It's Co-production Week 2017

Published in Features on 23 Nov 2017
Who’s in the room? Addressing power imbalance through co-production

As part of celebrating Co-production Week 2017, Josie Vallely (Project Manger at Iriss) reflects on the potential of co-production to distribute power.

Over the past few months I have been working on a co-production project planning resource. Focused on putting ideas into action, it draws on my experience of delivering co-production projects with Iriss. While in the process of creating it, I have been reflecting on what sets co-production apart from other ways of making change. I have had many conversations about the benefits of co-production in social services. When I reflect on these, it seems that they often focus on the outputs of co-production and it's potential to improve the quality of services.

The theme of this year's co-production week is 'Power', and so I would like to focus the conversation on the potential of co-production to distribute power. We know that co-production should share power between professionals and service users. This is great, but I want to draw attention to its potential to challenge the universal patterns of power that present across society. Done well, co-production can be used to challenge a learned deference to professional experts, as well as tackle inequalities rooted in race, disability, gender, class and sexuality. Here I offer some clear tips on harnessing co-production’s capacity to tackle these hierarchies.

Co-production is a process that creates change. It is a way of working with, rather than doing to, people and communities to achieve better outcomes. A true co-production project sees people who access support as assets and builds on people’s existing capabilities. It is planned, developed and delivered by a group of people who have different backgrounds and interests. This is an integral part of co-production - the group is the co-production team. For co-production to be transformational and shift power, then we must see the co-production team as a utopian microcosm. It must embody the diverse, inclusive and progressive ideals it hopes to embed in society at large. It is the make of up this group that is key to co-production's potency as a power distributor.

The following guide gives some tips for building your co-production team. It borrows from the Iriss Co-production Project Planner, which will be available in the new year.

Planning a co-production team

To begin any co-production process, you need to recruit a co-production team. Think about the size of the group - beyond twenty is probably too many, less than six is probably too small. This team includes staff, people with lived experience, managers, decision makers, family and carers. Aim for equal numbers of ‘professionals’ and individuals with lived experience. The team should reflect power imbalances inherent in our society and address these by amplifying the voices of people who are less heard.

Recruiting a co-production team

Finding people with lived experience to be part of a project can feel difficult if they face many barriers to inclusion. In co-production, giving up at this stage is not an option. By taking steps to identify barriers to inclusion before you begin, you will have more chance of overcoming them.

Recruiting people who have influence over the implementation and funding of ideas can also take time and effort. You may be looking to answer a question that people have very different opinions about. Taking time to make sure you have representatives from all camps is essential to your project's success. It is no good asking people to commit to planning changes which will never actually happen.

You may have to try lots of different avenues to recruit people. Don’t give up. With perseverance you’ll very likely find your participants. If recruitment is challenging you might want to adjust elements of the project. Try reducing group sizes, changing timings and altering commitment levels. If this doesn’t work, you might need to consider an alternative approach to co-production.

When you have created the co-production team, make sure they are able to attend by using an inclusion checklist. Send it to ‘professionals’ as well as people with lived experience - anyone can have access needs.

Anticipating barriers to inclusion

Socio-economic status and class

Being inclusive of class means prioritising the needs of people who have been consistently told by society that they matter less. It might mean using local language, spending time building creative confidence, prioritising the ‘tastes’ of participants - aesthetically, but also literally in the catering you provide. It is also about recognising the financial pressures of precarious work and unemployment. Some people may not be able to get time off work to join the project, so accommodate them by being flexible with time and location of your meetings. If you are working with people who have children then provide childcare.

Cover travel expenses for your participants. It is best practice to provide travel costs up front or provide a prepaid taxi. If you can, pay your non-salaried participants a day rate. If the professionals in your group are being paid to take part then everybody should be. Be aware of the impact that payments and volunteering can have on people’s benefits, and find creative ways to navigate these systems.

If you are working with people who are cautious of authority then work may be required to build trust. This could include people who in the asylum system, have survived abuse, have been released from prison or who misuse substances. Reassure people that their details will not be shared. In some situations people may prefer not to give their personal information at all.

Language and literacy

Literacy levels are also an important consideration in recruitment and throughout the project, so avoid jargon and use plain English. Not only is this inclusive, but it supports and builds understanding between professions from different sectors and across boundaries between professionals and non-professional boundaries. If the group has varied literacy skills, why not try alternative forms of media such as radio or video. Providing phone numbers is always helpful. There is more to making a project accessible to people without English as a first language rather than only translating the call-out. You will need to be able to respond to questions and provide interpretation if your participants don’t speak the same language as you. Think about using local dialect or languages - Scots or Gaelic might be helpful depending on your target audience.


In the community you are recruiting from, is decision-making done as a family, a community or individually? You may need to reach out to key community members to help. Are there significant cultural events you could recruit at? Are there festivals or events you should avoid for your workshop dates?


It is everyone's responsibility to make sure the voices of BME communities are heard. The 2011 census in Glasgow City revealed that 12% of the population were from a minority ethnic group. In the city of Edinburgh and Aberdeen city it was 8% and Dundee was 6%. Your co-production team should reflect this and include BME people. Prioritise the needs of your BME participants over others as this will help to counteract the inherent barriers to inclusion that they face generally in society.


Communicating with young people, adults or older adults requires different approaches. For example, you wouldn’t rely on social media to recruit older people with dementia. Think about where these communities are and consider the best ways to engage them.


Think about specific commitments people may have based on their geography. For example, in very rural areas, don’t recruit during lambing. Try to arrange your workshops so that they are held in a neutral space, such as a community centre. Avoid places that are associated with the ‘professionals’ in your co-production team. Avoid venues that serve alcohol. Choose somewhere that is easy to get to by accessible public transport. Provide transport expenses up front, and have a budget for taxis for those who need them.

Gender, identity and sexuality

Make your recruitment process LGBTQI friendly. Use the inclusion form to ask people to include their pronoun (he / she / they) with their name so that you don’t misgender participants. Do not let other members of the group misgender participants and have a zero tolerance approach to sexist and homophobic comments. Create a women-only co-production team for groups who need a safe space, but never exclude trans women from these spaces. When discussing support networks, ask questions like 'who are the significant people in your life?’. Don't focus on people’s partners or children.

Project focus

Is there stigma associated with the project subject? For example, substance misuse, dementia, mental health and HIV issues can be stigmatized in families and in the community. People with particular conditions may not be willing to participate for fear of others finding out. One option is to keep the name of the project neutral. For example, the Pilotlight project on self-directed support and early onset dementia was named ‘Living well’ - participants could choose wether to disclose their diagnosis or not. Ensure you have people's consent before sharing photos, identifiable information or quotes.