Last week was the first ever National Co-production Week, identified on twitter as #CoProWeek. Organised by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the creation of this awareness raising week marks an important milestone in recognising that if you work in health or social care, it’s actually a pretty good idea to listen to, involve and continually work with the people who are using your service(s).
Purely co-incidentally, the start of National Co-production Week also saw the launch of a report I was involved in creating with Carers Trust that looked at the ‘Care Act for Carers: One Year On’ (PDF). Amongst our recommendations was an explicit remit (on page 23) tasked to one of the pioneer co-production organisations, Think Local Act Personal, to involve carers (people who care, unpaid, for a friend or family member) in services:
“Think Local Act Personal should work with carers to devise and offer training and materials to support practitioners to work with carers to co-design personalised support.”
We also reiterate the importance of ‘co-design’ in our 2018 ‘wish list’ (on page 25):
“Social workers and other care practitioners can show that tailored support plans are routinely co-designed and kept under review with carers.”
The history of co-production
‘Co-design’, or ‘co-production’ may sound like modern day jargon (they are unpopular descriptions with many people I know), but various incarnations of the basic principles of involving people who use services, and their carers and families, in how services are designed, created and run have been around for many years.
If anything, that is my personal disappointment. Through my work I’ve met stalwarts of the ‘co-production scene’ who have been co-producing for an incredibly long time and yet they feel little has changed on the frontline. In my view, that lack of change isn’t a reflection upon those individuals at all, but more about how our health and social care systems respond to those people and the need to challenge the status quo.
Historically, we’ve been far too keen on ‘doing things to people’ rather than truly involving people in their own care and support. We like to tell our fellow citizens how things will work and what will happen to them, being prescriptive and precise, and expecting them just to go along with it. Their own opinions have been seen as irrelevant, perhaps even dangerous, and of course ‘professionals know best’ anyway. In other words, citizens (patients, service users, carers and whatever other labels you want to affix to ‘Joe Blogs’) should be ‘seen and not heard’.
In June 2012, I wrote a blog entitled ‘How do you make good dementia policy?’. Much of what I talk about in that blog is about co-production, except I didn’t call it co-production then. To me it was just the simple principle of involving people, which I summed up in this quote:
“My view is that you need those with direct past and present knowledge and experience of dementia to be at the forefront of policy making, privately and publically.”
Tokenistic involvement isn’t enough
I have a fundamental belief that within health and social care, there is still an arrogance amongst many leaders to even involve citizens in their work, never mind truly embracing co-production and embedding it within their organisations. Often involvement is tokenistic, piecemeal and descends into glorified talking shops, which are then evaluated poorly and deemed pointless.
Budgets to support true co-production rarely exist, or are extremely limited. Interestingly, these funding arrangements are always decided by people employed by organisations, and I do wonder if being in the safely of a salaried job stifles the desire to engage and create beyond your own job description.
That may sound harsh, but given that in 2012 I was writing about the need to involve people who use services and carers in those services, I simply haven’t seen enough innovation to justify a more positive assessment. If we could get to a stage whereby the viability of health and social care services was judged by how well they engaged with the people using their services, and their carers and families, I suspect a rapid improvement would soon follow.
Current, classic examples of organisations not engaging are seen on the conference scene, where too often I still see programmes for events that don’t include the voices of experience. From the knowledge I have through my work, I don’t believe that enough local authorities co-produce their services with their citizens, nor do NHS trusts or social care providers, and likewise for national government.
And yet, in that 2012 blog post I made the value of lived experience crystal clear when I said:
“The greatest educators are people who have learnt from their own experiences.”
Time to change
I am impatient for change, I would freely admit that, and those who are embracing the true principles of co-production don’t get enough praise for their work. For everyone else, I come back to this quote from that 2012 blog post:
“If you want to know about frontline warfare, you ask a soldier. If you want to know about famine in Africa, you go to Africa and ask the people who are starving. If you want to know about dementia, ask the people living with it and carers past and present who have dedicated their lives to understanding dementia.”
For dementia, read any condition, any service, any experience. There are always citizens to ask about their health and care, always something to learn from listening to them, and always a way of meaningfully and fully engaging them in how you serve them now and in the future. It really isn’t rocket science.