From what we do to how we do it: a conversation on coproduction

October 14, 2019

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by Ben Thurman, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

There is a feeling that something is changing in the way that we consider knowledge and evidence. That there is an appetite for discussion about how the state provides services, how we build trust between people and institutions, and how we shift the power dynamics between researchers and ‘researched-on’. And that there are opportunities for universities to engage in a more meaningful way with people who use research and with the places they are in.

It was against this backdrop, and the wider sense that coproduction is ‘having a moment’, that the Carnegie UK Trust and Involve invited a group of researchers and research funders to discuss the conditions for effective coproduction, and the opportunities for encouraging a more collaborative and relational approach to knowledge production.

Although there were a number of good examples of coproduction around the table, it felt important to consider the extent to which researchers actually work with the public. How much ‘coproduced’ research is really just very robust public involvement? How do we move towards something that is less paternalistic and more bi-directional? And is there capacity within research communities to truly ‘do’ coproduction?

There are certainly challenges, and much of the discussion focused on the importance of creating space for and investing in relationship building before you know what research you want to do. Innovations, such as ‘sandpits’ and crowdsourcing, can disrupt the more traditional, consultative approach; and yet, they still appear to be models that work for the academic community.

True coproduction is not about projects, and must instead focus on how we work. It’s about embracing the tension between the priorities of academics and what other partners want to get out of research. And this can only be done by ‘hanging around’, drinking tea, washing dishes: spending time to build trusting relationships that create the space for challenge and dissent.

Investing in these types of activities – without any certainty in outcome – is risky, and it is a risk that few funders or universities are willing to take (although we have captured stories of effective research partnerships across a range of different contexts in our new film, Working together to co-create knowledge). So how do we encourage the shift from a linear model of research and knowledge exchange, towards an approach that recognises the importance and complexity of relational activities, and provides the funding and flexibility for this?

To a room of ‘believers’ it can feel like the benefits of coproduction are self-evident: ensuring users of evidence are involved in the research process clearly links to power, inequality, participation, and reflects many of the shifts identified in the Trust’s Enabling State. But there may be a need to better understand the impact of coproduction: to develop new ways of measurement that reflect the value of partnerships, and that capture the long-term outcomes of collaboration.

If we are to encourage investing in relationships, we need to articulate coproduction as exactly that – an investment, not a cost. And to do that means collecting stories, developing new metrics and creating a compelling narrative that ‘makes the intangible tangible’.

The final theme, appropriate to the topic of coproduction, was the value of working together. There are real opportunities presented by a policy framework and funding environment that encourage knowledge exchange. And bringing together like-minded people offers possibilities to harness this energy: to continue to reflect on and explore what coproduction looks like and feels like; to connect people and opportunities; and, collectively, to challenge institutional ways of working.

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