It is a sad truth that many charities work tirelessly to improve the lives of the people they serve, and yet rarely stop to consider whether the work they do is needed or appropriate to their target communities. Could the services be better tailored to their users needs? Do the users have any suggestions or objections to the work being done? Most importantly, how can the users themselves contribute their time and skills to the work of the charity? Taking these issues into consideration will not only ensure that the services provided best meet their users needs, but also has the potential to empower the user community to actively engage in the processes that affect their lives.
A new publication from the One World Trust and Goldsmiths University explores the role of self-regulatory initiatives in empowering NGO users. “Empowering Citizens: Realising service user involvement in the UK Third Sector organisations through accountability principles in self-regulation initiatives” is the product of a research collaboration between the One World Trust and Goldsmiths University, which aimed to explore how self-regulatory initiatives (SRI) can encourage UK NGOs to actively involve their users in their work.
The researchers reviewed 31 self-regulatory initiatives used by NGOs in the UK, and conducted semi-structured interviews with representatives of several UK SRIs such as Charities Evaluation Services, NCVO and the Community Foundation Network. The report analyses the structure and content of these SRIs, especially as regards the provision for user involvement.
The report highlights that whilst many self-regulatory initiatives in the UK have user involvement as a key principle, they mainly focus on how organisations should improve communications channels with their users. SRIs rarely require a commitment to actively involve users in important processes such as planning and project design or organisational management and recruitment. This is disappointing, as it is in these areas that there is the greatest potential for user control and accountability. However the report does highlight several examples of good practice amongst SRIs, such as Y-Gen’s Youth Mark, which offers certification to youth organisations in London, and actively involves young people in the assessment process.
Meaningful user involvement is a highly important, if challenging, aspect of effective service delivery, and should be a priority of Third Sector organisations. Whilst some SRIs are working to help their members achieve this, there is a danger that the recent focus on NGO effectiveness in the UK may distract attention from this crucial issue. It is to be hoped that research such as this will increase awareness of good practice, and keep user involvement on the agenda for Third Sector organisations, and the initiatives that regulate them.
The One World Trust SRI Database is a catalogue of civil society self-regulatory initiatives around the world, and features articles and research on issues of self-regulation by the OWT and other organisations.