Co-production: Responding to a changing world


By Louise Whitehead, Doctoral Researcher and Research Associate, Centre for Loneliness Studies, University of Sheffield.

Co-production has been around for a while but in today’s changing world it has never been more relevant or necessary. It is the opposite of ‘one size fits all’ and its capacity for flexibility and responding to change makes it an approach which can help services keep their finger on the pulse of what people need in these rapidly changing times. It is also a truly strengths-based way of working, as it encourages people to use the strengths they have, but also to develop their skills, knowledge and experience in an ongoing cycle. In this sense, co-production is never ‘done’ as there is always more to learn. 

Who is involved in Co-production?

One of the most important elements of co-production is that influence and power to make decisions which shape services are open not just to (often senior) paid members of staff, but everyone who is involved, whether they are people who use services, volunteers or paid members of staff. In fact, this can often mean that paid staff step back as decision-makers to a more facilitative than decision-making role. 

What do co-produced services look like?

Time to Shine, a National Lottery 6 year funded initiative, aimed at reducing social isolation and loneliness amongst older people in Leeds have always put older people at the heart of their work, including decisions about which types of services they buy-in for the programme. This is particularly important because it is an opportunity to make some fundamental decisions about what these services look like and which organisations will be responsible for them. When the Time to Shine programme first started, they consulted a range of older people from across Leeds to find out what types of services were needed for older people who were lonely and isolated and which organisations would provide them. Although it was successful, the staff at Time to Shine recognised that more work could be done to make sure older people had power and influence over these types of decisions. A Time to Shine member of staff highlighted this commitment ‘My belief that who holds the money tends to have the power that you know if older people hold the money that the power transfers through.'

Elderly Lady

Co-producing commissioning

Halfway through the Time to Shine programme, 2 ½ years later, more decisions were needed about how to spend £1.7m across 11 projects. Given the amount of money and range of projects, this task carried significant power and responsibility and the programme saw this as an opportunity to live its values of co-production. 

How did this happen?

  • Older people were involved in decision about the criteria for projects to be awarded money from the programme funds.  
  • A wide range of older people were approached to try to increase the range of older people who would be involved in making these decisions. This included some older people who had lots of experience in this type of work who were part of the programme board and some older people who had experience of using services. Everyone’s experience of later life was valued. There were still some gaps as not everyone involved had the experience of being lonely or socially isolated and not all communities in Leeds were represented. 
  • Everyone who got involved wanted to give something back. People didn’t get involved for the financial reward but were motivated by the chance to give back and make things better for others. After the experience, panel members said that their confidence increased, they had learnt something new (or built on the skills they already had) and that they felt valued. 
  • These volunteers then assessed the applications for funding submitted by organisations, formed panels to interview representatives from organisations and finally decided which organisations would receive the money for their services. 
    Jigsaw Puzzle

What needs to be considered to support co-production? 

  • Time and commitment. This type of work involves a substantial time and commitment from volunteers, and it is important to be honest about that from the outset. There can be differences between what volunteers are asked to do. On this occasion, some panels only shortlisted and interviewed a couple of projects, some looked at as many as 19 projects.  amount of time and level of commitment needed for this type of work may not be everyone’s cup of tea and that is OK. 
  • Changing roles of paid staff. Time to Shine paid staff recognising their role has changed, it was no longer to direct the work, but to support older people to do the work and make the decisions. For this to happen, staff had to stand by their values, or ‘live the words’ of co-production. This meant working to support the volunteer panel members to do the commissioning work, but to truly do this without influencing their decision, or ‘driving from the back seat’ To deliver the decisions made by the volunteer commissioning panels, standing by these decisions, even when they may not have been the commissioning decisions they would have made. This needed staff to reflect on their actions and to understand how their interactions with the panel members and others could indirectly influence the decisions made. Only with this level of honesty and integrity could the Time to Shine staff truly ‘let go of the reins’ of influence and live the values of co-production. A member of Time to Shine staff reflected: ‘I suppose there’s a lot about your, I don’t know I suppose its integrity isn’t it really that you sign up for doing something together you just have to just, the whole process has to be together’. 
  • Working within the wider context. It is important to recognise that co-producing doesn’t mean operating outside of systems and ignoring rules and regulations. In this situation, panel members still needed to work within the requirements for spending Big Lottery money and to be accountable for their decisions they made. 
  • Making sure information is accessible. Make sure that all the information is easy to read and use plain English as using complex professional language can be a preventable and unnecessary barrier. At the beginning of the work, some volunteers found it difficult to understand the information they needed to make decisions and found this undermined their confidence in their ability to do the work, but their confidence increased once they started the work.  A panel member reflected that ‘I did not understand fully the document, especially because I wasn't absolutely sure, I felt as if I made a mistake. It was the lack of knowledge basically that made me doubt in my own ability, but very soon I got into it’.
  • Provide training and support for panel members. Time to Shine staff provided panel members with information about what was involved, then another session about the mechanics of the process. Wider training should also be available about issues such as unconscious bias, conflict resolution, interviewing techniques, equality and diversity and any other sector specific issues. 
  • Recognise the challenges for people who volunteer their time. Try and make sure that people have as much time as possible, including recovery time. People often found the work intense and taxing and to sustain people who volunteer, time between each stage needs to be given to help people to ‘recover’ from the work. Panel members also worked without the benefit of the connections and relationship of an office environment and are often working in isolation. On this occasion, panel members said that working in isolation made the experience more challenging and the opportunity to talk to others is a significant part of the support people need.   personal issues can impact on the work. A panel member reflected: 
  • I say with my experience of the meetings and doing it on my own, the collegiate thing of doing it together, even if you're in the same room and you're working individually, but you're in the same room, there's somebody there, there's an introduction, is a very different experience to doing it into the isolation’. 

  • Provide advice, support and encouragement. In this situation, the ongoing support and encouragement from Time to Shine staff for panel members was invaluable. This included the chance to talk about questions which came out of the process, negotiating appropriate adjustments to the process and supportive peer challenge about the application of the process. The informal support and encouragement from Time to Shine staff was also valued by panel member: ‘I think the other help that was given was encouragement and food. I think at the shortlisting particularly; I seem to remember that there was chocolate bites and various other things to just keep you going’

Although the Time to Shine programme is nearing the end of its current funding it is hoped that the co-production legacy created by the programme will continue to thrive in Leeds and beyond. So much so that Time to Shine and the University of Sheffield are developing a Co-production toolkit and accompanying training resources which will be launched later in the year.


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