresh perspective and a true reflection of a situation; a chance for people to reflect in a structured environment and for us to learn, grow and develop the best possible services.
I believe one of the reasons we have been successful in our approach is owing to the calibre of people we employ – graduates who combine the highest levels of academic knowledge and skills with a genuine passion to reach out to people in creative yet considerate ways.
Their impactful research into End of Life Care, Dementia Pathways, Support for Carers, and living a fulfilled life in Care Homes are just some of the reports that have facilitated great change in our communities.
Meanwhile, this year we are proud to have achieved a national award for our Volunteering programme from Healthwatch England Network, as well as recognition for our STP engagement programme and work with orthotics campaigner Rebecca Loo to achieve national changes in practices.
And now our approach to business is paying dividends and enabling us to generate profits we are delighted to be able to give something back. This year will see the launch of our community grants scheme – giving small donations to support groups across our Healthwatch regions.
We are proud of the strides we have made in community engagement and equally keen to share our knowledge and expertise with the wider health and social care community – hence our presence at the Health and Care Innovation Expo.
Please feel free to come along and talk to the team on Stand 241at the Expo or visit www.ecstaffs.co.uk