Co-production, the idea of organisations seeing communities and service users as an asset in providing services, appears to have achieved a philosophical consensus as being a nice idea. However few organisations are really willing to move beyond fluffy rhetoric into making this ideology a practised reality. Perhaps one of the biggest barriers is that individuals within organisations forget that they too are members of the public and not something so separate from the people their organisation exists to serve. It may be a case of organisations not realising or recognising that the service user is a valuable asset with something to contribute, to ‘give back’ to the organisation that serves them. Or maybe it is as simple as this: co-production asks that those at the top of organisations who currently have all the power share this power with people and communities. This is impossible without trust. Those who currently hold power have to trust communities enough to consult with them, to be ready to talk and to listen and to do so honestly.
If you have never met anybody who is openly in recovery from or has recovered from a drug or alcohol addiction, it is possible that you do not consider this demographic particularly trustworthy. When I started volunteering for Recovery Cymru (a recovery community where people recover from drug and alcohol problems) in August 2012, I saw that the entire organisation (especially back then, before it received lottery funding) would fall apart without the hard work of not only the two paid members of staff but also the other volunteers, many of whom are recovering or recovered alcoholics and drug addicts. The ethos of Recovery Cymru is that we are a community, whether you are a member, a volunteer or a paid member of staff and whether or not you personally have ever had an addiction problem, and that every member of our community has something to give as well as something to gain from being part of it. I consider myself extremely privileged to have met some wonderful, strong and inspirational people through my involvement with Recovery Cymru.
If you were to walk into the Recovery Cymru building or indeed to any of our group sessions or events, it would not be immediately obvious who was a ‘service user’ (a word that is not used within Recovery Cymru, but the importance of language is something I will save for a later blog!) and who was not. Many of our members who join to get help with addiction are also volunteers, so the line between the service user taking from the organisation and the staff and volunteers giving to them is immediately blurred.
The level of responsibility volunteers (many of whom are also ‘service users’) choose to accept varies from helping with administrative tasks and keeping the building tidy to facilitating groups such as the weekly cookery social and arranging one-off events to representing Recovery Cymru at conferences such as AWSUM. Everyone who ‘uses’ the Recover Cymru services are also giving something back and the Recovery Cymru community thrives because of this.
Crucially, this ethos of co-production not only gives a sense of worth and value to individuals who have often been rejected in other areas of their lives, but is also massively beneficial to the running of Recovery Cymru. It seems obvious but in so many organisations it is overlooked that the service user is in fact the expert and that their views are the most important of all. At Recovery Cymru the experts are those people who are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and the organisation depends upon their knowledge not only of the recovery process and the various paths to recovery but of the many issues that often (but not always) accompany a history of addiction such as housing issues, mental or physical health problems and in some cases trying to find employment after being in prison. The people experiencing these issues, and those who have overcome them, are best placed within Recovery Cymru to shape the organisation because, after all, Recovery Cymru exists (like many organisations) to support the service user.
At Recovery Cymru, every member is invited to input into an open meeting which is held bi-weekly. Here members discuss things such as which new groups they would like to see run – how better to make sure that the groups meet the needs of those using them then to ask those people what they want? Many of the groups are facilitated by volunteers – some of whom are in the recovery process. Members also get a say on the procedural elements, including being able to review the code of conduct. In fact, when Recovery Cymru received Lottery Funding that meant they could take on new members of staff, current volunteer members of Recovery Cymru sat on the interview panel and questioned candidates.
It could only be a good thing if more organisations recognised their service users as the asset that they are and took advantage of their expertise to improve the service through mutual trust and co-operation.