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Is Co-production an outdated phrase?
Have we lost the true meaning of co-production in our haste to look as if we are co-producing, and yet we are not? Have we forgotten the values and principles that co-production was found upon?
Over the last 5 years or so, many of us in the sector have been promoting the idea of co-production. It’s been a fertile time, as services have to reconfigure to absorb funding cuts and deal with ever more complex needs, we have taken this opportunity to put the voice of lived experience at the heart of service design. Often with significant impact. But in the rush to be seen to do it, have we now just created another tick box?
So let us remind ourselves what we are talking about; the term co-production means:
Described by Governance International as: "The public sector and citizens making better use of each other's assets and resources to achieve better outcomes and improved efficiency.” And by the National Co-Production Critical Friends as: "A relationship where professionals and citizens share power to plan and deliver support together, recognising that both have vital contributions to make in order to improve quality of life for people and communities."
It is not new! It dates back to the 1970s when Elinor Ostrom used it to explain the rise in crime rates in Chicago. It has been used ever since, as the commonly understood definition used by Governance International – an organisation set up in 2002 to specifically set up to further transformation of public services through equal citizen participation.
There are some good examples around the country where co-production has worked really well, producing some excellent results. However, some of the best of these weren’t driven by a need to tick a box, but rather they occurred naturally without the slightest hint of the phrase “co-production”. Others were driven from the bottom up like the Expert Citizens of Stoke, who have teamed up with a number of agencies and organisations both locally and nationally to produce some outstanding work. But these examples are few and far between.
It appears to me that the term “co-production” has lost its way, becoming stale and jaded, but worst of all it seems that “co-production” is thrown around in abandon for the good and the great, making them feel good by ticking a box.
Co-production in itself infers that there are at least two teams at play here, teams that could, and quite often are, pitted against one-another, vying for the adulation of winning so that they may bask in the glory, their names finely etched upon the trophy.
As a person with lived experience of homelessness, I feel my life, and those of my peers are worth more than that. We shouldn’t be there just to help tick boxes so that others gain trophies. We don’t want to be an afterthought, an “oh, by the way…”, and why should we. This is ultimately about our lives, our journeys and our change.
We recognise that we can’t, at the most, do it on our own. However, we would much rather be part of a team and not bit part players brought in as an afterthought by others. We realise that within the team there are differing roles, there are times to sit on the bench, times to act creatively and times to defend your position. Good teams support one another to do just that. They work gracefully in sync, each recognising and respecting the others talents and worth. All with equal standing, working together to achieve one aim. But we can only do if we have a full team, all positions filled from the start and not part way through.
For me “co-production” is a process too easily warped and used, but “team-work” - as described above - is an aspiration. So please don’t ask us to come and help you co-produce part way through a process where decisions have already been made, strategies developed and you have boxes to tick. Invite us to be part of a team that develops the strategies, helps with decisions and delivers results. Do this and I promise you, together we will win.
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David is the founder of Expert Link, a peer-led network which aims to amplify the voices of people who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage.
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