Laura Harte: Co-production – lip service or in it for the long haul?

Prioritising lived experience is on the rise, but is it just a phase? Laura Harte, founder and CEO of Oxfordshire Discovery College shares her thoughts.
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The lived experience movement is cresting the wave, with talk of co-production seemingly everywhere. From our view at Oxfordshire Discovery College we’re seeing the terminology crop up on websites, in grants, funding applications, impact reports and Twitter. As a charity that holds the value of lived experience firmly at its heart, this is obviously a hugely welcome shift in thinking and an encouraging step towards better, more relevant service provision.

But, if we’re being honest, it also sometimes prompts some inward eye-rolling.

Alongside phenomenal, pioneering practice, we’re seeing a wave of organisations who have realised that the lived experience movement is in vogue, and there’s currency to working, or appearing to be working, in this way. Organisations are advertising ‘co-produced services!’ or ‘Involvement Lead Vacancies!’ and clapping themselves on the back for being cutting edge and values driven. There’s a real danger that by doing things quickly, picking-and-choosing spaces for people to give input, these organisations are at best creating limited or unclear opportunities, and at worst providing tokenistic, damaging experiences. And for those organisations knowingly ‘lived-experience-washing’ their services, we need you to do better.

From our work at Discovery College we’ve taken time to understand co-production - we don’t have all the answers but we’ve learned some invaluable things along the.

Here are our five top tips for co-production:

1. Co-production is a spectrum and, definitely not one size fits all. It spans formal and frequent structured opportunities (dedicated roles or user forums with real clout) to informal and ad-hoc involvement (noting down anecdotal comments from clients and identifying trends). The commonly known model of the Participation Ladder has somehow led us to believe that some forms of participation are ‘better’ or more noble than others, but we need to recognise that what feels comfortable to one person may not be so for another. Having a variety of opportunities to have your say can be powerful.

2. Recognise that people bring with them a wealth of other skills, not just their lived experience. When you’re recruiting for a lived experience roletry to think beyond the ‘user voice’ that they could provide and be inquisitive about the additional skills and experience they have. Our team not only have lived experience but they’re also fantastic befrienders, artists, researchers or networkers.

3. Make co-production an everyday occurrence, not a one-off event. We’d like to see the Soap Box version of participation (wheeling someone onto the stage to do the My Story section, and then shoving them back into the wings) consigned to history. Embed co-production in your organisational culture and see every decision or action as an opportunity to involve people.

4. Be prepared for it not to be flashy or even noticeable. Much of the really impactful work wont get you the kudos you might be hoping for. We were recently invited to run a workshop at a conference on the topic of participation. I met with one of my Board members who has lived experience and together we wrote our workshop. My colleague has anxiety and didn’t feel able to co-deliver the event with me, so I delivered a workshop all about co-production and involvement on my own. Instead, he recorded a short audio clip of the key things he wanted to say and we played this in the session. Whilst possibly seeming hypocritical it was the right way for this individual to contribute and made for meaningful and comfortable co-production.

5. Don’t be tempted to think every staff member and volunteer must have lived experience in order to be truly ‘doing co-production’. Whilst there’s undoubtedly a richness to having such a gathering together of expertise, there’s also a vulnerability - both for the organisation and the individuals within it. For instance, if someone becomes unwell their workload passes to a colleague. The heightened stress of managing additional responsibilities may result in them also needing to take some time off sick. Without the stabilising presence of people who have different strengths and needs, you can very quickly find yourself facing a domino effect. Having diversity in your team provides stability.

If you’re an organisation wondering if this approach might be for you, I’d give you an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and promise that I’ll be cheerleading you all the way! I firmly believe that co-production can enhance work in any setting, and even small steps can yield results. If you’re an organisation who’s already talking the co-production talk, I’d ask that you take some time to have an honest conversation with yourself – are you truly embedding this approach? Or are you simply paying lip-service? There is no reason why you can’t change course – slow things down, get curious, ask the right questions, and find out how you can make this into something that really serves your work and amplifies peoples’ voices.

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