In November 2018, GMCVO researcher Susanne Martikke and Manchester Metropolitan University Business School academic Claire Hannibal obtained £4500 from the Community University Partnership Initiative to conduct a small research study about co-production in the Greater Manchester VCSE sector.
We asked five VCSE organisations in Greater Manchester for examples of co-production in their work and used these as a starting point to develop a more detailed understanding of how this worked in practice.
At the beginning of the process we consulted with the Greater Manchester Co-production Network to inform the research design and outputs. In response to the advice of network members we produced a short report and a set of five posters in order to allow research participants to showcase their own work in co-production. There was also a desire that the research should be as co-productive as possible – something that was challenging to do given the small scale of the study. Ultimately, we incorporated joint interviews in our methodology as a way of responding to this suggestion. The interviews brought together an organisational representative and a service user who had been involved in a process of co-production. Bringing the two sides of a partnership together in an interview created a valuable space for reflection.
The report was launched at the December 2019 session of the Co-production Network. The five case study posters were displayed at the event and delegates had the opportunity to informally speak to representatives from the five case study organisations about their work.
The research improved our understanding on how co-production actually works in practice and how the day-to-day operations of VCSE organisations support this.
Why did we do it?
It is likely that co-productive approaches will play a role in the transformation of health and social care in Greater Manchester. Therefore, the funding and policy environment that Greater Manchester VCSE organisations are operating in is characterised by a receptiveness to organisations that can demonstrate experience in co-production.
This research project aimed to respond to the significant interest in co-production. Although funders and policy makers see co-production as desirable, there is a lack of practical examples as to how it can be incorporated into VCSE operations. VCSE practitioners who are involved in co-production usually do not get the opportunity to reflect on their experience in the co-production process. This leads to co-production being embraced as a panacea, without real knowledge of what it actually is and how to go about it. The research improved our understanding on how co-production actually works in practice and how the day-to-day operations of VCSE organisations support this.
In the academic literature there is a dearth of empirical research about co-production in VCSE organisations. This study was intended to contribute towards closing this gap.
What did we learn?
Our findings suggest that organisations rarely chose co-production consciously as one strategy among others, but saw it as something that was essential to their mission and that characterised the way they had always worked.
Rather than emphasizing skills and training as enabling factors, interviewees saw it as crucial that there was an enabling environment for co-production. Such an environment was created when management was willing to empower staff by giving them flexibility and adequate resources for co-production, which in turn enabled staff to share power with their co-production partners, i.e. service users, and follow-up on the suggestions that co-production generated with service adaptations and improvements.
There was considerable overlap between the measures of success of service users and staff with regard to co-production. This points to a key potential outcome of co-productive processes: rather than seeing themselves as being on the receiving end of services, users became part of the team and felt a high degree of ownership of the end product. Engaging in co-production allows VCSE organisations to build, enhance and transform relationships with service users and hence invest in one of their key organisational assets.
Co-production also poses risks. By creating uncertainty about the potential outcome co-production can pose a problem for organisational planning and evaluation. Further, finding service users who are willing to engage in more intense co-production processes can be difficult. This is perhaps why the organisations in our study tended to rely on existing relationships with services users. Such an approach can in turn open up co-production to the criticism of amplifying the loudest voices further and meant that organisations had to provide a multitude of different feedback channels to allow other, less vocal service users to be heard.
Engaging in co-production allows VCSE organisations to build, enhance and transform relationships with service users and hence invest in one of their key organisational assets.
What has happened as a result of the work?
The research project resulted in a short report outlining the critical success factors for co-production. VCSE organisations interested in exploring co-production can draw on the reflections in this report to inform their co-production strategies.
We produced a set of six posters, outlining the research project and the examples from our five participating organisations. Each participating organisation received a copy of their poster, which they can use for marketing purposes.
In the near future, we are planning to bring all the participants together at a session of the research network to reflect on the findings together, as well as update research network members on the study. We are also planning to produce a journal paper that reports the resulting data and findings in more detail.