Key Ingredients for Co-Production

– Annie Cook, Namita Kambli

At first glance the phrase ‘Co-Production’ might seem straightforward. Yet there exists a daunting array of writing on the topic, leading to as many definitions of this term as there are interpretations. Despite no single agreed upon definition, we have found that most good Co-Production does have certain key ingredients that define it: 

  • recognition that everyone has something to contribute
  • sharing of power
  • giving agency to those often not included in processes that affect their lives

To unpack these ideas and better understand how they work in practice, we brought together an inspiring panel of Co-Production champions and experts for Co-Production Week England.

As speakers Jessica Russell Susan Paxton Noreen Blanluet and John Routley from the Lucas Plan shared their diverse, powerful experiences – some spanning over 44 years –  several themes started to emerge. We’ve shared these below by the order in which they appeared. We hope this provides a clearer picture about what Co-Production is,  what it isn’t, and what it’s really good for.

Ask those who are affected
We have all learnt that when a home appliance breaks down, it’s best to call a repair shop  to tell you where to look. The same is true for Co-Production. People embedded in their own communities know what needs to be done. It’s just a matter of asking – and listening. 

Empower people by giving them opportunities to participate in decision-making
With Co-Production, people become part of a democratic process. They become committed to one another as they all face the same problem, which makes it more likely they can collectively solve that problem. 

Truly listen
Don’t go into the process if you’ve already done all the thinking. That would be leading. Put your questions and assumptions to the side and listen.

Meet people where they are
Instead of expecting people to come to you, widen your opportunities. Go to the different places where people go about their daily business, and engage with them on their terms. This will avoid power plays and help you meet one another as equals. 

Create opportunities for on ongoing dialogue
Co-Production is about moving away from that one-off consultation and toward creating opportunities with people to have a conversation.

Build relationships
Building trust within communities requires a cultural broker. Don’t assume this is you. Instead, be consistent, show up, and do what you said you would do. Keep the relationship going throughout.

Keep asking who’s not in the room
It isn’t up to us to select who should be in the room – but don’t stop questioning who isn’t. Find one or two people who are committed to the cause, through whom you can eventually reach everyone across your community. More people will join once they see that Co-Production is fun and that it brings about visible change.

Make as many avenues of communication available as possible
In recent months, digital technology has been a huge advantage for some whilst being a barrier for others. Personalities and personal circumstances differ, so provide as many means of communication as possible. Just as importantly, be open to suggestions when people ask if they can connect differently. Factor in some reflection time for those introverts amongst us. This may increase the complexity of the process, but will also contribute to its richness and results.

Ensure people’s lived experiences inform policies and services
When tackling complex challenges such as homelessness, support people to find their voice and express what is important to them. They will have the passion and the perspective needed to solve the issue – but  don’t stop there. Bring these lived experiences to the fore in policymaking and service design.

Understand the purpose behind what you are doing
Know the reason you want to engage in Co-Production. It’s okay if Co-Production isn’t the right approach for you, as long as you can rationalise why not. Never do it ‘just for the heck of it’. Rationalise why you want to do it and the challenges and benefits that come with it. Have a plan. Set clear aims and expectations and be prepared to steer clear of old patterns and mindsets. Co-Production is not possible when it’s part of a predetermined KPI (Key Performance Indicator) system.

Don’t assume it’s Co-Production
Sometimes, you may be the only one who cares about an idea. Be prepared to listen to others and empathise with their experiences to solve problems together. Good Co-Production will allow everyone involved to bring their own experience and energy to the process.

Take a chance on Co-Production
Co-Production can sometimes be uncomfortable as you might not know where you’re going. Know that you don’t need to have all the answers at the start. Focus instead on empowering people by creating opportunities for them to participate in decision making, be that on projects, strategies, products, or anything else. Co-Production will take on a new dimension in “building back better” after the Covid-19 pandemic. Even then, it’s important to ensure that you support and don’t lead.

Find your tribe
This is a learning but also a top tip. Co-Production can be lonely. But you are not by yourself. Find your network inside and outside of your organisation, both locally and nationally. Learn what’s out there and develop your own community of practice.

On that note, following on from the event, our speakers shared useful links to explore for those interested in Co-Production, which we’ve shared here:

We’d also recommend the Iriss Co-Production Resource Planner.

You can read the highlights report from this online event, including some interesting data on who attended, here.