It’s rare to hear senior public service and voluntary sector leaders talk openly against the idea of co-production. Some still confuse it with consultation. As I heard a senior leader say recently, “We will come up with ideas and then co-produce our plans with local people.” (If you’ve already come up with the plans, it’s not co-production.) Many still describe it as difficult, either in terms of the process (despite so many co-production toolkits out there from Think Local, Act Personal; the Coalition for Collaborative Care, SCIE and others), or in terms of it being risky and time consuming. It is risky: it involves placing trust in groups you do not normally work with, and being willing to take the first step forward, knowing that the other side may just take a step back. It also takes time, but how much time do we waste rushing headlong in the wrong direction, coming up with plans that never work, because the most important people were not part of the planning conversation? That’s why in my book, I argue for a slow policy movement.
But I always think that when something is talked about so positively, but done so rarely, there must be something else going on. Here are some reasons we don’t co-produce which we don’t talk about.
- Heroic leadership. The news pages of a number of trade magazines/ websites remain dominated by stories of who is moving in and out of the big jobs. We remain hooked on the idea that the right leader will make or break a service. We see this happening: an inspirational leader comes in to a troubled organisation and galvanises the team around a new vision with great results. But for every example of a leader achieving this, there are dozens of it not happening, as well as some of leaders being key factors in toxic cultures. The culture of looking to powerful individuals is part of the problem: it creates the conditions for disempowerment, hopelessness and at times, bullying. But most people with any power in public service organisations are somewhere on a career path predicated on the value of the brilliant individual leader. It can be easier to be a leader than an ally. Co-production is the opposite of heroic leadership: believing in it is difficult if you aspire to be the hero.
- When co-production is real, the group of people involved in decision-making doesn’t just grow, it diversifies. This means that co-production is at odds with monocultures. The gender imbalances and “snowy white peaks” of those at the top of the NHS and other public service organisations has been well documented, but there is also a less-frequently talked about class divide: those running public services and charities come from predominantly middle-class backgrounds; whilst health inequalities and the impact of the social determinants of health mean that those making most use of those services and charities are significantly more likely to be working class. Co-production is part of the effort to diversify decision makers, and those efforts are resisted by any number of conscious and unconscious biases.
- Co-production an only work where there are people with lived experience in a position to co-produce. That usually means not only having their own lived experience, but also having the support, training and networks that anyone else needs to be an effective decision maker. No-one can be ‘representative’ of a large and diverse group of people who use services, unless they have been chosen by a number of those people, and ideally are in regular communication with them. This can only be achieved by investing in training and development for individuals, and more broadly investing in user-led and grassroots organisations. Our public services are reluctant to that at the best of the times and these are not the best of times. User-led organisations are falling by the wayside in alarming numbers: our social capital and our co-production capacity is reducing just when the argument is being won for the value of co-production. This needs to be reversed.
The common theme running through these three problems is power: its unequal distribution and the discomfort those with it feel talking about it, let alone sharing it. I’d be interested to hear other barriers to co-production which you are seeing but which aren’t talked about. Naming these barriers is only a first step to changing them, but it is a start.
An interesting blog – for me as a carer the real difficulty comes not with setting up a strategic group based on co-production – but then making it work. The issues are similar to those you have outlined. As a ‘carer’ – although I co-chair the group I am then not networked in to other stategic groups to make things happen. So always reliant on the professionals (usually senior managers rather than front line staff) to take things forward and make things happen. There continues to be a power imbalance in how strategic co-production works in practice. There is very little support for people like me who are working co-productively at a strategic level – in how to work with the in-built power imbalances. Hope that make sense
Unconscious bias happens not only with the middle classes but with everyone. Our efforts to train ex participants up to deliver courses were stymied not by their abilities, which were excellent, but because they were less effective at persuading people similar to themselves to change.
My ultimate conclusion was that participants were more likely to lie to someone like themselves and try to avoid having to make uncomfortable changes in their lives, than they were to someone they perceived as being more powerful than themselves.
That might be the real reason Co production is so difficult.
I have been a Youth Justice practitioner for the last 13 years after being in care and also prison as a young man. The barrier so far as I can see is that the institutional systems are unable to incorporate the views of thos with lived experience.
Let’s take the Criminal Justice System for instance. The whole regulation process by HMIP is set up to regulate the risk management processes. In the meantime, 25% or the prison population are care experienced and 42% were excluded from school. The reoffending rate is 46% for all prisoners within 1w months of release & 60% for those serving short sentences. The National Audit Office estimates that this costs the tax payer 9.5 to 13 billion.
Most people that have experienced criminal justice would probably say if the professional doesnt have a relationship with them, the risk management process isnt worth the paper it’s written on. Looking at the maths, they would probably be right. However, there is no requirement within the regulation framework to evidence the quality of relationship building. No, if that was the case they would need to train and employ people from said communities because group membership exists.
The system is a million miles away from having these conversations because as you so elegantly put it, there are any number of biases that prevent it. In my experience, people often dont see their privilage or power so its hard for them to have this conversation.
The criminal justice system is predominantly made up of professionals that have not faced anywhere near the level of Adverse Childhood Experiences that the sercice users have. This is why the service users struggle with being guided by them because it’s impossible to know if there resilience would have been tested under the same life circumstance.
Great article and keep up the work because eventually these difficult conversation will need to happen if we are in the results business and not just having functional processes! 👊