Should we have a meaningful vote on the definition of public involvement in health research?

Should we have a meaningful vote on the definition of public involvement in health research?

Better still a series of indicative votes to find the most preferred definition?

Perhaps it would be simpler to go to the polls on revoking the INVOLVE definitions we have grown to love (or hate, depending on your point of view).

Or maybe it’s a case of crashing out of this debate…..and lying down in a dark corner of a room with a cold flannel over our faces.

I suspect some of you might be applying for a new PPIPassport and emigrating to Canada or Australia or the United States where it’s all sorted (you wish!).

If you haven’t done this already – lie down in a dark room that is – I am as sure as Spring follows Winter – and will bet you a bunch of daffodils – that the debate about definitions will rear its yellow, bonneted head again very soon somewhere near you.

Before Easter. On Twitter.  At a workshop. Across a meeting room table. In an academic paper. Yum, is that fish and chips I smell? If only we could just agree, dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.

Such is the turmoil around us that I sense we are all to varying degrees, in search – a wholly understandable and sometimes desperate search – for certainty in our lives. After all, who doesn’t want to pin something down when the news is so disorientating and sickening? A bit like feeling travel-sick as a child and just wanting the coach to stop.

I think the trouble with the debate about defining public involvement or engagement or participation or co-production or…..is that we fool ourselves into thinking that  once we have agreed all the right words in the right order and the right way round the sun will shine endlessly upon our world.   But it won’t because we will all take a different meaning from those words.

For instance the definition of spring is pretty set in stone: ‘the season after winter and before summer, in which vegetation begins to appear, in the northern hemisphere from March to May and in the southern hemisphere from September to November.’ But we all look upon it in different ways and with different meaning. So much so that rather wonderfully the Arts & Humanities Research Council ran a competition last week for people to ‘talk about their encounters with nature or what spring means to them.’

Some of the responses are fabulous. No two are the same. But spring is instantly recognisable.

We do of course have a well-respected and widely used definition for public involvement. We shouldn’t forget that. In both senses of the word. I suspect we could arrive at a 2019 version if we really wanted too. But do we? I mean, really? Do we have the time? Would it really make that much of a difference in the scheme of things? Given that we are all likely to interpret it and talk about it slightly differently in words and phrases we feel comfortable with? Don’t we have more important things to worry about. What we have is good enough in my book.

Above all, perhaps it is time to in fact celebrate the different meanings we put upon it, to talk about our encounters with public involvement and what it means to us rather than hoist words like tatty flags aboard a marooned ship, technical signals that only a relatively few may understand upon seeing it. I am not afraid of and am rather excited about how this meaning might change with in our age. I don’t want us to be locked-in to a dark room where there is no light because we drew the curtains. I don’t believe loose talk in public involvement will cost lives.

Public involvement, what does it mean to you?

I have got a Spring in my step now.

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