A warm welcome to our new Binks Hub PhD student Helen, who has written this blog post to introduce the research she’ll be conducting for her PhD. Her research project will focus on co-produced research, how it creates value and makes a difference.
What do we mean by co-production?
Co-production is a relational and collaborative approach that is sometimes defined in reference to core principles such as fostering equal partnership, mutual benefit, and starting with and intentionally growing people’s capabilities (among others).[i] The term is used, although not exclusively, to mean the coming together of people with learned (professional) and lived (life, direct) experience of the issue under consideration, to create knowledge and solve problems collaboratively.
Of course, these distinctions are in practice more fluid, and we all have some combination of learned and life experiences; we live inside and outside of our working experiences and may have formal expertise outside of the life experience that brings us to any particular issue. Those nuances aside, this reading of co-production asserts the importance of the meaningful and deep involvement of people with direct experience of what it is like to use a service or experience an issue.
The roots of ‘co’ lie in the Latin com, meaning “together with” or “in combination”, and in the Proto-Indo-European kom, meaning “beside”, “near” or “with”. The roots of “produce” offer meanings of “bring forth”, “draw out” and “extend”.[ii] Together, these meanings beautifully evoke the collaborative and developmental heart of the practice. While many people have a great passion for and interest in these practices, and there is a growing number of people across sectors who want or need to work more collaboratively, they can push systems, processes, skillsets, and roles, and invite some further questions.
Unpacking the questions
The broad scope of this new doctoral research is to contribute to a greater understanding of why, where, and how co-produced inquiry creates value and informs outcomes, including outcomes for policymaking.
There is unpacking and settling to do in every part of this. How do we define co-produced research? To what extent are definitions and models of practice shared, and how do they depend, explicitly or implicitly, on histories and embedded ways of thinking of different disciplines? Where does co-production begin and end, and does it find distinction within a range of participatory practices, to which a dizzying array of language and modelling attaches?
Then, further, where does co-produced research or inquiry sit against co-production that is applied to a wider range of objects – policy, services, and commissioning being key areas? All of these imply knowledge creation for social change, and in some part, the question as it stands challenges us to think about what we mean by “research” and how this relates to other forms of social inquiry and collaboration.
(How) does co-produced research make a difference?
As an evaluation practitioner, I am drawn to moving beyond questions of definition to questions of context, value and outcomes. There is much to learn from the research impact literature on factors that shape the influence of research and evidence over the volatile, unsteady life of policymaking, as well as the different forms that this influence can take. This ranges from more direct examples of implementation to more nuanced shifts in how social issues are conceived, understood and spoken about, as well as in supporting argument or position. [iii]
The intricacies of connecting the messy tendrils and strings between any one piece of research or policy-influencing work and policy action are well-documented and the subject of considerable efforts, again across disciplines and sectors where the pressures to reflect on and show impact are felt.[iv] But the conditions under which co-production is most likely to bear fruit are not yet well understood.
Following the tendrils and strings and inviting different perspectives
My own experience of working with organisations and activists seeking to understand the outcomes of participatory work has encouraged me to look beyond the most obvious, hoped-for linkages between knowledge and policy influence. This work is messy and unpredictable, and change can ripple out in ways that no-one expects, as people engage as human beings in a process with others, talk to each other, take their learning into different spaces, and as the processes, structures and supports around people’s voices and lived experiences morph, grow, and (hopefully) improve.
There is a challenge in capturing the meaningful impacts that really matter to people and working out what is tangential and what is core to the change story. Reflecting on participatory design, I am interested in exploring multiple perspectives on the value of this way of doing/learning and how this value finds expression in the outcomes experienced.
I am interested in hearing stories and reflections across people’s experiences, and thinking beyond a project-centric view about how experiences of a project nest into more expansive stories of a person’s activism or role supporting activism, a social movement for change or a shifting policy area.
I am interested in what ‘success’ looks like from different vantage points, and whether this changes as people engage on the ground in this way of working.
Setting a course
There is a landscape of possibilities ahead for exploring this field, and I am at the very beginning of finding my way. Tangled, diverse, interdisciplinary topics offer enormous potential for creative thinking, in bringing together and overlaying different perspectives and assumptions.
This initial stage of work is about shaking the snow-globe again and again, to observe the snowflakes falling in fresh patterns and arrangements, and how they create highlights in the details of the scene. It will take time to settle on a point of focus and a course. The mainstay is always to consider how this work can be useful and used; to scaffold good conversations, prompt critical reflection, tell clearer stories of process and outcomes, and to inform practice. When I get lost, I need to remind myself how principles of coproduction might be interpreted in how I work, such recognising the value and capabilities that people bring, and thinking about how this research opportunity can be reciprocal, encourage positive connections and bring shared benefits for people working in this space.
Already, I am noticing that many people are interested in this research, have stories to share and practice dilemmas and pains, that they want critical-yet-supportive spaces to discuss and problem-solve, across the disciplinary silos. These include tricky issues like how to bridge the gap and translate between the worlds of policymakers and communities; processes around paying experts by experience; accreditation of learning; equality, diversity and inclusion and questions of how people want to be involved; and lining up organic, situated processes with institutional requirements.
I look forward to having many more of these conversations.
Helen Berry is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh, starting in September of this year, and supported by the Binks Hub PhD Studentship. Helen has 20 years’ experience working across applied social research, policy, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL), and development roles and projects, commonly with a focus on children, families, and relationships, and frequently working with third sector organisations. She has long-standing interests in evaluation design, meaningful, accessible and participatory approaches to creating and sharing knowledge, and animating knowledge and evidence for social impact.
You can find out more about Helen and her previous work here or connect with Helen on LinkedIn. Further updates on the progress of this research project will be shared here, on the Binks Hub blog.
[i] New Economics Foundation and Nesta have offered principles that are frequently cited. See Boyle, D. and Harris, M. (2009) The Challenge of Co-production. London: NESTA. Available at: https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/the_challenge_of_co-production.pdf (Accessed: 5 September 2023).
[ii] https://www.etymonline.com/ Any errors in interpreting the etymology are my own.
[iii] Discussed by many and nicely synthesised by Carol Weiss and colleagues, Weiss, C.H., Murphy-Graham, E. and Birkeland, S. (2005) ‘An Alternate Route to Policy Influence: How Evaluations Affect D.A.R.E’, American Journal of Evaluation, 26(1), pp. 12–30. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1098214004273337.
[iv] These issues are widely discussed, however for a good overview of the challenges see Morton, S. (2015) ‘Progressing research impact assessment: A “contributions” approach’, Research Evaluation, 24(4), pp. 405–419. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/reseval/rvv016.