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Co-production and Turn2us

  • 08/07/2020
  • Author:bridgetmccall

Abby Meadows reflects on her first six months as Turn2us' Co-production and Participation Officer

Screenshot of a co-production Zoom session

"This is a new role, so there’s no set tasks as such. We’ll work it out as we go along. That sound ok?" My new manager said as he sipped his first coffee of the day. 

Music to my ears actually, I thought. What more could someone who thrives off system building, teaching, learning and, most importantly, co-production want? 

Before working at Turn2us, I was an aid worker for refugees on the violent UK border of Calais, Northern France. At that time I felt the shame of operating in a 'paternalistic, white saviour' environment, where people are 'done to' rather than 'with'. Where people with no lived experience of migration are the sole decision makers of humanitarian services. It was this experience that encouraged me to get involved in media co-production activities with some incredible refugees in Calais, resulting in a refugee-led press conference on World Refugee Day 2019.

Returning home to my beloved and forgotten town, Leigh, just outside of Wigan, I knew I was searching for two things in my next job:

  • A cause I can personally relate to

  • A charity which prioritises the expertise of those with lived experience. 

Having used Turn2us Grants Search for many years as a student as well as working voluntary and minimum wage jobs, I took a hunch and looked at the jobs Turn2us was advertising.

One caught my eye: "Seeking a Co-production and Participation Officer, preference for someone with a lived experience of financial hardship."

Writing a job application which encouraged me to talk proudly and safely about my working-class background, rather than my university credentials, I knew a rare opportunity had presented itself to me. 

By November, my options for the big move to London were working in a Waterstones bookshop or getting a call back from Turn2us to let me know I had been appointed. The latter happened and I catapulted myself to London, with energy to shake up the system.  

I’m six months into my role as Co-Production and Participation Officer now and I feel we’re on an upwards trajectory. Much like Pandora’s box, once you’ve opened yourself up to the moral and practical reasoning for co-production, it’s hard to justify walking away from it. As the saying in the co-production community goes, "the closer you are to the problem, the closer you are to the solution". 

What we’ve achieved so far

We have integrated co-production in to our digital, communication and human resources (HR) projects, with plans to expand into other departments, such as grant making and fundraising, this year.

Digital services

On the digital side, we have successfully run a monthly panel with eleven people who have previously used our Benefits Calculator, to help design our new version.

'Feeling out' the intent behind the panel and where it sits on the co-production ladder has been an evolving process. However, I felt a huge relief when, at the latest session, upon being shown the prototype for the new calculator, one person exclaimed “Everything we’ve said is in there!”  It’s indicators like this which we look for to measure our success in our co-production work. If we collect but do not implement people’s suggestions in our work, then co-production is shallow and empty at best.

For our future projects, we are developing a way to document exactly where we have used an idea from someone, and when we have fed this important information back to them. 

Communications and policy work

As for communications (Comms) and policy work, we have lots to celebrate.

Three people with lived experience collaborated over three months with the Comms team to produce our key messages document (an internal guide of how to explain the work of Turn2us externally).

We also held our first policy workshop involving people with lived experience. This was a powerful two hour Zoom call discussing the details of the current social security system and our visions for the future. The lived expertise shone through here as did the communication and analytical skills of everyone who participated. 

How did Covid-19 affect our progress?

The main change has been a switch from meeting in person to meeting virtually, via Zoom. The switch has been smooth and effective, as we have managed to achieve everything that was already planned and more. Early on, we set up a rapid response referral group in response to the pandemic. Now a group of 87 people whose finances have been directly affected by Covid-19, Turn2us staff consult them on a weekly basis to get their insight on a range of issues.

These include:

  • Policy evidence to submit to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Select Committee enquiry into its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic

  • Website content and formatting 

  • Organisations have been helpful during Covid-19

  • Emotional support during Covid-19 

A key theme in the feedback during the time of the Covid-19 lockdown has been that the opportunities we provide - of online training, of participating in co-production projects - comes at a time when people have less to do. It is a welcomed way to keep their mind busy during this uncertain period. 

Recommendations for the future

Co-production is still in its early stages at Turn2us, and I am enthused by where we are headed. However, we still have a lot of learning to do to get there. 

These include:

  • Fluid and celebrated power sharing: We need to truly understand what it means to do a project ‘with’ and not ‘to’ someone who has experienced not having enough money to live on. My vision is for everyone to feel comfortable in sharing power.

  • Collaborating consciously: We don’t just bring people with lived experience to Turn2us and let their authentic voices be lost. We must continue to seek out groups led by those with the lived experience - and be supportive allies of them, like our recent relationship with the APLE Collective. What is more, we need to be intersectional in our approach - looking at a person or an issue from multiple lenses rather than one, considering all aspects of their being, including their class, race, gender etc, may affect them. We need to seek out meaningful relationships with a diverse nature of groups, considering the different additional inequalities people in financial hardship face, such as race and gender. 

Co-producing our work at Turn2us delivers a more targeted impact on the lives of people that charities such as ours exist for. It is messy. It is abstract, slow, sometimes fast, often confusing and frequently surprisingly clear.

Call to action

If you are an individual, or a group of people who know what it’s like to not have enough money to live on and would like to get involved with our work here at Turn2us, we would love to hear from you.

If you’re from an organisation co-producing your work, we’d love to share insight and learning with you.

Get in contact with Abby, Co-production and Participation Officer at: abby.meadows@turn2us.org.uk 

Photo: A Turn2us co-production Zoom meeting in progress.

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