Llais Summer 2017

Co-production is an exciting idea, especially since it is specifically mentioned in the Social Services and Well-Being Act.  Phil Madden considers co-production, has some cautious thoughts and believes that we have to be careful that it is applied properly.

A good idea…but

I know some of the leaders of the co-production movement in Wales and greatly admire their values and their intentions. I also attended an awareness workshop organised by the Co-production Network for Wales and was very impressed by their creativity and enthusiasm.  So I have no concerns about the idea itself.

But I have some cautious thoughts. None of these things have happened to co-production because it is too new. But they could, if we are not careful. My observations are meant positively and helpfully. People may disagree with them but if they encourage debate, then for me they will have served their purpose.

Close up of a person's hands as they embrace another person's hands

Here are my cautious thoughts.

  1. We need to be relaxed about what co-production means

Sometimes new movements and ideas feel the need to prove themselves by being evangelical and competitive. They want to claim all the territory of creativity for themselves. How does this apply to co-production ?

It is one example of the wide spectrum of citizen movements. It is actually difficult to argue that co-production is completely different from, for example, Person Centred Planning if it is done properly. Or from the Circles of support network. Or from co-operatives and social enterprises. There might be technical differences to do with legalities or contracts, but that is not the point.

And it should not matter. We should be looking for alliances not differences, not getting lost in arguments about who is the most authentic or whether something is ‘really ‘ co-production .

  1. We need to avoid  co-production getting into a rut

Every so often I think it is important to refresh the language we use. It stops people getting stale and using words automatically without thinking what they mean. That is one of the reasons to welcome co-production and its language. It energises people.

But the new can quickly become stale too.  For example, when they first appeared in the learning disability world, John O’ Brien’s ideas of ‘Community Presence ‘ and ‘Community Participation’  were an invigorating breath of fresh air. Their aims were the same as co-production, and the results were often impressive. But over time the ideas became empty rituals,‘ compulsory ‘ words everyone was expected to use. As long as you spoke them it didn’t matter whether you practised them. People stopped asking what they really meant.

So it is important to shake things up. At the moment, some of the shaking up is being done by the language of co-production. But the dangers of it becoming ritual emptiness will always be there for co-production too.

  1. We need to ask if  Co-production is working , in a fair way

There are two opposing challenges.

Firstly, we can sometimes embrace new ideas so enthusiastically that we are blind to dangers or faults. I remember asking the leader of a then very fashionable new movement what she felt were the limitations of the movement and how did she judge success. The reply was that if I had to ask such questions then I obviously didn’t understand what it was all about. This was a blind statement of faith.

So one challenge for co-production is to think carefully about how to judge success or failure. A big part of this must be the views of the people, for and with whom, services are created. But we need to be clear about how those views are sought. It is tempting to ask leading questions and concentrate only on success, especially if you want to continue to be funded.

Should the Co-production Network for Wales be planning now for a neutral research project on the effectiveness of co-production?

Secondly, the opposing challenge is that sometimes people who have got used to doing things in a certain way will resist anything new because it can test their authority or competence or the way they get funded. There is a danger that co-production, as a new idea, will have to jump through more hoops than established ways of working. In fairness, ALL the ways services are provided and public money is spent should  have equal and transparent criteria for success.

  1. Co –production must not be used as a get out clause by public authorities.

This, for me, is the biggest worry.

It is a grim reality that local authorities and health services are under increasing pressure, especially because of the growing number of older people with complex needs. At the same time budgets are being cut. Eligibility criteria are being tightened. Fewer people are getting services, or if they do get a service, then it may be less than is needed.

To make matters worse, many providers of services are extremely concerned about whether they can survive, because the money local authorities can afford to pay them does not cover their costs.

All of this is often presented as ‘inevitable ‘. People and services are expected to come up with new and magically cheaper ways to do things. The assumption is that there is always a less costly solution and that often this is better.

But it is not inevitable that there is no more money. It is a political approach based on the ideology of austerity.

It isn’t true that people do not need services from the state. And it isn’t true that new ideas are always cheaper or better. The history of Self Directed Support is a stark example of how an idea which is admirable in itself can sometimes be applied indiscriminately and as a way to cut costs.  It is really enlightening to look at the website of the Centre For Welfare Reform, where there are many examples of how this has happened .

Also, not everyone wants to be ‘in charge’ of their services . It may not suit them or their circumstances or they consider it too time consuming and too tiring for the long term.

What people DO need, and have the right to, are reliable services which listen to what they need.

What has this got to with co-production ?

It is vital that local authorities do not try to abdicate from their responsibilities to properly assess and reassess need. Their legal duty to do so will not go away.

And then it is also essential for those authorities to look for custom made solutions.  A co-production solution might be the right one, even if sometimes only partially. But it can never be the answer to everything. There is no such thing. Human life is too complex for that.  In my view, SUSTAINED and directly provided and directly managed public services and expertise are always going to be needed.  If that costs, then it costs. That is what we should fight for.

Having said all this, I have no doubt that, in years to come, when co-production is replaced by a new ‘new idea’, there will be many examples of how successful it was. I hope these thoughts help that.

Phil Madden is Co-Chair of Learning Disability Wales. This article is written in Phil’s own capacity.

For more information on co-production and Co-production Network for Wales visit https://copronet.wales

Ed: To agree or disagree with Phil’s views and to widen the debate, please write and give your views. We will shortly be publishing a blog on our new website.