Coproduction, shit life syndrome and finding ways of making together

The following is the text of an opening speech given by Mark Brown to Big Lottery’s Fulfilling Lives event at Printworks, Sheffield on 21st November 2017

I’ve been given the job of framing some of the conversations today about the future of supporting people with multiple and complex needs.  I’m aware of what a responsibility that is, and how easy it is to let such discussions trail off into platitudes and buzzwords.

Journalist Sarah O’Conner published a long piece in the Financial Times this weekend looking at the multiple overlapping problems that people face living in Blackpool, where a combination of economic, historic, social and cultural factors all combine to make life harder and harder for people for whom life was already hard.  She referenced a phrase sometimes used by GPs: ‘Shit life syndrome’: the situation where someone has so many things not working out for them that even beginning to change anything is often wiped out by the remaining factors causing them harm.

If we want to speak plainly, all of us in this room are in the business of making lives less shit and the future of doing that isn’t going to get any easier.  There’s a strong possibility it might get harder.  Some of us will have experienced our own lives getting harder as more and more of the things we might have expected to be there to help us have disappeared.  We need to invent a better future starting now.  We can’t afford to keep doing things that don’t work anymore.  To find things that do work; we’re going to have to think about working in different ways.

Still in the popular imagination some people are considered to be so much of a problem they should both ‘shut up and take what they’re given’ and be grateful and also should somehow be kept out of sight; while other people are expected to do all the work in sorting out their own problems with encouragement from professionals.  In both situations the person with the problem is held responsible if the attempt to help doesn’t work; even if there was no chance in the first place that the approach taken might work for them because it was developed by someone who didn’t understand their situation.

We’re here because we care about people and because we care about getting problems sorted.  I’m going to talk to you about coproduction, about what it is and what it isn’t  and about how it might be used and what it demands from all of us.

When I say ‘coproduction’ what I want you to understand by it is that coproduction is the art and practice of people sharing risk and responsibility together to make things that solve problems.

 Charity has a history

We can think of the wish to help people sort out their problems as a river that nourishes our society.  Sometimes it’s full to overflowing with life giving properties.  Sometimes it’s just a trickle.  Sometimes someone sticks a massive great dam somewhere and none of the water gets to the people who need it.

Charity, the wish to help others, is a river fed historically by two very different streams, all flowing down from the high, far-flung mountains of good intention.

The first stream came from the spring of sympathy, civic duty, kindness or moral obligation .  This one bubbles from the ground all pure and clear.  People saw some other people that were in trouble and then decided what would be best to do for them.  Other people gave them money to do that sorting out: sometimes because they were really kind; sometimes because they were really guilty; sometimes because they were fed up with seeing the people who had the problems and wanted someone, anyone, to sort them out and get them out of sight from where they were bothering everyone and putting them off their dinners.  It didn’t really matter what the ‘poor unfortunates’ themselves wanted, they were the problem and the charitable do-ers were the ones that had the brains to think up ways to solve them.

The second stream is the stream of mutual self help where people who all had a problem looked at each other and said ‘hang on: this is doing our nuts in.  Why don’t we all chip in something to try and sort it out?’  This  type of charity was about communities of people pooling their resources, their skills and their ideas to try to make a change happen that would benefit them.  Everything from the cooperative movement to neighbourhood watch to women’s refuges to survivor-led crisis houses to building societies to trade unions began this way.   The problem is: if you and your community have been having a shit time for ages; sometimes you don’t have the resources collectively to solve the problems that you all identify as sharing.  Sometimes you do, but not always.

Two things happened over time.  The first is that in the UK we invented the Welfare State and committed more of our money through tax to solving some of the problems that would have been the responsibility of charity and the other was the growth and professionalisation of charity and ‘doing good’ itself.  The Welfare State meant that the Government overall decided what people needed, based on who voted for them and what seemed important to sort out overall.  This changed from government to government.  The professionalisation of charity meant that the same sort of thinking began to be applied to charities as they got bigger.  Clever people, also known as professionals did research and worked out what people needed and how they should receive it and then people either liked it or lumped it.

Two things started to change from the seventies onwards. Some clever people began to wonder if they were indeed getting the right end of the stick about what people wanted.   Maybe they didn’t know everything.  One thing they often didn’t know was what it was like to receive a service designed on their behalf by someone who didn’t face the same pressures and challenges that they did.  By the 1970s, many professionals were beginning to wonder what gave them the right to wield such power.

At the same time people began to examine more carefully whether the services that were being provided really were in the interests of those whom they were provided.  Some people became more critical of the ability of those designing and running services to define the reality and lives of those who received them.  People with problems began to wonder: do I have to eat shit to get help?  How can I influence what the help looks like?  How can I make sure that the people who come after me get the right help and support, not the help and support that looks right to someone who wants to do good but has never felt this bad?

These ideas were explored and played out in lots of ways as the seventies bled into the eighties; nineties and two thousands.  Community self help and user led organisations swam in and out of the picture.  Small, gnarly charities really close to the lives of those that they supported grew bigger and more distant as New Labour tried to grow the third sector.  Everyone got good at involvement and asking people if they liked a service a lot, very a lot, lots and lots of a lot or thought it was excellent.

And then the money disappeared.

The time since the beginning of austerity with the global financial crisis of 2007, and then the coalition government from 2010 onwards was maybe the time when we really began to start talking about coproduction.

There are three reasons for this

  1. The money wasn’t there to do what we’d been doing before
  2. The sneaking suspicion that even though we said we really cared about the people we wanted to help we perhaps weren’t very good at listening to them
  3. The awareness that maybe the stuff we’d been doing wasn’t the right thing to do anyway

Traditional charity didn’t care what it’s beneficiaries thought about what could be done differently.  Mutual self help only cared about the people who could muck in and build things themselves.  Somehow we arrived at the idea that coproduction might be an answer. 

So enough people uncomfortable at either end of providing and receiving help meant we arrived at the idea of coproduction: the art and practice of people sharing risk and responsibility together to make things that solve problems.

Coproduction in its purest sense is like the secret lovechild of those two different trends; people who design and work for services and people who want better ones getting together to make something new happen that wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way if they hadn’t hooked up.  It all sounds simple doesn’t it?  Two groups of people with a burning desire come together in an intense set of ever more exciting, passionate meetings until, finally, they manage to create together a glorious, beautiful child called ‘a thing that’s a bit better than that thing we used to do’.

Coproduction is about people making things together

In reality, coproduction isn’t magic: it’s people and processes. Coproduction is about power, purpose, respect, responsibility, resources and knowing what will happen next.  So much discussion about coproduction sounds great when you’re in the room and looks great on powerpoint slides but turn into ashes in your mouth when you try to explain it when you’re back with your people and crumbles like dead flowers when you try to grasp what the fine words actually mean.

In a perfect version of coproduction, people would come together spontaneously, easily decide what they were trying to make and then get on with making it, carrying on until everyone was finished and everyone felt they had made the contribution they wanted to make.  There wouldn’t be a set end point from which the project began. Somehow, as if by magic, people would find each other and have all of the right skills and resources to create a magical new thing.  We, however, live in the real world.

The first thing to think about is whether there is anything you can coproduce.  Coproduction in its purest sense is getting together as equals to define together what can be changed and worked on.  You have to find things that it is possible to change, develop or replace and sign yourselves over to following that path until this is complete.  You decide together what the end goal should be.  In most organisations and projects there are some things that can be changed and some things that can’t.  So starting from the right place is important.    If you are interested in coproduction; you need to bake it into a project at the beginning and know where what it produces will fit in.  Don’t make it an add on: “we love coproduction but we only use it for things that don’t matter” kind of defeats the point of the whole enterprise.

So, getting started: one of the prime obstacles to coproduction is power.  Some people have control of resources and some people don’t.  Some people are paid for their time and some people aren’t.  In the perfect idea of coproduction people from different disciplines, with different experiences, come together as equals to work on building new things. But there are always constraints to this.  In most coproduction projects someone has already set the initial direction of travel.  From the beginning the project is trying to get to a particular place or has already decided what the particular problem is to be solved.  So, sometimes, it isn’t possible for coproduction to really be completely defined by the people involved in the process.  Some people in coproductive activities will have more power than others.  If a professional has managed to convince their boss or funder that the project they are working on should be done in a coproductive way, that professional will have to answer to their boss, or their funder, or the government.  Different people will have different experiences and knowledge.  That should benefit the project, but sometimes people get confused and place knowledge in hierarchies of privilege not utility.  In coproduction, professional knowledge is valuable based on how it’s used, as is lived experience: neither is a veto or unfair advantage if you work out how to work together not at odds with each other.

Related to that is the challenge in coproduction of responsibility and respect.  For many of us who have been users of services and tried to change them, our experience has been one of being ignored or spoken over or belittled by people with more experience or what feels like a higher social position than us.  This can make us very good at entering into consultations or meetings and being very clear and very strident about what we don’t want to happen but less used to working with what we do want to happen.  For many professionals, even with the highest of intentions, it can feel challenging to step out of the safety of your professional role and to take part in something more collaborative.  For anyone in a coproduction project, respect for each other and responsibility to the project is vital.  Setting the contract for how you’ll work together is a huge step towards actually getting something you’ll all be proud of out of the process at the end.

Another obstacle is personal resources.  Sometimes when we have a problem we don’t have the resources or the will to be involved in developing our own solution to it.  Sometimes what I want is a transaction.  What I want when my mental health is suffering is a service I can use that is ready for me to use.  At that point I can’t be involved in a twelve month process of designing a service to suit me.  Even if I could, I might try to make that service into one that would be perfect for me at that point without thinking about other people who might need to use it.  Not everyone has the same capacity to be involved; or might need extra help and support to contribute.  Good coproduction works out what it needs to make a project happen and then works out who is best to do what bits.  It’s about finding out how useful you can be to making that project work.  This can be hard for many of us when we’ve had experiences where people have told us that we’re no use to anyone or where we’ve felt rejected or ignored.  Coproduction is the job of making something new, but it’s also an emotional experience and an experience of getting to know and work with people we might never have expected to work with.  This can be difficult for people who work with services and for people who don’t.  It can be hard to learn to trust each other.

A further thorny issue is to whom the final product of a coproduction process belongs.  Coproduction is about sharing ideas and sharing work and making something happen that wouldn’t have happened in the same way if different people had been involved.  If it’s coproduction everyone involved will have made it what it is; but too commonly those on one side of the professional divide get to carry the work forwards and those on the other side get left behind.  A good coproduced project will be thinking about what happens after the process is finished and how everyone involved might profit from what has happened.

The final issue is working out what is actually good to coproduce.  When I put my bins out I’m happy that the bin people take them away.  I don’t want to meet with them every week for six months to work out exactly how it should happen.  Similarly, if I’m having heart surgery I don’t want to coproduce my surgery with a group of non surgeons who reckon they know what might work.  I do however want the information I’m given and the pre and aftercare I receive to be coproduced by a coalition of people who’ve been through that surgery and professionals who know how the system works.  Knowing why you’re working together and knowing why this is the thing to be working on is vital to ensuring what you make together useful to other people.

Coproduction isn’t easy.  It’s not made any easier by giving it a mythical status or a magical power.  Coproduction is making things together.  It must make good things and it must be a good way of being and working together.  Coproduction is an investment for anyone who takes the risk of taking part.  Being involved in coproduction makes us vulnerable and powerful at the same time.  Making things together requires many qualities of us.  It requires generosity, it requires diplomacy, it requires, and this will sound a little sappy, love and respect for each other.

Coproduction is by its nature uncomfortable.  When we are in need or trouble or overwhelmed by our problems what we want is some certainty about what might happen.  On those grounds coproduction can feel unsafe.  Coproduction is about making something and sharing the responsibility when it goes wrong and the pride when it goes right.  There will be disagreements because we cannot avoid bringing our full selves to coproduction.  How we manage disagreement to work together is another part of the art.  Coproduction is often 90% working out how to have this different relationship with each other and 10% getting the stuff done and sorted.

Coproduction is uncomfortable for funders, too.  They’re more used to paying for outcomes and measurables whereas coproduction is an experiment.  Funders become members of your coproduction team, too, not just people you report to every so often.  Like you they are invested, like you they are part of this recreating of relationships.  Like you they are taking a risk.

The risk is real in coproduction.  We commit to it and we commit to our team mates and we invest in them and the process and the thing we eventually make.  When we really do coproduction, the chances are we won’t be the people coming out that we were when went in.  If we aren’t prepared to be changed by our contact with each other, we shouldn’t go anywhere near coproduction.

But if we are prepared to explore these new ways of working with each other then we might find new work to be done and new ways of doing it.  The themes are power, people, purpose, respect, responsibility, resources and knowing what will happen next

Times aren’t going to look any more settled anytime soon.  If we want a future that we can all live in, not just some of us, where less of us have shit lives now’s the time to start making it.

Starting today.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter.


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