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.
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.)
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.