Transcript: Food for Thought. The experience of partnership and co-production

Jane Alcorn of Foster Care Associates describes her experience of being part of the project in particular working with academics. Laura Steckley of the University of Strathclyde who reflects on the pros and cons of co-production.

Podcast Episode: Food for Thought. The experience of partnership and co-production

Category: Young people 

What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

JA - Jane Alcorn
LS - Laura Steckley

Food for Thought project grew out of research undertaken by the University of Stirling, into the symbolic role of food in foster and residential child care. Jane Alcorn, of Foster Care Associates, explains her experience in being part of the project, in particular working with academics. She mentions the difference between an evidence based practice and practice based evidence. Jane is followed by Laura Steckley of the University of Strathclyde who reflects on the pros and cons of co-production.

JA I am Jane Alcorn, and I am a Service Manager with Foster Care Associates which is part of the Core Assets Group. I have been asked to talk about my experience of being part of the Food for Thought Steering Group, and some of what I would like to tell you is also shared by my colleagues on the Steering Group.

FCA became actively involved in the project just over a year ago and my first impressions when I joined the Steering Group were how welcoming everybody is and great that there is a good cross section of local authority and third sector. I also thought, gosh there’s a lot of academics in this group, no offence, are we going to be reading really heavy research reports and I wonder how we are going to work together. We worked together really well. Making partnerships work can be challenging and we did make it work through consistently putting principles into practice, the principles being the good ingredients of what makes partnerships work. And these were firstly openness and trust, there was openness and trust between the partners so that conversations flowed in our monthly meetings. We shared a lot about ourselves, professional and personal experiences in our approach to food and the giving and receiving of care. Opinions were listened to with respect and I always felt safe enough to share and to offer ideas and suggestions. Secondly, shared goals and values. We agreed our shared goals and values and this was also demonstrated through some of us participating in the reflective workshops with foster carers and staff and then taking these reflections and actions back to the Steering Group. And thirdly, communication, the biggie. There was regular communication between partners using our monthly meetings, emails, phone calls and attendance at the workshops and the working groups and these were coordinated really well I thought being part of this Steering Group. And of course, Carol, Ruth, Sam and Ian were very good at encouraging us to do our homework, which involved a lot of reading over and some testing out of resources which in FCA was carried out by myself, and Fiona Shiels, who is up the back there, who led in our working groups, thank you Fiona. The involvement in the working groups also helped steer the process and make the links between the tools and resources that we have developed.

So this has been an inclusive process for me, working with a range of people from different organisations who think creatively and want to make a different in the approaches to care for looked after children and young people. In the day to day work we focus on evidence based practice, there was a lot of interest in our Steering Group shown in practice based evidence, as opposed to evidence based practice. So that’s about how the foster carers and staff who were involved in the working groups and the reflective workshops, how they influenced the content and the format of what we did and helped to form some of the questions that were asked, rather than those being based on research.

Partnership working has been a consistent focus throughout. We all met individually with Jenny, who is our PHD student here and that was as part of the ongoing evaluation. I remember wondering what on earth am I going to say to Jenny, what is she going to ask? Even though I had been part of the Steering Group and had put forward ideas of what Jenny should ask, and I found myself … when I met with you Jenny, I think I talked non stop for about 2 hours, and that’s what it does to you, this subject, even sitting at the table over there when we were answering some of the questions, it just evokes a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions this subject. So part of the evaluation, when I met with Jenny, we spoke about the project and about being part of the Steering Group and this whole process that we have come through. I am certainly much more consciously aware of how food and the rituals that go along with it are indeed a window into care, and it’s made me reflect much more on my own upbringing as a child and my experiences of being a parent.

Coming to Stirling Uni Campus has been a job. It’s been lovely to come on campus through the changing seasons, we certainly talked a lot about kids and a lot about kids and a lot about how people learn. Through talking and sharing and working things out, we have developed working relationships as part of a much bigger network. I feel that I have to mention one my highlights, in May we planned a couple of months off over the summer and our next meeting was to be in August, we were informed by Ruth, ‘we are going to have a longer meeting in August and we will provide you with a Bento box for lunch’ … back to the Bento boxes … ‘ooh’, we all said, and I know there was much anticipation of this over the summer months. I know that wasn’t just me, was it? I had never heard of Bento boxes and I think you have all had a bit of an experience of them today. So in August we had our meeting and then we were presented with this lovely big polished, wooden box, and there were different kinds of boxes, you had to state your preference depending on your tastes and your lifestyle, I guess. And this wasn’t just normal hospitality, Robbie, you mentioned hospitality earlier on, it wasn’t normal hospitality as we knew it, it felt like something special, like a gift. And when we opened them up, there were all these little compartments with interesting enticing things to eat in them, all different colours and flavours and some sweet and some less so. So as you can imagine, there was much oo-ing and ah-ing as we worked our way through our discoveries and it was fun. I liked a lot of what was in mine and I ate those bits, and there were some bits I liked less and I ate them because they were good for me, or so I thought. And when I left that day, I remember saying, ‘do you know what, I think life is like a Bento box’. So I will leave you with that wee thought and thank you for listening.

LS I have been asked to take a few minutes to speak to you all about co-production, which isn’t my area of expertise at all, so I am going to … maybe that’s a good thing because I don’t want to get too technical with you all. But I am going to start like a lot of people started today, which was my own experiences and impressions of coming to be part of this project.

I was aware of the previous study and very impressed by it, and actually that lime green booklet, which maybe didn’t quite achieve what you all had hoped was just so impressive to me because it … for me, what I saw in that was a huge investment in the experiences of staff and that they benefit from the research, so it was an attempt to really communicate the findings of that research in a way that hopefully could translate into practice. So when they invited me to come and be part of the project, I was delighted, and this notion of co-production, I don’t remember exactly but I remember that was early on in the speaking about how things were going to go. And this word ‘cp-production’ has been banded about a lot, it’s kind of the flavour of the month in terms of the UK policy landscape, so maybe we need to step back and say, what exactly is co-production? It’s linked in with partnership working, which is a term that we have also been hearing about today. And as I said, I don’t know a lot about co-production, although I got to be part of a project that was predicated upon that. So I looked to an article written, and I didn’t even know this was written by my esteemed colleague, Beth Weaver, it’s in the British Journal of Social Work, and she was looking at co-production in an even more complex area which is criminal justice social work, but I stole the definition that she provides in that article. So co-production, according to this article, is ’the provision of services through regular, long term relationships between professionalised service providers in any sector and service users or other members of the community, when all parties make a substantial resource contribution.’ Shorthand for all that is ‘user engagement’, which is another kind of key term that gets banded about. It goes beyond just consultation with service users, service users and possibly others, other stakeholders having an intimate part of the process and design and delivery of what it is that’s being produced. And she also mentions this notion of meaningful, sustained, democratic discussions and processes should be part of that co-productive process. And all that sounds really good, because we will make better products, materials, tools, resources if the people who need to use them have an intimate part in the process of creating them, they will help steer the people who have more of a distance from that delivery clear of the potholes or piles of wet have you on the pavement … so it’s a good idea, but I think co-production, like so many other good ideas, when they are simplistically applied, they actually are vulnerable to not really working very well or even being detrimental to the people that they are meant to serve. For example, community care, which is a great idea in principle, but actually this notion to de-institutionalise people and get rid of total institutions, actually has, for some people and in some respects, further isolated and socially excluded them than they would have been and they received poorer care in the community, so to speak, than they would have in good institutions. And so whilst these principles that co-production rests upon and the aims that they are meant to achieve are liable, we really have to resist that simplistic application of co-production the way that happens with so many other good ideas on a policy level.

And so I have been thinking about this a lot over the year and watching how my colleagues have attempted to lead a process of co-production and so I kind of just wanted to share with you some of my observations and reflections about this last year through that kind of lens of co-productions. And the first one is that co-production takes time and it takes a different kind of time management, because if you have people who are coming from very different experiences, there was a mention of so many academics in the room, and that’s a very different experience than being in practice day to day, and so how do you create space and time to arrive at a richer consensus, and you do have more richness from that very perspectives, but it takes longer to arrive at consensus. By the same token, even though maybe everybody is committed to that, they all have pressures on their time and so leading that process of co-production requires a time management that allows for that longer process on the one hand, but also honours that people only have so much time that they can commit to this on the other, and that’s really challenging. I think a second observation I have about co-production is that it takes special skills, not only the skills that each person brings and the reason why they are invited into that process of co-production, but i think skills that are interpersonal, because, because of the relational nature of co-production, you have to do more than just invite people, and actually that was reflected in some of the things that Jane just spoke about. In terms of having time to get to know one another to speak about things, like photography, even though that may or may not have a lot of direct relevance to food practices. And I think that’s especially important for people to be able to take risks and share their perspectives when they might be very different. Which leads me to my third observation about co-production and that is, it’s complex. It’s already maybe becoming clear that it’s complex from the previous 2 observations, but I think there’s a couple of other complexities that I just want to touch on, because I think this is a way forward for us to have a positive impact on the lives of children and young people that we serve, whatever way we serve them, but it is a complex process that really requires a lot of consideration, and I know this not because I am an expert, but because I got to witness people actually doing this. I think one of the complexities I want to mention is this use of power and meaning making and how people felt coming in with academics who, a traditional view is that they have the knowledge, but actually the academics only had part of the knowledge, the other people who were part of that partnership process of co-production had very valuable important knowledge as well. But the meaning that people make of each others roles, of their own role and how that impacts, on whether they assert their own views and how comfortable they assert their own views and how easy is it to say, ‘I don’t like how this is turning out’, or ‘I don’t like the look of that’, and actually what I witnessed, as a member of the Steering Group, and actually my observations are from somewhat of a distance, I wasn’t part of any of the working groups, I merely sat on the Steering Group, but what I saw in that process was a huge amount of time and skill dedicated to teasing that out and making that a safe relational place where people could say ‘I don’t like the apple green colour’, and ‘we didn’t go with the apple green which was the original plan for the materials.’ I think the second complexity that I want to just touch on is issues of voice and tacit knowledge, because people are sometimes invited into process use of co-production who are not used to being listened to, who are not used to raising their voice and saying what they think, or they are used to saying it and nobody really taking it on board, and we see that historically and yet there’s so much emphasis now on the views of service users, carers and direct practitioners. But I think there’s this issue of tacit knowledge in terms of helping create spaces where people can say what they know, and if you are not used to being listened to or heard, then you may not even be in the practice of putting into words what you know, and sometimes the most valuable knowledge that practitioners being to us, whether they care for children as foster carers or as residential child care workers, is unspoken stuff and giving that time and space and skill to kind of bring that tacit into spoken, articulated knowledge requires some expertise. And I think the final one is this tension between joint ownership of the co-productive process, but times where it needs to go into a single ownership, like who is going to go away and write it up and then how does that come back to joint ownership? And it was mentioned that the young people at the end of the last project, they were done, they were like, ‘back over to you’, I think was the phrase used. ‘You look after the food stuff, right’, so I think in any co-productive process, there’s times when I am done with my contribution and my resources that I am bringing in terms of my time and my energy and my expertise, and knowing when to do that because that’s what’s needed, and when not to do that because more time and space is needed to allow people to contribute, I think is very difficult. And so, that brings me to my last point I think about co-production, and that’s this, I think there’s really the need for good understanding and leadership around that process to facilitate spaces that can actually contain the complexity and the necessary anxiety that that will raise so that people can think clearly and contribute and have a positive experience. And I was speaking to one of the members of the Australian team about, talking about this permanent anxiety about whether they were doing enough, was it meaningful, someone has to take ownership at times, what bid is co and what bid is single, and ultimately in one persons hands, at what point do you take that ownership, how easy is it for people to say I don’t really like this, and those who are more intimately involved with the working groups, you know, they are going to have their own views about how successful that was led and facilitated. You have heard from Jane, so you have a sense about what Jane’s experiences were, and those of who you engaged with these products of the co-production, these materials and resources and tools, you will have your own views about how successful the end result is when you go back and try to apply this. But i will say from my own experience that it’s been a privilege to watch a group of people who were, and I say this for the whole team, who are simultaneously committed to a genuine and not tokenistic process of co-production, while at the same time, holding clearly their commitment to creating something that’s going to make a positive difference in the life of children and young people, and I feel quite fortunate to have had that role modelling as I then, in my work, try to replicate those similar kinds of processes. So that’s my 2p on co-production, thanks for listening.

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