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Professional Social Work (PSW) Article February 2018


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Discovering shared interests with Service Users enables co-creation & collaborative working - A short article by Alex Clapson

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Professional Social Work (PSW) Article February 2018

  1. 1. PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL WORK MAGAZINE | MARCH 2018 29 VIEWPOINT CO-PRODUCTION W hile training to become a social worker my lecturers told me collaboration and empowerment were fundamental cornerstones of social work ethics and practice. However, once ensconced in front line work, I rapidly became aware that power was firmly held by the large institutions. People who used services had to conform and comply or face the consequences. Does it have to be this way? Can we not instead adopt an approach that seeks out shared interests to build sustainable relationships between services and those who use them? One way our ancient forefathers obtained goods unavailable in their community was to raid a neighbouring land. This, however, was dangerous and not sustainable in the long term. Hence the emergence of trade. Historians believe the first long-distance trade was between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in Pakistan around 3000 BC. The domestication of camels around 1,000 BC helped encourage overland trade and, around 800 BC, Homer and Hesiod wrote of permanent places of trade, or ‘emporia’ – the ancient equivalent of shopping centres. Nomadic travel and the trade in goods promoted an exchange of ideas and technologies. Trade brought disparate peoples into close proximity with one another due to their shared interests in each other’s produce. Communication and social interaction were crucial. Successful traders learnt foreign languages and familiarised themselves with the different customs of trading partners. So what does this teach us? Peoples with shared interests share the same pathway – an association based upon mutual exchange. In the same way, creating a better communal understanding of how social workers and service users share complementary priorities can help bolster a more resilient relationship able to withstand the inevitable mutual waxes and wanes. Doing things to, rather than with, service users increases the risk of disengagement. Collaboration and reinforcing community cohesion is key to sustainable relationships. Sharing power saves time, energy and resources in the long-term. It also tends to make institutions more stable. As the great political philosopher Montesquieu noted, if power is too concentrated, institutions become subject to the whims of those in control. Centralised power can disengage and disempower your target audience – those supposed to be the recipients of your ‘product’ or service. And history has many warnings of what eventually happens to governments run as dictatorships. This has become increasingly recognised by companies seeking a leading edge. A commitment to address discrimination, to gender equity and women’s economic empowerment, for example, advances the companies’ association with the target audience and thereby increases their market share. Power sharing can help overcome a problem often lamented by social workers – a perceived ‘lack of commitment’ from someone to plans drawn up on their behalf. Sharing power can’t be achieved without sharing the creative process. A co-working approach involves the service user from the outset, working to identify and agree actions to be taken by both parties toward their shared interests. Discovering what a person wants to achieve (rather than imposing our own views) and aligning these with our objectives creates a win- win. Tensions in the relationship diminish as a result and genuine ownership of agreed goals engenders commitment. Forming relationships with other professionals – such as health, education and probation – who have common interests can further add to the efficacy of social work while enhancing the standing of the profession. Co-creation with service users also taps into the psychology of reciprocity, or mutual benefit. We inherently convey a feeling of indebtedness when someone does something for us. This need not be based upon feelings of guilt, or inducement to pay back, but centred upon the mutual respect that collaboration can generate. Reframing the way we work and moving towards a far greater recognition of shared interests is a great way for social workers and service users to forge a stronger and more resilient working relationship. ‘Reframing the way we work can help us forge stronger and more resilient relationships’ Alex Clapson is a qualified social worker, trainer and consultant specialising in staff development, including supervison skills Alex Clapson on the benefits and value of working in partnership with people using services Sharing power and interests is a win-win