Using Personal Experiences to Improve Human Services

Posted March 27, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The image shows five diverse young people serving as panelists at an event sitting side-by-side. The young Black woman in the center holds a microphone as she addresses an off-camera audience.

A new report from the Cen­ter for Behav­ioral Design and Social Jus­tice exam­ines the ben­e­fits of includ­ing peo­ple with social ser­vice sys­tems expe­ri­ence in design­ing, imple­ment­ing and eval­u­at­ing poli­cies and programs.

Fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, the report, Experts by Expe­ri­ence: How Engag­ing Peo­ple With Lived Expe­ri­ence Can Improve Social Ser­vices, high­lights the role of inter­sec­tion­al pro­fes­sion­als” — indi­vid­u­als who have both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence with the child wel­fare, juve­nile jus­tice and oth­er human ser­vice systems.

Experts by Expe­ri­ence ele­vates the impor­tance of engag­ing com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and pro­fes­sion­als who have been affect­ed by the pro­grams and sys­tems that pol­i­cy­mak­ers seek to trans­form,” says Sol Espinoza, a senior asso­ciate in Casey’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group.

Per­son­al Expe­ri­ences of Pro­grams and Policies

The move­ment toward employ­ing pro­fes­sion­als with per­son­al expe­ri­ences with sys­tems is root­ed in both moral argu­ments and prac­ti­cal considerations:

  • Includ­ing com­mu­ni­ty voic­es leads to equity.
  • User feed­back is a basic prin­ci­ple of improv­ing any prod­uct or service.

Our take­aways from this paper are straight­for­ward: When you bring per­son­al expe­ri­ence into pro­gram design, out­comes improve; and doing that work cor­rect­ly requires shifts in mind­sets, pow­er and resources,” says the paper’s authors Antho­ny Bar­rows, founder of the Cen­ter for Behav­ioral Design and Social Jus­tice, and Kalila Jack­son-Spiek­er in the report sum­ma­ry. We hope this paper is a help­ful guide for any­one inter­est­ed in begin­ning or expand­ing their own efforts to let the voic­es of affect­ed com­mu­ni­ties lead their work.”

The report’s find­ings about engag­ing with peo­ple with per­son­al expe­ri­ence include:

  • Ser­vice providers improved their knowl­edge of — and empa­thy for — pro­gram par­tic­i­pants, which are cru­cial for design­ing bet­ter services.
  • Com­mu­ni­ty influ­ence on deci­sion-mak­ing increased, and net­works advo­cat­ing on behalf of the pop­u­la­tions they rep­re­sent grew stronger.
  • Shared design of ser­vices increased the qual­i­ty and effi­cien­cy of pro­grams in such areas as com­mu­ni­ty men­tal health and sub­stance abuse treatment.

How to Bet­ter Include Per­son­al Expe­ri­ence in Design and Implementation

Experts by Expe­ri­ence pro­pos­es ways to help researchers and prac­ti­tion­ers bet­ter under­stand the dynam­ics of engag­ing peo­ple with per­son­al expe­ri­ence in pro­gram and pol­i­cy design. The report’s calls to action include:

  • Con­duct new research. Engag­ing peo­ple with per­son­al expe­ri­ence, a top­ic of increas­ing inter­est across the social sci­ences, pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for researchers to devel­op new lines of inquiry on the effi­ca­cy of such engage­ment in the devel­op­ment and deliv­ery of human services.
  • Cre­ate inno­v­a­tive research meth­ods. Cur­rent meth­ods are not ade­quate to mea­sure such out­comes as the amount of authen­tic engage­ment. Find­ing new ways to mea­sure out­comes that are impor­tant to com­mu­ni­ties also requires new techniques.
  • Grow the pool of inter­sec­tion­al pro­fes­sion­als in social ser­vices. Employ­ing inter­sec­tion­al pro­fes­sion­als, par­tic­u­lar­ly in lead­er­ship posi­tions, requires orga­ni­za­tions to rec­og­nize lived expe­ri­ence as exper­tise, and to invest resources and facil­i­tate pow­er-shar­ing accordingly.

Bar­rows notes, This paper is an impor­tant next step in try­ing to shape our under­stand­ing of where per­son­al expe­ri­ence can make the biggest difference.”

Watch: First-hand expe­ri­ences show what is and isn’t work­ing in youth probation

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