Defining what good public involvement looks like: why the National Standards for Public Involvement matter

The publication of the National Standards for Public Involvement and the piloting of them as ten “official” Test Beds along with an unspecified number of “freestyle” sites has been a long time coming but the moment is both opportune and, perhaps, auspicious. I think they will matter a great deal in helping to spread public involvement in health and social care research to the point where it becomes the norm rather than the exception that has been the case for the past twenty or more years. All things have their moment and I feel that now, in 2018, it is the moment for public involvement to make the shift that it needs to in order to become thought of as just part of what you do when you do good research.

On a personal note I am delighted that we have got to this point because it is something that I have wanted to see for over ten years now. I remember mentioning it first at an INVOLVE Advisory Group meeting in 2005 or 2006 and it was met with little enthusiasm and put firmly in the “too difficult” box. That didn’t put me off and fellow members of the Advisory Group at the time may remember that I kept on about it, like a stuck record, for the remainder of my tenure. I didn’t expect anything to happen quickly but what I hoped for and eventually saw was the principle being accepted as an important part of the wider effort to spread public involvement and make it a mainstream part of doing good research.

The reason that standards matter for public involvement is the same as for why they matter for delivering health or social care services or anything else that matters to people. Standards help to define what “good” looks like and they provide something to aim for and measure progress against. But only if they are simple and achievable. By simple I mean they need to be easy to understand and to see how they fit into the activity in question. And by achievable I mean they need to be seen to be realistic and able to be met or worked towards. But they still need to provide some challenge, both for those who are new to the activity and for those with experience to encourage them to maintain and further improve a high level of performance. The balance required is not easy to achieve and in my experience can only be met by them being developed collaboratively between all those with an interest. By co-production no less!

I think the National Standards for Public Involvement have struck the right balance after a significant amount of collaborative development work. Like many others with an interest in this work I had some concerns about where we might end up when the draft National Standards were published for consultation last summer. However, we must recognise what a complicated task it was for the Standards Partnership to manage all the diverse interests. And as the saying goes you can’t please all the people all the time. Well, not usually. However it was a significant achievement to develop that draft for consultation and it elicited a lot of interest and comments. And it is very much to the credit of the Standards Partnership that they took on board the comments with such care and consideration so that the National Standards that were then issued for piloting have been very well received.

I attended one of the workshops to discuss the National Standards that was held when they were launched at the one day conference Patients First, organised Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the Association of Medical Research Charities. The small group I was part of had people from the public, voluntary and commercial sectors, some of whom were pretty new to involving patients and the public. We were looking at the six standards as a whole and then in detail at the second standard, Working Together. The unanimous view from this quite diverse group (in terms of professional interests rather than socioeconomic backgrounds) was that this standard and its indicators are common sense and apply to working with other people in any situation and not just to involving the public in research. More than one person said words to the effect of “why wouldn’t you want to do this?” That for me demonstrated what an impressive job the Standards Partnership has done in producing standards that are simple and achievable.

The six [high level] standards really do strike a good balance to support and facilitate good involvement regardless of the level of knowledge, skills and experience. Who could argue with these simple statements of intent:

  • Standard 1: Inclusive Opportunities: We offer public opportunities that are accessible and that reach people and groups according to research needs
  • Standard 2: Working Together: We work together in a way that values all contributions, and that builds and sustains mutually respectful and productive relationships
  • Standard 3: Support and Learning: We offer and promote support and learning which builds confidence and skills for public involvement in research
  • Standard 4: Communications: We use plain language for timely, two way and targeted communications, as part of involvement plans and activities
  • Standard 5: Impact: To drive improvement, we capture and share the difference that public involvement makes to research
  • Standard 6: Governance: We involve the public in our governance and leadership so that our decisions promote and protect public interest

I really hope that all researchers working in health and social care will embrace these standards and recognise how much they matter as a helpful way to do what they do even better. As more and more examples emerge for the benefits that involving the public brings to research and with such a well thought through and helpful set of standards who wouldn’t want to reap those benefits in their research?

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