Kirsty Marrins: How charities are using co-design to put service users in the driving seat

Why charities are involving the people they support in important decision making processes

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

For charities that deliver services, it stands to reason the most effective way to do this would be to actively involve those you support, and particularly those with lived experience, in decision-making roles. I spoke to three organisations investing in co-design relationships for their insights, and advice. 

Co-design strategy 

One charity that has been involved in co-design for over a decade is Young Scot. The youth information and citizenship charity supports 11 to 26-year-olds across Scotland to make informed decisions and play an active part in their community, and with 700,000 members (which equates to about three-quarters of the young population in Scotland) it has huge influence when it comes to policy and decision making. 

“We were one of the first charities to have a digital platform so we’ve always been forward thinking,” says Louise Macdonald, chief executive of Young Scot. 

”About 11 years ago we did a lot of deep thinking about how young people were giving of their time to answer consultation questions, but never got any feedback or follow-up from partners about the results. 

“So we decided to develop a co-design service, where we supported organisations to share power and decision-making.”

A quarter of people sitting on the Young Scot board are under 26 years of age and the charity’s current three-year strategic plan was entirely led and produced by young people through a co-design process. 

“I didn’t even see it until a draft was sent to the board,” says Macdonald.

Diversity involvement paradox

HIV Scotland runs an advisory network of people living with HIV that informs the charity’s work, through regular meetings and engagement with projects. 

But according to Nathan Sparling, the charity’s chief executive, the organisation also “wanted to take it up a notch”, with the creation of a paid expert chair role.

“There has been a lot of talk of a ‘diversity involvement paradox’ where only those who have the privilege to be involved actually are,” says Sparling

“We want the paid role of expert chair, and others to come, to provide everyone with an equal opportunity of being involved and show that we value a person’s expert lived experience.”

A variety of backgrounds

Co-production is also front and centre of the new strategy for Turn2us, the national charity fighting UK poverty. Rosemary Russell, project manager at the charity, explains that when it came to the redevelopment of its Benefits Calculator tool the charity’s primary focus was on making sure it was more user-centric; both in terms of design and functionality. 

Who better to help redevelop the tool than those who would use it?

“After initial user research, we recruited a formal co-production group to work with us throughout the discovery, build and completion phases,” says Russell. 

“The group, which is integrated into the wider project team, meets monthly and all 15 people recruited to join this group are paid for their expertise. This is a fundamental principle when engaging with people who have lived experience.”

Russell is also keen to stress that while the group was recruited for their expertise, this extends beyond their use of the actual services. “Diversity within the group is critical, including people from different ethnic backgrounds, as well as people with different learning needs, like autism and dyspraxia, to people with visual impairment and physical disabilities,” She says. 

“It is important that they represent as wide a variety of users as possible.”

Giving up power 

Having a trustee, or trustees, with lived experience on your board is great, but if charities want to make real, effective change they need to put service users in decision-making positions. Co-production is one way to do this. 

“True co-production is the beginning of a long term relationship with stakeholders. It shapes and challenges our thinking, and that can only be good as it means we’re looking through a different, broader lens that reflects peoples’ needs.” says Russell.

There is one very important point on which all three leaders agree: charities have to be willing to shift power away from the organisation. 

Sparling says that co-creation is about giving away some of your power: “starting open and honest conversations about what you want to achieve, understanding how it sits in a governance perspective and being transparent and honest about that. 

“And being honest with yourself that if it’s new to your organisation, you won’t always get it right.”

Macdonald urges organisations to think not just about sharing power and decision making, but where power can be given up. “How do you make the space for that and create the conditions for it?” she says. 

Her advice to organisations is to check that the power system is ready for change through a readiness assessment.

Done well, co-production is an equal and trusted partnership. 

“It’s about sharing the power, and mutual trust and respect is vital. We are not looking to people to come up with all the right answers. It’s about exploring different perspectives of how people understand things and what works and what doesn’t work.” says Russell. 

Her advice to any charity embarking on co-production is to approach it with a culture of honesty and transparency from the outset. 

This includes looking inwardly at the issues you are facing and what you are ultimately trying to achieve.

“Taking this approach will enable you to build the trust you need, because without it you won’t get the best out of the relationship,” says Russell. 

“Remember, it is not about ticking a box to get a job done. It’s about the ongoing learning and building of a relationship and, ultimately, ceding control so you can share the power with the people we are here to support.”

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