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To celebrate Co-production Week (5-9 July), Matthew Bushnell from Mary Seacole Housing Association shares the experience of co-production in Luton.

How a co-produced service is a better service

Co-production is not a new concept. The term emerged in the United States in the 1970s; however, genuine co-production is not just a phrase but a way of working. It is a value-based approach built on the principle that those who use services are best placed to help design them.

There are many advantages to co-producing services. One of the most significant is described by Expert Link (an organisation that supports and champions co-production with the voices of people with lived experience) as "people with lived experience, decision-makers and service providers working together to create a decision or service which works well for all involved." If this happens, it builds participants' skills, confidence, and aspiration.

When Luton Council announced they were recommissioning Housing-Related Support (HRS) service in 2023, we saw an opportunity to help create a cohesive co-produced process across services that would ultimately support people within housing-related services, including those experiencing homelessness and multiple disadvantages.

The problem

The existing specification for HRS services was originally formed on a needs-based model which provided subjective feedback on a person's progress against their identified deficits. However, our services have moved from a deficit to a strength-based approach that requires practitioners to broker opportunities for people based on their current attributes and aspirations, recognising their abilities and providing confidence in their strengths instead of deficits. In addition, the Local Authority recognised the expertise of providers and people experiencing homelessness at the receiving end of services, so a driving group was formed.

What we did about it

Over the past six months, the driving group - including commissioners, experts with experience, and service providers (Squared, Signposts and Mary Seacole Housing Association) - have been working together to support the Local Authority in Luton to draft a new specification for their commissioned HRS services.

Co-production is central to the aims of the group – we want to promote and work in a way that centres the voice and experience of those who have used services and it is this spirit, along with strengths-based practice, which we wanted to inform the strategic and operational aims of the new HRS tender.

But we were also conscious of the resource required to co-ordinate activities needed to co-design recommendations for how commissioning would work.

With this in mind, we approached Homeless Link’s consultancy team to co-ordinate a review of the specification for these services to centre the views of people who use them and reflect the strengths-based ethos of providers better.

We also worked with the University of Bedfordshire to provide an independent empirical study on current provisions and, with the support of peer researchers with lived experience, interviewed and held curious conversations with over 80 members of staff and service users.

Homeless Link conducted a desktop review of the structure and aims of HRS services in Luton and reviewed literature from the US and the UK. This charted the development and rationale for the strength-based approach and its practical use in homelessness organisations; which also covered potential issues with the approach and mitigating strategies.

The project culminated with an event held at the University of Bedfordshire, where participants who were actively involved in the process, were invited to discuss the findings, research and journey.

This is the first time I’ve ever participated in anything like this. I have always wanted to get involved in how services are run ever since I used to live in one. I wasn’t sure how the process would be, but I felt relaxed and part of the team and proud to be involved. (Lived experience peer researcher)

The outcome

The research and Homeless Link’s resulting report enabled the task force to put forward recommendations to develop strategic commissioning intentions in line with the ethos, principles and practice of strengths-based practice.

This has been an excellent example of co-production and demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that people working within our organisations and people using them are given an active stake in the design and delivery of their services.

The consultancy team were proud to be involved in such an innovative way of co-producing a service specification. We hope that this inspires other Local Authorities to work with providers and people accessing their services in the same way. (Sophie Price, Homeless Link Consultancy Manager)

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Sophie Price

Consultancy Manager

Sophie coordinates a wide range of tailored support to the sector including research, evaluations and strategies.