During a recent briefing call for a grant assessment committee I’ve been invited to join, I got a little sassy. My role is that of ‘consumer advisor’ – that is, someone who can lend their lived experience knowledge to assess the real-life application of the grant proposals, and the research methods outlined. 

So far; so normal. I’ve sat on a number of similar committees over the last decade or so. The committees I really enjoy working on are when I am not the only non-HCP present. I love it when there are a number of people there for their real-life experience. 

Today, I think I may have been the only non-HCP on this call, but there may be others involved who simply couldn’t be there at the nominated time. 

The call today was pretty stock standard – timelines were explained, the IT system we’ll be using was described and the roles and responsibilities of the different people on the committee were clarified. And that’s where things diverted from what I’m used to.

As a consumer advisor, I am able to provide feedback about the different applications – just as all the HCP committee members do. There are primary and secondary spokespeople for the committee (both HCPs), and during the meetings to decide the outcomes of grant applications, they will provide most of the comments. After that, all others on the committee offer anything further. And then it’s time for the committee to score each assessment.

Everyone except the consumer advisors that is. My role will be to provide a ‘consumer perspective’, but I don’t get to provide a score. The scoring is what determines the success (or otherwise) of a funding application.

I sat through this meeting, listening carefully to the process being outlined, wanting confirmation that I had read the information accurately. Was the role of consumer advisor limited to just being able to make a comment?

When it was time for questions, I politely asked if I had understood correctly.

Unfortunately, I had. 

I was given an explanation that this the process, set out by the governing department believes that consumer engagement and involvement in the assessment process is crucial and very important to the process, and that consumer comments are invited, but our vote is not. 

There was a pause. A long pause. And then a longer pause. Thankfully, this was not a zoom call – it was an old school teleconference – so the others on the call couldn’t see the thunderous expression that had settled on my face. The pause still hadn’t ended.

So, I jumped in.

That sounds like the definition of tokenism, doesn’t it? We are there to provide comment and put forward our thoughts, but we cannot actually contribute to the part of the process that actually determines outcomes.’ I knew the next words that would be coming out of my mouth. ‘We have no real ability to influence. I find it difficult to understand how this can be considered meaningful engagement if we have no authority in the scoring process. That’s not how engagement works, it’s just…’ (Window dressing. That’s what I wanted to say.) ‘…it’s just a tick the box exercise.’ 

That was when the patronising comments came from others on the call. I should say that I don’t think they intended them to be patronising. But they were. 

‘Oh, can I just say that I have been involved in similar processes and we always were happy to listen to the consumer advice consider it in our scores.’

‘The consumer feedback is important and has been very useful in the past.’ 

‘The consumer advisors are able to provide comments and they do. That’s really valuable feedback for us to consider.’

I said nothing. Because I honestly couldn’t care less how much I was listened to. And I know that what I – and others in the same role as me – have to say is valuable. It doesn’t matter which way it is spun, without a vote, I am not an equal member on that committee. That is the actual and perceived reality of the way it is structured 

And more frustrating is that in the minds of many, there would be the perception that consumers had been effectively consulted. The lived experience is represented, they can add that to their report (because, undoubtedly there is a KPI that says consumers must be consulted) and all is okay. That tick the box exercise of inviting consumers onto the committee would be considered enough.

It’s not. In fact, it’s more problematic that not inviting us in the first place. I have said this before, and I keep saying it: without the ability to influence, without the means to be part of decision-making processes, strategic planning, governance structures, then all that is happening is tokenism. It is window dressing. And that is not good enough. 

Searching for images for ‘window dressing’ this came up from my favourite Thesaurus.plus (Click on image to go to site.)

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