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  • Hebe Foster

Pushing the boundaries for true co-design

Conversations around co-design often flag the importance of managing the expectations of the users you're working with. And to some extent, that's completely fair. The structures we live and work in are huge, slow-moving, and often contradictory, and change isn't always possible overnight.

But at the same time, we need to recognise that there is space for pushback. As our brilliant expert by experience colleague John McGlone wrote recently, “structural and systemic causes within the system are human-made…and because they’re human-made, those systems can be changed.”


I recently attended a co-design meet-up over breakfast - an overall joyful experience meeting others interested in the power and potential of co-design to change experiences and outcomes for users. It was a chance to share our thoughts about co-design, describe our experiences with it, and ask questions about how to build true co-design processes. The group came from mixed professional backgrounds, such as transformation roles within the NHS, small startups focusing on agricultural change, and explicit co-design teams within government departments.


A group member explained that they were just starting to introduce co-design into their team’s work, which involved some engagement with the local community in his borough. He asked how best he could introduce the community to co-design, which is still relatively unknown there. “What tips does the group have for explaining the process? What pitfalls should I avoid?”


The first response was unsurprising: “you have to manage expectations”. The group agreed - even with the best will in the world, it’s really important to ensure that users understand there won’t be transformative change overnight, and that sharing their perspectives won’t always lead to visible, tangible results. “There are always constraints we can't move or ministerial steers we have to pay attention to,” they explained. “We have to ensure that the users we're working with understand that they may not be able to make that much change".


It really got me thinking. We were a group of (relatively) powerful people with the possibility to create new co-design rooms and processes - and yet we weren’t really questioning the very processes by which we were building these rooms. It was disappointing to hear that the key focus of the group was how to ensure that users weren't disappointed by the lack of change in that co-design process. I completely understand the need to manage expectations and recognise that the system is big and slow to change - it’s a critique we have come up against time and again at Telescope, with our ambitious aims to “change policy” and “support frontline voices to be heard”. I know that even on an individual level we humans constantly manage their own expectations, to stop the countless terrifying crises of the world completely overwhelming us. So it makes sense to really think hard about that within an environment where hopes might be quite high.


But this felt more helpless than that. It felt like we were positioning ourselves as just as “powerless” as the users in making real, systemic change, despite the obvious fact that as the managers and initiators of these co-design processes, we had far more power. Within that group, I felt that it was really important to argue that there is often more space to push back than it seems. Whether a team leader is introducing co-design to their team and associated stakeholders, or an explicitly “co-design” team is building a framework for engaging with users, those leaders and teams have power to make the process meaningful.


As Olúfémi O. Táíwò explains, “being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do… a constructive approach...would focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them”.


For example, we’ve recently started work with a central government department running a programme for community development in a local area of Wales. Our policy contact explained early on that although funding was tight, he had a surprising amount of flexibility. He had clearly and repeatedly told his funding team that no, he could not specify the "funded activities" in advance, because the whole point was that they would be designed and determined by the community once the project was underway. He pushed back against the constraints that seemed impenetrable - and they gave way, just a little bit, leaving room for much more meaningful community engagement. This policymaker is an inspiration to me, and an example of how we, as people with the power to build the rooms for discussion, can become more aware of our own agency to challenge what is and isn't possible.


Another quick example. We have recently launched our Learning Community, which aims to explore the question “how can we empower people to become changemakers in their organisations?” The whole point of the learning journey is to hold space for curiosity, leave outcomes open, and learn by doing. And yet, on a call with Collaborate recently about our newly-launched Learning Community, I was asked: “to what extent can people bring their own questions to the Learning Community space?”


My immediate reaction was “well, we have questions already, and we need answers to those”. That goes against the very grain of the Learning Community and its collaborative principles. Though we have a focus for our learning journey, it’s also about creating a space for learning that is driven by Community members collaboratively, not imposed top-down. My hopes and expectations that we’ll get a clear answer to exactly the question we’ve asked are both unfounded and potentially harmful to the potential of the Community.


This applies more broadly than co-design approaches within government departments. Through our programmes and our Learning Community, we want to encourage everyone to feel they have the agency to challenge how the things we do are structured. Individuals at middle manager level can often feel constrained from both sides: both top down, by their bosses who ostensibly have more authority, and bottom up, by their team, to whom they are ultimately accountable. But they still have agency to ask questions. If those of us who are lucky enough to have some power really want to start changing outcomes for users, we have to use our own agency to question why things are the way they are. Or at the very least, we have to push back and provide the space for users to give their opinion, before too many decisions are made.


I admit that pushing for a full revolution of how services and policies are designed is tough. So we need to move towards a world where it's possible that, at the very least, activities within a given co-design process do not have to be defined in advance in order to qualify for funding. Instead, trust must be handed to the community and their allies within government, so that services can be designed by them, with the resources already provided. No rules or caveats. That, to me, is the real path to co-design.

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