There are no good answers without good questions.
The spaces in-between which connect different concepts are often relatively unexplored – I think this is the lure of multi-disciplinary work – these spaces express the tension between ideas but are also the connectors and bridges between different groups of thinkers and practitioners. I have for a while been fascinated by the space in between democracy and co-production. Or perhaps more accurately I have been thinking about the ramifications of greater levels of co-production of local services in a democratic context.
For clarity – I am taking my definition of co-production from this Nesta / NEF paper as follows:
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.
For more on what I mean by democracy which is another rather open concept you can read more here but I am talking about our current liberal representative democracy – but my argument will be will be that we need to evolve our democratic process if we wish to see greater levels of co-production of services.
Co-productive approaches were developed in order to work with specific groups on specific issues and came from a realisation that even when public services think they are doing all of the work the public are still active in the service (more on the development of coproduction here). By unlocking the active effort of citizens and working more co-productively the objective is that all stakeholders benefit. While often combined with co-design the vital difference for me is that participants go on to be active in the service delivery – or rather than their activity in the service is acknowledged and they never return to being passive recipients. While co-production is often introduced as a response to austerity its real power should be seen in its potential to help reshape the social contract between citizen and government.
This reshaping reflects a shift in power – done well co-production turns service users into active stakeholders and this should be a persistent change in behaviour. However this shift in power also brings its first democratic dilemma:
Can or indeed should we involve people in the design and delivery of services without also involving them more successfully in the democratic process which shapes those services?
Its worth pointing out that I come from a point of view that says that we have a significant democratic deficit and that we need to think hard about how we strengthen democratic engagement nationally and locally.
Going back to our dilemma, you could argue that on an individual service basis the answer is yes – if we have a defined scope of the discussion then it may be possible to bound this in a way which means it can reflect the political direction of the Local Authority which is instigating the process or the strategic ambitions of a commissioning CCG. However I think its more likely that as people become from engaged two things are likely to happen:
- It becomes clear that the process or service they are working on operates within a wider system where change is also needed
- They start to challenge that envelope of scope and want to effect those wider system issues
At this point this has become a political conversation – complex systems cannot be regulated mechanistically when real people are involved – we have to debate and understand each others values and behaviours (all dangerously close to actor network theory and all kinds of system thinking of course).
This dilemma reflects the reality of applying co-productive principles at scale in a democratic context – scale means that you need to start to think about systems and not processes and this in turn leads you to debate values and scope.
I often use the Winston Churchill quote where he says “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. If we are going to move towards greater co-production of services shouldn’t this also be an opportunity to redefine and strengthen our democracy?
There is a further reason why we might want to consider the role of elected representatives within a co-productive process and this is one of inclusion. Co-production is carried out by the people that turn up. Hopefully this is a wider group than we see in formal consultation but it will inevitably be a self-selecting group. By involving elected representatives in this process we provide a mechanism to the absence of those non-participants but create a link to the wider system values which those elected representatives are speaking for.
I think its actually very clear what democratic principles can offer to co-productive processes but I believe there are also wider democratic benefits. Co-production is intended to support individuals becoming more active citizens. If part of the activity is democratic then we are widening participation in democracy with a group of people who are shown to be directly engaged in there local community – this is a virtuous circle which can only be a good thing. Wider participation in democracy is not just a social ‘good’ – it should also offer up more diverse ideas and more creative solutions to dilemmas and our wicked issues.
Ultimately I think that addressing this dilemma will need us to to do three things :
- To rethink the role of representatives and the critical bridge which they should form between citizens and government (more on this in the networked councillor project with an update here).
- To change the way in which we consider governance and decision making and develop a more networked democratic process. More musings on this here and also in this piece on networked scrutiny in the CFPS 10 year anniversary publication
- To create the spaces where this new relationship with the public can emerge – this is where this links to my work on digital civic space
I am drawn to this dilemma because I believe that we need both democracy and co-production to address the challenges of the next few years and emerge with a stronger and fairer social contract where public services are delivered with and not done to people but for that to be happen we cannot pursue each path in insolation – we have to explore the space in-between.
Idealistic? Ambitious? Unashamedly yes.
PS I am planning on writing a properly referenced article on this over the next couple of months as well as looking for some opportunities to do some action research work on this so more to come. As ever – if you got this far – comments and discussion very welcome.