On Monday I attended London’s NESTA Co-Production Roadshow, the frontline of the battle to turn the word ‘learning’ into a singular noun. What learnings did I take from the day? I took the learning that the leading advocates of co-production are still some way off articulating a clear vision of what co-production is and why it’s useful. But I haven’t just taken that learning and kept it to myself. I am now using it to co-produce this blog with you, the reader. Here you are, wallowing in the learning – obviously I am the one writing the blog post but together we are co-producing the experience of a blog post being written and read.
The problem is not that co-production is bollocks, it’s that it’s proving difficult to turn it into either a coherent theory or a meaningful practical approach to doing stuff. I’ve read NESTA’s three lengthy reports on the subject and haven’t managed to discern anything significant beyond the fact that it’s attempt to promote an idea on the ‘user involvement’ spectrum that’s more involvement than consultation or volunteering, but less involvement than being paid to deliver the service or being co-operative/trustee owners of the project.
NESTA’s Phillip Colligan, Executive Director of their Public Services Lab, can and does express the idea of co-production in one, easily comprehensible sentence: “Let’s organise public services with people, rather than doing public service to people”. The difficulty is fleshing that out.
From the examples at the conference, co-production in practice meant:
- Helping ‘problem families’ by first making an effort to understand what their lives are like, then talking to them about how they’d like their lives to be different – Swindon Council
- Understanding the needs of people with brain injuries and enabling them to contribute to activities based on their skills and interests – Headway East London
- Using social media to enable people to interact with local services – Future Gov
- Commissioning services based on ongoing dialogue with voluntary sector providers and specifying outcomes, rather than outputs – Camden Council
I’m not opposed to any of these approaches. I support all of them. I think there’s useful ideas emerging that can be helpful in working out how we’re going to deliver public services in the future. What isn’t coming through to me is any clear reason – beyond think tank world – for trying to stitch these ideas together under the banner of co-production. At present, if either a public body or a charity announced it was going to ‘do co-production’, I don’t think the existing work really tells us much about what that would be likely to mean. It obviously wouldn’t be a monolithic top down service but there’s not many public sector bodies or charities that are keen to shout about the fact they are delivering a monolithic top down service.
Largely missing from NESTA’s current discussions is the area of the public sector where practical co-production has been most prevalent, youth work. There’s a strong argument that the late Connexions service (2001 – c.2010) is the closest we’ve ever come to a national roll out of a co-produced service. For those who missed it, Connexions was a bold plan to bring together all the services supporting 13-19-year-olds (other than schools) in a holistic approach to helping young people choose their path into the world of work, higher education (or something else).
Connexions (in theory) brought together careers services, youth services and – in the case of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups – housing and social services to deliver an action plan developed by the young person themselves working with their Connexions ‘personal adviser’. At its inception, the then DFES boldly pledged that all young people aged 13-19 would have their own personal adviser. Once it became clear that actually doing this at the level originally implied would cost more than the entire national education budget, the focus gradually shifted more and more towards solving the complex difficulties of young people described as NEET (Not in Education, Employment and Training).
When in 2009, former Cabinet Minister, Alan Milburn’s investigations into social mobility caused him to exclaim: “During all our proceedings and meetings and hearings, I have rarely heard a good word about the careers work of the Connexions service. I can only conclude that its focus on the minority of vulnerable young people is distracting it from offering proper careers advice and guidance to the majority of young people,” it was hard not feel sorry for those still trying to deliver Connexions.
I’d imagine most sensible people faced with the question of how a single service could simultaneously to effectively help Chloe and Benji decide between studying psychology or sociology, while also sending a minibus round to get an illiterate 18-year-old out of their hostel bed and take them to a CV writing course would probably respond with “I wouldn’t start from here.”
But the failures of Connexions were not primarily based on the co-produced bits of it. At least not the bits co-produced between young people and service providers:
- young people themselves being responsible for shaping their action plans
- local ‘shadow boards’ of young people that scrutinised the work of the local management boards and – to a lesser or greater extent depending on the local set-up – influenced the decisions and priorities of senior managers
- young people sitting on interview panels for personal advisers
- local Connexions settings where young people could receive advice and support outside a formal appointment based system
- a focus on funding for locals projects designed and led by young people
Given that Connexions was a national service (at least in England), there’s plenty of learnings to be had from the people in both the public and voluntary sectors (and a few in the Private Sector) involved in delivering it. There’s also plenty of people who were 13-19 year olds in the 2001 – 2010 who might like to talk about their experiences of the service. NESTA might like to have a chat with some of them.
In the mean time, hopefully we can co-produce a few comments on this blog.