Looking out for each other — restating the case for informal advocacy

After 25 years of working in the field of advocacy it was great for me to have the opportunity to return to my Advocacy roots when I attended the National Coalition of Advocacy Schemes 14th National Assembly in October.

I started out as a Citizen Advocacy Co-Ordinator and whilst I feel that the original purist view of the O’Brien and Wolfensburger Citizen Advocacy model was intrinsically flawed, I still believe passionately in informal advocacy and the strength that organic connections can have for those who are socially marginalised and unconnected.

The theme for the Assembly day was Looking out for each other — restating the case for informal advocacy. We discussed the findings of the recent study undertaken by the University of Liverpool which conducted an assessment of both the scale of, and need for, informal advocacy in local communities. (See report)

Over the past 25 years I have been a volunteer long term advocate for 4 people who sadly have all now died, but each of the relationships lasted for over 20 years. I have seen at first hand the benefits that were gained for me and my four advocacy partners from these informal relationships. At times it was traumatic when there were problems and challenges to be faced, at others it was a pleasure when we would get together and built genuine long term friendships. Two of the gentlemen had know each other many years ago when they both lived in Middlefield hospital in Knowle, an old Institution which has now been demolished. I had the pleasure of reuniting them and often we would go out for a meal together.

Each of these people would have been considered to have no family or friends close to them who would speak for them, particularly in times of hardship. I got to know them all so well that I felt able to present their side of things when, during ill health or times of difficulty, they were unable to do so for themselves.

Sadly with the professionalization of advocacy, these types of relationship are rare indeed. I am not saying that there is not a case for more professional “Case work” advocacy and “Statutory” Advocacy, but the demise of “Citizen” or “informal” advocacy will mean that there are many who will miss out on someone standing by their side and watching out for them on an ongoing basis, outside of short term “professional” interventions.

The findings from the University of Liverpool study show that the traditional citizen advocacy model is seriously under threat and there can be little doubt that the most isolated, vulnerable and marginalised members of society remain unsupported in having their voices heard and rights protected.

I do hope that we can find ways of persuading Funders that “measurable outcomes and targets met” are not everything. No one today should be in a position of being “unbefriended”.

Following is an extract from the University of Liverpool report — “Looking out for each other”

“How can you measure citizen advocacy’s impact upon a life that might otherwise not be known and valued by another living person? How can one demonstrate that the advocacy partnership has helped secure a better life lived than would have been the case without it. Common sense tells us that, for the most marginalised, having someone looking out for them and ensuring their voice is heard and rights safeguarded, has to be better than a life isolated and at the mercy of power relations. The citizen advocate can vocalise the concerns of people who are unable to speak up for themselves — and challenge the prevalent mindset that prizes imposing financial restraints, time constraints, and the ticking of boxes which is always attendant upon the imposition of such constraints, above listening to, understanding and responding to a person’s ongoing circumstances.”

Janet Badger

Volunteer with Solihull Action through Advocacy