Co-producing a CHARTER : GALGAEL

tree.jpgGalGael are a working community based in Govan, Glasgow. Working together on demanding common tasks that demonstrate ways of living with more humanity in our times. 

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GalGael sees co-production as something of a continuous thread going back to our origins as a community campaign over twenty years ago. We work with the values of co-production daily and see this as particularly showing up when we ‘get it right’ in establishing a different kind of power relationship with our participants - right from day one.

In our big old workshop - craft helps to define our relationships. This purposeful workspace creates the context where you are not objectified as the ‘service user’ in need of help but an active agent. Instead the focus becomes the object you’re working on - often beautiful or useful. New forms of identity get bound up in this act of creation. The sense of agency generated through the craft process is immensely important.

Grayson Perry said: “craft is the physical manifestation of ‘I can change the world’”

We see normal service delivery as being based on the consumer model. Whereas, actively producing something where you can have a relationship to the end use is the antithesis of consumerism and generates purpose. This is how we have come to understand co-production in our context which is symbolised by the boats that slide from our workshop to water for both literal and metaphorical journeys. Each stroke of the oar generates, not only speed but agency, coherence and meaning as you inhabit the river that otherwise passed you by.

Learning from this, we look to create contexts where we help one another; acknowledging that there is not some mystical divide between the ‘sorted’ and the ‘unsorted’ or professionals and ‘service users’. Co-production also shows up in GalGael as collective responsibility. Often people want to be responsible together for collective benefit rather than being reduced to a ‘service user’ – which can become transactional. 


We see co-production as on-going conversation, founded in relationships rather than tasks. It’s not just a process, an approach or good practice – rather it’s a description of a collection of values, practices and power relations; it’s embedded in the way we do things, our culture, the words we use or don’t use.

Our structures support this ‘conversation’ in an on-going way – creating a means by which people can contribute their experience to our decision making processes and our direction.  After twenty years of existence we decided to co-produce Our Charter. The Charter is intended to help us be really clear about what matters and why so that we can HOLD FAST to what makes us GalGael as we cross the threshold in to another twenty years. This clarity will help ensure our collective efforts are all pulling in the same direction, wrestling the same vision into reality.

 

GalGael’s CO-PRO story

So we understand co-production as being hard-wired in to our organisation. But this co-production story focuses on the process to generate our Charter. When GalGael’s strategic plan lapsed in 2016, we didn’t rush to re-write it. It felt that there was so much that the plan missed that was pivotal to our work and what we understood to be ‘ours to do’ in the world. It set the scene for the accepted trajectory of organisational development but it somehow fell short on honouring the development potential of our work. 

The ‘intangibles’ that made us GalGael were somehow missing – including the kinds of relationship outlined above and the values that underpin that. We noticed that as a result we struggled to articulate clearly what it was we were about. This resulted in a lack of coherence in how we communicated our work externally and how we understood our work internally. As our organisation reached a milestone twentieth year and crossed the threshold into the next twenty years, it felt important to try to unpack this somehow through a process that would involve all our stakeholders.

Being GalGael – the process to co-produce a Charter

We worked with Wendy Ball, who describes herself as a companion in this process. Wendy helped us to design an iterative process that would gather thoughts from all corners of our organisation and find ways to synthesise these in to something representative of the whole.

There was some initial resistance at Board level as people were a little uncomfortable about our strategy being devolved to the wider community of GalGael. Conversation at early meetings clarified that the Board were responsible for ensuring that strategic direction was established as distinct from writing it. It took a number of attempts for the Board to feel sufficiently comfortable to commit to the process so patience was needed. We had to hear and understand the concerns expressed at all levels of the organisation. This meant that papers were prepared and presented for discussion to at least two consecutive board meetings. It took time to get everyone on board and to understand how the process might impact on the different responsibilities involved.

From the process we have learned how important it is to be clear and help everyone involved to understand that working in a co-productive way was much more than business as usual or simply ‘focus group’ type activity.


Process

We set out on what became a year-long process of co-production, to gather up the stories that define ‘us’ and sift through them for what really matters - the DNA that makes us an ‘us’.

The process involved a range of practices, tools and methods so that they would engage all our stakeholders - paper based and online but also round the kitchen table, round camp fires, sifting through boxes of photos and clippings, scribbled on blocks of wood and stacked high or luggage labels - destined for some imagined future. 

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A large wall in our reception space became our collective thinking space. Things were written up and torn down, scored out and underlined - constantly shifting as our thoughts took form.

The process sought to:

  • help galvanise us as a community – enhancing our relationship to each other and to GalGael;
  • enable everyone involved in GalGael to contribute to how we articulate the essence of GalGael. There was a lot of thought given to coming up with something that we all felt a part of;
  • help us develop a clear, accurate and succinct overview of GalGael in terms of our structure, remit and direction of travel;
  • recognise that we can’t take the ‘us’ for granted – we need to invest in ways that make that tangible;
  • define our relationships with all our stakeholders and our invitation for others to get involved.

So folk were given the opportunity to contribute in different ways and in ways that align with their specific roles or responsibilities. The process didn’t try to ensure that everyone discussed and agreed ‘every detail’ – but everyone was deeply involved in the wider conversation so that they are able to ‘recognise’ the material within the Charter. A number of these conversations took place at GalGael’s monthly assembly that is a formal part of our governance structure and involves all our stakeholders on an equal footing – ensuring that the values of co-production are embedded in how we make decisions together.

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Challenges along the way

We had to design processes that would address the inherent sense of ‘its not my place’ to contribute to discussion at this level, that can come with being a participant or volunteer – particularly those from backgrounds of more disadvantage. We had to overcome criticism along the way from a range of groups – particularly allaying concerns about the amount of time the process took in terms of commitment and doubts as to the value or usefulness of the outcome. Many wanted a quicker outcome – getting something written up seemed as important as how reflective that ‘something’ was of a common position or articulation of the organisations purpose and the context it understood itself to operate within.

The pace was often frustrating for everyone – making decisions together about big stuff takes time. This probably became part of the reason why not everyone engaged as much with the process as we would’ve liked. Another factor may have been perceptions as to how whether this was simply tokenism or whether their contribution would have a worthwhile impact. In hindsight it’s probably important to accept that not everyone will engage in a meaningful way and that that’s okay.

Perhaps it’s more important that the opportunity to contribute was created and that thought had gone in to making sure this was accessible, such as levelling out normal power imbalances by changing the context the conversation takes place in (not everyone is comfortable round a meeting table).

That people will have had a greater awareness of some of the conversations that led to the final articulation of our vision or purpose statement and other elements of the Charter seems to be a worthwhile outcome in its own right. We found that the process of co-production generated greater unity, more trust and wider engagement along with the Charter that we co-produced.bunting_2.jpg

Some thought needed to be given throughout the process to ensure that the Board didn’t feel inappropriately displaced by the process. In encouraging the engagement of other stakeholders it would’ve been easy to overlook the fact that they were as much equal partners as our volunteers or participants. It felt like a bold move for them and it seemed helpful to acknowledge this.

Our co-produced Charter

The process took even longer than we’d initially anticipated, often simply due to the ongoing work that demanded attention of staff and volunteers. It was ‘messy’ and there were plenty of doubts along the way. Yet the process generated a clear articulation of our values and working principles that set out how we work together and recognise that sometimes that’s a bit of a stretch. We have also defined our ‘non-negotiables’ that mark out our collective territory - the ‘terms of engagement’. 

The Charter sets out the context we’re working within and our vision, our purpose and the impact we seek to have in response to this. It stakes out who we are and what’s important to us – not in the hand-me-down business terminology of a strategic plan but in our own language and our own poetry.

This is far from perfect and it’s true that some will feel more comfortable with this than others and some will have a greater sense of ownership than others. Yet this feels like a piece of work that allows us to more truthfully say ‘us’ and ‘we’. In the words of one of our volunteers, Iain – “two words I didn’t use until I came to GalGael”. Our Assembly recommended the Charter to our Board for approval last year and it was later launched in a public event to celebrate our 20th Anniversary in June 2017.  See for yourself, read Our Charter here.

Conclusion

We’re now in the process of exploring how we integrate the Charter in to all we do, how it informs our strategy, our decisions, how we treat one another, our day-to-day processes and procedures so that it is given expression daily, moment by moment.

We hope to continue to share our experience of using the Charter to further inform our work, generate a real sense of ‘us’ or solidarity, and form the basis of shifting the balance of power so as to play to all our strengths and create a context of greater agency for all within GalGael.