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I was invited to spend the morning with an incredible group of people in West Kent (the location of the next part of the RSA’s recovery journey) to be part of a discussion about the future of service user groups across the region.

It never ceases to amaze me how remarkable people are in giving so much of themselves, their time and commitment in supporting their peers and their wider communities.

Some of the concerns and hot topics of discussion focussed on some of the most deeply entrenched and difficult issues of power, stigma, relationships, accountability, and volunteer turnover. We have talked about some of these in the past in our Whole Person Recovery report, and I’m sure we will touch on the others more in the future. It’s interesting – and not wholly unsurprising - how they keep cropping up, especially in areas where systems haven’t changed for a while but are now moving towards more recovery-focussed systems.

Whatever the issues, the discussion was ultimately about service user involvement, what prevents service user groups from having more clout, and what can help.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged… ok, nearly… that meaningful service user involvement in the design, development and delivery of services makes for more efficient and effective provision that better meets the personal needs of the individuals seeking support. But for a variety of reasons this can be difficult to put into practice (and I point you in the direction of Section 2 of the report to see what some of these are). These can act as enormous barriers to engagement and to the potential impact of the groups on provision.

And these are often added to by questions around funding. Who should pay for premises for service user groups? Who pays for the training? How independent can service user groups truly be in setting their remit and aims when they accept money from the contracted provider or commissioner? How much influence do the groups have as unpaid and arguably ‘non-professional’ volunteers?

It got me thinking [again] about the potential of having a national independent body like the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) for prisons, but for drug and alcohol services. IMBs run on volunteer-power. They have clout. They hold prisons to account. They publish their independent findings. They have consistent training across the country. They have support. They directly inform policy and practice. They have keys to the prison and they “have unrestricted access to their local prison or immigration detention centre at any time and can talk to any prisoner or detainee they wish to, out of sight and hearing of a members of staff if necessary.”

Or, given that there are so many service user groups already in existence doing such brilliant stuff, then is the need more for something akin to the Association of Members of IMBs (AMIMB): “AMIMB is a nationally recognized body representing those who monitor the treatment and rehabilitation of adults and young people in prison, immigration removal centres, and other secure establishments.  The expertise and independence of the AMIMB are respected by the public, the government and the press, and by other public and voluntary bodies. We are routinely consulted by government and other organisations when charges are proposed to the prison system, or when problems arise.  The AMIMB, through its members, provides independent, objective, concerned, evidence-based information views and proposal.”

I may be flogging a dead horse here or over thinking things... But in any case, I’d be really interested in your thoughts.

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