Democratic coproduction or the coproduction of democracy?

fremont troll

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.

  1. David Wilcox

    August 18, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Thank Catherine – such an important issue. At one level it re-surfaces the old tensions between participative processes developed over the pst 40 years or so, and entrenched notions of the roles of elected representatives. E.g. “you can do all the participation you like, but I’m elected to make the decisions”. At project level you can – hopefully – get some resolution by agreeing with elected members and officer beforehand what level of participation they are offering, and how decision processes will operate. Otherwise the usual frustrations arise as in “it doesn’t matter what we say, they just go ahead with their ideas anyway”.
    However, as you indicate, things are more complicated these days. Change requires action by a range of different agencies, and increasingly citizens are the key players in times of austerity.
    Yet we can still get consultation dressed up as co-design/co-creation, with “feedback” reports after events rather than some joint action planning, and surprise among members and officers when people don’t turn up next time.
    What’s needed, as you suggest, is a systems approach, and a re-thinking of both participation and democratic engagement methodologies.
    How about a structured exploration of something like this, pushing your question a bit further:
    “What models for co-production can both release the energy and assets of citizens and communities, and respect the continuing need for effective representative democracy?”
    I would certainly be interested in contributing to that sort of exploration.

  2. rob

    August 18, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Hi Catherine,

    interesting research on co- production indicates :

    – the earlier co-design of law takes place, the lower the societal costs of repair and legal processes later in the policy cycle;
    – NGO representatives (mostly elected) recognise the need for technological support for information sharing and harmonisation of plans of action (Habermas) during the co production/codesign,
    but they hesitate to rely on supportive technology when the actual decision stage is reached.
    – they do require strong support for explanation of the outcome of that decision process to legitimise the outcome of the interest balancing process during co design of policies and derived eservices.

    in short: the in between space that you mention should perhaps be differentiated in stages.
    Weber (wirtshaft und geselshaft) makes an interesting remark about the superiority of bureaucracies: such superiority is based on – what i translate in english – as ‘craftsmanship’ .
    Man hat nur die Wahl zwischen „Bureaukratisierung” und „Dilettantisierung”
    der Verwaltung, und das große Mittel der Ueberlegenheit der bureaukratischen
    Verwaltung ist: F a c h w i s s e n , dessen völlige Unentbehrlichkeit
    durch die moderne Technik und Oekonomik der Güterbeschaffung bedingt wird,(weber, 1921, p 128 (

    the question that i raise is, if we are now creating two bureaucracies because the lack of craftsmanship in traditional government to make use of technology in the design of services and call it co production (compensation) or that we are indeed seeking more direct responsibility of the outcome of the balancing process (personalisation).

    you will perhaps always require the impersonalised bureaucracy to make unpopular decisions, but if that bureaucracy is badly informed and does not explain the outcome, people tend to takle over.

  3. adragonsbestfriend

    August 18, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Nail. Head. If the civil service is moving towards open policy processes, should the same not be true of political parties? (Easier said than done I know). The thing is, if the ‘big picture’ is flawed at the party political level, no amount of detailed tinkering is going to make up the difference. Think the whole ‘Doing things right/doing the right thing’ theme.

    The other problem is ‘time’ – do people have enough of it to take part in co-production or are long working hours, long commutes and caring responsibilities (whether children, elderly or disability-related) take lots of time and energy out of us. How do we overcome that?


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