by Caitlin McMullin
About the author
Caitlin McMullin is a postdoctoral Researcher Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal with expertise in co-production, social innovation, citizen participation and social economy.
The concept of the ‘co-production’ of public services has become increasingly popular in many countries, as governments are grappling with strains to the welfare state and demographic changes due to ageing populations and immigration. Co-production, or the collaboration of citizens and professionals in the design and delivery of public services, has been suggested as a way to address these challenges, by enabling public service professionals and citizens to make better use of each other’s resources and time. Co-production is becoming increasingly prevalent as a model of social innovation in many countries, but are there factors that facilitate or prevent co-production in some contexts more than others?
This concept was originally developed in the 1980s by Nobel Prize winner in economics, Elinor Ostrom, and her colleagues, as a way to better understand how citizen involvement can lead to better outcomes. In other words, rather than the traditional model of public services where the professional determines what services are available and how they will be delivered, and the citizen’s only role is as a beneficiary or recipient of that service, co-production reconfigures the process so that citizens are empowered to play a more active role in deciding how services should be run, and contributing in the delivery of the services that they ‘consume’ or otherwise benefit from. For example, co-production has been used to refer to the involvement of parents in organizational decision-making and providing support to professionals (by volunteering for events or cleaning nurseries) by childcare cooperatives, and the management of tenant-run housing associations where residents and public housing agencies collaborate to plan and manage community housing projects.
In order to consider this question, this article reviews the theory and evidence base regarding the co-production of public services and what can be learned about the experiences of co-production, based on primary research with non-profit organizations in the United Kingdom, France, and Quebec, and some commentary about other co-production research that has been undertaken in the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
Table of contents
Over the last two decades, a growing body of research has helped us to gain a better understanding of the co-production phenomenon. Numerous theories have been developed to categorize the different activities in which public service professionals and citizens collaborate – co-design, co-commissioning or priority-setting, co-delivery, co-assessment and co-evaluation (Bovaird and Loeffler, 2012). According to Bovaird’s widely used typology (2007), however, ‘full user-professional co-production’ exists only when professionals and citizens contribute both to design and implementing public services, meaning that traditional consultation, or services that are run only by citizens with no input from the State would not be considered co-production.
Co-production is suggested to result in benefits in two main areas. By services becoming more responsive to the needs of citizens, co-production may reduce the cost of public services, but also make services more democratic. Co-produced services may also be cheaper because involving citizens in decision-making about the priorities and design of services means that they will more accurately reflect needs and desires, and therefore reduce wasted expenditure on poorly designed services. By taking a more holistic and person-centred approach, co-production may also address or prevent more enduring social problems, creating the potential for further cost savings. For example, co-producing reintegration services with former prisoners may reduce their risk of reoffending, thereby reducing the strain on the prison service. Likewise, co-producing the design of a communal space may reduce vandalism, littering and graffiti. Second, co-production can support democratic engagement and reduce the democratic deficit between citizens and the state, by allowing citizens to have a meaningful influence in an area that directly impacts their lives.
However, co-production is not a panacea, and there are also potential downsides. Some theorists argue that co-production can in fact simply reproduce existing power structures and further deepen societal inequalities because imbalances of power in relation to resources, time and expertise serve as barriers to entry to more disadvantaged populations (Steen et al., 2018). Transferring more power to citizens also means blurring the lines of responsibility and accountability – if a service that has been co-produced ultimately fails in some way, it is unclear whether the citizen co-producers or the professionals are to blame. Finally, while some argue that co-production can make services cheaper, the opposite may be initially be true. Organizing co-production activities may involve more investment and may prove to be more expensive.
Despite this burgeoning interest in co-production worldwide, the phenomenon remains little researched in France or literature in the French language. This is, in part, due to the fact that the verbs used to discuss the ‘production’ of services (accueillir, accompagner, animer, mettre en œuvre) make it challenging to discuss ‘co-delivery’ in the same way as in English. French academics have instead prioritized discussion of co-construction (Dubasque, 2017), which refers more to the creation of public policy, rather than implementation.
While there are many theories about the impacts of co-production, these have proven difficult to evidence because, on the one hand, the assumed benefits of co-production (social cohesion, for example) are qualitative in nature, and on the other hand, because the impacts may be found in a different service than the one that was co-produced. For example, co-producing a community development project may result in cost savings to criminal justice and housing services if local people are happier and safer in their neighbourhood. These challenges have meant that researchers have tended to focus more on the processes of co-production rather than the results.
There are a multitude of reasons that citizens may choose to engage in co-production activities, many of which are similar to the reasons they take part in traditional involvement exercises, such as the desire to make a difference in one’s community, or a mix of material rewards (receiving a better service) and intrinsic rewards (Alford, 2002). From the perspective of professionals, the motivations for co-producing may be more complex. Co-production requires a (sometimes vast) change in organizational and professional culture, particularly in services where professional providers have an advanced level of expertise (such as health services). Studies have shown that while professionals may be motivated to ‘do things differently’, they often lack the skills, training and methods necessary to co-produce effectively, but also that they are concerned about the challenge to their expertise and legitimacy by letting citizens into the process (Tuurnas, 2015).
Co-production may be undertaken by citizens and professionals working for the public sector, or for non-profit and social economy (third sector) organizations. There is evidence to suggest that third sector organizations are in fact better positioned to be able to co-produce with service users and citizens, because of their proximity to communities and flexible approach. In a study of childcare provision in eight countries across Europe, Pestoff (2006) found comparatively few examples of co-production between state providers and citizens, because there exists a ‘glass ceiling’ for citizen participation with public sector providers. Co-production has also been studied in sectors beyond social services, such as transportation projects, which Joshi and Moore (2004) studied in Ghana, the management and maintenance of social housing (Brandsen and Helderman, 2012), and in arts and culture, such as the design of museum exhibitions (Davies, 2010).
Research on co-production has been undertaken in many countries across Europe, North America and Australia, with an increasing amount of research that includes case studies or survey respondents from multiple countries (e.g. Parrado et al., 2013). However, we must be cautious about the policy and practice ‘best practice’ guidance developed as a result of these studies – important differences in public management, the welfare state and the provision of public services from one country to another means that lessons developed in one context may not be fit for purpose in another. While much of the academic literature posits that co-production has developed as a result of an evolution in public administration beyond the ideology of New Public Management in the 1980s and 1990s (Pestoff et al., 2012), we know that many countries – particularly France – did not commit to NPM reforms to the same extent as countries like the UK. As such, co-production practices must be considered in context so that we are better able to learn the lessons of how co-production can be done (and be done better) and what might prevent co-production from being effectively undertaken in one context, but less so in others.
In the United Kingdom, co-production has become something of a popular buzzword, promoted by third sector actors, policy think tanks, and policy-makers alike. In many ways, co-production has cross-party appeal in the UK, originally becoming part of political discourse under Labour Party control in the early 2000s, and gaining a new guise under the 2010 Coalition Government flagship ‘Big Society’ policy and subsequent Conservative government civil society strategies. The governments of Scotland and Wales have taken particularly proactive steps to promote co-production through partnerships and networks that provide support and training on co-production best practice.
Examples of co-production
Examples of co-production exist across the UK, but vary widely by location and service type. In Sheffield, for example, one social housing provider has developed a project to tackle loneliness and isolation of older people across the city, which they have decided to co-produce at every level of the project. This means that the original project brief as well as the individual interventions were co-designed and written with local older people, and the interventions are delivered by older people. For example, one of the interventions is a peer mentorship project, where older people are paired as mentors for individuals who are currently feeling isolated. Furthermore, older people who have themselves experienced loneliness and isolation, as ‘experts by experience’, are involved in driving the strategic direction of the project as board members. The project aims to not only reduce older people’s loneliness, but also positively impact their health, wellbeing, quality of life and independence. The project is still ongoing, but an evaluation is being undertaken to assess the evidence and determine the impact on these key indicators.
Obstacles to co-production
The United Kingdom is recognized as one of the countries that most strongly embraced the principles of the New Public Management, which has led to an emphasis of performance management and efficiency, commissioning and contracting out public services. This approach has in many ways created barriers for co-production. Because co-production is by definition a relational process that is often difficult to evidence, services that are delivered according to contract specifications, particularly ‘payment by results’, often struggle to provide services in more innovative arrangements like co-production. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, austerity policies over the last decade have been a major barrier to co-production. Although an aim of co-production is to reduce the cost of services, there is often an initial investment cost that must be borne and many service providers find this difficult to justify when resources and stretched and the benefits or outcomes of co-production are not guaranteed.
In France, studies of democracy tend to pay more attention to representative processes rather than participative democracy, although interest in participative and deliberative approaches has grown. In comparison to the English language literature, there is also less attention paid to collaboration in the implementation stage (i.e. ‘co-delivery’). Many French academics are quite sceptical or critical of public authorities’ attempts to implement models of participation developed elsewhere. Research on co-production in France has partially been hampered in part by the linguistic challenge of finding a word that similarly denotes involvement in both the design of (or decision-making around) public services as well as their delivery or implementation, as these two aspects are typically conceived separately as ‘participation’ and ‘volunteering’. However, participation exercises by French cities, particularly the participatory budgeting exercise in Paris, and other innovative citizen participation initiatives in Nantes, Bordeaux and elsewhere are on the rise, demonstrating a growing appetite for and openness to these new types of approaches.
Examples of co-production
Like the UK, in practice the introduction of co-production practices is uneven and varies considerably between public service sectors, but is likely to be less widespread than in the UK. In highly professionalized services (such as healthcare), or where the State determines priorities and provision (such as education), the available space for citizens to be able to co-produce is extremely limited. However, in other sectors, co-production between citizens and professionals has been longstanding practice, particularly within the social economy/ associational sector. Indeed, many associations have mainstreamed the ideas of co-production into their very definition, such as ACCEPP (Association des collectifs enfants parents professionnels) which promotes the collaboration of professionals and parents in organizational governance, day-to-day decision-making in crèches, and in supporting childcare staff by cleaning nurseries, planning social activities and providing snacks. One specific example of co-production undertaken by ACEPP Rhône-Alpes involved the co-design of a game used as part of a participative exercise to identify local needs. Playing pieces were made by a local artisan, game questions were devised by local people and game board photos were customized for each area in which the game was used. Similarly, social centres provide another institutionalized form of co-production (to a varied extent from one to another) by promoting the collaboration of citizens and professionals in implementing social development projects (McMullin, 2018).
Obstacles to co-production
Political and administrative cultures create the biggest barriers to co-production in France. Co-production requires that professionals essentially cede some of their power to citizens (who are by definition unelected, and perhaps less traditionally knowledgeable), which can be difficult to reconcile with more traditional structures of decision-making and bureaucracy. Second, co-producing with citizens means that service provision may be differentiated from one community to another, based on what citizens have decided in each area, which contradicts the notion of l’intérêt général (protected by the State) and le service public, where equality of access is paramount. These values that meant that the space for co-production (particularly with the State) is often limited in certain service sectors. In others, such as cooperative childcare, social development and some partnership projects, stakeholders have been successful in producing innovative arrangements of citizen involvement in co-production.
We might expect co-production in Quebec to look something like a mix between the French and British experiences – like the UK, Canada is typically classified as a liberal welfare state with a relatively high degree of privatization of services, but Quebec is also strongly influenced by French culture. Quebec has followed a model of social development that is unique within Canada, where since the 1990s a large social economy sector and social movements have been brought in as partners in policy-making within the province. The community movement continues to be a strong player in public services – through advocacy of disadvantaged populations, providing a voice in the design of services, and in providing services.
Examples of co-production
In many ways, it is difficult to distinguish examples of co-production in Quebec because the collaboration of citizens and paid professionals, particularly within the large community sector, is standard practice. Co-production takes place within numerous sectors in the province, including social services, environmental programs and community development. For example, the City of Montreal has developed a project called “Je fais Montréal”, which supports citizen-initiated projects that aim to improve the city. Within the program, one of the co-production activities that has become extremely popular around Montreal is in the ‘greening’ (verdissement) of underused city alleyways. The City provides the necessary tools, planning permits and some gardening expertise, and professionals work with local residents in order to turn alleyways into community gardens and public spaces. One of the key enabling features of this form of co-production is that city managers facilitate the process by removing the red tape that often restricts development projects. They recognise the benefit to the community and the fact that involving local residents increases their buy-in, their commitment and their overall satisfaction with projects that improve neighbourhoods, and ensure that the City is a partner rather than an impediment to achieving these goals. In the sector of social and community development, many community organizations are known for developing strategic priorities in consultation with local residents, and supporting citizens to develop their own actions in order to meet the chosen priorities. Community actions are then realized via action groups that consist of citizens, third sector professionals and professionals from state-run public services. For example, one action group in Rosemont arrondissement in Montreal is working together to develop a ‘restaurant populaire’ in order to provide both a friendly meeting place and cheap, nutritious meals to disadvantaged residents of the neighbourhood.
Obstacles à la coproduction
While co-production between citizens and professionals continues to be driven by a strong activist tradition, Quebec faces some of the same challenges as other countries. In particular, the restructuring of health and social care services by the province has weakened community control in some areas. Many services that had previously been community-run, and therefore required the active participation of citizens, have now been institutionalized and have become professional service delivery organizations with more tentative co-production activities. Another challenge has been the changes in demographics due to increased immigration, which has led to some tensions in some communities which have strained corporatist partnership arrangements.
Several studies have been undertaken about co-production in Sweden, in particular focusing on childcare provision and the differences between private providers, municipal providers and childcare cooperatives, where it was determined that childcare cooperatives offer far more meaningful and more diversified options for parental involvement than the public or private sectors. Pestoff (2009) suggests that social policy in Sweden, which invests widely in childcare provision that is universally accessible to citizens, provides ample opportunities for citizens to engage in collective action, citizen participation and co-production. In other areas such as care for elderly people, however, provision is often provided by relatives with little or no remuneration, which therefore limits the possibility of citizen participation, or co-production with professionals. The differences in the degree of co-production in Sweden between childcare on the one end of the spectrum and elder care on the other demonstrate the role of social policy in opening the space for co-production. This can vary from one service sector to another, or between countries, as a social democratic state such as Sweden will have far more extensive provision available for citizens than will other countries.
In the 1980s, Elinor Ostrom and colleagues sought to analyse why policing was more effective in neighbourhoods where police patrolled by foot rather than in cars. It was deduced that policing was much more effective when citizens were able to interact with police, alert them to any problems or suspicious activity and work together to make the neighbourhood a safer place to be. In other words, citizens were co-producing public safety with police officers, rather than police officers acting alone. They defined co-production as “a mixing of the productive efforts of regular and consumer producers” (Parks et al., 1980, p. 1002). Another example in the United States is a project of co-production which aimed to reduce errors in medical diagnoses (Jo and Nabatchi, 2018). Healthcare consumers engaged in a deliberative workshop with healthcare professionals to discuss ways to reduce diagnostic error, in order to produce recommendations for practitioners.
The high degree of privatization of services (and as Parks and colleagues’ definition suggested, the emphasis on citizens as ‘consumers’) in the United States is perhaps the most important factor to consider in the extent and types of co-production that are undertaken. While in the more social democratic states of Europe, co-production is undertaken between (primarily) public sector professionals with citizens, co-production in the United States takes a much more individualized approach where consumer choice trumps voice and collaboration. Here, then, the solidaristic aspect of co-production is less prevalent.
In the context of the Netherlands, research has been carried out that examines the co-production of social care services, as well as the co-production of public safety. Over the last decade, the Dutch government has introduced several reforms to the welfare system in order to respond to growing demand (due to an ageing population) and in an attempt to improve the quality of care that service users receive. The responsibility for care services has been decentralized to municipalities and the government explicitly recognizes the important role that informal carers (such as family members and volunteers) play as co-producers of welfare services (Nederhand and Van Meerkerk, 2018). Municipalities now design care plans with informal carers and professionals – in this context, professionals take a role as partners and providing support to the carers who design and implement the service. Increasing citizen involvement in the delivery of care services is framed as a way to both decrease the cost and increase the quality of these services, but with the emphasis placed more on individual responsibility, little importance has been assigned to the democratic potential of co-production.
In regards to public safety, research has investigated the motivations for citizens to engage in neighbourhood watch schemes (Van Eijk et al., 2017). As outlined in the United States case study, co-production of public safety via neighbourhood watch groups has a long history in the United States, but is a more recent phenomenon in continental Europe. Researchers found that citizens co-produce neighbourhood watch schemes in the Netherlands for several reasons. Some co-producers feel a sense of moral obligation that partnering with police are in the interests of society, and others take part because they see the positive results of their involvement both in terms of neighbourhood safety and their own personal development. In comparison with neighbourhood watch groups in Belgium, some slightly different motivations were found, namely that the Belgian co-producers took a more ‘protective rationalist’ approach whereby they justified their involvement as a way to directly increase their own personal safety.
Because co-production research is ongoing in many countries, particularly across Europe, we are beginning to gain a better understanding of the central questions around the notion of co-production – what is co-production? Who participates? How do they participate and in what activities? And why – what motivates individuals? Comparing the types of co-production activities and the answers to these questions in different countries illuminates some important considerations for both policy and practice.
First, organizational culture can be a key obstacle – or facilitator – to co-production. Many professionals are hesitant to co-design or co-deliver services because of the risk this may involve, because of the potential time and resource commitment or because it represents a new and potentially more difficult way of doing things. Yet ‘organizational culture’ within public management varies widely across departments, levels of government, and especially from one country to another. For instance, a deeply held culture of partnership and collaboration by the Quebec government has supported an approach to co-production, while public administration in France is traditionally recognized as much more hierarchical and bureaucratic, and the notions of intérêt général and service public that frame service provision delineate the space available for citizens to input into the process. As such, public managers who hope to co-produce with citizens must be cognizant of the particular challenges and opportunities that their political and organizational culture is likely to pose.
Second, a country’s system of welfare services is also likely to provide obstacles and favourable circumstances that are unique to that context. A comparison of co-production research in the United States and Sweden illustrates this point – while co-production in the US is underscored by the fact that public service provision is comparatively weak and the welfare system is highly individualized, the social democratic model of Sweden provides ample opportunities for co-production in the areas of provision where social policy supports the collaboration between professional public service providers and citizens.
Third, one of the key findings from research worldwide is the difference in co-production between public sector organizations and third sector organizations (associations). As seminal research found in Sweden, the opportunities for co-production offered by state providers is considerably more limited than the opportunities made available for citizen participation and co-production by cooperatives and associations. Despite differences in the types of organizations of the third sector between countries, and their role in delivering public services, this is a finding that has been confirmed in England and France. Associations are recognized as being able to connect with and mobilize citizens in ways that public servants may struggle to do. And in Quebec, for example, associations have been brought into the process of policy-making and the delivery of services in ways that successfully support broader and deeper co-production with citizens.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, when introducing co-production processes, public managers must ask themselves ‘why’. Although much of what has been written on co-production comes from a normative perspective, promoting the wide ranging benefits of engaging citizens in the design and delivery of services, there are many types of benefits that these activities may result in – and potential downsides. Is the aim to do ‘more for less’ and decrease the cost of public services, improve the quality of services, or to empower citizens and improve the democratic accountability of services?
While it is possible that co-production may do all of these things, it may be necessary to choose an orientation in order to focus on the most relevant activities. For instance, engaging in long-term collaborative design activities will increase opportunities for active citizenship, but may also be costly in the short term. Co-production may also not always be appropriate for all areas, and must be balanced with a need to protect the equal rights of citizens and the provision available for the most disadvantaged in society. Co-production requires creative thinking and occasionally taking risks. The most successful examples of co-production are often those that embraced the potential for failure and decided to try something that hadn’t been done before, and managed to break through the red tape and culture of ‘how things have always been done.’ To this end, it can be useful to consider principles from asset-based community development, as well as using design principles to develop public policy (for more on public policy design and co-production, see Durose and Richardson, 2016).
Co-production has the potential to produce widespread and meaningful reform for public services, making them more accountable, more transparent and more responsive to the needs of citizens. But it also has the potential to be just another tick box exercise for public managers if not designed appropriately. Understanding the public management, welfare services and political cultural context in which one is working is key to making co-production a success.
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