Co-production in public services: a complex journey of change
“Co-production is an asset-based approach to public services which enables citizens and professionals to share power and work together in equal and reciprocal relationships.” (Co-production Network for Wales)
Co-production is a journey, not a binary measure. It is the organisational equivalent of a personal path to self-actualisation, in which it isn’t possible to finally arrive, stop growing, and tick the “done” box. Instead it is a constantly evolving process of striving with curiosity, collective learning, and incremental improvement.
Effective co-production relies on five core practices:
1. Recognising that everyone without exception has something to offer, and beginning with the strengths that are present in our workforces and communities;
2. Building networks of peers and networks of networks, that can share knowledge, expertise and experience and bring together a diverse range of contributions;
3. Focusing on what matters to the people using public services, and shifting the focus from the systems to the humans involved in them;
4. Establishing strong relationships based on trust, respect and equality;
5. Organisations taking on a facilitation role in which they enable communities to draw on their resources first, and then offer relevant and suitable expertise to fill gaps in provision.
Certainly at the beginning of the co-production journey, public service organisations hold a duty to open the conversation and break away from the conventional model of remote decision-making and service development. However this must be done with an ever-renewed awareness of the locus of power: while you can invite people into a conversation, imposing an agenda and a process is simply not co-production.
This is why community development practices have an essential role to play to re-energise and re-enable citizens suffering from cynicism and resignation at not having been heard for too long. It’s a delicate balance: organisations must create a space and keep it open, but in return citizens must step towards this open door and contribute their voices. Where opportunities, responsibility and power are being tentatively offered, communities need to be able to meet organisations and match them as partners in this evolutionary conversation. Community development can and should enable this in parallel with organisational transformation.
More and more public services are recognising the need to adopt co-productive practices in order to create long-term effectiveness, cost savings, and improve delivery in a complex and ever-changing social and economic landscape. Legislative or policy compliance can provide the initial nudge by imposing a statutory duty for them to “do co-production”. However they are being required to navigate, without a map, the tension between investing time and resources to create sustainable future services, while delivering essential provision right now under increasing pressures.
Many might be hoping for a new, simple, one-size-fits-all, fast and effective system that will solve that tension. Unfortunately co-production isn’t simple: while its principles are straightforward, their practical application requires flexibility, innovative thinking, and adaptability to constantly evolving contexts. It cannot offer a one-size-fits-all solution. People, situations, teams and communities are endlessly variable. The beauty of co-production is that identifying and building on our specific set of assets and resources will return the best possible result for us, which will look different from everyone else’s. But this means that the same core principles will result in context-specific outcomes created with care and awareness, not rolled out blindly regardless of local needs. Nor is co-production fast. Building the solid, trusting relationships that underpin it requires time, commitment, and showing up with openness and consistency. It’s an inner journey as much as an organisational one for all involved.
That is why successfully working to co-production principles requires a radical mindset shift, which translates into a significant culture change for the whole organisation: becoming a learning organisation means getting comfortable with the uncertainty that characterises complex systems, approaching situations with the cultural humility to listen with openness and draw on a range of expertise, and taking calculated risks to test and iterate potential solutions, before scaling those that work in a context-specific way. This requires an authentic leadership that recognises the importance of building genuine relationships of trust, and that enables both the workforce and the recipients of services to be engaged and empowered.
Without this understanding, attempting to roll out co-production as a process-based approach will at best have limited success, and at worst may fail spectacularly. Process-based “co-production” cannot truly deliver effective and sustainable change, because it is missing the point.
For services already under huge pressure, it might seem like too big an ask. It is undeniably a big commitment that will take time; however it is still a better solution than continuing to struggle in vain with increasingly failing systems. By applying a co-productive approach internally to begin with, we can realise that we already have a lot of what we need in the assets and the resources of our teams and workforce, as well as our service users and their communities. It requires breaking with routine to take a bold step and ask: “What matters to you?”, and then truly listening.
While policy and legislation are setting a direction of travel as well as a statutory obligation, too many organisations are still uncertain how to tackle the transition. For co-production to really become the basis of public services, investment is necessary not only in training and toolkits, networks and resources, but also to transform leadership mindset and organisational culture. Explicit support is required to accelerate the pace of change, and to help our public services grow into the co-productive organisations that we need them to be.