Co-production, power and recovery

29th November 2017

This week is Scottish Co-production Week 2017. In this article SRN’s Director Frank Reilly explores the themes of co-production, power and recovery.

I have a simple definition of co-production and at its centre is the sharing of power. Simple though the definition may be, getting to that point ordinarily involves a dance around language, recognising and valuing the power each party brings to the ‘table’ and the combined benefit to the community of the co-produced product.

Power is a word that is often bandied about in human relationships: the power of lived experience, and abuse of statutory power, the power of knowledge, empowerment and disempowerment. Unfortunately, when time and resources are tight it is very easy to misuse.

Power in human relationships is overt, subverted, explicit and implicit. SRN has worked tirelessly to promote the power of lived experience to change the way that mental health services are designed and delivered. We who have been ‘done to’ recognise the disempowering nature of that experience and the reality that our experience is not truly valued by those we encounter in that way. That disempowerment is key to what might be called ‘anti-recovery’: the process of reinforcing stereotypes on others to conform. It is the opposite of liberation. It is the creation of palpable constraints and restrictions on our life chances and our contribution to society. Others in our society will recognise this disempowering effect, from the disability movement, the feminism movements and civil rights. Denying an experience is central to the expression of power.

Co-production should be the antidote to that empire. If anything, co-production is the relinquishing of power, validating individual and collective experience and the construction of new social relations.

Releasing power is a challenge for most organisations. Over the last 50 years we have seen the professionalisation of vocations. Where in the past nurse training was a combination of apprenticeship and ‘book learning’, now nurses require a degree. Social Workers also require a degree qualification to practice. The higher intellectual demands may mean that we have highly skilled people in caring professions but perhaps we have created the conditions where the release of power means giving up a generational-and evidence based- fight for recognition from other ‘professions’. Believing that ‘people’ can and should make rational decisions for themselves can feel like a betrayal of that consistency and collected and collated evidence.

I get the sense that the word ‘empowerment’ is beginning to lose its attraction in some places. I over-heard some professionals complain that it can be used as a mechanism to foist responsibility on to others. For example ‘empowering’ a community to take control of a local resource when a statutory provider is contemplating it’s closure. That does not feel like sharing power so much as an ultimatum.

There is a danger that co-production is used as a veneer of respectability used to justify service reduction and cost cutting in some places: ‘you have to do it because we can no longer afford to’. This is evidence of a different social contract than that which we all are used to and is symptomatic of the challenges facing public services across the United Kingdom. We have come to expect a level of service and response which was rarely discussed when I was growing up.

This can sound very pessimistic, and yet I am very much in favour of co-production if power and trust are genuinely shared and the outcome is recognisably empowerment. We know from our own direct experience of supporting Making Recovery Real as a significant tool in the SRN toolbox- along with the community and confidence building Write to Recovery – that the value in having equalised conversations that lead to a genuine and reciprocal sharing of power are at the centre of enabling the disconnected to connect. Let’s be clear, the disconnected exist everywhere, even in powerful organisations. Creating that opportunity to connect, being clear that that connection is valuable , increases  the likelihood that power, responsibility and success will also be shared.

It is difficult to separate processes of co-production from recovery. And why would we?  Relationships that support and encourage confidence and roles that are valued appear to have been at the centre of the success of the MRR pilots. The reciprocal effect of co-production is people who regain hope, hope that together they can make a change that will last. Not as people with lived experience, advocates, peer workers or health workers but as a people and a community that is valued.

If you would like to get involved in the Scottish Co-production Network, you can sign up for free here. And why not get involved in Co-production Week Scotland using #CoProWeekScot