Coproduction (public services)
The co-production of public services has been defined in a variety of ways - e.g. "Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours" (new economics foundation) or "the public sector and citizens making better use of each other's assets and resources to achieve better outcomes and improved efficiency" (Governance International). Co-production in this sense is distinctively different from co-production between organisations; such as between two media companies (see- coproduction (film)) or between two public sector agencies – commonly referred to as 'partnership working'.
Emergence of co-production
The term ‘co-production’ was originally coined in the late 1970s by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues at Indiana University to explain why neighbourhood crime rates went up in Chicago when the city’s police officers retreated from the beat into cars. Similarly to Jane Jacobs’ assessment of the importance of long-time residents to the safety and vitality of New Yorks old neighbourhoods, Ostrom noted that by becoming detached from people and their everyday lives on the streets, Chicago’s police force lost an essential source of insider information, making it harder for them to do their work as effectively.
What Ostrom and her colleagues were recognising was that services – in this case policing – rely as much upon the unacknowledged knowledge, assets and efforts of service ‘users’ as the expertise of professional providers. It was the informal understanding of local communities and the on the ground relationships they had developed with police officers that had helped keep crime levels down. In short, the police needed the community as much as the community needed the police. The concept of the ‘core economy’, first articulated by Neva Goodwin and subsequently developed by Edgar S. Cahn, is helpful in explaining this further.
The core economy is made up of all the resources embedded in people’s everyday lives – time, energy, wisdom, experience, knowledge and skills – and the relationships between them – love, empathy, watchfulness, care, reciprocity, teaching and learning. Similar to the role played by the operating system of a computer, the core economy is the basic, yet essential, platform upon which ‘specialist programmes’ in society, the market economy and public services run. Our specialised services dealing with crime, education, care, health and so on are all underpinned by the family, the neighbourhood, community and civil society.
This understanding has helped to radically reframe the potential role of ‘users’ and ‘professionals’ in the process of producing services. Far from being passive consumers, or needy drains on public finances, people, their family, friends and communities are understood as important agents with the capacity to design and even deliver services with improved outcomes.
Professionals, for their part, need to find ways of engaging meaningfully with the core economy; helping it to grow, flourish and realise its full potential – not atrophy as a result of neglect or exploitation. Significantly, as the New Economics Foundation (NEF) note:
“This is not about consultation or participation – except in the broadest sense. The point is not to consult more, or involve people more in decisions; it is to encourage them to use the human skills and experience they have to help deliver public or voluntary services. It is, according to Elizabeth Hoodless at Community Service Volunteers, about “broadening and deepening” public services so that they are no longer the preserve of professionals or commissioners, but a shared responsibility, both building and using a multi-faceted network of mutual support”.
What has emerged from this thinking is a new agenda; a challenge to the way professionals are expected to work, and to policy-makers who are setting targets as indicators of success; a way of helping to explain why things currently don’t work as well as they could; a call for an alternative way of doing things.
What co-production is… There is currently no agreed-upon definition of co-production, though most definitions have one common feature: the role of people in public services.
This variety of interpretations is perhaps because co-production is in many respects elusive; as numerous practitioners often note, it is a mind-set, and not something that can be easily distilled in a sentence or two. Encapsulating its richness, diversity and flexibility of practice (the things that make co-production so successful), whilst also ensuring that it is not so loosely defined as to be rendered conceptually meaningless, has long been a key challenge.
In an attempt to strike this balance, NEF, in partnership with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), have set out six key principles which help to frame what co-production is about, without being overly prescriptive. When co-production is effective all these principles are in action. These are;
Recognising people as assets: seeing people as equal partners in the design and delivery of services, not passive recipients of – or worse, burdens on – public services.
Building on people’s existing capabilities: rather than starting with people’s needs (the traditional deficit model), co-produced services start with peoples capabilities and look for opportunities to help make these flourish.
Mutuality and reciprocity: co-production is about a mutual and reciprocal partnership, where professionals and people who use services come together in an interdependent relationship recognising that each are invaluable to producing effective services and improving outcomes.
Peer support networks: engaging peer and personal networks alongside professionals as the best way of transferring knowledge and supporting change.
Blurring distinctions: blurring the distinction between professionals and recipients, and between producers and consumers of services, by reconfiguring the way services are developed and delivered.
Facilitating rather than delivering: enabling professionals to become facilitators and catalysts of change rather than providers of services.
From this NEF/NESTA also offer the following definition:
“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change”
What co-production isn’t…
Another helpful way of thinking about what co-production means in practice is to be clear about what co-production is not. Co-production has emerged from a rich and diverse literature and practice; today it has parallels for example in asset based community development. However, there has been some confusion between co-production and service user-design, user ‘voice’ initiatives and consultation exercises. Although co-production encompasses all of these things, it cannot be reduced to any one of these approaches. To fall back on a well-worn cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
At its most basic co-production of public services is about ‘action’, for example people (including professionals and people who use services) coming together and producing a service or an outcome through the medium of public services. In contrast many of the ‘voice’ based initiatives listed involve people expressing opinions and ideas but ultimately still only recognise professionals as capable of providing the work needed to deliver a service. ‘Voice’ based initiatives may be able to design better services than those that don’t engage with people, but ultimately they are not aimed at unlocking the practical skills and capacities of people who receive ‘services’
It is also important to note here the difference between co-production and ‘self-organised’ provision of support. Co-production requires a contribution in terms of time and resources from public service professionals as well as people who ‘use’ services. The way in which time and resources are contributed may well look different from more traditional service provision but it is essential that this contribution is present. In this way co-production is not a cover by which it becomes possible to withdraw professionals entirely from services.
Challenges for co-production
Co-production, as a method, approach and mind-set, is very different from traditional models of service provision. As has been shown, it fundamentally alters the relationship between service providers and users; it emphasises people as active agents, not passive beneficiaries; and, in large part because of this alternative process, it tends to lead towards better, more preventative outcomes in the long-term.
Because of its radically different nature, however, people wishing to practice co-production face a number of significant challenges. As NEF/NESTA comments;
"Overall, the challenge seems to amount to one clear problem. Co-production, even in the most successful and dramatic examples, barely fits the standard shape of public services or charities or the systems we have developed to ‘deliver’ support, even though [in the UK] policy documents express ambitions to empower and engage local communities, to devolve power and increase individuals’ choice and control." 
This misfit makes practicing co-production difficult, and mainstreaming good practice particularly so. Existing structures and frameworks work against, not with, co-production. In order for it to flourish as a viable alternative to the expensive and in many cases failing, status quo change needs to take place.
NEF/NESTA highlight four areas where such change will be required;
• Funding and Commissioning: Commissioners of public money will need to change their established ways of doing things. Applying strict quantitative targets and stipulating rigid, short-term outputs with a mind to economic efficiency acts as a barrier to co-produced service models. In order to ‘commission for change’ narrow outputs need to be broadened and complemented by outcomes based commissioning.
• Generating evidence and making the case for co-production: The obvious reason why many commissioning frameworks favour outputs over outcomes is that they are simply measured, making it deceptively easy to evaluate success or failure. But real success is not easily measurable. Nor are many of the preventative benefits of co-production easy to quantify. Making the case for co-production and capturing its complex and myriad benefits is a key challenge.
• Taking successful approaches to scale: It is fair to say that the majority of examples where co-production is being successfully practiced take place at a local scale. To a great extent this has been instrumental to their success; they are rooted in local realities, have grown organically from the ground based on local assets and ideas and emphasise the importance of face-to-face relationships. There is a potential tension to be overcome here; ensuring that a service remains locally rooted, whilst simultaneously expanding the scope of coverage nationally. Where this has been achieved (see KeyRing, Shared Lives and LAC in Australia) the tendency towards replication and blueprinting has been strongly resisted. Instead of simplistically transplanting a ‘model’ in new regions, these organisations have taken forward a common ‘method’ that involves engaging with local assets and resources in a consistent way.
Co-production also suits smaller organisations (traditionally those in the third sector) that are more used to working in less structured and hierarchical ways. This is something that large public sector structures are much less used to doing. If co-production is to be a mainstream way of working across public sector services, a structural and cultural shift will also need to take place.
• Developing required professional skills: Years of working to narrowly defined roles and job descriptions has understandably led to many public service professionals seeing their ‘clients’ through circumscribed lenses; as patients that need to be cared for, rather than people who could be enabled. It can also be difficult for any professional to relinquish control and ‘hand over the stick’; not only does this challenge occupational identities but it also confers a greater sense of risk – co-production can be ‘messy’ and is inimical to rigid control. If the hearts and minds of those delivering services on the ground cannot be changed, and if the necessary skills associated with relinquishing control are not embedded, co-production is likely to be constrained.
Criticisms and responses
• It makes additional demands of people who rely on services and who are by definition already ‘in need’. However, a response to this is that the active engagement of people who have previously been seen as passive recipients is largely positive, enabling them to make services work for them, growing their own confidence and capacity. Nevertheless, in co-production approaches it is important to consider equality around the burden placed on people’s time.
• It is a cover for the withdrawal of services and minimises the accountability of the state; blurring the lines of responsibility for the quality of service. If co-production is done for the wrong reasons this can be the case. It is a question of means and ends. The key here is to emphasise that ‘co’ requires input both from people who deliver services and people who have been seen as ‘recipients’ of them. They are likely to play different roles and power will be distributed differently in co-produced services but contribution from both is essential, otherwise services become ‘self-organised’ which is a different thing entirely.
• Co-produced services will lead to a postcode lottery for service users: It is true that services will look different in different areas but that is to be expected as the assets, resources and needs identified by communities in different areas will also look different. There is still the need for a central role to be played to ensure consistency in approach and to be clear that everyone is enabled to play a role in co-production but the assumption that identikit services produce the best outcomes for people is questioned by co-production.
• Its just ‘participation’ by a new name: Co-production is different from ‘voice’ based interventions as it recognises that it is critical for people to play a role in the activity of delivering services, not simply to contribute ideas to shaping new services that rely on professionals to deliver them.
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