How can we co-produce public services?

Why aren’t we co-producing public services? In this post, Dyfrig Williams looks at how public services can move from a deficit based model of involvement to an asset based model.

By the time this blogpost goes live I’ll have left the Wales Audit Office, which is a bit gutting as the Good Practice Exchange seminar on How different methods of engagement can help involve the citizen in public service delivery is right up my street. I spent three years working at Participation Cymru, during which co-production emerged in Wales as a way of making public services more responsive, accountable and effective. If you’re unsure about the concept, this post by Noreen Blanluet is a great overview. I then joined the Wales Audit Office and spent four years working here, where co-production has continued to be a hot topic. So we’ve now spent the best part of a decade talking about how we can co-produce services with citizens. So why isn’t it actually happening?

Focusing on process

In the Good Practice Exchange, we consistently talk about how we need to focus on outcomes. We’ve come across so many organisations that are so pre-occupied with process that they don’t question whether services are actually meeting their end goals anymore. I think we’ve all heard people say that ‘This is the way we’ve always done things’.

The problem is that consultation has become the default involvement process for public services. It’s easier for us as organisations to identify our issues and then get citizens to rubber stamp the ideas. The problem is that this results in services that meet organisational needs instead of building on citizen’s assets. This table from Nurture Development shows how a deficit based approach like traditional public sector consultation compares to an asset based approach like co-production.

Budget Calculators are good examples of deficit based approaches, where people are given the option of allocating money towards services that they feel should take priority. This might help people to understand the difficulty that organisations face in allocating finance towards specific systems, but it’s not real consultation. They have no real voice in shaping what these services look like or how the organisation is configured, and so it very seldom results in actual change. It pits people and services against each other, and it’s about as empowering as asking people which arm they’d like to have chopped off.

Prevention

At the heart of both the Social Services and Wellbeing Act and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is involvement and prevention. These tie-in together really neatly. A quick look at Nurture Development’s table shows that a preventative approach isn’t possible with a reactive and deficit based model. We have to involve citizens earlier in the process so that they can help to shape and deliver services, instead of expecting them to comment on the plans of public services. If we want people to co-produce services, then we have to genuinely share power with them – we’re unlikely to get the critical mass that’s needed if we hold the reins of power too tightly ourselves. Why should people co-produce a service that was formally delivered by the public sector? We have to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and think about how co-production can really add value from a citizen or community perspective.

It’s fascinating to see what can really happen when we genuinely share power. In Better Reykjavik, politicians were told in no uncertain terms that their platitudes would no longer be accepted, and over 40% of the electorate participated in the initiative. It’s well worth watching the incredibly inspiring video below. Are there aspects of this approach that we can adapt to meet our needs?

We all need to start thinking about how we can all better share power as public services and what real co-production looks like. If we can do that, then we’re much more likely to deliver services that meet the requirements of Welsh legislation. Most importantly though, it means that we deliver better public services that improve people’s lives.

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