Co-production – what’s that all about then?

So – after much conference attending and gadding about the place I am back to some thesis writing – the whole work / academic balance having been rather upset by my diary planning. However – its interesting how being out and about and talking about these ideas helps clarify my thinking – and by speaking to the kind of variety of people I have spent time with over the last month or so you start to see the bigger patterns and stories that link things together more clearly.

This was particularly true of the CIPR conference that I was at on Friday. I will post about that on the Public-i blog but I’ve got a couple of more personal reflections I wanted to add on this here. There are some exceptional people working on Local Government Communications but they are nearly all people that really understand two things:

  • Effective communications is not possible without a deep understanding of the strategy of the organisation and cannot happen on a project by project basis – and new technologies mean that everyone has a communications role. The challenge is about getting people to understand the brand and the strategy to a far deeper extent than we have done before with command and control comms
  • Communications is a support function – and to stay relevant you have to be embedded in the process of negotiating a new relationship with the citizen

Social media, with its deep rooted connection to authenticity and transparency both highlights and helps these two issues in my view. In terms of the communications people in Government – personally I think they really need to understand that the pressures on them right now are not just budget cuts and to start to embrace the new landscape they find themselves working in.

I spoke about co-production as part of my conference session as I think its a big part of this step change in what it means to be a government communicator. As we move online we have to understand that the social web is not a merely passive space which you can broadcast in to. Of course not everyone is actively creating content but as you can see from Ofcom and other research (refs in the sidebar) people actually do things online. When you start to think about civic conversations that it start to become important that we talk about how we do things – not just about the fact that we do. Let me try and untangle that statement.

There is a lot of justifiable excitement about some of the spontaneous community activity that we see online around the hyperlocal space or around projects like FixMyStreet and the like. We see people start to organise and produce outputs online that reflect civic volunteering that has been going on for centuries and the pace at which it happens is both exciting and impressive. Technology and the social change it brings, combined with the opportunities such as the Open Data movement, gives us an unprecedented opportunity to change the way in which we make decisions as a society.

Government often gets fairly badly kicked for not embracing this change and I share that frustration – but I also think that the heart of the issue is that government needs to adjust to a very different role and to make sure that it really understands its relevance to the process. And what is this relevance?

Government is there to make sure that the process of designing and delivering services that the community want is legal, fair and reasonable – making sure that decisions reflect the will of the people not just at the micro hyperlocal level but at the larger ideological level that can think in the abstract and trade off the needs and rights of one group of people against those of a competing group. Separately the State might actually take on the responsibility of delivering services – but the function of Government as the arbitrater of the public will is different. As we reduce the role of the state we should not be forgetting the role of Government.

So – why co-production? And what is it?

Basically it can be anything that involves delivering a public service with the public rather than to delivering it to the public:

“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.” (Nesta 2009)

Co-production has emerged from the literature around citizen engagement and consultation and its important that it is more about describing the relationships and relative power states of the actors than a mandated process. I’ve put some useful links in the sidebar and will add to these as I find them but here are the origins:

“Co-production emerged in the social sciences nearly four decades ago. The idea was first articulated by the 2009 Nobel prize winner for economics, Elinor Ostrom, and her team at Indiana University, who coined the term ‘co-production’ in a series of studies of the Chicago police in the 1970s. Ostrom was trying to explain why the wholesale adoption of centralised service delivery through large institutions was less effective than people had predicted. She needed a word to convey what was missing when the police abandoned their close involvement with the public on the beat, and became more distantly involved in patrol cars: it was that element of successful policing that only members of the public could provide to make sure services worked. It was Ostrom’s team who defined co-production as the “process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organisation”. (Nesta 2009)

I am using the umbrella term “co-production” which has a number of more limited terms associated with it: Co-planning, Co-design, Co-commissioning, Co-managing , Co-delivering, Co-monitoring, Co-evaluating

Professor Tony Bovaird has done work around co-production in the UK for some time and starts to give some idea of the amount of co-productive effort which is already happening:

“While the results…..indicate that citizens are less inclined to spend their co-production efforts in group activities, this does not mean that such collectivised co-production is unimportant. As examples of how important it is to the creation of public value, in the UK there are about 350,000 school governors, who not only serve on committees to help run schools but also have a legal liability for the affairs of the school; about 5.6m people help to run sports clubs; 750,000 people volunteer to assist teachers in schools; 170,000 volunteer in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes, etc. Of course, these activities often bring individual benefits, too – for example, school governors often have children in the school and parents often help run sports clubs in which their children are active – but the point remains that they undertake activities which have potentially important collective benefits.

Admittedly, these numbers are small (with the exception of the sports club volunteers), compared to the 1.8m regular blood donors, the 8m people signed up as potential organ donors, and the 10m people within Neighbourhood Watch schemes, all of which are more ‘lonely’ activities, which do not need to be programmed to the same extent within a person’s daily timetable. (Bovaird et al 2009)”

Short digital exclusion segue

There is a risk in all these things of pandering to an articulate and already enabled middle class and it is worth pointing out at this point that co-production is also something that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have looked at with respect of people who are not in work. Their researchers conclude that:

  • Organisations that want to develop co-productive ways of working need to focus not just on clients’ problems, but on their abilities.
  • The benefits system needs to be able to provide incentives for those outside paid work to get more involved in their neighbourhoods without endangering their basic income.
  • To be successful, co-production needs to retain its informal approach. Local intermediary agencies – in particular properly resourced time banks – may be best placed to achieve this.

These are clearly interesting findings for the current economic and political climate and something I will be picking up in more detail at some point.

But back to co-production

The reason I choose to talk about co-production is because it includes the delivery element as well as the design or monitoring – it involves the possibility of all actors in the conversation actually doing something. In a social web environment while the emphasis is on participation and action this is an essential consideration. The interesting point for me is how you interleave democratic accountability with a co-productive environment – but I will get onto that in a moment.

I started thinking about and researching co-production when it became obvious exactly how limited the idea of a ladder of engagement is (al la Arnstein) – something which had been fairly pivotal in my original thinking. When I started to work on the detail of my theoretical framework the weakness of an essentially linear approach to the process of citizen engagement became apparent. The main problem being the fact that actors will move in and out of different states and relationships with any process and an attempt to show some kind of progress through increasingly ‘engaged’ states does not allow for this. Instead I have chosen to look to categorise behaviours into types and then look at them on an informal / formal and then social / civic / democratic basis.

My interest in co-production, in so far as my thesis goes, is in respect to the degree to which it can be associated with democratic outcomes. My goal is to examine emergent informal civic participation and to look at ways of connecting this to democratic decision making processes. My approach is to create an online civic space which connects together all of the local participants into a larger democratic decision making unit. However as I start to describe this civic space I am embedding the idea of co-production within its description as a necessary condition for wider participation as I believe that it is extremely important that the local civic space is jointly owned by all actors and not controlled by Government. Whenever I talk about this at events there seems to be general support for the idea (though some nervousness when I explain this means no moderation) but I thought it would be useful to unpack why I believe this is essential:

  • One of the issues associated with the decline in democratic participation is one of trust – and lack thereof. This is often cited as lack of trust in politicians, but can easily also describe the lack of trust that government has in the behaviour of citizens – we need to trust people if we expect them to participate
  • Dealing with the social web should be considered a diplomatic rather than a technological issue. The culture of the social web is highly collaborative and transparent and does not respond well to control or monitoring.
  • If we assume that a healthy democracy requires active citizens (mmm….this might be a whole other post) then building in the idea of government management into the civic space is unnecessary – we just need to look at how we transition to that state
  • We need agile decision making and faster response times. If we accept the idea that the speed of technological change is bringing about increasingly rapid social change then we need decision making processes that can work in a similar way with iterative, self-regulating models that can build incrementally in an agreed strategic direction rather than more cumbersome ‘waterfall’ models of government (yup – this is another post as well). We need the pressure of social change to work more directly on government so that we can keep policy in better sync with people’s lives. A co-productive environment makes this more possible as citizens are active participants rather than customers. Government needs to speed up and in some cases citizens need to slow down and reflect

Yes…slow down…..

Adding the condition of democratic validity to the local civic space is about ensuring that decisions are fair, reasoned and reflect the wider macro environment rather than just to issues pertaining to the hyperlocal level. Co-production shares the process with all participants – democracy takes into account the interests of the non-participants.

However co-production is a relatively new approach and concerns about how easy it will be to connect to democratic representation:

“Firstly, there must be significant doubt about the willingness of politicians to contest the role of professionals, to place more trust in decisions by users and communities, and to rebut media criticism when things go wrong. Essentially, politicians would need to support users in co-constructing their own identity rather than accepting one constructed by ‘experts’. Secondly, the practical feasibility of greater co-production cannot be gauged from a small set of case studies, even though those above cover a wide range of service sectors (e.g. housing, health, social care) and of planning, commissioning and delivery activities. Only further experimentation will show the practical scope for co-production in other contexts. “ (Bovaird, 2007)


Ultimately this is all about power – how you use it and how you share it.  The State has got used to wielding its power through management of resources and one of the pressures that it is feeling now is the weakening of that power as the resources shrink.  However the pressure towards more co-productive ways of working is not just economic, its been emergent in the world of engagement practitioners for decades and has been it shares many qualities with the underlying culture of the social web and the network society that we now live in.  As the State shrinks then Government needs to find new ways to work with citizens and these need to be fair and representative if we value these qualities in our society.  Co-production may represent a more engaged and active relationship with citizens but it needs democracy to ensure it is also a representative one.

This is really a surface skim of the ideas of co-production and I need to make a decision about how much further I go with this in terms of the thesis. My inclination is to leave it here as my primary interest is around how this conversations connect to democratic forms rather than how they work in and of themselves but it may be that I need to look at some of the facets of co-production with respect to how they relate to the design of the civic space – specifically around how you would go about putting a code of conduct in place for a civic space which allows the participants to decide who to include in the space. Will try and pick this up next week and describe what I mean by an online civic space and its underlying design assumptions….am sure you can hardly wait.

  1. Mark Foden

    October 25, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Catherine, I am interested by this. Being more pictures than words myself: I wonder if you have in your head any kind of emergent diagram or image (or perhaps even metaphor) that contrasts the existing model of democracy with the new ones that you are thinking about?

    • curiouscatherine

      October 27, 2010 at 10:46 am

      Really good question Mark – I really struggle with this. Have got various things scribbled on the back of envelopes but nothing usable. Have now got an offer from a picture person to help me with this! Will put it up here when its done.

      • Mark Foden

        October 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm

        I shall stand-by then. Good luck.

  2. Tom Phillips

    October 25, 2010 at 8:29 am


    You tweeted that you might change your views after letting this piece marinade for a bit. Don’t do that! I think it says some very important things and in very accessible ways. It got several loud “Amens” from me as I read.

    From where I sit, the present dilemma is that Government (and government) appears to want the outcomes from social media and co-production, but are at best reluctant, and at worst dismissive, of the tools.

    Nice blog, to which I will return frequently.

  3. Pingback: The Plan is not the Objective « Curiouscatherine’s Blog |

  4. Pingback: Creating co-production: notes from our work in Cambridgeshire « Public-i Blog |

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