Holding our leaders’ feet to the fire – make or break for co-production in Wales?

I once asked the indefatigable David Robinson (Early Action Task Force / Community Links / Changing London / Childrens’ Discovery Centre / We Are What We Do) for his top tip on making change happen. His reply?

Hold your leaders’ feet to the fire.

This was unexpected. David is diplomacy, tact and sweet reason personified. His approach is asset-based, appreciative, reciprocal. This transmorgification into Cruella DeVille was somewhat shocking.

But we think he may be right.

Eighteen months ago we sent an Open Letter to Welsh Government asking for co-production principles to be placed at the heart of our public services. This was signed by 256 organisations and individuals from the Wales co-pro community, and 25 letters of support were received from co-production experts from the UK, USA and Australia.

We received a really positive response from the First Minister which acknowledged that co-production was an ‘imperative’ in the design and delivery of sustainable social services, and outlined legislative and non-legislative approaches for ’embedding co-production …at the heart of our work’. He also committed the government to ‘ensuring that people across Wales have a genuine opportunity to shape the services they need’ and welcomed the contribution of the co-production community to meet this challenge.

That contribution has been forthcoming. In spades. In fact, in spades, shovels, trowels, hoes, hods and pitchforks. From citizens, service-recipients, carers, advocates, communities, service professionals, academics, government officers, Assembly members and ministers.

We have, collectively, helped to build an active and knowledgeable community of practice in Wales, internationally acknowledged and often world-leading. We have, collectively, run conferences, seminars, workshops and meet-ups. We’ve spoken about co-pro, written about co-pro, tweeted and emailed, visualised and animated co-pro. We’ve shared assets and evidence, made connections, supported each other, collaborated with each other and worked our massed socks off to help transform our public services – to ‘restore warm humanity as the driving force for public services, rather than compliance with increasingly centralised and de-personalised processes and systems’ as our director Nick Andrews so eloquently put it.

The outcome has been a slow but sure shift in the direction of transformative co-production, the first tentative steps towards a realignment of the relationship between state and citizens based on trust, on equal and reciprocal relationships. We have a potentially radical Social Services & Well-being Act, a National Outcomes Framework, a Prudent Healthcare strategy underpinned by co-production, a co-produced Future Generations bill, growing interest in the possibilities of co-produced commissioning, and a Co-production Implementation Group chaired by the CMO. And we have an opportunity to establish a Co-production Network for Wales and a support-base of over 120 organisations and individuals who are working with us to make that a reality.

So what’s the beef? Why do we need to hold feet to fires?

Well, we think we are at a tipping point – and it could go either way.

Although much has been achieved to date, there is a change in the language being used by Welsh Government. Co-production is being discarded in favour of partnership, engagement and collaboration. The principles outlined by Edgar Cahn are being glossed over or omitted from key documents. The experience of the international co-production community suggests that any dilution or substitution puts the entire enterprise at risk.

Co-production is about strengthening the core economy, re-energising service users as active and confident citizens, willing and able to share power and responsibility with the state. It’s about equality, reciprocity and social justice.

Co-production is the common purpose necessary to create collaboration between citizens and government, and between providers of services; it is the common purpose that citizens can (and do) accept and embrace, thus enabling true engagement to happen, leading to purpose-filled participation. In a sincere attempt at transformational co-production, collaboration, engagement and participation are all necessary, but in the absence of a common purpose they are simply not sufficient.

Today we have sent a second Open Letter to Welsh Government. It contains two requests:

1. We have asked for an unambiguous statement about the place of co-production in Welsh Government’s public service strategy, legislation and commissioning, underpinned by a shared understanding of the term.

2. We have asked for formal support for Co-production Wales’ proposal to establish an independent, member-led Co-production Network for Wales.

The Open Letter and full list of the 120+ supporters, are on our Media page, along with extracts from their letters. We asked people to explain why they were supporting both co-production and our Network proposal. They make a compelling case.

Equally compelling is the range and number of responses. Supporters include: the Bevan Commission, Public Health Wales, Royal College of Physicians, Aneurin Bevan Health Board, Welsh Institute for Health & Social Care, Care Council, British Association of Social Workers Cymru, Wales Centre for Equity in Education, Disability Wales, All-Wales People First, Monmouthshire, Cardiff and Gwynedd Councils, Community First Clusters in Cardiff East, Pontypridd and South Ebbw Fach, Wales Alliance for Citizen-Directed Support, Wales Public Services 2025, Wales Co-operative Centre, Social Firms Wales, People & Work Unit, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Early Action Task Force, New Economics Foundation, NESTA Innovation Lab, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Young Foundation, the Scottish Co-production Network / Scottish Community Development Trust and the Scottish Government’s Joint Improvement Team. And numerous third-sector organisations…

On one hand these are cheering times. However, our shared aspiration – to embed co-production at the heart of our public services – can only be achieved if the Welsh Government and its citizens work together, with a sense of common purpose based on relationships of trust and reciprocity. Without explicit and unambiguous support for co-production from our government, transformation will remain piecemeal. Without the willing participation of citizens – as service-recipients, carers, advocates, professionals and academics – it will be tokenistic and ineffective.

Either way, change will be unsustainable, and the consequences of a failed social contract between Welsh Government and its citizens will be catastrophic. We will be left with ‘an unsustainable system and citizens who will have to fend for themselves’. (Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy, New Economics Foundation)

Please add your kindling to the fire in any way you can: share widely on social media, tweet our politicians, re-blog or send this on to colleagues, friends and interested parties, start a conversation, sing a song, create a graphic, make some noise.

Help us show that we stand united for real change in public services, and for equality, reciprocity and social justice.

We simply cannot afford to fail.