Negotiating the road to co-production


Hannah Ormston (Policy & Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust) is currently undertaking an MSc in Social Research.  Having trained as an anthropologist and having previously worked in the third sector, during her MSc studies Hannah has found that the conventional protocols of academic social research appear to inhibit participatory approaches, such as co-production. In this post, Hannah defines co-production in research and illustrates why she feels there remains a gap between academic researchers and the individuals and communities they aim to research.

Negotiating the road to co-production

Co-production; co-design; participatory research; transdisciplinary research – just some of the many names used to describe an approach that aims to put members of the community at the heart of a research project. An approach that shifts the dial away from research participants as passive spectators, aiming instead to facilitate an equal relationship between ‘the researcher’ and ‘the researched’. An approach that – when done properly – recognises the value and views of individuals and their families as valuable assets, and as people with resources, evidence and insights to share. Researchers and practitioners often talk about bottom-up, person centred approaches as putting individuals and communities “in the driving seat”; co-produced social research champions parity between everyone involved and places the researcher and participants in dual control, with both equally determining the route and negotiating the road ahead. There is, however, still work to be done to develop this equal relationship. 

Addressing the gap between academia & the community

In recent years, the principles of co-production have increasingly been utilised and valued within academic research. Co-production has been offered as a potential ‘solution’ to criticism that academic research often fails to fully and meaningfully engage with the people and communities the researcher aims to learn from and about (AHRC 2018). There is strong evidence to suggest that social research that builds on the principles of co-production achieves transformational results both for the design and delivery of inclusive public services and for the academic rigour of the research itself. The co-production of research around health and social care services and community planning, for example, demonstrates how research can be enriched by the voices of a community and  the positive impact ‘on the ground’ for those using the services. Equally, co-produced research is likely to be more transparent and credible as a result. Why then, does a gap between academia, the community and decision-makers persist? 

Distributing the power 

This year’s theme for co-production week, Sharing Power, perhaps says it all. There is still a lot of progress that needs to be made to connect researchers in academic institutions with the needs of individuals and decision makers.  Both should lead the research and define the research protocols. However, academic research exists within a complex web of power structures, which, if co-produced research is built on the principles of inclusivity, reactivity, and reciprocity, can prove challenging to overcome. 

There are many strict practical and ethical challenges surrounding the co-production of research evidence. ‘Conventional’ academic research paradigms demand that, before undertaking any research with members of the public, a comprehensive ethical review is undertaken and clearance granted. Such processes are in place to protect the wellbeing of research participants. The Social Research Association Ethical Research Guidelines state that research should not influence the behaviours, feelings or attitudes of informants. How is it possible for academic researchers to adhere to ethical guidelines (which include gaining fully informed consent, ensuring anonymity and impartiality of participants) whilst simultaneously facilitating an equal relationship between everyone involved? Co-production is a research technique based on principles of learning and sharing. Yet, this is something regarded as an ethical and intellectual risk within higher education institutions. Is it perhaps more unethical to not involve people in decisions that affect their health or neighbourhood? 

The ethics of co-production 

There are, of course, implications of using participatory approaches when it is not appropriate to do so, particularly in relation to the potential negative impact of burdening participants with the responsibility of research that could achieve a positive – or negative – change in public policy, and ensuring their anonymity. The ethics of using co-production as an approach is complex and depends on many factors - there are many shades of co-produced evidence that need to be further explored. 

Work to bridge the gap between evidence producers and users shows promising progress. The Alliance for Useful Evidence, for example, was set up to nurture a network of people who champion the better use of evidence in social policy and practice.  The development of a manifesto for partnership research, together with work being undertaken by organisations focusing on public engagement and developing knowledge translation networks is encouraging.   The recent creation of Civic University Agreements which aim to strengthen and celebrate connections between higher education institutions and communities, may also prove fruitful. These new agreements (a key outcome of a report published by the Civic University Commission )stress a responsibility for universities to work collaboratively and in partnership with the voice of the local community in which the higher education institution sits. This place-based approach, fusing academia and the community, is exciting. It moves beyond the conventional, linear model of public engagement and knowledge exchange and towards meaningful interaction. 

Place based working

As a member of the Working Group for the Civic University Commission, the Carnegie UK Trust is working to explore these themes. We maintain an active interest in the implementation of the Agreements across the UK as they support universities to connect, more meaningfully, to the places they are based in. 

Time will tell how successful these attempts will be and, as both parties settle in to the driving seat for the journey ahead, it is hoped that it might be possible to move beyond the one way street of ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘public engagement’ and instead towards true co-production, which recognises both sides of a collaboration, on equal terms. 

The Carnegie UK Trust works to promote a number of strategic approaches to policy and practice development, with a remit to improve the wellbeing of people in the UK & Ireland. The Trust are leading advocates for wellbeing frameworks that allow governments to measure social progress for citizens in a meaningful way. 

For regular updates on and to find out more about the Trust’s work, follow the Carnegie UK Trust on Twitter @CarnegieUKTrust. 

Link to reports:


The Many Shades of Coproduced Evidence


 AUTHOR: Hannah Ormston