“It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way that You Do It – That’s What Gets Results”
“Practice makes perfect” is a well-known saying, but why is practice – as a professional discipline – disregarded in certain spheres? Why do other realms garner more authority than the knowledge engendered from ‘doing’? This blog presents the case for the inclusion of practice-based knowledge within the core understanding of co-creation, and seeks to open up a discussion about how practice holds the key to transferring learning from co-creation processes and replicating them in new spaces.
Towards an Optimum Environment for Co-creation?
Speaking at a Co:Create event earlier this year, Noreen Blanluet (Director, Co-production Network for Wales) pointed out the elephant in the room – policy and research are well connected and have established channels for knowledge exchange, but practice is not well represented in these conversations at the moment. Making a call for the validation of practice within the realms of co-creation knowledge exchange, Blanluet proposed that, in order to fully understand and realize co-creation, there should be a triangulation of policy, research and practice – all of which should be supported by sound evidence. Arguably, it is when these three areas are aligned – in terms of values, vision and approach – that an optimum environment for co-creation can occur. For instance, without policy there is no wider context for change, without research there is no grounding for change and without practice, change cannot be effectively implemented. Essentially, these areas are in a symbiotic relationship; one will simply not work without the others.
Diagram 1: Triangulation of policy, research and practice, Co-Production Network for Wales, 2019
For practice to be accepted into the triangle, Blanluet calls for fellow practitioners to begin to “build better evidence”. So, what does this evidence look like? Part of the problem is that practice-based evidence looks different to other more measurable forms of data. It is messier, less tangible and thus more likely to be considered ‘soft’. Such factors lead to a perception of this knowledge base as being hard to define and handle. However, such perceptions should not serve to undermine the validity or value of practice-based evidence. Simply because we do not feel we have the frameworks for measuring, navigating or synthesizing this type of knowledge, should not mean we discount it. Rather, we should acknowledge the fact that our current processes for understanding and validating knowledge are inadequate and new ways of understanding need to emerge. We need to disrupt our thinking in terms of what evidence is and begin to explore what it could be – thereby embracing the concept of disruptive gain.
From our perspective at People’s Voice Media, lived experience has a vital role to play. For us, lived experience is about how people encounter the world, the situations they find themselves in and their understanding of how they navigate (or not) these situations. Lived experience – or experiential knowledge – is nothing new. In fact, as my Nan would say – “it’s as old as Adam”. Basically, experiential knowledge has always been there. It’s how we know not to eat pizza directly from the oven because it burns the roof of our mouths… or at least we should know this.
The basic message is that the experience of practitioners working in co-creation needs to be taken seriously. As Blanluet has put forward, co-creation as a practice is built not only professionals but citizens as well; they are key actors within the processes. On-the-ground, actual implementation needs to be accounted for, held up, reflected upon, discussed and seen as evidence in its own right. In fact, whilst I’ve got some space to write and hopefully have your attention, I’ll go a step further – policy and research also need to harness lived experience. Perhaps even more so.
In creating an optimum environment for co-creation need not only to look at the experience of professionals or practitioners working in sectors, but also people who access the services they deliver. What are people’s experiences of services and how does that shape professional understanding? How can this influence the policies being written and the ways in which research data is framed and positioned? With this and learning from the CoSIE project in mind, I’d like to build on Blanluet’s triangle and propose the following visualization.
Diagram 2: Triangulation of policy, research and practice informed by lived experience
As the diagram depicts, the realms of policy, research and practice should all be informed by lived experience. To achieve this, there needs to be a paradigmatic shift in terms of what we consider evidence to be, what we consider as data and how we attribute value. This largely attitudinal change to what types of information ‘matter’ has started, it is here – it just needs to grow. You early adopters in CoSIE and beyond, keep the faith, the mass adoption will happen, if we continue pushing.
In Search of the ‘Holy Grail’ of Impact
So, why does practice matter to co-creation processes and what is its place in CoSIE? Well, CoSIE is investigating co-creation processes in public services across Europe through applied research practices. A key aim of the project is to unearth how co-creation works, synthesise this learning and share it with others so it is more widely adopted. Essentially, we are looking at what can be transferred from this project and be replicated elsewhere for the Holy Grail of ‘impact’. I would argue, however, that the key to this is not found in the actual pilot services in this project, but instead in the underpinning practice that has led to their development and informs their delivery.
Speaking at a meeting for the Co-Engage project, Cat Duncan-Rees (Co-production policy advisor and Facilitator, Think Local Act Personal) used an iceberg metaphor to describe the relationship between co-creation and the co-production of services. For Duncan-Rees, the smaller, visible part of the iceberg is ‘co-production’, manifested in the “tangible results of creating the right conditions”. Underneath this is ‘co-creation’ and this much larger part of the iceberg is about “creating the right conditions” for co-production of services. Contributors, according to Duncan-Rees, to creating such an environment for co-production include relationships, permission to fail, being human and conversations.
Extending this analogy into the realms of the CoSIE project, I would suggest that, when thinking of replicability, transferability and impact, we should not be looking at the tip of iceberg. In essence, such things cannot be found in the service itself. Instead, we should look underneath to see what has enabled the service to be created and what is governing its delivery. It is within this frame that the transferability of learning, replicability of practice and wider impact can be achieved.
Diagram 3: Co-creation and replicability iceberg
As the diagram above depicts, the tip of iceberg is the ‘what’ (i.e. the service-level results of a co-creation process) and underneath the waterline lies the ‘how’ (i.e. the way in which the service has been co-created). The service is relatively context-dependent and simply picking it up and moving it to another location, with another set of people, in another environment will not work. What we must do instead is to pick up the ‘practice’ that created the service and replicate it elsewhere. As the practice is not as contextually dependent, it can be transferred more easily. It also seeks to avoid parachuting simple solutions (i.e. pre-made services) into complex environments. In doing so, this approach builds things from the ground-up, making sure they are fit for the context in which they are being located. “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” which is key to transferring the learning from CoSIE and creating a wider, more systematic impact.
So what makes up this practice? In the CoSIE project we are still on our learning journey, testing out methodologies of co-creation from both within the consortium (i.e. Living Labs and Community Reporting) and beyond (i.e. design thinking, person-centered practice), and finding ways of synthesizing these experiences. Maybe that’s a subject for a later blog… Looking beyond our project, there are plenty of innovative and challenging practice-based and informed work to explore. As a starting point, take a look at the Be More Pirate rebellion that advocates professional rule breaking, the understandings of vulnerability and wholeheartedness put forward by Brene Brown, the Making It Real framework, and the practice of Treehouse Liverpool CIC.
There are many more pioneers in this field, doing things differently and shaking-up not only the conversation but the ways that things are done. If you take the time to look around you or even in the mirror, you’ll probably see them.
Writer: Hayley Trowbridge, People’s Voice Media