View from a conservatory

1st November 2017, words by Chris Dabbs

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 can you learn if you bring together a group of committed people with very diverse lived and professional experience of severe and multiple disadvantage to work together?

The Elephants project was established by several social sector organisations to address the question: How can people with lived experience and decision-makers work together to eradicate severe and multiple disadvantage in Greater Manchester within a generation?

I have a background in public engagement, social innovation and social enterprise. I joined the Elephants project to explore new ways to create solutions with local people. I hoped that the learning might lead to approaches that could be spread within and beyond Greater Manchester.

I have learned these five lessons from the project group with which I worked.

Open discussion. Our communication and understanding at the start was unclear. Everything changed at our third meeting. There was a clear and honest discussion of how we all felt and what we really wanted to do. Although difficult, we came away with a clear sense of purpose and direction.

People as people. Openness at the start of the co-production process, with time just to get to know each other as human beings, is crucial. Sharing individual stories helped people to leave their ‘badge’ or ‘label’ at the door and to treat each other in a sincere and genuine way. We stopped seeing people by their position and engaged more as human beings.

Learning together. Some structure and light facilitation are needed, but without prescription. It is also OK to test things and for not everything to ‘work’ – so long as learning is captured. We found the focus on mutual learning both productive and rewarding.

Shared leadership. Sharing responsibility across the group for facilitating and leading on different things worked well. This enabled us all to feel part of a team, with no single ‘leader’. Relaxed venues away from offices (such as an Edwardian conservatory in a park) created an equal environment that enabled different thinking and ideas.

Relationships are critical. Perhaps most important for me, creating compassionate relationships is critical to co-production. With these, people with lived experience really get their voices heard, and decision-makers get valuable input about the realities of severe and multiple disadvantage. We found that only after human relationships were established could real progress be made.

Working in this way may take longer than some other approaches, but is eventually much more effective. By adopting this radically different approach, Greater Manchester would create highly practical and relevant solutions that make a real difference to people, and reduce unnecessary demand on public services.

Taking part in the project has helped me to experience and reflect on how much more can be achieved not by involving local people in organisations’ developments, but by enabling them to work to create solutions together. It has spurred me to work harder towards true ‘co-production’ with local people, on equal terms.


Chris Dabbs is the Chief Executive of  Unlimited Potential, a social enterprise that specialises in social innovation for happiness. We work alongside local people to create new solutions together.



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