Maximising, and evaluating, the benefits of co-design: insights from the Building Connections Fund
This week’s guest blog comes from Michelle Man, Senior Consultant at New Philanthropy Capital. She is currently working on the Building Connections Fund. The Fund supports grant-holders with their impact practice, advising on co-design, and building the evidence base on what works in tackling loneliness. Here, she outlines what to look for when planning and evaluating a co-design project.
At the start of the year, the Building Connections Fund funded 144 short-term co-design projects aimed at tackling loneliness in young people. This type of project and studies are appropriate for the early stage of the evidence base for this age group. Many of these projects focused on maximising the use of community spaces by refurbishing or repurposing underused facilities. As evaluation and learning partner for the Fund with What Works Wellbeing and Brunel University London, New Philanthropy Capital conducted a qualitative evaluation of these projects.
What does co-design mean in the context of young people?
Co-design is when an organisation and its stakeholders work together to design or rethink a service. From these short-term projects, we found that co-design facilitated valuable conversations which changed how young people thought about and understood loneliness.
Our evaluation found that co-design:
- enabled young people to influence service-delivery, so that charities could improve their work to tackle loneliness.
- led to changes that aren’t specific to loneliness – we also saw increased confidence and feelings of empowerment. This, in turn, impacted on other areas of their lives, such as school work, behaviour, and interpersonal skills.
- influenced how charities approach their work, by generating useful insights and ideas, and improving decision-making about service-delivery.
Challenges to delivering effective co-design
The projects we evaluated lasted around three months, but good co-design takes time to plan, set up processes, recruit participants, encourage and sustain engagement, and ensure participants can contribute fully.
This is particularly important when participants require additional support, for example those with language barriers, cognitive disabilities and mental health issues. Additionally, some staff identified a risk of unrealistic expectations among participants, particularly younger age groups. To manage expectations, staff tried to communicate objectives clearly and explain the effect of constraints such as time, money and safety on co-design activities.
How can you evaluate co-design?
It is clear that co-design can unlock positive outcomes for participants, organisations, and communities, and there is a long tradition of involving young people in the design of youth work. What is less widely embedded are approaches for assessing the effectiveness and impact of co-design.
This is understandable as evaluating co-design can be tricky. Different participants are likely to engage with co-design in different ways. How do you evaluate a range of activities and experiences? What if your co-design is delivered as a process, rather than a distinct intervention? You may not have predefined outcomes for your co-design from the start.
- Set objectives at the start
Evaluating co-design can be challenging but there are ways that all organisations can create space to reflect on experiences and emerging insights. As a first step, it’s vital to be clear about the purpose of your co-design. For example, your objective may be to redesign a service to better reflect user needs, or you may want to strengthen relationships between staff and volunteers. You need to know what you are trying to achieve to be able to understand if you are going in the right direction.
- Know your participants
To understand the benefits you’re achieving, you need to understand if you’re involving and engaging the right participants in co-design. You also need to find out what participants think of your co-design processes, what changes are being achieved for them in the short-term, and whether these changes lead to longer-term outcomes for participants.
It is important to consider if there are any risks or potential harm to participants. For example, if there is a mismatch in expectations about what the process could achieve, that could result in frustration, loss of trust, psychological strain and distress.
These risks could be higher for certain groups, such as people with physical health conditions, as it may require a disproportionate effort from them to engage with the co-design. It is vital that these risks are considered and reviewed regularly, and that appropriate safeguarding processes are in place.
- Assess the quality of your co-design
For these Building Connections Fund projects, how co-design was delivered and experienced was critical to achieving outcomes. Two factors helped enable positive experiences for participants:
- cultivating a sense of ownership, shared purpose and achievement; and
- building relationships and trust.
To understand how your co-design process is being experienced, you could ask questions of your participants such as:
- Why did you get involved in this co-design project?
- Which activities did you enjoy and not enjoy?
- What were your relationships like with the facilitators and other stakeholders?
- Did participation have any impact on you?
- Gather insights into how to achieve your intended impact
Understanding how and why change occurs as a result of your organisation’s work matters as much as understanding whether there was any change at all. Even from these short-term projects, co-design generated valuable insights into what participants felt were the best outcomes for them, and how they might be achieved. To draw out these insights, try to answer questions like:
- What do you know about the problem you’re trying to address? What do your co-design participants say about what would help to tackle this problem? Through these Building Connections Fund projects, co-design participants identified factors which they felt would make community spaces more engaging and attractive to young people, and more conducive to reducing loneliness. These primarily related to the use of technology and specific design features.
- What are the “active ingredients” of your work? What are the key experiences that people need for your work to be successful? For example, people may need to trust staff or feel confident enough to engage with activities. What have you learned about key design features for your work, for example duration, intensity, targeted or open activities? What barriers do participants identify, for example lack of transport or needing more flexibility to balance other commitments?
- What have you learned about what success looks like? Is this different for different types of projects and participants? For some participants, success could be improving attainment at school while for others, simply engaging with an activity or service could be a significant outcome.
Ultimately, co-design can and should take different shapes and forms to respond to different people with differing needs. The crucial point is to design your co-design with clear objectives in mind, and to embed opportunities throughout the process to reflect on those objectives and assess if you’re meeting them.
To help with this, I’ve been working with colleagues on a toolkit for designing, implementing and evaluating co-design. I’d love to know what you think and hear about your experiences with co-design.