Above, centre: Annie Sykes, our Senior Independent Advocate, at a youth forum in Olympic Park.
By Warren Heggarty
People who access Flourish Australia’s services also have access to an independent advocate who will work collaboratively to resolve problems and achieve a positive outcome.
Annie Sykes, Senior Independent Advocate reports directly to the Flourish Australia Board of Directors through its Service Quality and Risk Committee. This allows her to act independently of Flourish Australia’s management. ‘It’s all about achieving justice and fairness and a voice for people with honesty and integrity.’
Annie has two important qualifications. Firstly, she has lived experience of mental health issues. And secondly, she has needed advocacy herself.
‘That’s why I decided to go into this sort of work. I understand the feeling of being disconnected and not having a voice and feeling that my needs somehow don’t matter. But then a situation arose where someone advocated on my behalf. This caused a profound change to my outlook. I had been wronged by the system, so to speak. After someone stepped up on my behalf, I obtained an acknowledgement of wrong-doing and a written and verbal apology.
‘Up until that experience, I had no belief that it was possible, and because of that I know what it takes to achieve a positive outcome. Since then it has been my passion.’
Annie realises that many people with a complaint (for example) start from a position of perceived powerlessness. Her job will usually be a very simple one of helping people move from ‘having no say’ to ‘having a plan.’
‘You might consider something that you might not even think warrants advocacy. But there is no good allowing some problem to ‘slow burn.’ So in the past people have said “why don’t you have a word to Annie about that?” That allows a person to realise that they do matter and that we can just sit together and talk and then put a simple plan together. You have to come forward in the first place but if need be I can go to you as well. Sometimes we might decide to meet up with other people involved as well. It’s about laying the groundwork for a resolution.’
‘There have been occasions when a complaint does lead to a formal complaints process and in those cases I have accompanied the person through every step of the process. “Are you ready for this?” I’ll ask them before each step and if people prefer to stop the process we can do that too.’
The Board of PRA (a predecessor of Flourish Australia) first created the role of Independent Advocate in 2001. It had been the vision of PRA CEO Phil Nadin and senior managers Sacha Maller and Janet Meagher AM. Annie was the first appointed to the role and has continued up until now, as Senior Independent Advocate for Flourish Australia.
From its inception, the PRA board deliberately chose that the advocate be independent of company management. This was so the position could act without fear or favour and without the influence of management. The board had anticipated that senior managers might themselves be involved in issues brought up with the advocate. By reporting directly to the board, the advocate was less likely to be inadvertently influenced.
‘The idea has not changed since 2001. Without this autonomy I’d be compromised,’ Annie told Panorama. ‘I’d be managed and I’d be governed.’
‘So there is no chain of command involved’ said Annie. ‘No red tape. You can contact me about ANYTHING. If you have an issue to resolve and a desire to reconnect and re-engage, I’m not restricted by a hierarchy. I have great autonomy and freedom to be able to sit down with you and move things along at your own pace. It is very much a person led, recovery focused experience in which you’re the boss, but I’ve got your back!’
Up until now we have relied largely on the grape vine and word of mouth, but the organisation is now much larger so I am looking at how the role can grow along with the organisation as a whole.
Contact the Senior Independent Advocate on Wednesdays, 9:30am to 1:30pm, on (02) 9393 9029, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org