Faux-production? Just say no.

We live in a world where lies are the truth and the truth is a lie. Most of us, simply trying to stand tall in a world that pushes us down[1].  Our world is so bizarre and frightening that to really look at it and see it is overwhelming, the scale is disempowering. What’s happening to our black brothers and sisters across the world is terrifying, what’s happening to indigenous peoples and to our environment is catastrophic. And yet we endure it. We are faced with so much we feel we are powerless to do anything about. It’s easy to see how it’s tempting to sit quietly and go along with it and pretend there is nothing we can do.[2]    But many of us don’t.

Humans beings are fundamentally hopeful and resist oppression.

Many millions of us see injustice and discrimination and speak up, we try to change our world – we act. We attempt to participate in local democracy, we see the local as the political and we march, we protest – we scream at the horror of it.  But up until the Black Lives Matters protest many of us have been maligned, ridiculed, stonewalled, called, oppositional, called troublemakers. Now those same people who struggled with our voices are recognising what we have all been shouting about - injustice, poverty, hunger, discrimination, powerlessness.

Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy, a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite handclaps, however, when this principle is advocated by the have-not blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, and whites. And when the have-nots define participation as re-distribution of power, the consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition.”  Sherry Arnstein, 1969.

Now the polite hand clapping has turned to action – leaders are supporting the right for oppressed people to be treated as equals by posting blog posts and tweets. That’s all good, but they also know words won’t be enough. We need to capitalise on this waking up, to re-present coproduction as one of the many solutions to the social injustice. Coproduction has its roots in social justice and offers ways that the marginalised and oppressed can share lasting power within the public systems that serve them, can help shape them, re-imagine them. It creates opportunities for active citizenship. Citizens who will no longer sit back passively and wait for the state to make things better on their behalf – who demand a place round the table. We Coproduce recognise coproduction as a transformative process, one that changes the long-term relationships between us, the citizens and the state, giving an equitable voice to those being unfairly done to.  And we, like many have rightly claimed it.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest problem facing our coproduction efforts is the many shades of resistance and opposition we encounter around the issue of sharing power. Sherry Arnstein’s metaphor of the ‘polite hand clap’ plays out in multiple subtle ways, but particularly through faux-production, which is the continuous ‘misunderstanding’ about what coproduction actually means. Even though we explicitly describe it and go to great lengths to define the difference there is a bizarre expectation that we will go along with the ritualistic playing out of something very different.  That like naive 5-year-olds we will not notice and just play along nicely. Often we don’t even start with adult-adult conversations – we have to demand them. When we do speak up to mention that we are being consulted, we are “wasting time”, “being difficult”. If we keep speaking up, we are aggressive, and then of course - we upset people. We do the things that ‘mad people’ do.  So, like battered wives, we learn ways to point out the oppression and injustice we see using language that doesn’t upset those dolling it out. But in doing this we lose our subjective truths, we lose our selves in neutralising softeners, such as “I’m curious...”  - by trying appreciative inquiry. We lose our cultural and political voices and become other than what we are. I’m a white working-class woman and it's culturally normal for me to speak my truth to power. I grew up supporting the miners, marching to free Nelson Mandela and rocking against racism. It’s what we did. But, like a fly trapped in a web I find myself in a predicament, do I keep resisting and get caught up in more and more public conflict (that somehow gets personalised as it always centres around me) or sit quietly, obediently and go along with the ruse?  Over the years, Ive picked my battles - but at what cost?

The ‘Polite Clap.”

In 1969, Sherry Arnstein wrote that citizen participation was all about the redistribution of power to enable the have-not citizens, excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in its future. Today, professionals theoretically recognise the need for democracy, but sharing power means changing behaviours learnt in systems founded on principles of power over and paternalism.  Sharing power requires reflexivity, working differently, active listening not telling. It involves building long term adult-adult relationships with the people usually viewed as having deficits, as needy – recognising them viscerally as equal to you.  Not just saying it. 

Faux-production is the conscious and unconscious ‘performance’ of sharing power, like a one off coproduction event.  We must name it. But can we really share power working inside hierarchical systems that are holding onto a 20th century paradigm of command and control? Can our united voices drag institutions kicking and screaming into a world where citizen voice is genuinely equal? The cultural resistance to this potential paradigm shift is hidden behind the polite clap that ripples from board to ward and in oppositional tactics that can discredit and pathologise the messenger.

My personal response to injustice has always been to speak up. It’s got me in a lifetime of bother. And there are millions like me – there is all of you, there is all of us. We fight together, we stumble, and we fall, but we keep getting back up. We need to keep getting back up, keep pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. Maybe it’s the journey that counts as much as the end? For me coproduction is and has always been a revolutionary practice located in social justice and human rights, it’s not merely a tool for tweaking the same oppressive discriminatory systems that strip us of our human right, of dignity. It’s the way the marginalised and oppressed get a say in shaping our world - negating the systems that push us down. And that’s why it's resisted by the system. 

Reject all offers of faux production. Name it. 

Jane McGrath 2020 

[1] Holloway, J. Change The World without taking power. The Meaning of Revolution today. 2002.

[2] Holloway, J. Change The World without taking power. The Meaning of Revolution today. 2002.