Published: 24/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5944 Page 34 37

Suffolk's People Project is building service users' confidence so they can get more from health and social services. Alexis Nolan reports

Learning programmes do not just have to be about your own organisation's staff. In Suffolk, the People Project is helping those who use services and their family carers to get the most out of health and social services by teaching them how to get themselves heard.

The project, which was shortlisted for an HSJ Award last year, can in turn also help the local health and social care economy to improve its services to the community through its contact with service users and family carers.

The importance of engagement with service users and carers is nothing new in itself, but the People Project gives help to build their confidence, to make it easier to get their point across in the first place.

'Confidence-building for people is an end in itself because not only can they work better with health service and social care professionals but also with people in other parts of their life, ' says project manager Lynne Moore.

If they want to do more and become involved in helping to shape services, all the better. They will also be given the support and links into NHS and social care staff to do just that.

'If they do not get involved they will have at least had the option to get involved and get their voice heard, ' adds Ms Moore.

The genesis of the project was a steering committee set up in 1997 that began running workshops for people who used NHS and social care services.

Its more solid foundation came with funding from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge workforce development confederation, which was then matched by Central Suffolk primary care trust, Ipswich PCT, Suffolk Coastal PCT, Suffolk West PCT, Waveney PCT, Suffolk Mental Health Partnership trust and Suffolk county council social services.

This meant proper funding for a pilot project from December 2003 to August 2004. The heart of the project was two programmes, each made up of five daily workshops, for service users and family carers.

Following an introduction there were sessions on finding your voice, using your voice, getting heard and information and sharing.

The other elements to the project were a signposting service for those attending the workshops and a bi-monthly foundation workshop in public and patient involvement for NHS and social care staff to help them understand how to improve their engagement with users and family carers.

By the end of the trial period 55 users and carers had attended. More than 70 NHS and social care staff had attended the foundation workshops.

The programmes and signposting service led to the formal introduction of 31 people to 18 members of staff, supporting 21 policy, practice and training initiatives.

Ms Moore says there are several essential elements that made the project a success. One was the way in which the project tried to raise awareness among colleagues, patients, users and the public. There was extensive mailing of information leaflets and flyers across Suffolk to key contacts and more than 30 talks and presentations delivered to key stakeholder teams, patient and public involvement leads, community groups and voluntary sector network groups. It also kept in touch with its community through a regular newsletter.

Easy access

She says it was also essential to make the programmes as accessible as possible to service users and carers. Ways of doing this ranged from holding the workshops in convenient locations (the programmes were held in a range of towns to make access easier for local people) and making them short-day events starting at 10am, to ensuring that documentation was written in plain English, with large font sizes and supported by illustrations wherever possible.

Another simple but effective way in which the project encouraged people to attend was to not just to cover their travel expenses but also to settle those expenses in cash on the door.

'People on low income can't afford fares, ' says Ms Moore. 'We reimburse on the door to those who need it. It is a little complicated but we find It is really important.' She says that the feedback from participants is 'overwhelmingly positive and often inspiring'. One of the outputs she finds most satisfying is the new-found confidence some of the service users and carers get, which allows them to develop. One example Ms Moore gives is of a mental health service user who was unwell and lacking in confidence, and was encouraged by her social worker to go to a programme.

'She said the workshops just opened her eyes, ' claims Ms Moore.

'Since then she has set up as an independent trainer, done paid advocacy work and is now training for a qualification to teach adults.

She has just blossomed. She is still involved in our project and still struggles from time to time with physical ill health. She's inspiring.' Another example is of a family carer who, again, despite lacking confidence, went on to help deliver People Project courses and continues to do so. She has also been employed to talk to service users and groups to encourage them to participate as part of the requirement in the new social worker degree to involve service users.

New funding secured

Arguably the best sign of the success of People Project is a new round of funding that will support the second phase of the project through to August 2006. The funding is once again a joint package from Suffolk county council social services, all five Suffolk PCTs and Suffolk Mental Health Partnership trust. They have also been joined by Topss England, the employer-led strategic workforce development body for social care, to look at the wider issue of social work training.

The People Project will hold three programmes this year, beginning in April, and Ms Moore says the team will maintain the ethos to continually re-evaluate the promotion and delivery of the programmes to make them pertinent to people's needs.

Evaluation of the first phase, for example, showed there needed to be more engagement with black and minority ethnic people, something that is now being addressed through more targeted promotion.

The extra funding has also allowed the People Project to hire an administrator to help develop what has hitherto been an 'embryonic' signposting service.

Ms Moore says the service will help take forward service users' and family carers' learning and enthusiasm from the programmes and channel that into specific contacts with health service and social care staff to help improve service delivery, volunteer work, training and employment.

'It is acting as a bridge between people from socially excluded groups to give support to link into a range of other opportunities, ' explains Ms Moore.

She and the team are already planning ahead for phase three of the project.

'We would love to extend the training we offer to users, family carers and staff. We are already having discussions at the moment, ' she reveals. 'Our project is so broad that It is relevant for quite a lot of funding schemes.

'We work with groups that are often socially excluded. That means we might go down several different routes.' In all, Ms Moore says she is 'delighted' with the project, the range of work it carries out and the range of people it engages with.

'That is what sets us apart from other training schemes, ' she adds. 'It is a real partnership and without the commitment and belief from the funders, we wouldn't be where we are today.'

Key points

Suffolk's HSJ Award-nominated People Project aims to empower service users and carers.

Participants attend workshops on subjects including getting heard.

The project has secured a new round of funding to take it through to August 2006.