Leadership and the hidden politics of co-produced research

What are the hidden politics of seeking to co-produce research with stakeholders? What kinds of leadership are common in co-produced research? What trade-offs does each kind of leadership make in addressing issues such as being directive, inclusive, innovative, accountable, open to what emerges and sharing power?

By Catherine Durose, Beth Perry, Liz Richardson and Rikki Dean

The hidden politics of co-production in research

The hidden politics of co-production in research involves tensions and debates about:

1. The purposes of scientific work.
Co-production brings together people, not only with different expertise, but also with different purposes for being involved, which can range from achieving more effective policy and practice outcomes to delivering social justice and empowering those experiencing disadvantage. There may be a tension with the primacy of scientific methods and publishing original and significant knowledge.

2. The practices of scientific work.
Co-production is commonly understood as a process that is non-linear, iterative and unfolding, requiring flexibility and openness in structures and processes, and leading to emergence, uncertainty and creativity. There may be tension with the pre-determined, well-established and tested requirements of robust methods and standards expected by funders and required for publication.

3. How power is negotiated.
Co-production values multiple forms of expertise, opening research to under-represented voices, challenging the role of academics in defining and legitimating knowledge, and decentring traditional roles in research. There is a tension with the specific skills and expertise required to do research and how this can be respected without defaulting to conventional hierarchies where academics dominate.

How co-produced research is led is central to how the tensions in these three areas are addressed.

Four kinds of leadership for co-produced research

We identified 4 kinds of leadership―creative, egalitarian, visionary and outcomes-focused, also shown in the figure below.

(Source: the authors, drawing on Durose et al., 2021. Designed by Creative Concern).

Creative leadership is characterised by attention to underlying relationships between those involved in coproduction and addresses inequalities in power in the group. Creative leaders see relationships as a precondition to creativity, allowing for unexpected outcomes, adaptation to changing circumstances, as well as responsiveness to group dynamics and preferences.

Outcomes-focused leadership focuses on getting things done. Outcomes-focused leaders value relationships to build trust and in order to enable each group member to contribute their strengths. They support those with the most appropriate skills and capacities to make decisions – rejecting group decision making – and they ensure there are clear structures and transparent processes. They do not necessarily address inequalities in power.

Visionary leadership is characterised by empathy, so that in addition to articulating a vision, such leaders are also prepared to listen to people and modify that vision. Visionary leaders aim to provide a sense of purpose and while they value clear roles, they eschew fixed processes in favour of their discretion, as leader, to act and improvise, without being overly constrained by structure. They are pragmatic about power being unequal and aim to give everyone an opportunity to participate, without advocating power sharing.

Egalitarian leadership seeks to create a shared inclusive process to achieve a collective purpose. Egalitarian leaders create transparent structures and ensure that decision-making is shared by all. Such leaders bring power differentials into the open and seek to constrain those who already have power, while empowering those who do not.

How leadership responds to the hidden politics of co-production

In reviewing the way these four different kinds of leaders respond to the hidden political issues in co-production outlined above, we:

  • first, review their alignment with core normative stances involved in co-producing research
  • then, consider together how they manage the tensions resulting from the purposes and practices of scientific research
  • and finally review how they manage differences.

In examining the alignment of the four leadership styles with the core normative concerns of advocates of co-produced research, we found three were well-aligned (the exception being outcomes-focused research):

  • Creative research aligns with the emphasis in the theory and practice of co-production on emergence.
  • Outcomes-focused leadership is less well aligned with the core normative concerns, but is not antithetical to co-production.
  • Visionary leadership aligns with the role of co-production in crossing boundaries between different actors or sets of expertise in research, allowing participants to pursue their own intellectual curiosities within a wider collaborative endeavour.
  • Egalitarian leadership aligns with an emphasis in co-production on opening up research to under-represented voices.

The leadership styles have differing implications for the assumed authority of academics within the research process. None are able to easily navigate the tension between espoused social distribution of expertise and the antecedent power of academics, with varying implications for the robustness, relevance and inclusiveness of co-produced research:

  • Creative Leadership seeks synergies between participants, but its emphasis on emergence may risk a potential default to academics dominating the process. Such emergence may also challenge rigour, potentially undermining both science and relevance.
  • Outcomes-focused Leadership may reduce trade-offs between academic and societal outcomes, potentially supporting scientific standards, but also possibly diluting the distinctiveness of co-produced research.
  • Visionary Leadership has the potential to empower diverse participants, but its pragmatism regarding power differentials again opens the risk of academic dominance.
  • Egalitarian Leadership perhaps most explicitly seeks to guard against the risk of academic dominance, but in doing so may restrict the ability to enforce scientific standards.

Regarding power dynamics, the different leadership styles have points of overlap, as well as distinction:

  • Creative and egalitarian leadership share a re-distributive approach to negotiating power differentials, while outcomes focused and visionary leadership have a more negotiated approach to working with power.
  • All four leadership styles are sensitive to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, but approach them differently. For example, Egalitarian Leadership emphasises clear and formal structure as a means to redistribute power and embed a collective and shared endeavour. In contrast, Outcomes-focused Leadership has a less redistributive approach, but shares a preference for clear and formal decision-making structures in order to allow different forms of expertise to come to the fore.


The issues discussed here were raised in our own experiences of co-producing research on participatory urban governance with citizens, activists, and practitioners from the public and voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors. These co-researchers alerted us to ‘elephants in the room’, referring to unsurfaced issues and concerns about the research, including issues of leadership. What became apparent was that people held distinctly different preferences for what leadership in co-produced research should look like. Those observations provided the stimulus for further research which led to the ideas described above.

What has your experience been with the hidden politics of co-production? Are there additional issues that you think are important? Do the leadership styles we identified resonate with you? Are there others that you have experienced or practiced? How have you seen them deal with the tensions involved in research co-production?

To find out more:
Durose, C., Perry, B., Richardson, L. and Dean, R. (2021). Leadership and the hidden politics of co-produced research: A Q-methodology study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2021.1960738

Catherine Durose (@CatherineDurose) PhD is Reader in Policy Sciences and Director of Research at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies in the UK where she undertakes research on urban governance and public policy, including co-production.

Beth Perry (@TheUrbanBeth) PhD is Director of the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield in the UK and Professor of Urban Knowledge and Governance. Her work focuses on co-production, urban governance and the just city.

Liz Richardson (@lizMancUni) PhD is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research interests include: decentralised urban governance, public policy, citizen participation, and participatory research methods.

Originally posted @Integration and Implementation Insights
December 7th, 2021

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