Coproduction in a pandemic: listening to the voices unheard

Coproduction of knowledge and participatory research are all the more important in the context of COVID-19. Social distancing, emergency legislation, and a lack of institutional transparency and accountability are likely to exacerbate current inequalities and further disempower those voices historically excluded by society. At a time of extreme pressure on the welfare state, there are also opportunities to “shake up” the system and including marginalised voices in this process of change is all the more important. Research can play a crucial role in bringing these voices closer to the ears of policymakers.

In a recent event part of the ESRC’s Festival of Science, Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark from MMU spoke with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell about the opportunities and challenges for coproducing research at a time of social distancing. Groundswell is a national charity who provide people facing homelessness the opportunity to coproduce solutions to homelessness through research and advocacy. Their work has an impact on both public policy and services. 

The pandemic has been a time when the issue of homelessness has become central to public health. The spiralling economic crisis is putting many thousands of households into poverty and at risk of losing their homes. At a time of social distancing ensuring the voices of those experiencing homelessness are not lost is as important as it is challenging. The constraints imposed by the pandemic have forced the team to reinvent and develop some of their work in creative and powerful ways, which rely more on peer-led reporting and the use of new media, audio, photo and video to reach out to people and bring their voices together. A group of national reporters with experience of homelessness shared their own experience of COVID-19 and what was happening in their local area. 

There are several challenges when trying to achieve this, from digital exclusion (which right now can raise ever-deeper barriers to participation) to the difficulty of supporting people emotionally and physically from a distance. The current situation has also triggered new thinking to adapt old models of working while continuing to invest in building meaningful relationships with the people involved in the peer-led reporting research. Reporters are supported remotely by a Groundswell mentor and have all the equipment they need for the role (phones, credit and tablets) to ensure nobody is out of pocket. As it has become harder to reach out to people, methods have also adapted. For instance, Groundswell have introduced data capture methods to allow non-research staff to input what they are experiencing on the ground. 

Probably more than ever before coproduction of research is needed as an empowering process that can bring isolated people together around common needs and issues, contextualising what might otherwise feel like individual problems or ‘weaknesses’. In the typically risk averse homelessness sector, people with experience of homelessness often are not trusted. The opportunity to participate in research, and be trusted to do so, can be an important step in challenging unequal power relations. Issues of power differentials also exist within coproduced research and require careful negotiating of relationships, particularly when vulnerable people are involved. Vulnerability does not negate the fact that everyone has unique strengths. The word vulnerable can be problematic, because there is an assumption that participants might need protection and it promotes the self-empowerment of those who act as “protectors”. These ideas are often based on an underestimation of participants’ ability to resist power. The system often depicts people as ‘receivers’ of services so ‘giving back’, participating in research and feeding into responses to homelessness gives people an opportunity to correct the power imbalance.  Importantly, key stakeholders from the National Health Service and Department of Health and Social Care are keen to listen and the shorter feedback loop that comes with mobile reporting means that crucial insight can get to them in real time. 

Coproduction of research can help challenge the system of knowledge control established through mainstream research, as we try to change a status quo whose contradictions and unacceptable inequalities have been laid bare by Covid-19. At Groundswell volunteer reporters, researchers and advocates have a shared experience of homelessness and related traumas. These shared experiences mean that empathy and trust can be quickly built. Anyone who has faced homelessness has survived exceptionally difficult circumstances and has a great capacity to contribute new ideas to help rethink and strengthen the welfare state and the way society and institutions understand and respond to homelessness. In this way, we find that the process of conducting research for people experiencing homelessness can trigger current or existing trauma but revisiting those traumas can also be crucial in the process of healing.  As one of Groundswell’s peer researchers explains:

“So the experience of meeting homeless people like you – not only the research it helps on a personal level like … when you’re feeling down, it brings back memories when you were in that situation. And how far you have come away. It reassures you that I am not doing that bad. It gives you some motivation” 

What Groundswell has been able to maintain, in these exceptionally difficult times, is a team of people, many, but not all, with lived experience of homelessness, working together in an equal relationship where everyone’s strengths and vulnerabilities are equally recognised and valued. 

Sonia Bussu, Suzy Solley, Nigel Allmark, and Mat Amp

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