“We’re asked if we can read, write and count, but what about behave?”
“I’ve had to continually redefine myself.”
“I had to learn about how to plan my day – that meant making sure I had somewhere to go during the day. I had to learn to do that.”
Imagine sharing this kind of vulnerability to groups of community providers, government workers, government bureaucrats, designers, academics and civil society experts. Five former participants of the ACT justice system, willing to share their lived experience, did just that in the first of two all-day workshops exploring justice reinvestment and the potential opportunities for developing a 12-month trial based in the ACT.
When seeking the ‘user voice’ in design, engaging ‘the voice of experience’, understanding the ‘user journey’, hearing from those with ‘lived experience’ – the reality of is you are bringing someone into a process who may not have had a good or even voluntary experience of that system and you’re asking them to share this. Sometimes, you’re asking them to help shape a better system. Most often we do that one-on-one through observation or ethnographically-based interviews. But this work required rapid engagement, rapid shared understanding, rapid development and iteration.
Have we said ‘rapid’ enough?
It is possible to work quickly and to engage all the users and we wanted to use this post to share how a current project committed to ensuring that the lived experience voice was not compromised by time.
Rapid process impacts depth not breadth
The project concerned involves the exploration of potential Justice Reinvestment trials with the ACT Government’s Justice and Community Safety Directorate (JACS), ACTCOSS and the Justice Reform Group (JRG). The outcome of the work will be to identify potential candidates for the trial, with the development of concept briefs to be considered through formal governance frameworks.
The time frames and structure of the service sector mean we’ve had to move quickly and engage large numbers of people and groups from across the justice system (and other related systems like health, housing and community services). As JACS, ACTCOSS and the JRG drive this project they have still insisted on a co-design approach. They know they don’t have the answers on their own.
The challenge of working to an aggressive time frame is things have to happen fast. When moving rapidly there can be pressure to not engage with the actual users of the service, that is a particular pressure when the users are at the complex end of service delivery such as prisoners and past-detainees and their families.
But at the same time, and despite that pressure, if you don’t involve the lived experience of those people in the justice system then it simply isn’t a co-design process.
Critical to this involvement was ACTCOSS and their commitment to co-design and their relationships in the community. We wouldn’t have access to lived experience participants at all without their efforts.
Facilitating the sharing of actual experience
After kicking off the workshop with traditional scene-setting, housekeeping and approach for the day the very first session was hearing from people with experience.
Each lived experience person sat at a table that included a range of public servants, community sector people, corrections officers, social workers and others they came into contact with in their daily lives, and they were ‘interviewed’ by their support or case worker about their experience of the justice system. We prompted what the questions were but they told their story, in their words.
For them, this was not just ‘lived’ experience; they are living it everyday.
It was critical to bring this experience to the table so that participants knew that they weren’t having abstract conversations for the rest of the day – they were talking about outcomes for real people. And those people were going to be working with them for the rest of the day. That also meant that all participants were focused on driving to an outcome for people, grounded in the experience of people who would end up as potential users of the trial.
What it was like for the lived experience participants
Interestingly, we expected our participants to leave after their session – we were told that was possible and worked the design of the workshop around not expecting (or demanding) that they be there. But as it turned out, each of them got so much out of the workshop as they realised that their opinion and experience was valid, and welcomed and necessary, and every single one of them stayed for the whole workshop.
For some preparing for the workshop meant they were given an opportunity to think about their experience from a different perspective. One participant said she’d never thought about ‘support’ before and her thinking helped her realised how important her family and friend’s were, as well as the ‘formal’ programs.
Another said said that she had personally got a lot out of the interview session as she’d “never actually been asked to describe [her] experience before”.
No compromise on user experience, engagement, involvement
We don’t underestimate the courage needed by these participants to front up to the room in the first place, and while we were extremely pleased about the influence they had on proceedings from a co-design process level, we were even more pleased that they got something out of it personally too.
The workshop, the co-design, and the experience could not have been the same without these voices. Designing the process to ensure they were able to be there, able to share, be protected and valued as much as all of the other participants, meant we came a long way during the day, and the second workshop later in July focused on defining the trials will similarly benefit from the voices of lived experience.