Change that leads to better lives

Taking action against inequality and social injustice

Advocacy Awareness Week 2023 takes things back to basics. In this blog, NDTi associate and QPM assessor, Jacqui Jobson explains the role of an advocate and their leaders in supporting social justice.

Jacqui Jobson AAW23
Photo of Jacqui Jobson, AAW23 logo and the words Taking action against inequality and social injustice

I am writing this blog as a reminder to all of us of the important role independent advocacy can have in fighting structural inequality and social injustice. I argue that it is not too late for us to shift back our approach to one of activism and system change advocacy. I call on advocacy organisations to look at the way they are supporting their independent advocates to be the activists for equality, justice and change that we need them to be.

In these difficult economic and political times, it is ever more important to support and challenge each other as advocates, to make sure we are standing alongside people who draw on advocacy services. It is even more pressing that we have the skills, knowledge and organisational support to have a critical thinking approach to raising individual and system change issues based on our understanding of a rights based approach.

When I first started in advocacy in the early 1990s, everyone was a lefty activist – it was like being in an echo chamber. We argued ferociously about the how, but certainly had a shared view of the why. We wouldn’t have contemplated employing someone who had been delivering services or had a professional background; their world view and expectations would be too sullied by the experience of the other side.

There aren’t so many people around who have lived experience of the beginnings of advocacy in the UK. Now, most of the new advocates I come across have worked or trained in the health and care sector, either for a lot of years, or for a short time, depending on where they are in their careers. They certainly do not automatically have the deeply held shared values around the importance of social justice. Of course, this can be learned and most people have potential to great advocates. We need to build on that potential by overtly and explicitly building on their values with layers of skills and knowledge around challenging the system, being aware of unconscious compliance and learning about how to implement professional curiosity.

Building a new advocate's potential

  1. The first way to build on new advocate’s potential is through investing in a robust induction and training programme. Far too many advocates feel that their induction wasn’t in enough detail, and that they haven’t been mentored for long enough. And, there are still many advocates who haven’t started their advocacy qualification or are only a tiny way through the process. They sometimes feel that they don’t have the confidence to be able to be tenacious in asking difficult questions and escalating in the face of blockages to people who draw in services achieving their rights. This is even more evident as a consequence of working remotely with less opportunity to have informal peer support and witness other’s advocacy practice.
  2. The second way is by investing in excellent supervision. This can be a mixture of internal supervision, group reflective practice and external supervision. Supervisors also need to be invested in and given good quality training and support, so that they in turn can provide excellent support to independent advocates. Often an excellent advocate is promoted to senior without the necessary training or proper induction to provide this important role. They can often feel that their time is squeezed, that they are stuck in the middle and can feel isolated from their peers.
  3. The third way is, as supervisors and leaders, we need to be putting the activism back into independent advocacy. We need to lead by example by having an action plan in place around how we tackle unjust systems, how we make a difference to many based on our experience of injustice and the erosion of rights at an individual level and contribute to the wider system change. We need to make our expectations clear around the line between a non-adversarial and a compliant pragmatic approach; this needs modelling at all levels throughout the organisation.
  4. The fourth way is improving the quality of supervision and reflective practice. Having a clear and appropriately resourced model of supervision which emphasises the need to critically examine our individual and collective practice is essential. Focusing on professional curiosity, encouraging critical thinking approach rather than accepting versions of events at face value, taking into account any unconscious bias (including from ourselves). We need to be watchful of the barriers to be brave.

As advocates we need to be willing to participate fully in reflective practice, challenge our peers to be brave and challenge our organisation to stand up for people we serve, as well as delivering services to our commissioners. We need to be on the look out for everyday conflicts of interest and be mindful of how we are overcoming them.

Independence is not only a structural necessity, it is also a state of mind and in order to have it we need to reflect on our relationship with any barriers to independence. These can be self-interest, self-reflection, familiarity, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge and even coercion and bullying. One protective factor against barriers to independence is how high we place the value of having integrity, and adhering to advocacy standards. Support from the organisation is essential to make sure we tackle barriers that affect our independence and our ability to take action against inequality and social justice.

For those who have been around the block, we need to be mindful of burnout, frustration and challenge fatigue and the dangers of taking a pragmatic approach to an individual’s rights based on our previous experiences. We need to watch out for unconscious compliance and misplaced optimism both within our organisations and within the health, care and other systems we work in. As the system is increasingly under pressure, we need to challenge disguised compliance from professionals around the person by being able to develop positive relationships with professionals while being able to challenge assumptions and lack of action.

I believe that external case supervision which focusses on reflective practice, based on an understanding of inequality and rights, is essential. Having an external supervisor is as important to advocates as clinical supervision is in other professions. It gives a fresh eyes approach based on best practice and a safe and supportive space to reflect and improve practice, both on an individual and systemic level. It minimises conflict of interest based on capacity, resources and other factors which affect line management. I believe it supports increased quality of independent advocacy and better outcomes for those who draw on advocacy services.

Jacqui Jobson

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