We often hear about co-production – it is often talked about, but less often done well.

People around the co-production community sometimes refer to “faux-production” – where organisations can scratch the surface of a co-productive approach, without truly reaching the full impact and scale of change that true co-production can achieve.

So, what is true co-production? How does it work?

Co-production is a mysterious beast, and even for those of us who work with co-production approaches or specialise in this area can find it hard to define and pin down!

In its most basic sense, co-production is really about bringing a range of people together on an equal footing to share experiences and shape ideas to achieve shared goals, outputs and outcomes. 

In the public service sector lens, it is often about designing services based upon a diverse and inclusive range of viewpoints, at the heart of which is the lived experience of people in communities, where people can share their voice and perspectives equally, leading to shared outcomes.

Why can true co-production feel hard to achieve?

This is subjective! And there are many reasons why it might seem difficult.

From speaking with people involved in all kinds of co-production work across the country, many agree that there are a number of common things that are difficult about co-production. These include:

·       knowing where to start

·       being comfortable with the unknown

·       making long-term impact

Knowing where to start

 Many co-production projects begin with (what feels like) blank canvases, where people come together to consider a shared issue or topic, and the rest works itself out along the way! 

This is part of the nature of true co-production, where there is no specific fixed agenda to predetermine outcomes, and the activity kind of shapes itself. This can be daunting!

Starting with people’s experiences is important, and it’s also important to recognise that the co-production process is self-reflexive and will build on itself over time.

 In a way, it is the starting that counts, not where you start!

Getting comfortable with the unknown

Co-production activity often takes place in the complex arenas of very human and very social issues. Part of the aim of co-production is to approach social questions in an open-ended way that allows action to emerge over time, based on collective experience and shared power.

This means it’s essential to be OK with the unknown at the start, and it’s important to get used to having faith in the co-production approach itself, knowing that things will take shape as they go along, even if it sometimes feels hard to define or describe at first.

This is hard, but very rewarding, as it means you’re doing it right!

 Making long-term impact

Lots of people in the co-production community reflect that one of the greatest difficulties with the co-production approach is in making the transition from short term impact to long term impact, and the quest for long term change.

Many projects involving co-production can feel short-term in nature – the challenge lies in making co-production a permanent approach built on lasting relationships that can yield meaningful long term impact. The funding that underpins co-production activity can also be short-term in nature, compounding the issue.

 The key here lies in making a start and demonstrating what a difference short term co-production activity can make, later developing this into a longer-term approach that be sustained and that can evolve over time.

So, having thought about the difficulties, what are the things that can make co-production a success?

Speaking with many people around the co-production community, there are lots of things that matter when achieving a truly co-productive approach.

There is no exhaustive list, and no ‘one truth’, but there are some common themes that emerge when reflecting on what’s important.

1.     People (of course!)

All kinds of people! For co-production to be meaningful and sustainable, the voices of a range of people, from different perspectives are essential in shaping outputs and outcomes.

It is the mixture of voices and experiences that is important, bringing about a whole-picture view of the question or issue at hand, making sure that people can bring differing viewpoints to make change happen.

 2.   Stories and Experiences

Following on from people, it is the stories and experiences of people in the co-production sphere that gives rise to meaningful ideas and shapes meaningful activity.

To make sure that the input to the co-production approach is as rich as possible, everyone involved must feel safe in sharing their perspectives, and must feel respected for their input.

A true co-production approach is about real questions being considered by real people from the point of view of real experience, and this should be at the heart of the activity.

3. Embracing the challenge and being bold

The co-production approach can (and maybe should!) challenge the status quo and can tip traditional power structures between public services and the community upside down.

In this way, co-production means that public organisations need to be bold enough to ask the tough questions, and also be brave enough to truly act upon the outcomes of the co-production process.

In the same way, people in the community need to be able to share their experiences freely, especially aspects of those experiences that can shake things up and make a difference to the way in which services and communities interact.

What next?

The social challenges facing communities are undoubtedly complex and putting people and their experiences at the centre of addressing these challenges is the truly co-productive way to bring about change.

At Trueman Change, we recognise that organisations may be new to this approach and may feel unsure how to achieve their ambitions in this area. You may need guidance and support on where to start to begin changing the way you think about these complex issues.

How can you harness the power of people in changing the way things are done?

We’re specialists in change management in public services, and we’d love to help you shake up the way your organisation does things.

If your organisation would like some help to rethink the way you involve people in change, or for more information on developing a co-production approach with communities and partners, visit our website at www.truemanchange.co.uk, or contact us at hello@truemanchange.co.uk.

By Lydia Davey | 1st July 2022

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