Sharing Power

It’s the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s (SCIE) Co-production Week, and the spirit of the theme of sharing power, it feels a good time to share our experiences of sharing power within our governing board through co-governance.

From the outset, co-production has been integral to Age Better in Sheffield; when we started in 2015 we established our Core Partnership, which is our governing body.

It is made up of people who are over 50 (approximately a third of the Core Partnership); members drawn from South Yorkshire Housing Association (the lead organisation for Age Better in Sheffield); representatives of key public sector organisations such as the local authority’s Adult Social Care Commissioning, public heath team and the NHS, and independent members who are under 50 but have interest in reducing loneliness and isolation and relevant experience or expertise. 

The Core Partnership meets together every two months and has oversight of the design and delivery of the programme, including playing a full role in commissioning the 25 interventions, with Core Partners with specific areas of expertise acting as advisors. 

We are particularly proud of the way that we share power within meetings; all representatives have equal voice and influence in how the programme is delivered. 

Boards are made up of diverse individuals and this can potentially lead to conflict and tension. We use tools from the Thinking Environment approach which has resulted in a culture whereby all members of our Core Partnership are able to share their skills, knowledge and experience in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

The Core Partnership was recently observed by an external observer who made the following observation in her reflections to the board: 

“I have never taken part in a professional meeting where there was no ‘over-talking’. The ability of the chair to model good behaviour, to be truly egalitarian and allow everyone to have a voice and be treated as equals was so refreshing. This meant that it was impossible to tell the difference between ‘professional to professional’ interactions and ‘professional-public’ interactions: in many meetings I attend, there  a qualitative difference in the way ‘public’ members are treated (subtle patronising language, jargoning, dismissing any passionately held views).

The fact that the group are used to behaving in this way and did not find it surprising, demonstrates that a culture of respect and co-production is embedded and that it CAN be embedded. I will carry this example with me into my own meetings, modelling the behaviour I want to see.”

Decisions are generally reached by consensus. The focus is on what’s best for the programme, an avoidance of confrontation (but encouraging differences of opinion to be shared) and a willingness to compromise. Respect for all views is crucial and the Chair allows this to happen by ensuring that everyone is allowed to speak and discussion is not rushed, even if time is tight.  

Outside of board meetings, Core Partners are involved elsewhere in the programme. For example, the Core Partnership have been involved in every stage of the commissioning process for 25 innovative approaches to reduce social isolation and loneliness, with Core Partners sitting on the decision-making panelCore Partners also attend the quarterly delivery partner forum meetingsCore Partners with particular expertise in research and evaluation support our evaluation work as critical friends, and a Core Partner sits on the steering group of one of our Ageing Friendly Sheffield workstreams. 

Core Partners shape the future of the governance structure and how they operate. For example, we hold annual appraisals with all the Board members to seek improvements for governance. 

Through the Core Partnership, older people have a vehicle to question and advise representatives from organisations and services across Sheffield including: NHS, Clinical Commissioning Group, Public Health, Sheffield Hallam University, the private sector and the voluntary sector.  

Co-governance is important to us and we’re proud of our approach, but like most things that are worth doing, it presents its challenges 

Taking co-governance seriously means constantly working to ensure that all Core Partners are involved and this takes a lot of time. Meetings require more planning and preparation to function well and to a level at which external observers to note that it was difficult to distinguish between professional to professional and older person.  

We’ve also found it to be a constant challenge to have members of the Core Partnership who can influence and be a strategic presence in the city.  There has been a delegation of responsibility from the original representatives of statutory organisations, which has arguably affected our level of impact, although the expertise of these Partners in their fields definitely strengthens the board. 

With another two years left of Ageing Better, we’re increasingly looking to our legacy and the Core Partnership is changing its focus and shapeHalf of our bimonthly meetings now focus specifically on the legacy of the project, with the delivery partners leading our Ageing Friendly work taking a full part in these meetings. We’re excited to see where this next phase of Age Better in Sheffield’s co-governance takes us.