Celebrating 7 Years: milestone moments and looking forward

| Helen Sharp

It all began in 2016 with conversations between myself and fellow freelancer and co-production advocate Linda Hutchinson whilst on train journeys across the country travelling back and forth from workshops with the line “we need each other to be brave” running through our minds.

After years of experience in health and social care, the NHS and local government, we knew there was a growing movement of people who wanted to transform the way we did things in the public sector. A movement that wanted to work with people, championing lived experience and getting away from using tightly defined output driven processes by taking a step back, focusing on outcomes and letting co-production and communities lead the way. 

At the time co-production wasn’t as widely understood or accepted as a way of working. And back then, it felt like most of us working in this space didn’t know about each other. Many of us were trying to work in these ways on our own, driven by our convictions but without any expert support. We were often seen as mavericks which wasn’t very helpful. 

We needed each other to be brave, to learn from each other and challenge ourselves to push our thinking and work to the limits. But we also needed support from each other. Being a lone voice in a large institution can be a lonely place. 

And we realised it wasn’t the budgets, research or evidence that was persuading others to work in this way, it was the stories of people doing things across the country that seemed to shift people’s thinking. The mental health service meeting people in cafes rather than clinics, the community using ghost walks for wellbeing or the alternative care setting for the over sixties teaching circus skills, photography and holding poetry workshops.

We needed a place to connect and celebrate these stories, and so we set up an online story sharing space in 2016 called the Ideas Hub and Ideas Alliance grew out of it. We became a social consultancy set on actively supporting and working alongside others to be brave and do things differently, as well as continuing to share and champion stories of the growing range of things that people were doing. 

We found our space between the grassroot community organisations and the think tanks, connecting stories with strategy and building bridges between communities and organisations.

Over the last few years our team has grown and so has the movement to make this way of working the norm and not the exception.

As we take time to look back, we are filled with pride for the accomplishments we’ve achieved together. So far it’s been a remarkable journey of learning, overcoming challenges, and creating meaningful projects with wonderful partners. Read our mini report below.

It’s not all been plain sailing

Running a small organisation in the health and social care space hasn’t been without its challenges. From opposition to co-production, a pandemic, restricted budgets and a workforce on its knees – we’ve had to learn to pivot, trust the process and our experience, and champion and celebrate others whenever we can.

The pandemic, though incredibly destabilising and exposing huge gaps in thinking, leadership and integration, also shone a spotlight on the power of communities, peer support, and how important relationships between people and organisations are – especially in a crisis. It helped to escalate an acceptance in the public sector of community-based approaches and co-production became more widely understood (though there is still much work to be done to move from rhetoric to action). It also showed what can be done in a short space of time and how quickly you can change a policy.

We have many people to thank

We have been privileged to have met and worked with so many different people along the way, hearing about their lives and experiences. We’ve listened and worked in cafes, offices, community centres, on high streets, town halls, in schools and youth centres all over the country. We have the unique experience of working alongside people who really want to co-produce, who value relationships and are passionate about lived experience. And they come with energy, commitment and a sense of fun. 

We want to express our heartfelt gratitude to our dedicated team and everyone who has been part of Ideas Alliance’s story so far. Your unwavering support and belief in our mission have been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.

What next?

We are continuing to beat the drum for community learning spaces and participatory, community-based research as a vehicle for co-production and connecting organisations and communities that centres lived experience and asset based ways of working – focusing on what’s working well and the skills that already exist within groups. With some exciting projects this year in Calderdale and Halton we’re loving facilitating communities of practice around asset based ways of working with children, young people and families to support the development and growth of Family Hubs.

And we are developing our work in Warwickshire and Calderdale, seeing how a place based approach is helping to create more sustainable and coherent shifts in culture and practice.

We are also focused on collaborative commissioning and alliancing to make change happen. Because people who are in receipt of support and those directly working to provide that support, often know what works well and what doesn’t. They can tell us how we could change things for the better. But our traditional commissioning models don’t enable that conversation or create the conditions where co-production and collaboration can flourish.

Commissioning constantly reoccurs as a crucial lever to making change happen. People who rely on services can experience challenges and barriers to accessing support and opportunities, compounded by the way in which these are designed and commissioned. Providers are required to deliver to a specification determined at a point in time – a service often determined by others and delivered in a fairly standard way.  One size doesn’t fit all and often doesn’t fit anyone. When we create the conditions that enable those being supported and those delivering the support on a day-to-day basis to come together, we find new solutions to enduring challenges.

Alliancing

Alliancing or ‘alliance contracting’ as it’s known, is a powerful way to work together and realise shared ambitions. It formalises collaboration between partners without the need for new organisational forms and can become the mechanism to drive cultural shift within the sector towards strength based working and co-production where people with lived experience have a full role in service design and delivery. (Find out more about it and what we do in this space here).

Alliancing led us to deliver our first Commissioning with Communities Programme last year in partnership with Collaborate CIC and the Co-production Collective. We’re excited to be supporting and working alongside a new cohort of ambitious commissioners this year to take more collaborative approaches to commissioning across the country. 

We know 2024 has many unknowns, a general election and the many challenges of an ongoing scarcity of money and time, but our commitment is and always will be to collaborative ways of working that make the most of wider resources within communities. We’re excited for what the future holds.

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