Why we are

Chris Hewitt - 1 September 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Why we are

Co-production is a way of working where people come together in an equal partnership to create something new, or make changes to an existing situation.

The principle behind co-production is that everyone who might be affected by something has valuable knowledge and experience that can help to design and deliver it in a way that makes it more effective for everyone who uses it.

We practice co-production in a world of organisations, institutions and power structures. This world contains many barriers to change, and huge challenges to getting more people more involved in the process of making change. Doing so has enormous potential to benefit individuals, organisations and society as a whole.

Embedded systems

Human societies surround themselves with different types of social structures and organisations. We all work within these structures, performing the behaviours which allow us to connect and communicate with one another and generally get things done.

But these structures and behaviours preserve an unwanted or unfair experience of the world for some people, and that’s a problem.

Our life experience is heavily influenced by a variety of organisations and institutions. These tend to control the resources we come into contact with throughout our lives, and upon which the quality of our life depends. For example, the complex collection of organisations that govern resources for keeping people well.

In the UK, Clinical Commissioning Groups, NHS England and NHS Improvement, local authorities and other health institutions administer access to the resources people need to be well. Any assumptions or imperfections in the way these institutions are set up and run could lead to some people having a poor experience.

Barriers to change

If some systems aren’t working as well as they could for everyone, why don’t we just change them to make them fairer?

There are a lot of barriers to change. Above the systems, we have to deal with things like:

  • government-mandated ways of operating services
  • procurement regulations
  • national and international legislation
  • baked-in systemic inequalities
  • the influence of the media on what is deemed possible.

Within organisations and institutions, change is difficult for other reasons:

  • Belonging to an organisation means taking on its shared identity and perspective.
  • It doesn’t make sense for individuals to do things that the organisation might not agree with.
  • It’s hard to suggest new ideas, and even harder to turn them into actions.
  • People in positions of influence may not have the appetite for radical change.
  • Organisations can have trouble perceiving themselves as having the capacity to do things differently, even when they want to.

At Co-create we think that, with a bit of initial effort, there is often plenty of space for change, even where most of these barriers apply. To get the organisation to see the benefits of more collaboration with more people, you just have to start doing it.

The benefits

When we open up and involve people from outside the usual decision-making areas of an organisation, all sorts of benefits begin to materialise.

Individual/community benefits:

  • Services are more suited to our needs – with better interactions, our quality of life improves and our experiences are more pleasant.
  • Wellbeing is improved – feeling heard, included and involved in what affects us can have a positive impact on our health.
  • Improved social connectedness – new connections are opened up outside organisational roles, breaking down siloes and allowing more people access to a better quality of life.

Organisation/system benefits:

  • The change will be more effective – and better suited to the needs of the people it will affect.
  • The change will have greater longevity – because the people involved take ownership of it, and hold and maintain it longer because it feels like it’s ‘theirs’.
  • The process will be more efficient – tapping into the skills, knowledge and experience of a wider range of people, and taking less time to reach solutions.
  • The change will be more widely accepted – because a wider group has been consulted, the final output better reflects the needs of the people who will use the output.
  • Unplanned benefits will occur – co-production can catalyse organic, unplanned new activity, with groups forming and new projects and initiatives following.

The answer to everything?

Co-production offers a way to enact change that can really work, for everyone. It’s action-focused, so people know when they get involved that there is a real purpose to it. Their ideas won’t be wasted, as all contributions are valued equally, and everyone is assumed to have something to offer.

The knowledge and perspective of the people most likely to be impacted should therefore be represented in the outcome. But what if it turns out we need lots of new solutions that we can’t afford? If we’re co-producing, we’ll have agreed at least the potential for resources to be allocated to delivering the outputs, before the process begins.

Co-production provides a reliable framework for sharing power, democratising decision-making, making people feel safe and valued, and delivering effective results. However, it is dependent on creating situations and operating in ways that go against what we are used to. This is what makes it so valuable – but working in this way is always challenging and ambitious.

One of the most appealing aspects of co-production is the opportunity for people to gain some agency over the systems that dictate large parts of their lives. The most extreme example of this would be the experience of people in crisis who are faced with services intended to keep them safe that are not just poorly designed, but inhumane. If these people had been listened to, supported and enabled to make decisions, treated as a peer not a subject, it could all have been different. And the resources are there – people are ready to get involved, speak up, take part. It is clear why the idea of co-production carries such hope.

Back down to earth

Co-production is a journey, and we need to collectively travel some distance before we can start doing it in a large-scale, replicable way. In the meantime, there is huge potential to improve and expand the ways we involve people – all of which will not only advance us on the journey, but will also be valuable in and of themselves.

Does it matter whether what you’re doing is co-production in its pure sense? We think that if you take a considered approach, and put people at the centre of everything, it’s perfectly valid to experiment, use elements of co-production, and be open to other aspects of the landscape of participatory approaches.

If you want to get more people involved in your work in different, meaningful ways, we’re here to support you.

Get in touch to find out how you can benefit from of getting more people, more involved in the process of making change.

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