Organisation submitting example
Reading Borough Council
Local authority/local area:
Reading Borough Council
The context and rationale
The Young Commissioners are a group of young people aged 14-18 who work closely with the commissioning team on a regular basis, aiming to ensure that commissioned services better meet the needs of young people. They play an ongoing role in each aspect of the commissioning cycle.
In early 2011, the Participation Coordinator at Reading Borough Council (RBC) was placed on a secondment, during which he had the chance to examine how local authorities involve young people in commissioning services. It was felt that this was an area that could be strengthened in Reading.
The Participation Coordinator observed many examples of effective practice. For example, Medway Council had formed a group of young people who met bi-monthly to look at specific tasks. It made sense for Reading Borough Council (RBC) to amalgamate these ideas into a group of young people who could perform different tasks, at every stage of the commissioning cycle.
The Young Commissioners (YCs) were imagined as a group of young people aged 13-19 who would volunteer their time to represent the diverse youth of Reading in every stage of the commissioning cycle.
Facilitated and overseen by RBC’s Participation Coordinator, they would gather on a fortnightly basis to meet with the Childrens Commissioning Team. Staff members would review their current and upcoming projects, working with the Young Commissioners to identify possible areas that they could contribute to or take ownership of.
The aim was to ensure that the authority gave a voice to young people when it came to commissioning services. Not a tokenistic voice, but a voice that would be listened to and acted upon, with all services having input from the young people who might, or would, use them. By doing so, RBC aimed to improve or influence factors such as:
• Service user engagement levels.
• Positive outcomes for young people.
• Voice, influence and participation of young people in the local authority.
Additionally, RBC aimed to improve the situations of those who volunteered with the project – by providing valuable work experience, facilitating access to achievement awards, generating references and improving access to further education and employment.
The Young Commissioners are recruited from both existing pools of volunteers (such as RBC’s Youth Cabinet and Young Inspectors) and from schools. Fliers, group talks, networking, word of mouth and social media (such as Facebook) have been used to summarise the project & the benefits of volunteering, and have proved successful in attracting new members.
With the members in place, the service functions as described above. Activities have included:
• Accessing hard-to-reach clients – completing needs assessments, running consultations, conducting focus groups.
• Reviewing and developing several service specifications.
• Interviewing and scoring tenders.
• Sitting on service advisory boards.
• Conducting service inspections.
• Interviewing and scoring new commissioning team applicants.
• Conducting research projects, making recommendations to services or boards as to how they can work better for young people in Reading.
Once the Young Commissioners have decided upon the areas of Council projects that they will contribute to, a member of the Commissioning team leads in preparing the required training and tools.
For example, one staff member recently carried out a consultation with users of a Family Information Service. As part of this consultation, the Young Commissioners offered to run a focus group with young carers. In the initial meeting with the Young Commissioners, the staff member discussed some of the questions they would like to include as part of the consultation, while the Young Commissioners discussed and decided on others.
The staff member then drafted a questionnaire around this feedback and liaised with the Young Carers’ coordinator to arrange a suitable time for the focus group to assemble (based around their availability and that of the Young Commissioners.) The Participation Coordinator arranged transportation and gathered permission from the Young Commissioners’ parents. In a subsequent Young Commissioners meeting the staff member discussed best practice in carrying out focus groups, before role-playing various scenarios to imbed the learning.
Following the consultation, the Young Commissioners wrote a report summarising the answers and making recommendations. These recommendations were fed back to the service provider and incorporated in the service specification for the subsequent financial year.
The Voice, Influence and Participation (VIP) Guidance is available from the
C4EO team at the NFER.
Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families
The project was conceived primarily as a way to hear, recognise and act upon the views of young people. As such, a range of soft quantitative and qualitative factors would be considered when assessing its performance:
• The Young Commissioners’ feelings on the amount of Voice, Influence and Participation accorded to them, assessed against criteria developed by Reading’s young people – this would be the main gauge of performance.
• The existence of the Young Commissioners.
• The number of volunteers.
• The number sustaining their voluntary commitment.
• The percentage of service contracts involving the young commissioners.
• The number of other projects involving the young commissioners.
• The extent to which their views are acted upon.
The difference made to the Young Commissioners themselves is easier to quantify than the wider impact on young people within Reading. Seven people have made an ongoing commitment to the Young Commissioners project since its inception in 2011. All are working towards accreditations, with their voluntary work for RBC contributing towards this. Two have already achieved Platinum Youth Achievement Awards. The voluntary work also assists with their UCAS applications, and three of the volunteers have moved on to university with the aid of the project.
Revealingly though, the Young Commissioners themselves have stated that the experience of having made a difference to people’s lives and contributed to something meaningful was the biggest reward for them. One has chosen a career path in social work based on the work experience offered by the project, while others have expressed interest in further voluntary work.
In November 2011, an internal evaluation was carried out based on the ‘Voice, Influence and Participation (VIP)’ guidance developed by Reading’s Childrens Trust in partnership with Reading Youth Cabinet. 28 young people were involved in total in carrying out VIP assessments on various services across the Council, with service-managers being interviewed by between 2-4 youth volunteers who would agree a score between them (groups were purposefully kept small to accommodate the interview process).
The way the Children’s Commissioning Team enabled the Voice, Influence and Participation of service-users was reviewed by a representative of the Young Commissioners, and a representative of the Youth Cabinet, with key Commissioning staff being interviewed. Their mutually-agreed opinions and ratings were representative of the group as a whole (being discussed with them prior to issuing feedback to the Council.) A ‘gold’ rating was given for the openness, honesty and accessibility displayed by the team towards the Young Commissioners, with suggestions given for other key areas:
• Inclusivity was scored green. Whilst we were praised for including young commissioners and people with disabilities in our work, it was felt that our reach could be wider and that we should try to access more ‘hard to reach’ groups.
• The team felt listened to and respected and scored us green in this area, but felt that they didn’t feel as empowered as other groups. They recommended we look at increasing the amount of decision making allocated to them.
• Quality feedback was rated amber; good plans to achieve this were seen to be in place, but could be taken further.
• We were scored green for valuing contributions, with the recommendation that we involve young people in deciding how they could be rewarded for their contributions.
Several responses were rolled out following this:
• Subsequent consultations and needs analyses linked the Young Commissioners to more hard-to-reach groups (i.e. see the above example of consulting the Young Carers), enabling them to represent the views of a much more diverse group of young people. Ongoing focus groups are planned with young people experiencing sensory needs; teenage parents and users of Children’s Centres.
• The Young Commissioners have increased their level of influence. For example, they have inputted more directly into service specifications, they have had the power of veto in past tenders, in addition to scoring rights, and have 40% of decision making in the recruitment of new commissioning staff.
• The Young Commissioners have undertaken their own piece of research (available from the C4EO team at the NFER) into how services can work better for young people in Reading, and specifically how young people should be recognised for the contribution they make to society. This report was submitted to the Local Strategic Partnership Board. Additionally, as the Young Commissioners’ were unable to present the report in person (due to school commitments) they summarised the report in a video presentation that was shown to the Board. This influenced the Sustainable Community Strategy.
• The bi-weekly meetings will include more feedback as to how the Young Commissioners feedback has resulted in quality improvements.
The difference made
Beyond the impact upon the Young Commissioners themselves, the differences made by the project range from service-specific changes in practice, to more general qualitative and quantitative considerations:
• 50% of the Commissioning Team’s contracts (15 out of 30) feature varying levels of involvement from the Young Commissioners, ranging from reviewing and amending service specifications, to monitoring and gathering feedback from service users.
• Each of the tendering exercises carried out by the team since the project’s inception have featured their involvement – with the borough’s Youth Counselling, Support for Domestic Violence Survivors and School Meals providers selected with their participation.
• Following their involvement with the Youth Counselling tender: evidence demonstrates that the service’s attendance rates have increased to 23 (with a waiting list of a further seven) at the end of the first quarter of 2012-2013. It is worth noting that young people have also played a significant part in naming the service, and designing the website and marketing materials. High levels of engagement with young people can also be evidenced in the Support for Domestic Violence Survivors service; however, while the Team is reliably informed by several stakeholders that these represent a significant increase over previous engagement levels, data for this previous period is not available for full substantiation. Please note that both contracts commenced in April 2012, and as such there is limited data available (i.e. for quarter one of the current financial year only.)
• They co-produced a recent borough-wide parenting needs analysis, featured their involvement in each stage of the cycle - setting questions for a telephone survey, contacting service users directly to gather feedback on parenting provisions within Reading; and reporting on their findings. This fed into the Corporate Children and Young People’s Plan for the next four years.
• They completed a research project into how organisations can recognise the contribution young people make to society; this has shaped the Local Authority’s Sustainable Community Strategy.
• Commissioning staff joining since 2011 have been interviewed by the Young Commissioners, whose scoring accounted for 40% of the applicants’ results. Their interviews (and subsequent selections) focused on the candidate’s ability to engage with young people and their dedication to acting upon their views.
The Young Commissioners were asked for some feedback quotes about being a Young Commissioner. They responded as follows:
• “It’s great to get properly respected by adults.”
• “A real confidence boost.”
• “Being a young-commissioner opens doors to lots of new things that you wouldn’t expect.”
• “You get to see how the things you learn about in school actually work in the community. I might learn about sensory issues in Biology, but I could get to see how they’re actually treated in the community and hear what young people think about the treatment they get.”
• “It gives you access to what is going on in your wider community, rather than just what is happening to you.”
• “You get to represent young people; and you get to talk to different young people, those with disabilities for instance.”
In addition to the feedback from the Young Commissioners, feedback has been given by those services with which they have engaged:
• Team members’ feedback has highlighted the value of having a secondary team who can take ownership of various commissioning activities as well as brining a fresh perspective to them. This has made the project particularly appealing to other Commissioning Teams within the council, whose workloads limit their ability to complete every stage of the commissioning cycle, thus establishing more development prospects for the future.
• Newly-contracted services have praised the involvement of young people in tendering exercises, requesting additional input into the running and marketing of the service and offering additional voluntary opportunities.
• Other services have welcomed the input of young commissioners; Children’s Centres, Family Information Service, Sensory Services, Speech and Language Therapists have felt that they were a preferable way of gathering service user feedback as they are seen as ‘friendly peers’ for service users to speak to, while their recommendations have been welcomed.
Helping others to replicate your practice
Costs and benefits
The service represents about £400 of the Participation budget per annum:
• Accreditations – £50 (Youth Achievement Award books, folders etc.)
• Resources - £50 (phone call / texts, flip charts, stationary etc.)
• Transport – £150 (associated with service visits and focus groups)
• Food - £150 (for the bi-weekly meetings)
Staff-delivered and designed training and resources has prevented further costs from arising and are perhaps the best source of the information – who better to develop commissioning skills in young people than commissioners themselves? The fact that the project is led by the existing Participation Coordinator prevents further staff costs; the project constitutes approximately 15% of their time.
The service has not been without its challenges. As mentioned above, the budget for the project is very small and initially limited the training and resources that could be allocated to the project. However these issues have been overcome as described.
A great challenge has been to balance the work of the Young Commissioners’ voluntary commitments against their home and school commitments. This has been overcome by arranging mutually-convenient meetings, and adopting a flexible approach to scheduling projects. A ‘shadowing’ process has also been developed, whereby each commissioner is linked to a staff member and communicates on projects via email and telephone outside of meetings.
By removing these barriers to engagement, we have been able to overcome another potential challenge – that of non-engagement. In addition to the scheduling of meetings, it is worth pointing out that the meetings are identifiably theirs, and not team meetings that they are being invited to. The ongoing presence of the staff members at these meetings ensures that the team and the YCs are in regular touch with each, maintaining close bonds and involvement. This helps to create a culture of respect. The project has also developed its own reward and recognition system: the Young Commissioners choose their desired reward for activities (in full knowledge of available budgets), which is facilitated by the Participation Officer. Examples of their chosen rewards include team activities (i.e. a bowling trip for volunteers and staff members); ensuring that the voluntary activity contributes to Youth Achievement Awards; and for food to be provided during key meetings. This system has contributed to the aforementioned culture of respect, while ensuring high levels of motivation. It should also be noted that the project is seen as a way to make a positive contribution to people’s lives, and that this has been a substantial factor in engaging the volunteers.
An initial challenge has been the perception of the Young Commissioners as the ‘voice of Reading’s young people.’ Some stakeholders have (perhaps fairly) wanted the group to represent the diverse population of the borough, thus being in some sense a ready-made focus group. The comparatively small group, combined with the fact that they are all school students, has led some to believe that the group is not really representative. However, the project has worked hard to change this perception. Much as the staff members are not fully representative of Reading’s population but manage to represent them through their commissioning activities (i.e. needs analyses, focus groups, consultations), so too do their youth equivalents. Their ability to engage these harder-to-reach groups as peers, rather than Council workers, arguably increases their ability to represent a diverse range of young people.
Spinning off of this, however, continual efforts are made to make the service as well-known and accessible as possible. A wide range of advertising methods are used (as described above) and have proved effective, with newer members recruited via Facebook.
Learning from the experience
In addition to the learning and action points taken from the VIP scoring, and the ways in which the key challenges have been overcome, other learning points include recognizing the importance of:
• Making staff members aware of when the Young Commissioners can and can’t engage. Managing their expectations is important in preventing disappointment and maintaining their involvement with the project.
• Solidifying their place in the team by being clear about their abilities, and how these can easily slot into existing activities.
• Setting aside time to emphasize the positive impact the Young Commissioners have had on services and the young people who use them.
Additionally, the learning from the project has led to the planning and initial steps in creating a similar ‘Adult Commissioners’ project, based around parents who use family services.
Sustaining the practice
Future changes planned for the project include:
• Increasing the number of volunteers.
• Increasing the number of contracts they are involved in.
• Promoting use of the Young Commissioners among other RBC-based commissioning teams.
As mentioned above, a similarly-themed project is already being developed to give equal voice, influence and participation to parents. The YC project itself could be replicated in other authorities, and while they would likely encounter similar challenges, these would not be insurmountable or too substantial a barrier. Key points to consider would include:
• Create the right culture within the commissioning team – You must nurture and promote respect for the views & involvement of young people. If this is not in place at the start of the project, staff members will be reluctant to engage with the project. This could alienate the Young Commissioners and make it difficult for the project to get off the ground.
• Focus on recruiting volunteers who are motivated and wish to engage – Keep your project as accessible as possible, and make every effort to recruit from diverse groups, but if your final assembly of Young Commissioners is not as diverse as the population then this should not be a regarded as a failure. Remember that effective facilitation can still enable the group to engage with and represent the voice of many more diverse people.
• Allocate a budget, but be aware that it needn’t be prohibitive – The project can be run cheaply, if you also utilise the existing resources within your authority. Use your existing commissioning teams to train and resource the volunteers: draw on participation teams to run and facilitate it. Don’t imagine that a new staff member would be required.
• Have a joined-up approach to the work – The Young Commissioners should be involved in deciding what activities and tasks they will lead. This applies to the project itself – let them shape the format and regularity of meetings, the methods of rewarding them for their involvement, and the level of involvement they have in Council activities.
• Make it fun – Make the project fun! The more enjoyable the work is, the more willing they will be to give up their time to complete it. Offering a range of activities and experiences will ensure that different interests and skills sets (face to face interviews, peer conversations, report writing, telephone surveys, video presentation reports) are accommodated. This will help to stop the work from becoming repetitive and dull. Taking time to explain what commissioning is, in an easy-to-understand way that emphasises these opportunities, can overcome initial reservations about volunteering.
• Keep them engaged – Ensure they are empowered and feel empowered – make time to listen to and act on their feedback, and demonstrate to them that this has been done. Monitoring the impact of any changes made to services and feedback positive news to them – show them that their commitment to helping others is working. Reward them as they want to be rewarded. Remember that references and achievement awards can help their university and employment prospects.
• Provide a steady stream of work – Keep an eye on your current and short-term work load and continuously look for activities and tasks that they can take ownership of.
C4EO Golden Threads
The following Golden Threads apply to this example.
• Know your communities
The project is built on the principal that the YCs are better at engaging with and gaining information from our communities, as peers.
• Together with children, parents and families – involve service users
The project is built on the foundation of commissioning together with young people (and by virtue of their engagement in the community, parents and families also.)
• Prove it – making change happen
As evidenced above ('The difference made') the project has produced a positive change in services.
• Culture not structure – learning together
The project represents a cultural shift, from a more insular approach to commissioning to a community-based one.
Core Leadership Behaviours
The three core behaviours below are from eight that have been identified as part of successful elements of leadership (see National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services/C4EO (2011). Resourceful leadership: how directors of children’s services improve outcomes for children. Full report. Nottingham: NCSL.
• The ability to collaborate - The project is built on the principal that LA commissioners will collaborate with service users on commissioning activities.
• The ability to create and sustain commitment across a system - The project has been designed to be sustainable (in its low-cost formulation) and has been built-in to commissioning protocol.
• The ability to simplify - The project condenses and conveys complex information in terms that service users can relate to.
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