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After Brexit: why coproduction matters

Olivia Darby, Policy Director at the Wonder Foundation.

Brexit was a surprise on many fronts, but the demographic of those who voted to leave was perhaps some one of the most unexpected things. Many Leave voters came from the poorest parts of England and Wales, and from immigrant backgrounds – those who would be expected to think sympathetically about migration or to be most affected economically by the withdrawal of EU funding.

Whether working in the UK or abroad, a key part of WONDER's approach to empowerment is participation. By this we mean that sustainable development - and let's not only use this term when addressing lifting poor people in other countries out of poverty - is possible only when communities themselves are involved in these initiatives, when they are engaged in the design, planning and implementation as far as possible.

In many ways, this is common sense - it is the extension of "teaching a man to fish". So why isn't it happening?

Obviously, it's much cheaper for a policymaker to visit somewhere and say, “well they need a new school” or “they need a new bus route” and to deliver it. After all, there are architects who build schools for a living and planners who develop public transport systems. It is much cheaper to go for an off-the-shelf solution that benefits from economies of scale.

It is far more difficult to consult with communities where there may be social divisions, between the roles of men and women, between clans, tribes, social classes or ethnic groups. It is challenging to arrange meetings where both mothers of small children and people working irregular shifts can be heard.

It’s also expensive to provide translation and to hire space and to factor in the time needed to make decisions together, exploring options and reconciling opinions. But it is very cheap compared to delivering infrastructure that no one uses or a school that only a minority feels safe to attend.

By branding “Brexiteers” ignorant and stupid, we perpetuate this idea that the educated always know best and continue to exclude those whose disenfranchisement led them to vote leave. The truth is that, at every level of decision-making in the UK, the effort is rarely made to listen to the most vulnerable – those who are least resilient in times of change. If we are to build a better, more inclusive Britain and learn anything from the referendum campaign and result, we will need to put this attitude aside. Involving communities will be essential.

The merit of this method of community engagement in decision-making, planning and delivery - called co-production - is that it is not just about the end goal, but about the journey. The journey can see barriers broken down between communities and the opinions of the vulnerable, whose needs often go unheard, taken into consideration. This is important, since one-off consultation methods often only lead to the most confident and vociferous people being heard.

Whether or not the UK leaving the EU is best for the poor communities who voted to leave, this is an opportunity for policy makers and governments to change their approach. By investing in and engaging communities, listening to them as citizens, rather than simply taking the easy way out, we can help ensure a future where the poorest and most vulnerable are better involved, informed and empowered by the policies that affect them. 

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