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Whose voice counts?

Event title: whose voice counts

The pandemic put space between us

The pandemic we’re living through is a barrier because of how we’ve had to be apart from one another. Our limited capacity to meet in person has made it more difficult to build relationships, which is the foundation of co-production. It has also locked some people out of the conversation, with the switch to digital excluding those who don’t have the technology, data, skills, or confidence to participate online.

Accessibility is multi faceted 

Accessibility comes in many forms, from access to transport, to the ability to move around spaces, to affordability to be somewhere. For example, if there is a lack of public transport connectivity to a meeting venue, then those without cars, or the means to walk or cycle, cannot attend co-production sessions if they are in remote areas. Lack of means can also impact on the voices that are able to be heard – can people afford the bus fare, or to miss a shift at work in order to attend your event? Does getting into a building require the use of steps, or does the entrance lack a dropped kerb? 

We need to consider and budget for people’s needs when asking them to co-produce with us, and we need to do so in a way that doesn’t involve those in need having to ask for what others take for granted or don’t even have to think about. We can look at providing money in advance, rather than giving expenses after the fact, or put on community transport that is available to everyone and thereby eliminates any stigma. 

Avoiding assumptions based on demographics 

We need to identify and know who the people are who we are trying to reach, and why they are important to co-production. Are there missing voices? Are we involving the people least heard in wider society? Sometimes people are referred to as “hard to reach”, but we’re thinking about it the wrong way – consider instead that they are “easy to overlook”, “seldom heard”, “underrepresented”. Instead of expecting people to come to us, we should ask what works for the people we want to involve in co-production; what they need or want to be able to participate. We should avoid making assumptions and putting people in the position where they have to correct us. We need to treat people equitably, rather than equally, to ensure we don’t risk erasing people’s lived experiences and sense of identity. 

Doing things differently

We need to be open to doing things differently. If something isn’t working, rather than bemoaning those who we perceive are disengaged, we should reflect on that judgement. We should ask people if there is a problem. Are we doing something wrong? Do they lack confidence to engage? Are they unsure what we want them to do? Have we communicated clearly? Have we co-produced or have we decided for people how we want them to engage with us? 

Forming relationships is a long term commitment

We need to spend time bonding with people, getting to know them and finding common ground. We need to break the ice by sharing things about one another, to help us see each other as equals, to get everyone opening up in ways that are totally unrelated to the topic at hand. We need to help people feel relaxed, and make the environment comfortable. Remove as much uncertainty as possible, so that everyone knows what to expect, and is less likely to feel uncomfortable and unable to participate. We need to consider physical, emotional and mental needs, and how these might limit levels of participation. 

Hearing each other means actively listening

We need to create an environment where people are able to bring personal experience to the table, by listening to others, and by being receptive to negative as well as positive contributions. People need to be able to be their authentic selves, and be honest about how the experience of co-production is for them. We need to give guidance and assistance, rather than automatically assume everyone will be able or willing to communicate in the same way. 

We also need to be mindful of time, deadlines and power dynamics that might impact on participation. It takes courage to be heard in a room where you feel like an imposter. We shouldn’t interrupt people when they are in the flow of explaining themselves, but wait and then ask what we can do to make things better. The voices of those with lived experiences can only cut through when given the space to do so, and this will lead to greater levels of involvement and better outcomes. 

Final words

Many of these barriers existed long before the pandemic, but they have been exacerbated by it. Moving forward to a time beyond social distancing, it is important we ensure that we don’t simply go back to ‘normal’ because we need to recognise that that normal was already excluding people, something which we cannot afford to do if we want to co-produce our way towards a better future. This might feel like a lot but if we’re truly intentional about inclusion, then we can do co-production in a more fulfilling and sustainable way, that ensures everyone is able to use their voice.

This post was informed by the discussion at the #CoproMondays members’ event held online on 27th September 2021. Our #CoproMonday sessions are weekly discussions with members, prompted by a series of questions or thoughts, where participants contribute their experience and knowledge, and learn from one another. Recordings are available if you’re a member or champion and you would like to catch up on the session content (email hello@copronet.wales). Our thanks to all those who participated.

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