Mark Johnson: Why we should treat lived experience like an asset, not a risk

10 Jul 2018 Voices

As part of a series of articles from A Better Way's new book Insights for a Better Way, Mark Johnson, founder and chief executive of criminal justice charity User Voice, looks at why building on strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses.

In 2007, I had built up a successful aboricultural business employing people just out of prison and people recovering from substance abuse issues, after my own experiences of prison and drugs. I received a Mirror Pride of Britain Award and began working with and advising government and charities on the criminal justice system.

I saw the power of using my experiences to advise, consult, design and deliver. At one point it afforded me the opportunity to address an audience of 300 Ministry of Justice HR professionals at an event. I was quite anxious, speaking in a rarefied building literally yards from where I had slept rough in London a few years before.

I did what felt like the only thing I could do, and told the audience that I was there to tell the truth about what I saw in the criminal justice system, and that if my observations offended anyone I was sorry for that.

I explained their services were failing, that in their system I was just an ex-offender, with a DBS record that told them everything I had done wrong. Yet I was excluded from their workplace, the design of their services and other areas of employment. I asked them to look around their office: ‘What do you really know about your colleagues?’ They could manage my ‘risk’ because they knew more about me in that regard than their workmates. They couldn’t argue. I said they weren’t managing risk, they were indulging in risk aversion. Fortunately, my views were well received.

The truth about my experiences was my most powerful weapon in that speech, and I went on to do more work within criminal justice, and ten years ago founded User Voice, an organisation that uses council models in prison and probation to get the voice of service users into service design and delivery – over ninety per cent of our sixty staff are former service users.

Built using strengths of people

User Voice was built on using the strengths of people and ignoring what others see as deficiencies. User Voice focuses on the strengths of lived experience not on the perceived weaknesses of lack of education, qualifications and professional track record.

User Voices sees the lived experience of someone who has experienced drug addiction, or time spent in prison, as expertise. For too long we have had a ‘colonialist’ approach to delivering answers to social problems in which lived experience was excluded.

This has caused an inherent mistrust – the fact that a certain strata of society gets access to the best education and into positions of power has caused this mistrust.

Our staff have the ability to fully engage with service users because they have walked in their shoes and gained insight from their own experiences and are in a better place to elicit the experiences and insights from current service users.

Lived experience a reason to include people

We see lived experience as an asset, not a risk. It is not a reason to exclude people but a reason to include them. It became obvious to me that this lived experience has a place, by right, in the systems we use to address social problems. I created an organisation that not only focuses on these strengths and that has changed the way services are delivered in prisons and probation, but that has also shifted the paradigm around the inclusion of former and current service users in designing and delivering services they receive.

We started ten years ago when this was unheard of – it has become a movement, as far as I am concerned, and you see organisations employing user-led approaches on a more regular basis. The danger is, of course, that if it is done badly, or in a piece-meal way, the results are not just ineffective but counter-productive. And that’s the truth.

Mark Johnson is a social entrepreneur and founder/CEO of the criminal justice charity User Voice, a national organisation whose work to reduce offending is led and delivered by ex-offenders. 

This essay is one of a series being produced by A Better Way in Insights for a Better Way: Improving Services and Building Communities which is published by Civil Exchange, in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust. The book was published on 4 July and is available here.


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