Reflection on being on the planning group for the CoPro conference 2014: a community assets approach to workforce development?

Added by NickWilding

I am working on an initiative for the Scottish Leaders' Forum called Skilled Workers, Skilled Citizens (www.bit.ly/swschub). This blog tells the story of my involvement in the planning team for the 2014 CoPro event, and learning that's come out for me. It's intended to complement the write-up by Sam on this site. Please comment or offer feedback if you're able...

Getting involved with the planning team

Back in January I was invited along to help plan the third annual conference of the Scottish Co-production network (with partners the Joint Improvement Team at the Scottish Government, ALLIANCE and People Powered Health and Wellbeing).

Early on in the development of Skilled Workers, Skilled Citizens several people involved with the network had helped us out with ideas, contacts and inputs at early meetings. If there was some way to reciprocate and support the network now, it made sense. So I went along to that first meeting to see if there was some useful role I could play, and to also think about whether putting some time into this could be relevant for SWSC.

Let’s co-produce the co-production conference!

In that first meeting, I heard Gerry Power from JiT talk about this being the third event in a series. In the first year, the network was launched. The second year focussed on a book about co-production. Both of those events had involved over 200 people.

And now the challenge was about how the co-production community in Scotland could get more confident together, project a stronger voice based on evidenced practice, and thus step up a gear in terms of its reach and impact – towards a future where co-production of services is more the norm rather than the exception.

After that introduction, the conversation quickly turned to thinking about which speakers could ‘draw a crowd’. We talked around options for keynote speeches and workshops, but something about the way we were thinking about this event wasn’t right.

Half way through, we had a break through. If the purpose of the event was as Gerry had proposed, then should we think about running it in a new way?

Instead of starting by thinking of some high profile speakers to bring in – why not prioritise building on the assets of the co-production community in Scotland?

Why not enable this community itself to run the event? That would be more congruent with our topic of co-production.

We quickly agreed that, holding the core purpose of the event in mind, we should take a big risk in changing the format of the event – and the approach to planning it – to refocus on how to unleash the assets of the network itself.

"I think what was important about this process was that early on we had a discussion about to what extent we could co-produce the conference. We acknowledged that this couldn't really be co-production in its truest sense - because the communities & service users we work with, and network members and delegates we hoped would attend on the day, hadn't been engaged in the the planning process so far - rather they were invited along they way to collaborate and co-design and deliver the day. We were all certain however, that as far as possible, we wanted to embed the values of co-production into our process"

-      Olivia Hanley (commenting on a draft of this blog)


A co-produced conference? A great example of pioneering a community assets  approach to workforce development?

I quickly got excited about this idea. In SWSC we’ve been realising that assets approaches can fundamentally challenge traditional thinking about what ‘workforce development’ is. We are learning how organisations are opening up to allow users of services to shape how, what, where about when people learn.

I saw how that this event planning team could share its experiment alongside other teams and organisations who are sharing their learning as SWSC pioneers.  This work could help open up questions like:

- What is the place of large scale co-produced conferences as part of community assets approaches to workforce development?

– What skills, attitudes and approaches are needed to effectively design and host events like this? What habits and assumptions about how to run an event would we have to ‘unlearn’?

-      What evidence is there that running events on ‘community assets’ principles translates into better outcomes for people in communities? and

-      If this experiment is successful, and evidence of impact is clear, could this example help to spark a revolution in how events like this are run right across Scotland? 


What did we learn in the early planning conversations?

This challenge we had set ourselves took quite some thinking through.

The design group involved about eight people (it varied at different meetings). Our first decision was that instead of us inviting people we already knew to do talks, we should ask the whole network who might like to contribute to the event.

In one early meeting, it was mooted that the whole event could be run on the model of an ‘un-conference’, run on ‘open space’ principles. In this model, everyone arrives at the beginning of the day in response to a clear invitation which reflects the purpose of the event and who it is intended for. In a facilitated session at the beginning of the day, everyone gets a chance to offer to lead a conversation – on a question or experience that really matters to them, right there and then on that day. The idea is that instead of coming along to sit passively listening to someone else, that as many people as possible actively contribute. In this way, the idea is that you get more ‘bang for your buck’ because more people are taking more responsibility to get what they want from the gathering. It's not just down to a few people setting the agenda on the basis of a guess about what might fire people up.

As we discussed the proposal, the group reached agreement on several points:

-      Firstly, many people might not feel confident to engage in this way. While it may be OK to challenge ‘sharp elbowed’ professionals, already confident in stepping forward to speak, the space to do so…. Others might need more structure and support;

-      We imagined that the event would attract people who are in different places in their understanding of co-production. Therefore it would make sense to attempt to offer content to meet peoples’ ‘learning edges’. We saw three rough categories – people setting out; people wanting to deepen their understanding; and people with a good grounding wanting to stretch themselves by inviting critical feedback on their practice;

-      And also that the design team itself did not all have experience with open space type formats, and it seemed too big a risk to put all our eggs in one basket.

This was a rich conversation that seemed full of wisdom. In our way, it seemed to me we were talking through some of the big issues in any assets or co-production type work: issues of readiness for change, appetite for risk, capacity to offer something new (and engage with it), and how to build on where people are ‘at’, including existing strengths.

The format we agreed on was that

-      Formal keynote talks would be minimised as much as possible;

-      The whole network would be invited to propose workshops to populate the event in advance – and that we would seek to ensure that there was a good spread of offers that would meet peoples’ learning needs (eg beginner/intermediate/advanced); and

-      Elements of the ‘open space’ type philosophy would be woven into the day. In an early session, people would be invited to reflect on what questions and experiences they could actively share during the day; and what they would hope to go home from the day with. And people could opt to join an open space double session, run in parallel with other workshops in the afternoon.

We did some more thinking, too, about how to invite workshop proposals so that the hosting team could do some quality control to ensure that, especially for intermediate and advanced participants, they were attending genuine workshops rather than more didactic sessions (for example, someone with a powerpoint presentation talking at people, leaving little time for conversation or questions).

The workshop invitation form therefore asked people to outline the proposed topic (and how it related to their lived experience), how they intended to run the workshop, and who would be involved in offering the workshop (we hoped that users of services would be running workshops as far as possible).

In retrospect, I think we made a mistake here, though. Although the form was structured in this way, it didn’t make explicit the criteria on which the workshops would be chosen or who would be doing this choosing. I think that this was partly because we hadn’t thought ahead that far. I certainly hadn’t anticipated that there would be so many offers to run workshops that we’d be very over-subscribed – which then brought the issue of being transparent about which ones ‘passed’ to the fore. This is a learning point for next time.

In the event, and once we had clarified the maximum capacity of our venue (Pollok Halls in Edinburgh), it proved possible to combine some workshop offers; to propose that others because offers in the ‘open space’ session; and suggest to others that they be further developed for a field trip of other offer through the network at a later date.

Learning from the day itself

The conference was over-subscribed, and from the moment I arrived, there seemed to be a great buzz in the air. I got the real sense that people were happy to reconnect, and very motivated to be there.

The early plenary sessions were short and sweet, just as we planned. The early ‘plan your day’ exercise turned up the volume in the room to the point where it was hard to let people know it was time for coffee. People helped each other to write their questions and expectations on luggage labels; and the organising team then hung then on a beautiful wooden tree that then formed a centrepiece in the gathering area outside the main room (leant to the event by the Living it Up initiative -https://portal.livingitup.org.uk/).

In some conferences, workshops never seem to have enough time. But I didn’t get that sense at this event – 75 minutes in the morning gave space for inputs, reflections, probing questions (at least in the ones I was in).

The open space session attracted about fifty people, who self-organised into six or seven table conversations, and then during a second session one of the participants we gather into a round-table plenary. People were speaking clearly, strongly, and from their hearts. It was working!


Early reflections on my questions

Personally I would just be a bit cautious about overplaying how revolutionary a process it was to design the event.  We had good intent, it was a good process and produced an excellent output but I think the lesson I would draw is that even if yoiu go someway towards a co-produced approach you seen begin to see the fruits.

  • Lisa      Curtice, in a comment on a draft version of this blog.

I started this blog with four questions:

- What is the place of large scale co-produced conferences as part of community assets approaches to workforce development?

– What skills, attitudes and approaches are needed to effectively design and host events like this? What habits and assumptions about how to run an event would we have to ‘unlearn’?

-      What evidence is there that running events on ‘community assets’ principles translates into better outcomes for people in communities? and

-      If this experiment is successful, and evidence of impact is clear, could this example help to spark a revolution in how events like this are run right across Scotland? 

As I write, the design team is due to have a debrief. A surveymonkey based evaluation form will test whether those expectations that people put on their luggage labels were met. But I have a gut feel that, by running the event in the way we did, we have let a bit of a genie out of the bottle.

The big, enthusiastic response to the call for workshop proposals; the way in which the event was over-subscribed; the buzz overall… all points, for me, to a group of people enjoying themselves, making connections, learning and getting inspired. A visible sense of a movement building confidence, clarity and experience with what is still a fresh way of working for many.

But for me the biggest learning came through being involved with the design team. I felt genuinely welcomed, listened to and encouraged as a newcomer. I noticed people respecting each other’s ideas, anxieties, senses of what would be best.

I enjoyed reaching what felt like some wise decisions about creating an event where many different people, at different stages in their learning, could feel as welcome and able to participate as I was made to feel at that first meeting.

And I’ve been fired up enough to write up this blog a day later … that doesn’t always happen to me (I’ve been to so many events that have felt exhausting at the end, and which I’ve soon forgotten). Let’s just hope the feedback evidences that lots of others feel the same way.

I’ve also come away with a sense that to break out of old habits and try new approaches, design teams benefit from time for conversations, strong practical administrative support (as was offered by Olivia, co-ordinator of the network, complementing her other skills in planning and co-production practice), and having people around the table with experience of different ways of working. In this way, we can apprentice ourselves to each other.

I think there is also something more fundamental happening with this, and other events I’ve been to recently. And it is about the core values of assets approaches – having integrity, being ourselves, putting relationship and trust building at the centre of everything. I think that alongside creating ‘liberating structures’ for events, it really helps to have people hosting them who don’t scare people, but give permission for everyone there to feel that ‘that could be me up front too’.

In my book, it’s not about paying thousands of pounds for overseas gurus to wow us with their stuff anymore (or at least, only when we are really sure that the insight isn’t available locally). It’s about recognising the genius of what happens when 200 alive people come together and just get on with being real with each other.

And that, for my money, is what community assets approaches to workforce development is all about.

The question now is, how could next year’s event build on what we did this year? I see potential to explore

-      Bringing citizen voices into the planning team from the outset – beginning with a call for expressions of interest to the folk who attended this year’s event - have the balance of the planning group comprised of people from this perspective?;

-      Consider handing the budget for the event to the group, and opportunities for participatory budgeting different elements based on copro values (eg what kind of venue should we invest in? what kind of food? Could social enterprises be more involved?)

-      Invite a college or other to do a carbon impact study of the event and propose climate impact offsetting;

-      Have the luggage labels written up and available for people to browse – use this information to design the next event;

-      Add a little more time to the ‘plan your day’ session to enable the whole conference to get a clearer picture of who is there and where this movement (if that’s a good description) is ‘at’;

-      Build on the mix of workshops and open space;

-      Introduce some participative singing, dance,  or theatre elements;

-      If it seems important to have inputs from ministers and others, to consider inviting them to play a ‘keynote listener’ role (see for example my previous write-up of an event that SWSC supported in the parliament last year where the Permanent Secretary played this role - https://knowledgehub.local.gov.uk/web/nick.wilding/blog/-/blogs/11632626?_33_redirect=%2Fweb%2Fnick.wilding%2Fblog&_33_urlTitle=skilled-workers-skilled-citizens%3A-november-2013-update)