Coproduction Week 2024: A peer researcher’s guide to unlocking insights, widening perspectives and enacting change

This week (1 – 5 July) is Coproduction Week, and we’re reflecting on – and celebrating – the vital role of people with lived experience in shaping policy, research and solutions to issues in the justice system and beyond.
When research takes place in a community, people from within that community who are engaged in conducting the research are often referred to as peer researchers.
As part of our recent ‘Building Bridges, Safer Communities’ project, we engaged a team of peer researchers to find out what being safe meant to people in Merseyside, including those from the revolving door group. Stephen, the Associate Project Officer on the project, led the team of peer researchers, and has lived experience of the revolving door himself.
We asked him for his reflections on the importance of peer research and co-production, and the widened perspectives and benefits it can bring:

I’ve been involved in the criminal justice system for over 30 years and have worked as a peer researcher and managed teams of peer researchers in the criminal justice sector for around ten years.

I recently worked with peer researchers at Revolving Doors on ‘Building Bridges, Safer Communities’, a policing and community safety project in Liverpool.

I worked with the peer researchers and Revolving Doors’ own research team to write a report which I presented to the UK’s first ever Citizens’ Assembly on policing and community safety, alongside other organisations including police, council and many others.

These Assembly members set out a series of recommendations to improve policing and community safety in Liverpool based on the evidence they’d heard. They then presented these to the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside, the Chief Constable and council leaders, who will take the proposals into action.

Many of the peer researchers attended the report launch event, where they were formally presented with the peer research certificates they gained from their work on the project.

Creating a sense of belonging

Involving people from the same communities the research was about created a great sense of comradeship and belonging amongst our team, forged through our shared experiences. This translated into the shared experiences of the research participants and the peer researchers. It created a bond of trust that helped participants feel comfortable in opening up and being honest about their feelings on the subject being researched.

One researcher has since told me of his pride in being included as a part of something that could lead to positive change in his community. He spoke of the self-worth it gave him: that people would actually listen to him and include him in a system that often felt imposed on him and not inclusive of his thoughts, feelings and needs.

It has given me a sense of personal pride to help give a voice to those, including myself, who have often felt let down and mistreated by justice services. This is particularly true in Liverpool, for historic reasons. Using our own and our peers’ voices we are helping to change a system many thought was broken and beyond our influence, and so improving things for our communities.

Wide-ranging opportunities for all

Peer research has benefits for everyone involved: the communities and people the research is about; the organisations and professionals commissioning the research; and the researchers themselves.

All too often participants in traditional research projects feel like Guinea pigs, subjected to officialdom that excludes their own experiences. In contrast, peer research can enable a much richer and fuller picture of the complexities of the subject being enquired about.

Participants can feel more relaxed and confident that what they disclosed will not be reported and held against them. This can be particularly true in the justice system where people are used to being subjected to authority figures and might worry that expressing negative views about people like prison or probation officers could result in poor outcomes such as arrests, breaches or recalls.

Speaking to a peer researcher can alleviate some of those fears, promoting openness and opportunities to reflect on how the justice system can be changed for the better for everyone else involved.

Peer research can also provide a fulfilling route to employment, arming participants with skills, experience and indeed qualifications, as well as the motivation to drive change forged by personal experiences.

The truth is often that people in the justice system have learned how to achieve goals and outcomes the hard way. Despite the many obstacles they have faced, this has often given them a diverse set of useful skills. Adapting these and learning new skills such as analysis and evaluation whilst researching can give an advantage to peer researchers who are already equipped with the advantage of personal insights into services that they themselves have been subject to, and empathy towards people still caught in the justice system.  

The future of co-production and peer research

Working with peer researchers and helping people feel part of enacting change through evidence is fulfilling for everyone involved.

‘Lived experience’ is now a commonly used phrase. The benefit of harnessing and utilising the expertise of members of specific communities is finally being understood by a broad range of organisations, who have begun to recognise the advantage of including in their teams people with lived experience of the systems they work in.

This creates a diversity of thought and more rounded, inclusive decision making, peer research is a great example of how the inclusivity of thought process can be harnessed to improve both systems and rehabilitative outcomes for the peers themselves.