We are a ‘nation of shopkeepers.’ So said Napoleon (allegedly), disdainfully about the English, twisting the words of the political philosopher, Adam Smith.
You could be forgiven for saying the same about public involvement in research. Sometimes it feels as if the ‘advisory group’ – in all its guises – has become ubiquitous across health research as the ‘shop,’ the default model for doing public involvement.
Doing a clinical trial? Creating a new institution or centre? Developing a questionnaire? Then the standard response seems to be to get an ‘advisory group’ of long-suffering citizens together. Next, to put the words PPI, Patient and Public, External, Public Partnership….I could go on…..in its title. We all do it. I do it.
For what purpose is the question? Other than to provide a lot of business for hotels and conference venues up and down the country.
I sometimes tell the story of how a gentleman stood up in a meeting I was speaking at, and talked about how he had served on ten advisory groups in his time. But only two had been worth his while or, in his opinion, added value to research. Mmmm. That’s got to be a problem.
There are many examples of such forums playing vital roles, of engendering a rich partnership between public contributors, researchers, health professionals which can make a real difference to research. I have attended two in just the last fortnight. But that’s not always the case and we should challenge others and our own thinking when we reach for the ‘advisory group’ manual.
In other countries – the United States, Australia for instance – force of circumstance means people have to devise other methods of involvement. Long distances, cultural differences, money and time conspire to mean that people have to find other ways to involve people. And they do, successfully and inclusively, like interactive ‘town hall’ meetings using video technology in the United States.
With costs being stripped out of the public sector here, we need to bring all our creative energies to bear on developing a similar response. We also need to drop our prejudices against these ‘novel’ methods. Because actually public involvement’s survival depends on it.
This is not a call to scorch the earth of the ‘advisory group’ and it’s like. Of course not. It is a plea for us to be clear about their purpose and certain of their value when we develop them.
As those of you who know their political philosophy will be aware, Adam Smith’s comment was actually an observation about England’s entrepreneurial spirit. We have that spirit in bucket loads in the public involvement movement. Let’s apply it to making sure our methods are the right ones for the time we are in.