“We never called it co-production but we’ve been doing it for the past 15 years”

Former music industry specialist and National Co-production member Kieran McMahon describes how he worked with colleagues to co-design and co-produce an accessible building for Disability Stockport.

Disability Stockport started life as a pressure group in the 70s. Now in the noughties it has grown to a medium sized charity offering services via its Independent Living Centre.

I joined as Director in 2003. One of the major issues at this time were the state and location of the two buildings used to deliver our services - they were not fully accessible. The Day Centre was in an old clinic at one end of Stockport and the offices /support services were in an old church at the other end. Visiting the latter involved negotiating a chained rear entrance and narrow corridors. This was somewhat ironic as we were the major provider for access advice and awareness training!

Life Chances of Disabled People

When 'Life Chances of disabled people' was published in 2005 the board and members all agreed to follow its 20 year plan to develop a Centre for Independent Living (CIL) in Stockport. After some searching and canvassing of prospective partners, a mortgage funder was found to purchase a suitable building. This started a long search and many, many discussions with members (users), staff, families and designers as to what kind of building and what kind of service we wanted.

Finding a suitable building

Over the next year we identified two possible buildings and listened to the views of everyone on what they wanted. The members, staff, volunteers and families wanted to retain the 'big room' element of the old centre but also wanted more options for activities including cooking and art as well as properly equipped toilet and kitchen areas, which were both lacking. In 2008 we came up with a third option in the centre of Stockport which thankfully everyone liked.

“A great deal of pride and collective ownership”

We then spent many months collating ideas and suggestions and building on the initial consultations. The 10 elected members also got involved to monitor progress and refine choices of colours and finishing. All this was relayed to both architect and builders. I was delighted when everything worked to plan and was delivered on time with an opening in April 2009.  There is a great deal of pride and collective ownership due to this involvement process that works well into the long term.

The impact of change and its impact on disabled people

When we did finally move it was interesting to note that it took the staff far longer to adapt than the members. We did not lose any members as a result, even though for some it meant a longer journey, but they quickly began to appreciate the advantages of the location as well as the much improved access and space. Before the move some had had fears that they might get mugged in the town centre so we’d arranged a few visits ahead of the big move.

By the time we had a  major extension there was a greater confidence with change and the process of co-producing was very straightforward. Members gave their views on the design and purpose, a few things were altered and a few new ideas added.

A further achievement of ours has been to provide an open door policy and encourage visitors into the centre to allow members to speak for themselves in local consultations. Members' reps are elected each year and meet with myself every month to decide on direction and activities as well as looking at any issues that may arise. While we have never specifically called it co-production, this has been our way of doing things for the last 15 years.

Have you worked on a similar project? How do your experiences compare?


Find out more about co-production





Posted on by Old Site User

It is really good to read about the success of this work if under another name! and good to see the plans in the Life Chances document being useful - seldom referred to now in my experience. Talking of co - production under another name here is a short blog I wrote as our local network of service users reached 25 years to show how much having your own organisation can give confidence in working alongside professionals with shared power.
*25 years of user involvement- how much has it changed things?*
In November 2016, Wiltshire and Swindon Users Network reached its 25th anniversary. It was the first user involvement group locally, and became the leading democratically elected generic users’ network at the time, formed in response to the 1991 NHS and Community Care Act. This Act recognised, for the first time enshrined in legislation, the value of involving users and carers in the planning of Community Care. It grew to be a network of several hundred disabled people of differing perspectives, conditions and experiences, willing to give their views to improve services. This continues to exist countywide today.
Of course, there had been organisations of disabled people emerging in other places from the new social movement for some years but such specific ‘user involvement’ networks were particularly targeted at long term users of health and social care. As such it attracted much interest from policy makers and researchers- the requests for conference speaking and exemplar book chapters seemed endless and we hosted seminars called the ‘Wiltshire Experience’ for fellow groups of users across the country inviting a single professional locally to add their experience! Has the model had a lasting effect on the landscape of community care?
From the start it was about developing the ‘art of the possible’ techniques without compromising our position, to bring about change to better meet users’ needs. We developed three catch phrases to describe the techniques we found to be most effective.
‘From bobble hats to red jackets’ described the journey we, as service users, needed to go on from ignorant outsiders (in tatty bobble hats) to empowered participants with valuable expertise and the red jacketed uniform of professionals. The red jackets my colleague and I wore for the official launch of Community Care in April 1993 gave voice to this feeling of personal empowerment and acceptance by professionals. The change in their attitude as they learned to treat us as equal voices was noticeable.
‘Riddling the system’ was a powerful way of describing our technique of negotiating to have service users’ voices heard at all levels of planning service delivery and strategy. Tentative, usually new to the network, user voices concerned with an initiative would meet safely together in a group of their own with a facilitator and all costs paid to explore their needs. Their collated comments would be taken to a more strategic planning level by user representatives and we also expected to work with elected members to explain the issues for users. In this way everyone was informed of the issues for users and users felt their views had been taken forward in a democratic way to bring the change they needed. I once calculated the Network was involved in giving their views in social care in 64 different ways! This phrase became so well known that one of our principal allies, the Director of Social Service, Dr Ray Jones, reported that he felt ‘well and truly riddled’!
Finally it became obvious that ‘working with allies’ in the system was the most effective way of bringing about change. ‘Allies’ were individuals at all levels of the system who understood the need for users’ views to be heard if services were to become user-led. Their understanding and willingness to go the ‘extra mile’ to ensure users’ views were brought to decision makers’ attention was crucial to our voices being taken seriously.
So, did anything change? It was of course much more difficult than we had imagined- we were after all trying to change a culture of “professional knows best”. Short term however, there were successes, which affected some people’s experience of services. For example, professionals spoke of having “light bulb” moments; we co-produced “Wilf”, the 3rd party cash payment scheme set up in 1993 before direct payments became legal; and voicing older people’s need for a nail cutting service for months eventually led to the setting up of a scheme which overcame health and safety objections.
Is it indulgent to think that service users’ voices are now seen as part of the community care landscape? – The effects of austerity and attitudes to marginalised citizens mean we must always be on our guard.
Clare Evans MBE was the first Director of Wiltshire and Swindon Users network 1991-97

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