Nurses, social workers, care staff, doctors, teachers and other professionals look out for and speak up for the people they serve. It’s their job, it is part of their professional code of conduct, but they aren’t and can’t be independent. Independent advocates, whether paid or unpaid, are clear that their primary loyalty and accountability is to the people who need them. To be on someone’s side, advocates have to be structurally, financially and psychologically independent of the service system, agencies providing services and local or national government. Independent advocates stand in a different place and see things from a different perspective.
Independent advocates do not have the same conflicts of interest as other professional workers who are expected to make judgements about who is in need, deserving or most eligible for a service. Because independent advocates do not have this sort of power over people and do not control access to resources, they are in a better position to see things from the person’s point of view. From the outset of the advocacy relationship they are more likely to have the trust of the people they are working with.
They can focus on representing the interests and wishes of the people who need an independent advocate and be clear that this is their only role. Other professionals who advocate strongly on behalf of a particular individual or group may be seen as acting unprofessionally or as being critical of their employer. This entails personal risks, and can also put the professional worker in a situation where their views on this and other issues are discounted.
There are three components of independence; structural, financial and psychological. For an advocacy organisation to be robust and effective it needs to be alert to all three.
– an independent advocacy organisation is a separate organisation in its own right. For example, it is registered as a charity or company and has its own Management Committee or Board of Directors. Everyone involved in the organisation recognises that it is separate and different from other organisations and services.
– an independent advocacy organisation has its own source of funding that does not cause any conflicts of interest and that does not compromise the work it does.
– everyone involved in the organisation knows that they are only limited in what they do by the principles of independent advocacy, resources and the law. It is important to recognise that although there may be conflicts of interest present, psychological independence is vital.