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Power and participation

Engaging ‘people with experience of poverty’ in policy and influencing work

The lived experiences of people in low-income communities has to be taken seriously and inform decisions that affect them. So we must get involvement right.

Written by:
Sarah Campbell
Date published:
Reading time:
4 minutes

We want people’s lived experience to be taken seriously and inform decisions that have an impact on low-income communities. These are the people who have the skills and experience to influence change in a positive way. But it’s not easy work for organisations to do well, working alongside people with lived experience of poverty takes time, skill and empathy.

Here are some key things to consider when looking to involve people traditionally left out of policy design work.


There is often a deep mistrust of political institutions and systems because people don’t feel they represent their concerns. This is sometimes interpreted as apathy but apathy is created because of the poor standards of engagement that regularly occur.

Poor processes of engagement that are tokenistic, box-ticking exercises further entrench mistrust. Engagement can be dressed up as opportunity to be heard but often the decision has already been made so people (understandably) don’t feel it’s worth their time.

Consultation fatigue is real and detrimental because of the above. The onus is on those who are part of these institutions to do the long term work of building trust but often people in other job roles are asked to do this on top of their day job. This is a specialist area and there's a lot at stake, therefore engagement should be treated with care and expertise. 

Poverty is not an identity

It’s rare to find people who define themselves as living in poverty. People see poverty as something that exists in other countries or of a bygone era. There is a deep resistance to being defined as being in poverty cause by 'poverty stigma' and shame.

Terminology is important: ‘people with experience of poverty’, ‘lived experience’ etc can all be problematic and a potential barrier to engagement.

The problem is not ‘poor’ people, the problem is that of poor structures failing people. Engage on the issue of these failing structural issues rather than the catch-all term of ‘poverty’ which at best means very little to people and at worst creates an active barrier.

The impact of disempowering services and treatment

For many people in poverty their experience is wrapped up in (sometimes) a lifetime of not being listened to or heard. Services and politics are done to people. Having limited agency in your daily life due to being at the mercy of dysfunctional systems means it can feel a stretch to feel like you could be part of influencing something bigger. If you are in crisis, living day to day, it is hard to think to the future.

Engagement is hard work

Grassroot groups working on voice do the hard graft of reaching out to people in the community, building their trust, and supporting people to believe that they have something valuable to say and that it will make a difference. A lot of work goes into destigmatising the situation people find themselves in. Undoing harm that comes from the toxic culture of blaming individuals for the issues that face them.

They also provide pastoral care to the individuals who take part in initiatives. They are often providing support for life issues as well as trying to do the work of supporting voices to be heard. This is hard, emotional toil.

We have to respect the tireless work that these groups do and resource them for it. They’ve done the hard outreach work that most institutions or distant organisations don’t have the skill or resource to do themselves and they do the ongoing emotional support work that these organisations can’t. Enter into it with a spirit of respect, partnership and resource as you would any other.

Start with listening

There are plenty of groups speaking out. The question is: are we listening and engaging on their interests and priorities? Or have we already set the agenda according to our own analysis of the problem?

It's essential to spend time really listening, as in active listening, letting people direct the topic and the conversation and see what emerges. Limiting questions related to only the area you are interested in isn’t amplifying people’s voices or being interested in what is important to people, it is simply seeking out information to support your own analysis or amplify your own cause.

Building networks

All of this takes time and for institutions disconnected from the people they are representing it is hard to know where to start. There are no quick engagement strategies. Time must be created to find groups on the ground, to build relationships of trust.

Large well heeled organisations benefit from the work of poorly resourced groups on the ground. We profit from the passion and commitment of people in the community who are often willing to give time up to work with us.

If there is no capacity or resource to invest in this then consider working with a market research company to help you source people and do a more traditional research approach to feed into strategies you are looking to be informed.

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