Greater Manchester

“People who have had quite easy lives should not be making decisions about people who have not.” – citizen with personal experience of criminal justice system and drug, alcohol and mental health services

“People who are used to power want to believe they have all the solutions.” – senior decision-maker in public sector


The original Elephants project in Greater Manchester was designed, planned and run by a collaboration between the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), Community Led Initiatives, Inspiring Change Manchester, Justlife, Petrus Community and Unlimited Potential.

The Elephants project brought together people with lived experience of severe and multiple disadvantage with decision-makers from across Greater Manchester to discuss and take action required to tackle these challenges and answer 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?

The Elephants project sought to bring together citizens’ knowledge and first-hand experiences of disadvantage with professional knowledge and budgets to produce solutions with a greater potential to improve lives.

Recognising that the biggest challenges for the mainstreaming of co-production are often not structures, but individual feelings and how people perceive and relate with others, participants worked to create a context where people involved could be honest about these barriers so that they could be overcome.

Coordinated by project team of people with lived experience and people from local voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations, the Elephants project ran over several phases in 2016-2017:

  1. Engagement and recruitment of some 30 people with lived experience and decision-makers (from the public, private and social sectors) from across Greater Manchester.
  2. Confidential conversations with each individual about perceptions (including ‘elephants in the room’) and challenges to co-production and better relationships.
  3. An initial ‘meet and greet’ session to introduce people to each other.
  4. A first event to explore issues, identify potential focuses, and form project groups.
  5. Project groups working on separate issues (such as commissioning in criminal justice, homelessness, and spice) facilitated by someone with lived experience and someone from a voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisation.
  6. Interim and final learning events.

Each project group identified practical issues and solutions from their work, but perhaps as importantly helped to create relationships between people as human beings, so allowing very different kinds of conversations and developments than normally occur.

Decision-makers got insight into the realities of severe and multiple disadvantage, while people with lived experience got greater understanding of the challenges of working within ‘the system’.

Participants recognised that relationships are essential, but also difficult to form. People who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage reported that the system has failed them and in turn they distrust institutions and the professionals that work within them.

Furthermore, the language, cultures, and day-to-day experiences of ‘decision makers’ and those with ‘lived experience’ are often so different it was hard to find common ground. Participants worked together to unpick structures resulting in a freer and exploratory type of co-production, producing innovative initiatives such as a co-produced approach to the Spice epidemic in Greater Manchester.

Key learning from the 30 participants in the project included:

  • We need the voices of those who have experienced disadvantage to be involved in shaping solutions to improve their lives, and these voices must hold the same value as the voices of decision makers.
  • We must challenge and unpick the current structures we have (commissioning, funding, job roles, etc.) in order for this to happen.
  • Both ‘decision makers’ and those with ‘lived experience’ need to be involved in reshaping the current structures.
  • To allow any of this to happen, the starting point needs to be a trusting, respectful relationship between ‘decision makers’ and people with ‘lived experience’ that is based on a deep set of shared values. If this is successful, these labels will be increasingly less important.

The learning from the Elephants project has been summarised in a draft guide to co-production, Working Together to Tackle Disadvantage, which was itself co-produced. This outlines: why work together; key principles; getting started; making progress; practicalities; and ensuring change. You can read more about the principles of working together here. And here is a visual of the Elephants in the room process.



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