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‘Best practice’ for co-production: Does clashing trump consensus?

Part of the challenge of doing good co-production in research is that it may be designed to clash – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says a McPin Lived Experience Researcher.

Photo by Anna Shvets

How many relationships have you been in where full agreement on key decisions is unanimous? I can’t think of (m)any.  

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a group of close friends, of whom half are vegan. The group decides that from now on, whenever they meet up, vegan food will be all they eat.   

I suspect some in the group may not fully support this decision, but compromise for numerous reasons. Call me cynical.  

“Maybe consensus is the wrong goal in some relationships.”

If I take away this doubt, and accept the group converge on ‘yes’ because they all believe veganism is the best way forward, the harmony could be very pleasing. But if this convergence on agreement happened for every decision the group makes all the time, eventually problems could creep in.

I can imagine someone bucking the trend and committing a rebellious act,  like eating cheese. 

What I am trying to say is this: maybe consensus is the wrong goal in some relationships. Maybe accepting co-production is designed to clash is a better working assumption…

The clash of co-production 

McPin has attempted co-production on a number of projects, concluding that, at best, the task is uneven. What other models or systems may offer an alternative to working as equal research partners?  

Recently McPin, as a peer research writing collective, authored a journal paper on peer support. To include our spectrum of voices we adopted a number of methods. The full process is outlined in the methods section of the paper.

Here I focus on one aspect – a consent, rather than consensus, process that originates from the world of Sociocracy.

“Sociocracy welcomes dissent through objection because it provides vital information.” 

Sociocracy and consent 

I first came across Sociocracy in a podcast, discussing the unusual life of the former CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. A maverick, he introduced an experimental form of self-governance to Zappos in 2015, based on Sociocracy.

In this form of governance, decisions are distributed away from a centralised, top-down hierarchical system. Decisions are, instead, made by circles of self-selecting employees who have the autonomy to decide how to act in a specific domain pertaining to that circle.  

One of the tools used to make decisions in these circles is consent. Consent can be considered a cousin of consensus; the crucial difference being that, instead of asking for group agreement on a proposal, one asks circle members if they ‘object’ to it.  

This allows for a wider tolerance of disagreement. Sociocracy welcomes dissent through objection because it provides vital information.  

When someone disagrees, they are saying: ‘The suggested proposal means I cannot do my work…’. The objection is then worked into the decision-making process, to improve the functioning of the system.  

A parallel idea was recently voiced by Brett et al in their guide for co-production in sports, exercise, and health science research.  

It outlines six working principles for co-producing research. Principle five calls for diversity and support for ‘agnostic pluralism’. This advocates that dissent and difference are necessary aspects of a working, democratic system; that conflicts are necessary for equitable partnerships.  

This can be particularly helpful in an academic environment which, for a long time, has been dominated by the language and methods of a privileged and elite group of people.  

“Co-production has a justice-orientated agenda – attempting to redress the balance and carve out space for marginalised voices, including experts from experience.”

A justice-oriented agenda 

One could argue that in these spaces co-production has a justice-orientated agenda – attempting to redress the balance and carve out space for marginalised voices, including experts from experience.

To meet this agenda maybe those who hold power can do the following (warning, tongue twister alert):

Ditch consensus, in favour of consent.

Heed the dissent.

Concede the position of tradition.

Change the tide. Favour the opposition.

Offer experience the conditions

to recognise its worthy ambition.

This goes for the academic too. Sharing experiences in co-produced spaces takes courage and the confidence of vulnerability. Sharing long-held power can be just as vulnerable a position to take.

It requires acknowledging different ways of knowing the world and trusting one’s own experiences as holding value.

Moving into action 

So, who wins when consensus is assumed best practice for co-production? 

Potentially no one. Striving for the ‘same page’ may end in the co-producers turning their backs on the collective, in a muted, resentful tone of giving up. Fundamentally consensus is an idealist pursuit, that may not fully recognise or value those involved in the relationship. 

If you are interested in delving into the practical aspects of the concepts of consent and pluralism described in this blog, do follow the article links.

Co-production is an important aspect of our work at McPin and later this year we hope to publish more about our experiences of co-production, so watch this space.

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