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16. July 2012


Co-producing wellbeing: Getting ready for welfare reform

Why public service co-production is now needed on a mass scale

Elke Loeffler and Frankie Hine-Hughes outline a transformation strategy for local councils to manage demand on public services by unlocking the strengths, assets and resources of service users and communities.

In the light of current financial austerity and the long-term demographic changes we are facing in the UK, co-production is no longer just a good idea - it has become a necessity. This applies in particular to health and social care but it is also true in other local services such as community safety and environment. As the case studies in our new book with LGiU 'Making health and social care personal and local: Moving from mass production to co-production' demonstrates, co-production is already recognised as an important element in the transformation of councils. While this is most vividly being promoted by the network of Co-operative Councils and the six councils participating in the NESTA people-powered health project, there are now actually scores of councils across the UK which are embracing co-production as core to the transformation of their services.

However, the picture is still patchy. The panel debate at the recent book launch event at the LGiU in London showed that involving service users and communities in the commissioning, design and delivery of public services is still sporadic rather than normal, and piecemeal rather than systematic. Why is this? One of the key barriers to systematic co-production, as the debate highlighted, continues to be the 'we solve the problem for them' culture of service providers and commissioners. Of course, highly qualified and motivated professional staff, backed up by competent and committed managers will always remain vital to excellent local services. However, the lesson from successful co-production case studies, as showcased in the book, is that these are simply not enough in 2012. Unless service users and their communities also contribute their strengths, assets and resources to services, real excellence is not possible - and costs will higher than necessary. So, the focus in co-producing councils is now on giving guidance and support to citizens as co-producers of services, recognising that improving outcomes is a joint responsibility, not just something that councils can achieve by themselves.

Of course, not all citizens are ready to co-produce - and not all staff know how to unlock the potential in services and citizens. So what needs to be done in practice to help councils to tap into the strengths, assets and resources of service users and communities?

New ways of collaborating with users and communities in local services

Governance International, a social enterprise based in Birmingham, has been working on these issues for more than five years with councils in the UK and Europe. We have developed a practical transformation approach for public services. While many councils in the UK have involved their users in consultation exercises, co-production goes way beyond consultation. As Dave McKenna of the Better Swansea Partnership put it: Co-production leads us away from "You said, we did" to "We talked, we did together". For Governance International co-production is about 'public services and citizens making better use of each other's assets and resources to achieve better outcomes or improved efficiency'. 

Actually, there are lots of different ways of involving users and communities in public services. They include:

  • Co-commissioning public services - shifting the focus from services that councils think people need to outcomes that local people themselves believe to be priorities, e.g. through neighbourhood budgeting.
  • Co-designing public services - using the customer journey approach to look at how the service process can be improved from the user?s point of view. The outcomes and efficiency savings from the re-design of the Stockport social care website 'My Care, My Choice' show how powerful co-design can be.
  • Co-delivering public services - identifying who is willing to do what and how, e.g. through capability assessments (as we are currently piloting with Walsall Council) and community asset surveys.
  • Co-assessing public services - training citizens to carry out service inspections and scrutiny, often through the use of social media or online ratings. The case study of citizen-led inspections in West Lothian Council shows that citizens have an important role to play alongside professional inspectors.

The Co-Production Star gives a clear visual portrayal of these four Co's of co-production. Using this tool, councils and their partners can map the current level of collaboration between local councillors, managers, front-line staff and citizens. And they can spot areas where more co-production could be tried in the future.

How to manage the transformation to more co-production

The inner ring of the Governance International Co-Production Star highlights the changes that a council needs to make in order to roll out co-production in public services. It outlines a five step change management model. It recognises that co-production is nothing new - but that we need to change the culture of organisations and partnerships in order to make the most of what we are already doing. And we need to seek out change pro-actively to identify new ways of working between councils and citizens. This may already be working well in some of our services but real transformation will only come when co-production is identified, managed effectively and rolled out much more widely.  This involves the following five steps.

Step 1: 'Map it!'

We typically find in our training and briefing sessions that participants quickly recognise that co-production is already happening in every organisation - but only here and there, in pockets. This means that it's really important for councillors and staff to map the way in which they collaborate with service users and communities, so that they can build on what works to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Our Co-Production Explorer supports this self-audit - identifying clearly what is already being done, so that it can become the basis for learning and development - and what is NOT being done, so that new co-production approaches can be devised.

Step 2: 'Focus it!'

After mapping what is happening - and not happening - councils need to prioritise their efforts to take co-production further. Our Co-Production Priority Matrix is a simple technique to rate current and potential coproduction activities - distinguishing priority projects to be taken on, and those to be dropped or put on the back burner. 'Quick wins' (high impact, low effort initiatives) are self-evidently the optimal starting point - establishing success, to catalyse further co-production.

Step 3: 'People it!' 

Here we need to ask: how can we involve the right people in the community and in the agency to contribute to improved public services and outcomes. The Governance International Community Asset Survey helps identify what local communities are already doing and how they want to get involved more. The Capabilities Assessment which Governance International is currently piloting with Walsall MBC identifies service users and carers who are already doing interesting activities that could help others and who would like to widen this out, to enrich their own social lives and make the most of their own capabilities by helping others. Having identified these key people who want to help make co-production really work, it is important to bring these citizens together with key staff in 'co-production labs', so that together they can design how these activities can really succeed through citizens and staff working together.

Step 4: 'Market it!'

Having reached this stage, we have to make it simple for people who want to be involved to actually get involved and stay involved. This stage is often missing from current co-production approaches. Incentives and nudges are really crucial to encouraging the inputs of both citizens and professionals. There are lots of different kinds of incentives: psychological incentives, which reinforce an individual's 'feel good factor' with appreciation or other informal rewards; or more formal mechanisms like 'recognition awards', which could include prizes (or even monetary incentives). Another way of encouraging individuals to take part in co-production is to agree co-production charters that outline explicitly the roles, responsibilities, and conflict mechanisms for staff, citizens and service users. These can provide an effective framework to show people what responsibilities they are committing to - and what the statutory agency is committing to provide by way of support to those who work with it.

Step 5: 'Grow it!'

Once the co-production ball is rolling, the momentum needs to be kept up and even increased. Co-production can be scaled up across an organisation by showcasing 'champions' or developing a business case. It is vital that performance management and human resource management systems are aligned to co-producing - it needs to become clear that co-production is actually a central part of the job of all staff.

Next steps

Finally, it is not important what a local council calls this new way of working with users and communities. Some will be happy with the label 'co-production'. Others may want to call it 'co-operative working'. Yet others may want to label it 'partnership with users and the third sector'. Fine. What is important is that councils recognise how patchy and sporadic has been their practice up to now in promoting genuine co-production.  And then deciding that they want to start the real transformation process now.

Clearly, collaborative ways of working, based on mutual respect, power-sharing and a focus on outcomes, requires courage and risk-taking. Many councils are now at the stage where they have recognised this. But it is not enough. To make the transformation real, investment in training and change management is necessary. And an understanding that many of the steps towards culture change won't work immediately - experimentation is needed, and therefore patience and flexibility. Even more alarming - some budget will need to be spent to learn which approaches to co-production really work in your area - and which don?t. Effective co-production is not free - but the spend that's needed could be the most cost-effective investment that a council undertakes during the next decade.

In any case, what are the alternatives? If councils do not start now on the path of co-production with their users and citizens, their only alternative to deal with the current financial pressures will be significant cuts to local services.  Then they will find that service users and citizens REALLY want to get involved - but usually in a negative, destructive way. To avoid this, pro-active approaches to co-production are essential NOW.

We said we had a five step model towards co-production of public services and outcomes - but actually this was not quite the whole truth. There is a sixth step, probably most important of all -  START NOW!!!

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