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Co-production in times of crisis: how do we walk alongside the voice of lived experience?

On Friday 29 May 2020 our Experts by Experience (EBE) community took over our blog and social media channels to share #EBE_Voices during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this blog, our Female Engagement Co-Production Worker Lou Thorpe explores the importance of connection and the role of co-production in times of crisis.

Co-production in times of crisis: how do we walk alongside the voice of lived experience?

By Lou Thorpe, Female Engagement Co-Production Worker

When asked to pen some thoughts on the impact of the current pandemic and resulting lockdown and how this affects co-production opportunities I had some confidence that I was off to a flying start. Why? Because in the last few weeks I have explored this topic with our System Change Lead, with members of the wider Fulfilling Lives Team, with specialist women workers from Changing Lives and with many of our active Experts by Experience (EBE). I have in my mind the views of a diverse range of people, have been able to access this voice by reaching out, have modelled that I value the importance of sharing opinions and active listening and finally have been motivated to hear “Thanks so much for ringing Lou, it really makes a difference to my day”. It’s been great to reflect that I can endeavour to use the four central values of co-production as I go about my work from home: Diversity, Access, Power Sharing and Reciprocity.

It’s disrupting and difficult not to be able to go about our business as usual. We were really getting stuck into some great pieces of work to share ideas about positive change for people facing multiple and complex needs (link to last blog here). We have had fantastic successes in building relationships with key stakeholders, for example the DWP, Gateshead Safeguarding Adults Team, Public Heath England to name only a few. How can we continue the conversations and current pieces of work and, most importantly, further grow the positive relationships we have worked so hard to build?

To try and find a way through this I have been reflecting on what does connection mean to me and what do I need to make me feel connected? There has to be connection to co-produce and we are all working on ways to ‘stay connected’. One of our EBE members has written an excellent blog which I hope you will read too (available here) which shares her thoughts. The digital avenues open to us are endless and are no doubt invaluable options for many. Consideration is needed to reflect on how we can utilise the wealth of digital technology that is available in a safe way to share voice, particularly when that voice may be from someone who faces vulnerability. Mental wellbeing has never been so important and we need to be mindful in involving others in discussions and pieces of work at a time when we are all perhaps more vulnerable and sensitive than usual. Behaviours, both positive and negative, are exacerbated and needing to be managed and do we need to balance a desire for ‘output’ with the question of this being the right time?

What happens when we disconnect the connection? For those who work in our sector we are comfortable with dialogue that speaks to being mindful, considers wellbeing and safeguarding thus it would be part of our best practice to offer ‘check ins’ and ‘reflective practice’ to our people.  How can we promote this across the system if we do continue to embrace the digital world or indeed if it is the avenue for inclusion of voice offered to us – to hear what people need to feel connected, included and safe in this world would be an excellent opportunity to co-produce a starting point! I did use the word ‘option’ earlier as I do fear that the current communication landscape may become the norm and that this may then further disenfranchise those who we need to constantly hear from for real system change. Some Experts by Experience have told me that online activities like peer support groups have been difficult to manage, can be emotionally charged, have felt too intrusive and open and have impacted self-esteem.  Equally, I have also heard that they are a life line and a new challenge that has supported recovery.

What we do seem to have at the moment is time – to reflect and ponder and to reach out and communicate. Also to ASK. What works for you and why? What would you like to keep from this time, what worked only because it was of the time? We don’t want a sticking plaster to be the legacy from this. We know one size does not fit all and this applies to how we connect too – asset based and person centred – messages to the system that are not unfamiliar to us!

Finally, in my own work as Female Engagement Co-Production Worker during this time I am working with the view that ‘it’s a good time to give back’. To bring co-production to life we need to close the feedback loops, to keep people informed and to showcase the value of their voice. To say thank you for the ideas, information and experiences shared. As we say in our co-production training – “Co-production is a relationship and not a one night stand”.