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Coproduction - from definitions to reality

I was asked by the Way Ahead System Change group to reflect on how, as an infrastructure organisation, we have embedded coproduction as a concept into our day to day work. Co-production is one of those words that are much easier to say than do in practice. Back in 2017 I led a London-wide working group exploring the definition and status of coproduction which gathered lots of examples of coproduction in practice in the capital. Through this process I was able to gain a better understanding of how, as a local infrastructure organisation, we were embedding the concept in our own work. When looking at the range of projects we deliver sometimes I was able to say confidently that yes ‘we are taking a genuinely co-productive approach, putting local people at the heart of what we do’ whereas others times we were probably just consulting people and not really working jointly together to deliver some areas it was grey. We have now just completed our new strategic plan (see here and we have embedded the concept of coproduction throughout our strategic objectives, values and approach so that all staff and our trustees are committed to this. We also ensure that any new projects we take on have coproduction elements to them wherever possible. For us this makes absolute sense as we deliver lots of our work in partnership with local VCS organisations - sharing the resources we secure so that they can deliver with us. It also means we can promote the concept of coproduction to our delivery partners too and demonstrate why including members of the local community in delivering and shaping the project leads to better outcomes.

One of the things about co production I find most exciting but equally challenging is actually supporting local people and communities to genuinely take the lead and deliver activities for themselves. Some definitions of co-production say it’s about working together but often, in these cases, it’s the organisation that has the power and it’s just a rehashed way of consulting with people which, as I stated earlier, is not really co production its purest form. Good coproduction is when power is really shared. An example of this locally is the work we do to improve outcomes for black young men in Hackney. We have worked with the Council on this for more than 4 years now. As you would typically expect with these sorts of multi-agency initiatives there is an overall strategic partnership board which is dominated by Council and public sector staff and black young men are invited to attend meetings and to influence the various strategies and work plans. It’s great that the lived experiences of black young men are shaping system change but what the young men really want is to take control themselves and not feel like tokens in the room. So now we are working with them on what they want to do. They have told us that its more about them running their own campaigns and online podcasts so that more of their peers can talk about the things they care about such as how the media portrays black young men and how there are spaces for young men to talk about issues such as mental health and entrepreneurship for example. This has fundamentally changed how we, as a group of public and charitable organisations, will work with them in the future. We are also going to be changing the structure of the partnership so that Young Black men are at the top of the power tree and therefore can dictate what we, as a group of organisations, should focus on. Of course these things don’t happen overnight and it is a careful balance of building trust with young people and institutions.  Many young people these days are mistrustful of the state and its commitment to change which is exemplified amongst black British communities so it’s doubly important that they are given power and authority to hold public bodies (and charities) to account and are given the tools and resources to deliver solutions themselves.

We partly have the Lottery to thank for this change of approach as they rejected a large proposal we sent to them last year around young black men because, whilst we intended to pay young people as part of our programme, the Lottery did not feel the young people and community groups were embedded enough in our proposal or leading the agenda. The Lottery’s principle of ‘People in the lead’ is exactly what it says on the tin and you have to prove you are genuinely doing it which I can safely say we are now doing.

More broadly I have seen with my own eyes how other agencies are taking up the challenge of coproduction. I sit on the Mayor’s Violence Reduction Unit Partnership Advisory Board and have been pushing for more coproduction with young people and communities. City Hall is now supporting young people to develop their own solutions to violent crime which, in my view, will have a lot more traction with those at risk of violence as it’s a peer to peer approach which we have seen work successfully with many of our own programmes which utilise youth leadership as mechanism to reach out to other young people. They are also paying young people for their time too which is great and something we have been doing for some time now at Hackney CVS as its builds young people’s sense of self-esteem and clearly demonstrates that we, as a local organisation, value and respect their skills and experience.