Why isn’t the child poverty consultation more child friendly?

Children's focus group room (Copyright Sarah Brooks-Wilson, 2014)

Children’s focus group room. (Copyright Sarah Brooks-Wilson, 2014)

In this guest post Sarah Brooks-Wilson examines whether the UK government’s latest consultation on child poverty is likely to be accessible to those most affected.

What a huge relief that as adults, we no longer need to speak on behalf of children.  Last week the UK Government launched a child poverty e-consultation which invited the views of children as well the usual selection of interested parties.  As the importance of children’s participation was also very recently restated, consideration of the way they access, understand and respond to strategic discussions remains of key importance.  Usefully, the Government’s consultation principles concur, favouring broad, inclusive processes where the ‘hard to reach’ become part of a robust policy solution.  Yet despite these mandatory commitments, government consultations often remain inaccessible to those who may be impacted.  Is this also this also true of this latest child poverty consultation?

Is the child poverty e-consultation accessible?

Those who are politically active, or who have an existing familiarity with consultation mechanisms may be more likely to locate the poorly publicised child poverty e-consultation (although they may be less likely to find the main policy document which is not accessible from the consultation page).  Furthermore, as internet access is needed to locate the e-consultation, discussions remain somewhat out of reach for those without a computer.  Such hurdles mean that those with lower levels of political participation and computer ownership (such as some experiencing poverty) may not experience access with the same ease.

Although many ‘hard to reach’ children may not actively engage in government consultations, their political engagement can be significant.  Many of the children I have met in my research would have struggled to access the child poverty e-consultation, but could easily share their ample views and experiences on this subject through different means.  As the internet is increasingly accessed by children through smartphone technology, I started to ask myself: ‘Is there an app for that?’ and for those residing in Kingston, Australia it seems there is.  Recognising its participatory potential, Kingston City Council has started to promote the sharing of views and subsequent quality of services through a citizen-friendly, app-based communication tool.  Although any method has limitations, such an approach has real potential in terms of broadening consultation participation beyond traditional groups.

Is the child poverty e-consultation easy to understand and respond to?

For those with ‘decent’ literacy levels, it may be possible to understand and respond to the child poverty e-consultation.  Unfortunately, there is a striking absence of inclusive communication methods for those with more diverse needs, such as limited levels of literacy.  This seems like a backwards step as previous consultations (like the National Framework for Sustainable Schools in 2006), communicated more broadly, while describing the input of children as important.  Although the e-response seemed initially promising, with ‘child/young person’ available as a status option, questions on the next page were far from inclusive.  Despite some children being able to understand discussions about: ‘drivers of intergenerational poverty’ and the ‘current fiscal climate’, many (along with quite a few adults) definitely would not.  The Plain English Campaign would probably support this view as they usefully suggest in one of their guides how the words: ‘finances controlled by the government’ are probably more understandable than the term ‘fiscal’.

Children I have met in my research fit snugly into the ‘hard to reach’ category, with their poverty, criminal convictions, and statements of special educational needs all providing unique access difficulties.  In each case, our discussions made good use of visual prompts, with detailed sustainability frameworks and complex youth justice organisational structures transformed into voting and ranking systems – all at low cost and with little time.  Some described ‘taking part’ when we discussed social inclusion, and when discussing the accessibility of complex local services, others talked about ‘getting there’ and ‘turning up’.  Rather than using seven syllable words in their responses, these children pointed at their picture choice and ranked a range of icons.  When verbal communication was possible, research participants supplemented their responses with important, detailed information, using the visual prompts to remain focused on the range of points they wanted to express.  Discussions about complicated policy structures were definitely not beyond them, but flexible communication tools were crucial.

Focus group with hard to reach children using a visual voting system to facilitate engagement with policy alternatives

Focus group with hard to reach children using a visual voting system to facilitate engagement with policy alternatives. (Copyright Sarah Brooks-Wilson, 2014)

Is there a credible alternative?

Sadly, I am saying nothing new by suggesting government consultations should be more inclusive.  In the case of the child poverty e-consultation, this means making an extra effort to include children experiencing poverty.  Yet despite existing mandatory commitments to do so, there is negligible evidence for such efforts in this case.

In these strategic discussion contexts, flexible communication methods are critical, reflecting the variety of people who have a mandatory entitlement to be involved.  In my experience, some institutions accessed by children living in poverty (such as youth offending teams and some primary schools) welcome the opportunity to introduce new, positive (and importantly, low cost) child-centred activities.  Visual methods provide one way of promoting a relaxed dialogue where valuable, detailed information can be exchanged.  ‘Hard to reach’ children can often be ‘accessible when approached’ and the onus is on adults to place these crucial discussions within reach.  Limited consideration and narrow communication tools do not justify the disconnection of important voices from the policies that impact them.

Paradoxically, the final question of the e-consultation asks for reflective, critical feedback on the survey design, and ease with which it could be found and understood.  However, this question can only be responded to by those who have successfully found and navigated nearly all of the e-consultation.  This means that eventual feedback could be overwhelmingly positive – even if the majority of interested parties are oblivious to the e-consultation.  Reflective research should be championed, but to seek such feedback while overlooking mandatory ‘child-friendliness’ commitments makes very little sense.

Sarah Brooks-Wilson is in the final year of her PhD in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, at the University of York, UK.  She has researched and worked with a wide variety of children and young people who could be considered as ‘hard to reach’.  This work, coupled with previous training and experience as a photographer, has led Sarah to the conclusion that visual communication methods are widely under-utilised in important strategic discussions.  Instead a broad expanse of disconnected voices can be reconsidered as: ‘accessible when approached’.

*In this article the terms ‘child’ and ‘children’ describe those under the age of 18.

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