Co-production and Advocacy

Featured article - 16 August 2019
A provocation and call to action, By Pete Fleischmann

Head-shot of the author, A provocation and call to action, Pete Fleischmann

I love advocacy. In certain situations it might be hard to get one’s voice heard, to access information and to know ones’ rights. In such circumstances it’s an amazing thing to have the support of an advocate. For several years now I have had the privilege of judging the best co-production category at the Advocacy Awards, organised by Kate Mercer Training. In 2018, Just for Kids Law won with a very powerful video made for and by young parents whose children are subject to child protection plans or care proceedings.

Co-production – the advocacy sector could do better

Advocacy and co-production are linked. Co-production is about involving people who use services - and carers - in the design, delivery and evaluation of services. Co-production means involving people who use services as equal partners and putting people in the driving seat. The award I mention is a way of stimulating and encouraging the advocacy sector to do more co-production.

And in my opinion the advocacy sector, with the notable exception of learning difficulties’ self-advocacy groups, could do a lot better at co-production. To take it further, and in the words of someone who knows the sector well but will remain anonymous: ‘The advocacy sector is really bad at co-production.’ But it’s encouraging that advocacy and co-production have much in common: both are about enabling people to have a voice and to make choices about their support and their lives. Both advocacy and co-production developed out of campaigning by disabled people, people with mental health issues and people with learning difficulties.

Advocacy then and now

Back in the 1990’s, I was working for Brent mental health user group (BUG) and one of our key demands was the development of an individual advocacy service. And we managed to develop an advocacy service for Brent and Harrow called Loud and Clear. Loud and Clear was set up as a user-controlled organisation and its first director was a mental health service user.

Spiralling forward in time to the present day, advocacy has changed. Lots of passionate, value-driven people still work as advocates, but the sector has been transformed. The growth of statutory rights to advocacy has, in some ways, been a counterpoint to spending reductions. Many people, in a range of situations, now have the right in law to an advocate, whether it’s being under a section of the Mental Health Act or making a complaint about health services. And many advocacy organisations get the majority of their funding by providing statutory advocacy.

When I worked for BUG we did not even dream that such mandatory rights would one day exist. And the statutory right to advocacy is a wonderful thing that has supported many people to have their rights respected and to make their voices heard. But this has also professionalised advocacy organisations; it has reduced the availability of non- statutory generic advocacy; and it has produced a market in which the bigger providers are often able to dominate, often undercutting local grass roots advocacy organisations.

Getting co-production right

Given advocacy’s roots in the disability movement and its value base, it seems strange but I think the sector has somewhat lost its way in terms of co-production and involving people who use services and carers. Many advocacy organisations don’t have people who use services on their management committees, don’t employ people who use services and don’t have strategic plans for co-production.

If any sector should get co-production right it is the advocacy sector. Advocacy has the value base around citizens’ rights, the skills around empowering people to make their voice heard and the passion for challenging inequality and discrimination. So come on advocates and advocacy organisations - Get co-producing!

This article was first published in the June edition of Care Talk Magazine.

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