Including the excluded to build a more inclusive society

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“…we must think of the relationships between citizen and state before we think of the structures…realising a common language, shared values, empathy, respect and a way to work together is essential”. – Jenny Rouse

Earlier this month, CLES held an event to close the first phase of our ‘Elephants in the Room’ series. Funded by Lankelly Chase, the event reflected on a year’s worth of work undertaken in Greater Manchester, bringing together 15 decision makers and 15 people with lived experience of severe disadvantage to build an understanding of how they could work in partnership to tackle the causes of inequality in the region.

Elephants in the room

Within the public and voluntary sectors, the coming together of citizens and professionals to design, deliver and evaluate public services is often called ‘coproduction’ and is very of-the-moment. The idea is that citizen’s knowledge and first-hand experiences of disadvantage are just as valuable as the professional knowledge and budgets of people working in these sectors. If these two forms of knowledge come together effectively, the result should be services with a greater potential to change lives.

Interest in coproduction has grown significantly since austerity hit, and is being explored as part of Greater Manchester’s programme of public sector reform. However, despite a number of high profile, successful examples across the region, the approach is far from being mainstream. This particularly holds true when thinking about coproduction involving those who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage. CLES’ initial research suggested that there were a number of unspoken challenges, or ‘Elephants in the Room’, that acted as barriers to mainstreaming the approach. The biggest challenges for the mainstreaming of co-production is often not structures, but individual feelings and how people perceive and relate with others. For example, people involved in ‘Elephants in the Room’ told us:

“Not having a Mancunian accent (or not living locally) makes me feel like I am not qualified to contribute to co-production about issues in Greater Manchester.”  – Public sector commissioner.

“People who have had quite easy lives should not be making decisions about people who have not.”  – Citizen with personal experience of criminal justice system and drug, alcohol and mental health services.

“People who are used to power want to believe they have all the solutions.” – Senior decision maker in public sector.

“People with lived experiences are expected to reveal personal things about their history, professionals are not. This creates an imbalance.” – Citizen with personal experience of using multiple services.

Learning how to work together

The project has sought to create a context where people involved in it can be honest about what these barriers are in order that they can be overcome. This has resulted in a freer and exploratory type of coproduction, producing innovative initiatives such as a coproduced approach to Greater Manchester’s Spice epidemic.

The learning from the work to date has been significant. In summary, the overwhelming sense from those involved in this work is that:

  • We need the voices of those who have experienced disadvantage to be involved in shaping the public services that they use, and these voices must hold the same value as the voices of decision makers;
  • We must challenge and unpick the current structures we have (commissioning, funding, job roles etc.) in order for this to happen;
  • Both ‘decision makers’ and those with ‘lived experience’ need to be involved in reshaping the current structures;
  • To allow any of this to happen, the starting point needs to be a trusting, respectful relationship between ‘decision makers’ and people with ‘lived experience’ that is based on a deep set of shared values. If this is successful, these labels will no longer be important.

These relationships are essential, but also difficult to form. People who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage reported that the system has failed them and in turn they distrust institutions and the professionals that work within them. Furthermore, the language, cultures, and day-to-day experiences of ‘decision makers’ and those with ‘lived experience’ are often so different it is hard to find common ground; but by investing in these relationships, we can work together to unpick the structures.

Being realistic about the obstacles

The latest Greater Manchester Strategy imagines a place where ‘all voices are heard and where, working together, we can shape our future’.  Yet we cannot pretend that coming together is enough to tackle the poverty and inequality many of those living in the city region face. We must go deeper. Indeed, the greatest challenge to tackling inequality and poverty in Greater Manchester is not the difficulty of working together, it is wider economic context the city region finds itself in. In a world of economic precariousness, low pay, slashed community support, temporary and zero hours contracts and not-so-affordable housing, we must be realistic about the extent to which coproducing services can really change lives.

However, what gives me great hope, is that the applicability of the lessons of Elephants – not just to public sector reform, but beyond – to how we (everyone) can shape a new progressive economy together. Coproduction should be seen as a progressive endeavour, part of a new wave of citizen participation and democracy. Around the world, examples are popping up of citizen-led challenges to the current economic model. One example of this is Barcelona En Comu, where citizen’s ‘social realities of the city’ are transforming the city’s governance.

Coproducing a progressive alternative

What if we take the lessons from Elephants out of public sector reform, and apply them to wider questions around citizen democracy, reshaping a system that works for all?  We should be aiming for a society where those experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage are at the heart of shaping alternatives. If their voices are not heard and valued, new progressive alternatives may just replicate the inequalities present in the current system; and surely these inequalities are the reasons we are hunting for alternatives in the first place?

It may be a small project, but if the deep learning from Elephants to date is anything to go by, we must think of the relationships between citizen and state before we think of the structures. This is challenging, and it goes somewhat against the grain of how public service traditionally operates. However, realising a common language, shared values, empathy, respect and a way to work together is essential. Including the excluded is key to building an inclusive society. Building these relationships will take time, effort, and their rewards are as yet unknown. But in uncertain times, we need a different conversation.

Read more about the project