I should co-pro (What shall we do with the public sector? – part three)

As you’ll know if you read either broadsheet newspapers or any relevant professional magazine or journal, everyone from political pundits to clever academics agrees that the public sector needs ‘reform’. The disagreements start when these experts try to decide what reform is.

Amongst current reformers, one of the biggest battles is between personalisation – which turns people who use services into customers buying the public services they need with the personal budgets they’ve been allocated – and co-production. I am temporarily avoiding the (possibly interesting) discussion about whether personalisation could be seen as a form of co-production.

While personalisation raises plenty of questions  – both in terms of whether it’s right and in terms of whether it will work in practice – it’s not a complicated concept. The idea is that people who use services are the best people to decide what services they need and having a personal budget means they can take decisions about services they receive in the same way (roughly) that they decide what groceries to buy.

Co-production, on the other hand, is a complicated concept. So complicated that over the last year it’s been the subject of three discussion papers:  The Challenge of Co-production, Public Services Inside Out and Right Here, Right Now harnessing the combined cleverness of the new economics foundation and NESTA’s Public Services Lab.

By the third of these papers, the thinkers have arrived at snappy definition for the principle of co-production: “People’s needs are better met when they are involved in an equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals and others, working together to get things done.”

This definition is quite problematic. Having read three papers I do understand what they mean but I’m not sure that describing a relationship between some people who are getting paid to do a job and some people who – one way or another – are accessing a service that they need as ‘equal’ is particularly useful.

The point, though, is that co-production means service users/recipients being actively involved as ‘agents in the design and delivery of public services’ rather than passively receiving services from expert professionals.

While there’s many ways of doing this, the six suggested features of (most forms of) co-production are:

  • Recognising people as assets
  • Building on people’s existing capabilities
  • Mutuality and reciprocity
  • Peer support networks
  • Blurring distinctions (between professionals and recipients
  • Facilitating rather than delivering

Some practical examples of co-production cited in the discussion papers include:

  • A parent-run nursery where parents take it in turns to staff the nursery alongside the paid manager and, in doing so, keep down staff costs enabling the organisation to provide affordable childcare.
  • A mental health day centre where facilitated peer support enables members to work together to extend their social networks and get involved with the local community.
  • Nurse Family Partnerships – where nurses develop strong relationships with mothers from ‘low income, high risk groups’ to develop mothers’ individual skills and capabilities in everything from issues directly related to looking after their children, such as feeding, to literacy and employment. This approach enables the mothers to improve their own social outcomes and those of their children.

The underlying idea is that professionals should be facilitators helping people to help themselves and each other. This, the researchers claim, leads to wide-ranging social benefits both for individual people using public services and for society as a whole. While personalisation positions people using public services as consumers, co-production encourages and enables people to take collective responsibility for improving their own situation and the situations of others of others in similar circumstances.

The evolving theory of co-production certainly has a lot to contribute to the current debates around public sector reform. It’s less clear whether it’s likely to evolve into a blueprint for an overall package of internal public sector reform.

One of the biggest challenges the co-producers is to make the case that it’s likely to be a cost effective way of delivering services in the short term. The battle for justifying extra spending in one area of public sector on the basis that it reduces the demand on other areas is an ongoing one and – while initiatives such as Total Place suggest some movement in that direction – providing evidence that justifies (possibly increased) spending on co-production of specific services is going to be difficult in the current climate.

Another big challenge, which justifies a post in itself, is whether most public sector agencies have the capacity to change their attitude to risk to the extent that it would genuinely be possible for people using services to be ‘agents in the design and delivery of public services’.

Many social enterprises, on the other hand, are (in theory) already engaging in some form of co-production. If co-production does become a buzz word for the coalition government, it seems likely that there will plenty of opportunities for social enterprises to either deliver contracts for co-produced services or advise public sector agencies on how to co-produce services themselves.

Any thoughts from anyone already involved in this much appreciated.


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6 responses to “I should co-pro (What shall we do with the public sector? – part three)

  1. Having followed the debates around public service reform & co-production – which go back to the early 2000s – I would think it highly unlikely that the coalition would go for co-pro. It’s essentially an argument against the involvement of for-profit firms and the shift away from public provision of services.


  2. Alisdair Cameron

    Certainly from the mental health field, it’s nothing new, and something that many have argued for, and some practised for years. Didn’t call it co-production (what’s the product, after all, and the resources/wages are seldom co-allocated…) and probably won’t, as the preferred term (sadly co-opted by some to use for mere customer relations type stuff) is involvement, by which I mean service users getting involved in the design,delivery and scrutiny of services.


  3. From a social enterprise perspective, well it sounds like people-centered economic development, which derives from Carl R Rogers person-centered counselling – a process of freeing a person and removing obstacles so that normal growth and development can proceed and the person can become more independent and self-directed.

    Putting this into the context of economics such that people might develop their own economic sustainability was the central theme of the paper on “social capitalism” that led to leveraging a microfinance bank in Russia and now stimulate community wealth in Ukraine.

    I wondered whether this had registered at all when I saw Geoff Mulgan pitching for the same thing at TED, as if it was something yet to be realised.


  4. beanbagsandbullsh1t


    I agree it’s nothing new – although the prominence of the theorising seems fairly new.

    For me, there’s a spectrum of involvement ranging from consultation to service users being (or becoming) paid employees.

    The co-production movement, if I understand it correctly, is attempting to promote an area on the spectrum – more involvement than consultation or volunteering, less than being paid to deliver the service or being co-operative/trustee owners of the project – as a theory for the best way for services to be delivered.

    I’m interested to hear explanations of how that space is big enough, and possible to define clearly enough, for it to be widely viewed a specific way of doing things.


  5. Alisdair Cameron

    That’s a good analysis, I think,David. Co-pro’s really quite a niche interest is my gut feeling, and it goes against the consumerist and personalisation tide.I do fear it being used politically as a smokescreen to both reduce costs and shunt blame: can easily envisage the scenario of service users being lumped with doing more and more of the ‘production’ bit of co-production, with the the other part of the ‘co’ getting the money/wages, and if/when a service comes a cropper, the blame being attributed to the service users.


  6. Pingback: What learnings can we take from this? « Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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