Walking in others’ shoes
Since the start of 2022, the local government studies team has been studying poverty within Wales and the public sector’s response to this massive challenge.
When first starting out on a review, it is always natural to go to the auditor’s toolbox for a familiar set of methods to answer our questions. Analysing in detail financial or performance data, reading a myriad of documents, completing surveys and interviewing officers, all are important parts of what we do.
They provide an insight into the challenges facing those planning, organising, and delivering services. However, we can often overlook the experience of individuals who use services and those need help when they are in crisis.
This is especially important when looking at a challenging issue, such as poverty. Early on we knew that it was critical that we spoke to people experiencing poverty to truly understand its impact and how living in crisis can affect you. But how could we do this in a way that was not judgemental or derogatory towards people?
Like so many issues in society, poverty is one that touches many people and will affect greater numbers over the coming winter.
It is precisely for this reason that receiving nuanced, individual perspectives adds so much to the evidence and conclusions we draw. As Harper Lee described, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it’.
This lived experience is the human colour that adds to the overview we gain from our classic methods. It has the potential to offer new lines of enquiry, to identify new issues, or just to add a human face to the dark impersonal landscape painted by the data. Through actively listening, the auditor can understand the impact services have on directly on people.
By engaging with advice providers in the community, bodies such as Citizens Advice, their clients, and the work of Poverty Truth Commissions (PTCs), we have attempted to build this picture - what it means to live in poverty and the way that services are delivered that can make this experience much better or much worse.
PTCs bring together people experiencing poverty with senior decision makers and influencers to collectively identify an aspect of poverty to focus on and ways to tackle it. The concept was first developed in Scotland but has been subsequently followed across many areas of the UK (see the UK Network website for more information). Swansea is the first PTC in Wales and invited our team to meet the newly appointed commissioners.
The honest, often emotionally difficult conversations we had with people provided a rich picture of what it means to live in crisis, and each of the commissioners’ stories made a significant impact on our team. They have undoubtedly helped us gain greater insight into the causes of and responses to poverty.
The shortcoming in how public bodies work and the barriers they create, often unknowingly and unintentionally, have major impacts on people struggling to manage day-to-day.
Their contributions helped illustrate the complex, often flawed system of support available both at a UK and Welsh level.
Drawing on this lived experience has helped inform our conclusions and recommendations in our forthcoming report examining the response to poverty by local authorities and the Welsh Government.
Getting an insight into a service user lived experience is an essential tool for public bodies and auditors alike to truly understand the benefits and shortcomings of public service delivery. And walking in a service users’ skin can help services avoid common issues and deliver more informed, involved and impactful services.
- In October, our Good Practice Exchange team will be delivering events designed to bring people together from across public services to share ideas, learning and knowledge on how organisations can respond to the challenges caused by poverty. To register your interest, please complete our online booking form: Cardiff/Conwy.
About the author
Charles Rigby is a senior auditor in the local government studies team. He joined Audit Wales in 2019 as a graduate trainee with a history degree, and now combines financial and performance audit.