Written by Moya Sayer-Jones from a conversation with Queensland Mental Health Commissioner, Dr Lesley van Schoubroeck. —
How did I come to this role? Social policy has always been my great interest and yes, I’m a reformer. We need good social policy reform across government and we need to be able to draw on the experiences, the lived experiences of people, in order to learn the best and most efficient way to achieve that.
‘Engagement for change’ is not just about making people feel good. Telling our story to five people who’ll listen and then say, ‘That’s very nice, thank you’, is not enough. It’s not enough for the person and it’s not enough for reform either. Good engagement has to do more than that. It has to be purposeful. First, we need to know why we need to hear a story: why are we asking to hear those experiences? What is the problem we are trying to solve?
Once there’s mutual agreement on the problem, you can plan from there and make the engagement part of a rigorous framework. This approach is opposite to jumping in and trying to solve all the problems of the world at one time. And of course, it’s a long planned approach. Too often engagement is ‘Oh we need to do this. Let’s do it tomorrow.’ It needs time to do well. I would much rather say, ‘I’m afraid I’m not going to talk with you for the next six weeks because I don’t have the time or space to do anything with your efforts.’ I don’t want to waste people’s time. We need to be clear and make the most of anyone’s participation with us.
It’s not easy to find examples of best practice engagement in Australia that have actually led to an overall change at system level. They tend not to get written up. Recently I went looking and while I could find a lot of specific one-off initiatives about how the engagement was planned and done, the resulting change in policy was difficult to find. And to me, a successful engagement strategy is all about the changes in policy that result. If the experiences of people become part of the public debate and lead to reform, then to me, it’s been successful.
Often a debate features the voices of powerful citizens but people with mental health and drug related issues, tend not to be the most powerful. If we want to engage truly, we should engage not just for the loud attentive others but for the silent attentive others too. Instead of just listening to the five people who have managed to get on top of the pecking order, we’re aiming to include the experiences and ideas of more people. The people without the loudest voices.
Of course, this is often a problem for the powerful. In Australia and all over the world, mental health organisations can have some very entrenched powerbrokers and I think we have to upset them by extending the share of that powerbase. In our sectors, there are very few places for power and people sometimes don’t want to let anybody else in the room.
We need to have substantive debate so, at least, the loud attentive others become informed loud attentive others. And the silent attentive others will be strengthened and grow louder. I’m most interested in that group. If we can change silent attentive others to informed and contributing (if not loud) attentive others, then we can really have a great debate.
One of the things that I am most encouraged by, is that people are making noises at all! I think change comes when we make it easy to go from noise to action. We need to do that… make it easier.
Dr Lesley van Schoubroeck was appointed as Queensland’s first Mental Health Commissioner in 2013.