Leadership and the hidden politics of co-produced research

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

1. Catherine Durose (biography)
2. Beth Perry (biography)
3. Liz Richardson (biography)
4. Rikki Dean (biography)

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?

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

Biography: Catherine Durose 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.

Biography: Beth Perry 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.

Biography: Liz Richardson 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.

Biography: Rikki Dean PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Democratic Innovations Research Unit, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. His research interests encompass democratic theory, public administration theory, participatory policy-making, process preferences and social exclusion.

8 thoughts on “Leadership and the hidden politics of co-produced research”

      • Hi Beth, sorry, I assumed the link to our website had come through with that message and my details. Here’s our website if you didn’t get it: https://truud.ac.uk/. TRUUD stands for ‘tackling root causes upstream of unhealthy urban development’. It is a five year partnership programme funded by the UK Prevention Research Programme, which seeks to reduce non-communicable diseases and health inequalities (including those linked to climate crisis). Our consortium involves 40-odd researchers, five universities, two city/city-regions (Bristol and Greater Manchester) and a wide range of practitioners, citizens, advisors outside academia. We are aiming to map and understand the systems under investigation, then develop and test interventions, which will include economic valuation of health externalities as a central tool. We’re 2 years in and just completing phase 1. If you or other interested readers are free, our team are just presenting the findings from the interviews, including at a webinar this coming Monday lunchtime: https://ukprp.org/news-and-events/ukprp-webinar-series-making-healthy-decisions-on-urban-development-and-planning/

  1. I really appreciate this post as I think of how to intentionally pursue equity, diversity, and inclusion in my research. Questions: 1. In your experience, is one or a combination of these leadership types ideal? 2. How did you handle the “distinctly different preferences” for leadership types that co-researchers had in your project?

    • Hi Bethany, thanks for the comment and pertinent questions. In relation to your first question, it might be of interest to read the longer paper from which we have drawn this blog https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13645579.2021.1960738. Our goal is to elucidate differences rather than to settle them. Whilst we recognise that there is a diversity of co-production projects, questions relating to the purpose, practice and power dynamics implied in different leadership approaches are common to many – however we also need to recognise that what might work for one group of people may be different from what might work with another. For instance, co-production with decision-makers who are used to particular bureaucratic modes of decision-making may be best served by a different style than co-production with a group of activists, or citizens. In response to question 2 part of the answer is that we took a step back to reflect on these issues in a more abstract and less personal way which resulted in this paper/blog! We also managed ‘with’ differences rather than seeking to manage them ‘out’. We had different approaches at different moments in time depending on what the needs of the project were. Overall it is fair to say there was some learning by doing going on – and this blog is an attempt to share our learning with others!

  2. The question of co-production in research also involves challenging aspects. The essential one being the risk of the emergence of the phenomenon of groupthink https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink . When like-minded researchers come together in a co-production project it can easily lead to the development of this phenomenon. Leadership should pay attention to the group behavior and intervene if people do not want to challenge the perspectives and ideas of others. Group think is a real risk in situations where a number of established researchers come together to produce research papers collectively. Such approaches are increasingly popular today. Leadership and management could also be dealt with separately as they are two different functions in co-production too. For more discussion see our paper https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2020.104834 blog and the related blog post at https://i2insights.org/2021/02/02/leadership-in-participatory-modelling/

    • Thank you for your insights Raimo and the links to your blog/paper – I will read that with interest. Leadership is important in making sure that people do feel able to challenge emerging dominant perspectives rather than following the loudest voices. At the same time it is interesting to reflect on the reasons why groupthink may emerge and whether it is necessarily negative. In my experience what may appear as agreement masks differences in opinion, however individuals in co-production projects have consciously decided to self-censor in the interests of progressing the actions of the group as a whole. There is a difference between the notion of groupthink, which implies some sort of uncritical consensus, and conscious processes of compromise. Your points on leadership and management are well made – one could see management as a particular kind of leadership in itself. Many thanks again for your reflection on the blog. Beth


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