Does coproduction really empower people?

Mark Brown, Development Director of Social Spider CIC and writer in residence at the Centre for Mental Health, discusses the inequalities and empty promises that can arise when service users get involved in producing products and services.  

Coproduction is a word often included in a lexicon of public sector and charity objectives, such as empowerment and user involvement. The simplest way of seeing coproduction is people belonging to different professions, experiences, organisations or communities working together to make things.

Throughout my work, I’m an advocate for coproduction. I want to see people and communities involved in the design, development and definition of the services they need to make their lives better. Coproduction is often talked about as a form of empowerment, most often by people who see the process as something that creates some kind of magical change in the person or community involved.

The possibility of coproduction as a process which can develop and uncover better ways to solve people’s problems fills me with hope. The danger lies in a muddle-headed assumption that “including” someone in something will somehow undo the reality of inequality and lack of political power.

For me, coproduction is a means to an end, not an end itself. What we chose to coproduce is more important than whether coproduction is present. Coproduction only works when different forms of knowledge, skills and experience are combined to build something that works better for people than something that would have existed if developed in isolation from the reality of people’s lives.

Defining the realities of coproduction

Good coproduction is structured in a way that makes it possible for collaboration in defining things that need to be solved. The public might take part in the design of the fabric for the seats of a train, for example, without ever being asked if there are enough trains or if the rail network goes where people need it to go. The presence of coproduction alone does not change existing power relationships between the person producing the products and services and those who need to use them

The reality that any form of coproduction accepts as its starting point defines where it is possible for it to end up. The power of coproduction lies entirely in making things that are less shit than they otherwise might have been.

Coproduction is not achieved by declaring that there are no constraints to what might change – while at the same time making no provision for change actually taking place. Honesty about resources, limitations, intentions and practical challenges go far further than homilies about empowerment and involvement.

A public service or charity isn’t empowering an individual or community by deciding to include them in a coproduced project, they’re asking for help. Asking for help should be recognised as such, meaning the work of providing that help is recognised as work, rather disguised by weasel words such as empowerment. A coproduced project will not undo someone’s lifetime of marginalisation. Including a community in decision making will not change the circumstances of that community, unless the thing that they are deciding and designing has the power and resources to do so.

Building trusting relationships

Coproduction is hard and takes time. It is based on hammering out ways to work together. It is impossible without trust. Inequality and lack of political power makes it hard for people to trust each other. Building relationships can be most of the work of coproduction. The measure of a truly coproductive approach is current budget and power holders being prepared to give the gift of their own time, resources and skills, too. This works best where people already have relationships before they decide who would hold the overall budget and responsibility for a process of coproduction.

Instead of asking the community into their projects, truly coproductive charity or public sector workers would be prepared to offer themselves to the coproduction of projects defined, conceived and shaped by communities themselves. Where these relationships do not exist already is often a map of the ways in which inequality, marginalisation and prejudice have shaped who is furthest from getting to define how and whether their needs are met. Often those “from the bottom” calling for coproduction or user involvement are doing so because they feel their disempowerment as a sharp and present wound. Equality is not achieved by those with power and resources declaring “we are all equal”.

Coproduction itself won’t bring change

What coproduction can do is make things that work better and in ways that do not further disadvantage the people who will use them. A system that disadvantages people does not stop disadvantaging people if a small proportion of those people contribute to its development. It is what happens because of coproduction that matters. A bad solution to a problem is a bad solution to a problem regardless of whether it has been coproduced by a range of people.

Coproduction will not change the position I hold in society, unless the things coproduction makes bring about changes. Even if I gain new skills and make new relationships through being part of coproduction, it will not turn me from serf to king. Empowering people isn’t the goal. It is the products of coproduction that change things, not the existence of coproduction itself.

Five ways to make co-production work better

  1. Build relationships first. You wouldn’t start a business with people you had never met before.
  2. Find ways to focus on problems people have. Exploring what is wrong is vital in deciding how to make it better.
  3. Be honest about constraints. If there is only a tiny space for change available, make that plain and work to find the best thing to fill that space.
  4. Learn how to be with each other’s discomforts. Working together on something is hard. Work out how everyone would like to be involved and how they would like to be kept informed.
  5. Be prepared to command resources. Coproduction isn’t about only involving the people in the room. If something needs designing, bring in a designer. If something needs building, bring in a builder. Coproduction is a way of shaping the work being done, not doing everything yourselves.