The workshop I attended brought together policymakers and third sector practitioners to exchange perspectives and bridge the gap between policy and practice. There were fresh and fruitful discussions about understanding mutual pressures, timescales, and professional demands. An important point that came through in discussion was the need to co-produce policy by making sure policymakers, practitioners and communities work together at a similar pace, with similar goals, and with a common and nuanced appreciation for the real needs of target users. It’s all about dialogue.
But, as the Crick Centre’s project on co-production shows, dialogue is hard to facilitate between very diverse communities. Our systematic review of existing co-production projects showed how different professions have different pressures, individual ideas, motivations, resources and end-goals.
Working together therefore holds a number of challenges, risks and potential limitations. This doesn’t mean real co-production can’t happen. Indeed, there were some great examples in the workshop of where co-production really caught everyone’s imagination, improving services and cutting costs in the process. A key question is how to make this happen.
Many of the points raised at the workshop were also key in our systematic review. Combining them, we can see five sets of risks, limits and lessons for successful co-production:
- Creating a ‘co-productive culture’: Often, there is a temptation for policymakers to go with big statistical correlations as a guide to what works in policy, rather than subjective interviews with users, while practitioners may grow to believe their expertise is all that matters in implementation. Workshop participants were clear that these temptations do exist, and they can be a real boundary if co-production is not reinforced as a value, instilled at the start of any joint project.
- Managing expectations: different professions have different expectations of what to get out of collaboration. Service users may never have been involved directly with practitioners and policymakers before and have no knowledge of what to expect. This can mean collaborative forums descend into simple platforms for communities to complain about the state of local services. Policymakers then go on the defensive and try to deflect blame, and the exercise proves counter-productive. A key theme in the workshop was the need to be frank and honest about what works and equally what doesn’t, to successfully manage expectations.
- Avoiding ‘one-size-fits-all’: vulnerable service users often do not have the ability to express themselves in the same way that policymakers do. This may mean policies still end up getting implemented in a top-down way, missing out the particular circumstances of communities. Participants in the workshop were very clear that policies cannot be ‘one-size-fits-all’, and that practitioners have to make sure they are as open and accessible as possible to diverse and specific local needs.
- Watching language: people have different sets of values and ways of communicating, and what may be common terms for policymakers (or academics) may not be the same for service users. This came out in a discussion over language, and how policy-focused or ‘wonkish’ language can be alienating and widen the gap. One suggested solution was that practitioners and policymakers should gain a deeper understanding of the interests and values of service users by ‘talking their language’ in a real, non-patronising way.
- Proper resourcing is needed: All participants noted that connecting policy to practice requires concerted effort, and that there is a danger of slipping back into top-down approaches when resources are not available for something more ambitious. They agreed that joint meetings, workshops, seminars and ‘deep’ consultation require time and ground-work to streamline time schedules and workloads, but are necessary to make co-production work properly. There were several examples where a sustained effort at collaboration produced results, but support and resource from authorities in local government and central departments was key.
As Wednesday’s workshop showed, and the Crick Centre’s systematic review backs up, connecting policy with practice through co-production has risks. These are not insurmountable, though. If there is genuine dialogue about what is needed to overcome them – more resources, better understanding of pressure points and values, and realism about what co-production can genuinely achieve – connecting policy with practice becomes less an abstract value and more of a tangible goal.