Co-production brings people who use services together with the organisations that provide those services to shape how they should be delivered. It’s valuable both for organisations and for the people who use its services – and that’s why at Inspiring Change Manchester (ICM), it’s at the heart how we operate.
A few years ago, the word co-production might’ve been mentioned in passing. Services and organisations might have put some service user representation on panels at events or may have asked people who use services for feedback. And while that’s a start, true co-production only comes from embedding lived experience – in our case people’s who’ve faced homelessness and may also have experienced other issues like poor mental health, addiction or involvement with the criminal justice system – into how organisations like us function.
One of the key ways we do this at Shelter is by employing people with lived experience of this kind through a strand of our Getting Real Opportunities of Work (GROW) trainee programme. At ICM, this is something we’ve co-produced and developed over the past four years. This hub is part of the National Lottery Community Fund’s initiative Fulfilling Lives. It’s a partnership led by Shelter and works to support people with multiple needs. For us, this form of co-production has been invaluable, and we continue to research and evaluate the success of the GROW programme at ICM, using our insights to allow Shelter to expand the model nationally.
Learning from our service users
The service user involvement in these roles starts way before someone gets the job. From identifying the roles within the organisation that would benefit from a GROW trainee through to advertising the roles, the way our application process works, shortlisting and interviews, we take on board the input of people who are experts by their own experiences.
People who use or have used our services help us write the job descriptions and advise us on our job ads. When we have the applications submitted, people who use our services also help us select the people we interview and have helped us ensure our interview process is inclusive in its design. For example, here we focus on the attributes of the individual. We’re not expecting people to be work-ready in the traditional sense, but instead look for drive and determination to make a difference to the lives of other people with multiple needs, a strong willingness to learn and, crucially, a desire to help change the systems of support or services currently available.
Involving people who use our services has helped us make this process as straightforward and inclusive as possible. As a result, we hold application support sessions at accessible locations and this will involve either current or past GROW trainees so that people who want to apply can ask questions and get help with their applications. And when a candidate’s application is unsuccessful, we make sure that feedback is available to them.
During their employment, the support given to GROW trainees is key to their success. And this isn’t just in terms of their workplace development and future employability – equally important is their holistic wellbeing. Like anyone going through a major change in their lives, entering the world of work and being surrounded by situations that may be triggers to their own histories means that GROW trainees need to be in a supportive environment. To help with this we separate the day-to-day ‘job’ supervision from the support for development and wellbeing. We have regular one-to-ones, ensure access to reflective practice and encourage GROW trainees to talk and give feedback whenever they want to.
Another key element of our GROW traineeships is that each GROW trainee gets a Personal Development Budget. This gives them a chance to shape their traineeship in a way that works for them. This can be used in many creative and innovative ways: some have chosen to use this for items such as laptops to help with future job searches or applications, some use part of this to attend conferences that mean something to them. Additionally, some have used their budget to enhance their wellbeing, spending it on things like counselling sessions. This flexible approach means we can tailor our GROW trainee programme, placing the individual at the heart of their own development.
Things don’t always go to plan
There have, of course, been challenges. We’ve had to look at HR processes and get buy-in from areas of our organisation and others that may not traditionally have had much input from those with lived experience. We’ve even changed how we look at approving expenses: the introduction of the personal budgets mentioned above meant we had to change how we view and value things. Flexibility and a willingness to try out new ideas being led by those on the programme has made this possible – and now we have evidence that this approach has made solving challenges we face a fair bit easier.
As Rachel, a GROW trainee, says: ‘It’s hard to put into words how much my grow traineeship means to me, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity, it’s a life changing journey for me. I’m learning every day and building the skills and knowledge I need to develop my career. I have also had the privilege of working with amazing likeminded colleagues who support me throughout my GROW traineeship. I can be flexible in my working, which has led to me building great relationships with my clients. My confidence is growing every day and I am hopeful about the future.’
Ultimately, it’s important to note the multitude of ways our trainees benefit ICM, Shelter and the wider sector. The insight our GROW trainees bring from their own personal backgrounds and experiences mean that we can learn from them and change how we engage with people living with multiple needs for the better. Giving GROW trainees a way to drive systems change and shape our processes from the inside makes us stronger and more credible to those we set out to help. And GROW trainees regularly move onto employment across the sector, which means their impact can be felt far and wide – and long may that continue.