Elephants in the box: How can we work together to tackle severe and multiple disadvantage across Greater Manchester

30th October 2017, words by Christopher Woodward

Over the past year the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and partners, funded by Lankelly Chase, have been undertaking action research to understand how people who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage and decision makers can effectively work together to tackle the causes of inequality across Greater Manchester.

Often termed “coproduction”, exploring ways for citizens and professionals to work together is of-the-moment. However, there are a number of challenges that prevent coproduction becoming mainstream practise. These barriers are the “elephants in the room”: everyone knows they are there but no one wants to talk about them. We brought together ‘decision makers’ and those with personal experience of severe and multiple disadvantage to openly discuss these elephants, and see whether we could get them to leave the room for good. In a series of blogs this week we’ll be sharing the insights of people who took part in this research project. #ElephantsGM

What do we do when we discover elephants in the room? Do we put them in big boxes and just ignore them? It’s definitely easier that way! Or do we open the box and see what happens!

Over 12 months ago I was invited to join a small team of people from across Greater Manchester to explore coproduction in a pilot research project led by Lankelly Chase. The aim was to understand more fully how people with lived experience and decision makers work together to address and eradicate severe and multiple disadvantage.

Welcome to ‘ elephants’ our attempts to open those boxes and look at ways we can build relationships between Commissioners of frontline services, local healthcare providers, Homeless services and people with lived experience who often don’t have a voice.

I have worked at Petrus in Rochdale over the last 17 years as a frontline worker. My role has been to support people who have experienced homelessness and work with each other to address their support needs. In my experience homelessness continues to be a growing issue across Greater Manchester and the numbers of homeless people grow visibly each year.

As a front line worker interested in systems change,’ elephants’ was right up my street. After we all started to get to know each other a bit more, we split into smaller teams, each looking at co-production. What did it mean? How could we work together to make things more effective for all concerned.

I quickly realised that this coproduction thing was challenging. Just getting our small team together seemed to be difficult. Time was a key factor and filling in doodle polls became a logistical nightmare for everyone! Finding the right venue also proved to be harder than anticipated, we tried local cafes, meeting rooms, various offices and none seemed to meet everyone’s needs.  If we struggled with this, how were we going to make headway tackling those elephants in the room? Was coproduction just another one of those buzz words that gets bandied about?

Our small project team continued to meet up and to figure out what our plan was. The conversations were interesting, but I sensed some frustrations in the team. We were all incredibly polite with each other in our small group, as we struggled to get our head around coproduction. I often felt uneasy of my role within the group. I felt like people looked towards me as the nominated facilitator to guide the group and show the way forward. This didn’t feel like coproduction to me!

Meanwhile, back at work I was working to relaunch a men’s group and started to think about how we could do something around coproduction in the group. In the true spirit of coproduction we had discussions around what we wanted to do as a group and what sort of things should we be doing as a group of men coming together every week.

Across Greater Manchester the so called ‘legal highs’ or ‘Spice’ has impacted on many people and in particular those individuals facing severe and multiple disadvantage. Some of the guys in the group were keen to talk about ‘Spice‘ use and wanted to think about running their own awareness sessions to other users.

It felt like we could do something together, and our ‘elephants’ group agreed to look at how we could work together with the men’s group to tackle Spice use across Greater Manchester. It felt good to have something to work towards and to apply what we had learned from the wider ‘elephants’ project group.

In our conversations the notion of power kept cropping up. Who has power? Who is likely to give it up or even be willing to share some! What was clear in the ‘Spice’ group, people felt powerless and not listened to. “Nobody ever asks us why I started using drugs in the first place” was one of the comments made at a session. “It’s not helpful to hear that the only way I can keep my accommodation is to stop smoking spice and just pay my rent. I need support not ultimatums” was another startling comment.

Transformative coproduction talks about equal relationships between people and a sharing of power. The key question for me is despite all the rhetoric about coproduction, are those people in a position of power willing to step down from the ladders of hierarchy and give those at the bottom of the ladder, a chance to climb up that ladder of coproduction?

Giving people with lived experience the opportunity to be listened to and a place at the table with decision makers is at the very least a step in the right direction. For transformative coproduction to take place more is needed.

On a personal level my involvement with the ‘elephants’ project has been both challenging and insightful. When we looked at how we could tackle the ‘Spice’ problem across Greater Manchester it appeared that lots of people were keen to have their say including, academics, service providers, politicians, the local media and even some scientists chipped in. It was noticeable to me that no one had asked those people using ‘Spice’ for their input. Providing an opportunity for those discussions to take place in the Men’s group was an important shift, and creating a safe space for conversations to take place allows us complete another piece of the jigsaw of coproduction.

Are you willing to open that box and tackle those elephants in the room? You know it makes sense!


Christopher Woodward is a Service User Involvement Worker at Petrus Community.



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