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  • Writer's pictureClare Tarling

Co-production and communication

I have been involved in lots of co-production projects over the last 20 years. Let’s go back to the beginning of my career- around 2003, shortly after the "Valuing People" white paper was published.

National and regional forums of people with learning disabilities

A huge network of local and regional self-advocacy groups was set up in the early 2000s. Local representatives were elected to the National Forum, where their views and experiences were heard by government and other policy-making organisations. I supported members of People First Dorset to attend the regional meetings and put themselves forward for national elections. The funding for all the forums gradually melted away, which was a great loss to everyone involved.

Partnership Boards

Under "Valuing People", Learning Disability Partnership Boards were set up: one in each Local Authority area. Each Board had its own budget, and included self-advocates, commissioners, voluntary sector and NHS representatives, coming together to solve local issues. I worked with People First members to make our local Board as welcoming and accessible as possible. The legacy of Partnership Boards is stronger than that of the National Forum, and they still operate in many areas.

Research projects

I have been very fortunate to be involved in a few research projects, supporting self advocates to take part in research, for example, Self Building Our Lives.

I am currently leading the Advisory Group for the EQUALD project at the University of Sheffield, working alongside Liz Croot and Alice Dunning, producing Easy Read information and leading on co-production.

I am also part of the Furner Communications team which supports the Inclusion Panel at the Health Foundation - a brilliant initiative, which gives researchers unique access to a diverse and knowledgeable Panel of "experts by experience". I have learned so much from my colleagues, Dr Lisa Gee and Kathryn Collinson.

As a parent

I have also been involved in co-production as a contributor - attending events designed to involve parents of young people with special educational needs in planning and service improvement. It has been very interesting to be “co-produced with”, instead of running the co-production!

7 tips for co-production

There are some practical things that, in my experience, help to support co-production, regardless of the nature of the project or its purpose:

  1. Relationships. Cultivate a culture of trust and genuine respect, in all directions. This can be done by involving the right people in the first place, being clear about your purpose, and making time for relationships to build. People must feel safe to speak up and to make mistakes, and may also need 1-to-1 support outside of meetings and other events, in order to take part. Make sure no-one feels "outnumbered" - I would not want to be the only parent in a meeting of Council Officers.

  2. Reward. Don't rely on the altruism of your contributors, especially if all the "professionals" around the table are being paid. Thank everyone properly for their time and expertise: money is a great start, plus out-of-pocket expenses, lunch, genuine gratitude, learning opportunities, new friendships, and interesting topics to talk about.

  3. Information. Make sure that pre-meeting information is accessible. Consider making Easy Read agendas and presentations, plus videos, audio, email... whatever people tell you they need. Send it all out at least a week in advance. Ask for honest feedback about the information, which you can use to improve it over time.

  4. Tools. Make sure people have all the equipment, transport, training…etc that they need to join in, whether online or in person.

  5. Access. If the meeting is in-person, check out the physical access before you book the room. It sounds so obvious, but I have been in some excruciatingly awkward meetings where this has not been sorted.

  6. Space. In the meeting itself, make your questions clear and don’t fear silence. Some people need time to gather their thoughts. Invite everyone to say something at the start, and don't rush. This is especially important when you are online. Invite comments via chat, and also via direct contact after the meeting by phone or email. Not everyone can speak in a meeting.

  7. Follow-up. Send notes in the formats people ask for, and always tell people about the difference they have made. I have given up entire days of my time to be “co-produced with” and not heard anything further, leading to distinct feelings of “I’m not doing that again!”. Here is an example of feedback we gave to Speakup Self Advocacy recently, to tell them about the difference they made to the EQUALD project: Speakup Working Group: ways we have influenced the EQUALD project so far (PDF).

All of this is totally worth the effort, and it can be such a joyful process when the chemistry is right.

Businesses thrive by learning about their customers: their needs, desires, financial position, location, education…etc. Public services and universities are doing the same, and co-production - integrated with data analysis, asset mapping...etc - is one very valuable way to get this right.

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