Co-production: Definition is in the detail

“Co-production is a high level of such participation that involves sharing control with those using (or who have used) a service, and ensures they have equal influence over the design, delivery and commissioning of any service that affects them.”


The above quoted text is the official Fulfilling Lives definition of co-production in the context of working with people who have experience of multiple and complex needs, as shown on our website.  It isn’t dissimilar to other definitions which can be found by searching for the term online.  The idea is simple and speaks for itself, yet when considering working in this way, this definition and many others can become increasingly vague.  It is a way of working that can be applied to a wide variety of activities and projects within differing organisations.  These projects and organisations will have their own ethos, goals, values, management structure, rules, regulations, policies, guidelines, and other restrictions on flexibility that need to be considered when deciding to co-produce.  Furthermore, there isn’t one way to approach co-production.  The same task can be divided a multitude of different ways.  It is up to you (all) to decide on the best approach to meet your goals, while considering who you are working with, the skills and interests they possess, and the various regulations previously mentioned that may restrict choice and freedom.

At Fulfilling Lives, we aimed to co-produce from day one of the project being in operation.  As well as a systems change project, we are an experimental one.  We have learned about co-production along the way and evolved our practices accordingly to fit our purposes.  It is through trial and error, continuous reflective practice, regular analysis of how we operate, and regular feedback from those we are co-producing with that has helped us to see the challenges and nuances of the co-production process.  From this, we are better able to foresee potential sticking-points or areas of conflict that may emerge.

An example in practice:

As an example, consider co-producing in the following scenario:

Co-ordinated by a member of staff, a service user group decide to produce an information brochure to help others navigating social services’ childcare proceedings.

Questions or dilemmas that might arise during the process:

  • Are we being inclusive and accessible?
  • Do people feel confident and knowledgeable enough to meaningfully contribute?
  • Who has personal experience of childcare proceedings?
  • How might taking part impact service users? – discuss with them.  What emotional support might they need and is this available?
  • Have you asked service users what they will need to complete their task e.g. regular check-ins with their mentor? Do they feel they can reach out for help if they need it?
  • If someone wants to drop out, do they feel they can let us know so the work can be undertaken by someone else and completed before any deadlines?
  • Is there a member of staff who would need to authorise the content and design?
  • Are there branding guidelines that need to be followed?
  • Does anyone have design experience?
  • What is the division of workload?
  • Who can commit?
  • Do the group want to work on the whole brochure collectively, or would people prefer to own sections from start to finish?
  • Should people have specific roles based on personal experience and interests?
  • Should someone be responsible for ensuring the writing flows consistently throughout the final document?
  • If someone can’t make a session, are they happy for someone else or the group to take on their work?
  • Should people be appointed the power to override decisions based on their expertise or experience?
  • What if there is a conflict over content or design?
  • Does the final product have to be of professional quality?

This is not an exhaustive list of potential questions that may come up, but it serves to illustrate the intricacies of power sharing and the nature or working in a co-produced way.  Thinking about the questions and challenges that may arise has several benefits; firstly, it demystifies the unknown.  When you can visualise what’s up ahead, it’s less intimidating getting started.  Secondly, it will help avoid or manage potential conflict while minimising occasions when you may have to explain why a suggestion may not be possible.  Saying ‘no’ highlights a power difference, can result in people feeling rejected, and can shake trust in the relationship and faith in the process.  Like any members of staff, service users need as much clarity and transparency on their role and the work they are taking part in right from the start.

What Co-Production is NOT ….

Exploring questions around barriers and restrictions is one way of gaining clarity when co-producing.  Another, is to think about areas of uncertainty around what does and does not count as co-production: 

  • Co-production is not about individual agendas  
  • Co-production does not mean an equal share of the workload 
  • Co-production does not mean all group members need to commit an equal amount of time 
  • Co-production does not mean equal accountability and responsibility 
  • Co-production does not preclude the project group having a leader/manager/coordinator 
  • The co-production process in not free from rules and limitations 
  • Ideas and opinions shared when co-producing a piece of work does not mean they are all equally considered by default.  It is important to remember that there is a common goal as defined by the objective, and that ideas should be considered on their merit and relevance  
  • Co-production is not assuming everyone will want to be involved 
  • Co-production should not be tokenistic  
  • Co-production is not consultation 
  • Co-production does not mean an individual must be part of the process from start to finish 

Connecting all the pieces for your project ….

Through curiosity about the process and discussions with service users, over time you’ll gain a more complete picture of what co-production will look like in the project you are taking part in, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.  We would suggest starting with the vital things that need to be in place – how will you co-produce in a trauma-informed way that keeps people safe, enables them to make informed choices, work collaboratively, build on relationships of trust, and honour everyone’s voice? There may always be elements of unpredictability and uncertainty when compared to the standard role-based hierarchical management structure, and it is important to be transparent about these from the start, as far as possible, with everyone taking part.


Authors:

Ian Harrison, Engagement and Co-production Worker

Vikki, Engagement and Co-production Worker

For further information about Fulfilling Lives work in this area, please contact:

Andree.Ralph@sefulfillinglives.org.uk, Co-production and Engagement Lead:

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