Co-production: are we missing the point?

As part of Co-production Week 2024, Bryony Shannon, author of the blog Rewriting Social Care and Glyn Butcher of The People Focused Group, Doncaster, took part in the SCIE online conference. In this blog we caught up with them discussing the language of social care and co-production.  

Bryony: In an article introducing this year’s Co-production Week and its theme of ‘what’s missing’, Patrick Wood – Chair of the SCIE Co-production Network, wrote that “the idea of co-production has made considerable headway in recent years, and this in itself is cause for optimism (although it should be recognised that when people talk about ‘co-production’, they’re not necessarily talking about the same thing)”. 

He went on to say that “co-production should not be treated as a jargon word, or a more impressive sounding term for tokenistic involvement, or something to be paid lip service to while maintaining the status quo. Co-production practice should result in changes to relationships, behaviour and delivery that bring recognisable benefits to everyone. Otherwise, what’s the point?”¹

I’m always fascinated by what we reveal when we really pay attention to our language and I think it’s obvious, when we unpick the language we use to define and describe co-production, that too often we are missing the point. 

Glyn: For me, co-production is about being curious. Asking difficult questions. It’s about disruption – disrupting the status quo. It’s about being together, needing each other. Having opportunities to try things out and make mistakes. Not having to feel in control of everything. Services and institutions sharing power with citizens and communities. It provides a space for people to tell their stories and why they matter. 

It’s about doing the things you love with the people you love in the places you love. It’s not doing things to people or for people, it’s doing things with people. It’s about starting with a blank page and working through things together. 

Bryony: Too often we describe co-production as a process. Because we know where we are with processes don’t we? Processes are familiar, linear, controlled. They involve training courses and guides. 

Glyn: Yeah – I remember being asked once if I’d help set up and run a training course on how to talk to people! 

Bryony: I prefer to describe co-production as a relationship, not a process. And for relationships to work you need genuine human connection. Communication. Trust. Empathy. Love. But we don’t tend to talk about those things in relation to co-production. Instead, we talk about ‘engaging our customers’, ‘empowering service users’, ‘giving a voice to those with lived experience’ and ‘managing the expectations of those involved’. 

Instead of equal and reciprocal relationships, all those phrases demonstrate the opposite. 

‘Engagement’ means ‘an arrangement to do something or go somewhere at a fixed time’. It highlights how organisations are setting the agendas and expecting people to come to us (and we love to slap ‘difficult to engage’ or ‘hard to reach’ labels on people and communities who don’t do what we expect).  

Referring to people as ‘ours’ implies ownership and control.  

Talking about ‘empowering’ people suggests people need to be ‘given’ power by organisations. That we hold the power and can choose whether or not to give it away – reinforcing the very power dynamics we’re claiming to be removing. 

And ‘giving voice to…’ infers that people have no voice unless we ‘give’ them one. That people can’t speak for themselves until we let them. 

Glyn: Instead of asking what communities can do for you, you need to ask what you can do for communities. Show up and be visible in communities. Sit in church halls, meeting places, green spaces. Go to where people are, don’t expect people to come to you. Lean into relationships with communities. 

Bryony: We also tend to define co-production in terms of developing and improving services. This traps us into ‘serviceland’ thinking, rather than recognising that co-production is about people creating something valuable together. Families. Communities. Better lives, not better services. 

And the labels we use in definitions of co-production - 'professionals and service users', 'decision makers and those with lived experience', 'service providers and users' – expose this trap.  

Despite our commitments to working together as equals, these definitions all perpetuate difference and that sense of ‘us and them’. They split people into two camps: people with status and authority - ‘professionals’, ‘decision-makers’, ‘providers’, and then ‘others’ – that homogenous, anonymous group over there. ‘Users’. ‘Those’. In these definitions, you’re either a ‘professional’ or a ‘service user’ – implying ‘professionals’ aren’t also ‘service users’, and ‘service users’ aren’t ‘professionals’. And what if you’re not using a service? What if you’re not allowed in? You’re not eligible? You don’t qualify? Who is working with you then? 

Our definitions expose how decision-making power is retained in organisations – miles away from the principal of ‘nothing about us without us’.  

And they separate people up into providers and ‘users’ – people who ‘deliver’ care and anonymous, passive recipients of services. So much for creating something together. So much for co-production. 

Glyn: It’s not just definitions that expose these power dynamics. So much of the language used about people is oppressive and dismissive. Terms like ‘vulnerable’, ‘hard to reach’, ‘complex’ and ‘service user’ take away people’s identity. They dehumanise people and devalue people’s experiences. 

Bryony: We label people as needy or in need. Don’t see equal human beings who are needed. And we build even more division with our endless jargon and acronyms which exclude rather than include. 

Glyn: We want to live in a world where it’s ok to be ok and ok not to be ok. Where we are all treated as unique human beings with choice and control over our own lives. 

Co-production is about co-existing in the same space, challenging each other’s understanding and perspectives, valuing each other’s difference and coming together as equal citizens. 

So, this co-production week I want to challenge you to reflect on your own language and practice and remember that there is no them and us, there’s only us. Togetherness is the key to success. 

¹https://www.scie.org.uk/co-production/week/ 

To explore this subject further, you might like to read Kate Sibthorp’s recent blog on The language of co-production

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