So you say you want a Co-production

Nick Beddow

Thursday, August 20, 2015

“You Say You Want A Co-production....”

We-ell, you know.

So many buzzwords, so little time. The new kid on the block is ‘co-production’, and I reckon this is actually an intelligent and promising way forward for communities and those who seek to support them. Co-production implies equal players, working side-by-side to make something happen together. That chimes with ideas about community empowerment and a new mindset for professionals, heralding a deeper grasp of the cultural shift we need to make if we are going to break down the barriers between service providers and communities. Communities are taking collective action all the time, solving their own problems and building positive futures for themselves, under the radar of professional agencies. How much more could communities achieve if agencies got behind them?

Co-production promises a new relationship of equal partnership in meeting public needs. What are the practical steps which can make it real?

Here’s 9 steps towards creating authentic co-production:

Valuing communities . It’s not all about professions and service-delivery. Communities have powerful assets of their own which can ensure local needs are raised and tackled by communities themselves. Communities with support can bring energy, skills, knowledge, experience, and also link everyone into their relationships, networks, and groups. Staff can be trained in new ways of helping communities to realise this potential: at Our Life we have used mapping and community-led engagement, enabling communities to identify their resources and challenges. Communities can explore deeply the issues which matter to them, by using Citizens Inquiries to deliberate on complex issues alongside professionals, with the power remaining in the communities’ hands: expert commentators are invited to give their views before withdrawing, so that communities can collectively weigh-up new ideas and reach their own conclusions about the most appropriate responses and actions. Professionals have to believe in communities. It’s a two-way street: professional regard for communities helps to breed community regard in return.

Mutual Recognition . The resources within professional organisations can make a real difference to developing strong communities if they are made available to communities who know what they want to achieve. Organisations have to appreciate the contributions which strong, independent communities can make, and be willing to serve these communities in new ways. Our Life have ensured that there are incentives for communities to participate, with payment in vouchers to recognise the input of people; volunteering is great but communities should not be used as junior partners without reward. We have developed training for staff and communities in participatory collaboration, and worked with Sostenga’s Community Development trainers to offer CD qualification frameworks for communities and staff, based on recognition of their day-to-day practice.  Everyone deserves recognition and routes for personal development: in the words of the late jazz band-leader Sun Ra, “how can it be justice to punish people for doing wrong and not reward them for trying to do right?”.

Relationship-building with communities is the key and there are many ways to break the ice: voluntary action by staff in communities, and attending community events regularly are important ways of showing real regard for communities. These steps help to evolve a ‘Give-and-Give’ mutual culture.  

Staff training in co-production is essential. Our Life’s co-production training starts from case studies of Community-led engagement and collective deliberation to unpack the principles and values which underpin co-production. We emphasise the importance of positive mindsets; facilitation skills and engagement methods can only be welcomed by communities who feel that the staff are alongside rather than on top of them, and helping groups to work out their own ideas and plans. The training also reaches out to managers, to explore the new staff support systems which can unleash staff creativity and closer working with communities; peer support, empathetic supervision, cross-departmental collaboration, and action learning sets can all contribute to empowerment of staff and free them to support community empowerment without reserve. Flexible working enhances the staff’s abilities to break through the professional/customer divide, supported by joint training with communities in exploring the value of co-production. Co-production needs co-training too.

Empowerment cannot flourish if Equalities aren’t at the heart: we need awareness and exploration of barriers faced by different community members to becoming involved in activity, and we can start by removing agency barriers to participation by all. Our Co-production training focuses on how to understand and remove these barriers. We also focus on appreciating the assets which communities bring to the table: professional qualifications automatically bring recognition but we need to recognise equally the importance of local knowledge, mavens who link social networks, and appreciate the qualities displayed by carers and home-builders.

Communities cannot be equal players without their own independent organisations to sustain them. Community development support can help communities to grow their networks, and this builds bridges into communities. No more talk of “hard to reach” ...

With these key ingredients in place, Co-design of Services becomes a realistic first stage in moving towards co-production. Staff can listen to communities with credibility as community ideas start to shape how services are run. Communities become active partners in running services and evaluating impact, and communities and staff feedback to each other openly, evolving higher levels of trust and co-operation.

Participatory Appraisal supports this higher level of collaboration: joint audits of needs and achievements inspires further planning together to meet needs. Joint celebration of achievements cements partnership.

8.Co-production can now begin to flourish, as communities and agencies have the foundation for pooling their talents and resources in shared endeavours. Small-scale pilots of community decision-making on deployment of agency resources can evolve into larger-scale changes: for example, participatory budgeting can pave the way for deeper participation in other ways. Agencies still have resources which can enhance independent communities and foster the spirit of collaboration: for example,  IT online platforms for networking and discussions , training in using new technology, access to meeting places, and seed money for community projects.

9.But it’s a tall order without Independent Support, as so much has to be confronted and changed systematically, step-by-step.  Our Life is committed to supporting effective Co-production through working alongside communities and agencies to offer facilitation, training, and evaluation.  

Is it worth the bother?

Co-production has been given a boost by a mixture of economic necessity (getting the most out of dwindling resources) and cultural swing towards greater participation and direct action (to counter alienation from ‘the system’).

Co-production has an essential part to play in moving us all towards understanding system change at all levels. It isn’t a fixed position or stance; we are living through tough times, disrupting the settled state of things. When continual change is the only constant , it is very difficult for organisations to feel that they are able to maintain a stable and healthy state. Individuals trying to forge a strategic direction often feel overwhelmed by the complex, shifting changes surrounding them.

Complexity thinking teaches us that the answer doesn’t lie in a plan from above or a single perspective. To deal well with complexity it is essential to gather a sense of the whole through continuously gathering intelligence and fostering creative action from all players, from the ground-up. It’s about ‘the wisdom of crowds’, where many minds working together from independent positions can reach smarter decisions about needs and ways of meeting them. By encouraging staff to act creatively alongside active communities, a Community of Practice can flourish and make a big impact on the rest of the organisation as they share their learning and personal regeneration. As their influence spreads, larger-scale change can emerge. That’s the real promise of Co-production.