co-production: now you see it, now you don’t

Co-production is currently a Big Idea in public services in the UK. The previous post summarised my attempts to track down the theory behind it. That search has prompted some further thoughts. I’d found out where the idea of co-production came from, but it’s presented quite differently by the NESTA papers and Parent Carer Forums (PCFs).   How did it get onto their agenda, and why are their models of it so different to the model originally developed by Elinor Ostrom and Edgar Cahn?

co-production and Parent Carer Forums

Co-production isn’t mentioned in the 2007 paper Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families, which proposed parent engagement via parent carer forums – and the funding for them. Nor does it appear in the 2011 Green Paper Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability that heralded the new SEND legislation.

The first appearance I could find was in the April 2013 report Co-production with parent carers: The SE7 experience.  In June 2013 it pops up, frequently, in a Pathfinder Information Pack Engagement and participation of children, young people parents and carers. The ‘strategic participation of parent carers’ is described as:

“The participation of co-production with representative parents carers in strategic planning, decision making, commissioning and service evaluation. Over the last five years, the Department for Education have supported and funded the development of parent carer forums in every area across England. It is essential that Parent Carer Forums are involved in co-producing plans and implementation of the reforms. Forums are also members of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF), provide the opportunity to feedback at regional and national levels. Representatives from the NNPCF work strategically with Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health (DH).” (p.3)

The information pack cites the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)’s March 2011 Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures. Page 36 of the NCVO almanac reviews participatory methods used to involve communities in local decision making. Interestingly, co-production isn’t mentioned.

Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures in turn cites a study by Involve, set up in 1996 and part of the National Institute for Health Research. I couldn’t find a publication date for their People & Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making, but it was based on research carried out in 2004/05 and has an introduction by Hazel Blears as Minister of State for Policing, Security and Community Safety, a post she held until May 2006. The Involve study does refer to co-production – in the context of Arnstein’s ladder of participation (p.18) – but doesn’t mention Ostrom’s or Cahn’s work.

putting the production back into co-production

The term co-production isn’t trademarked, so there’s nothing stopping people using it to refer only to one component of the Ostrom-Cahn model, such as a dynamic group process (PCFs), active participation (Involve), or volunteering to ‘give back’ (NESTA). But using it in such different ways is confusing. A single sentence could point readers to co-production’s origins and why an organisation was focusing on only one aspect of it.

Significantly, presenting only one aspect of co-production as co-production, also means that a key component of the Ostrom-Cahn model has repeatedly been overlooked. That missing component is the non-money-based, or ‘core’ economy; the things people make or do (‘produce’) that have value or benefit, but that they don’t get paid for. A key tenet of both Ostrom’s and Cahn’s model of co-production was that this unpaid production is effectively ignored by the market (money-based) economy. Making the invisible economy visible was fundamental to the original model of co-production.

now you see it, now you don’t

Obviously, a group of people drafting an Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) or reconfiguring the local speech and language therapy service, won’t need to measure the economic efficiency of the project using Ostrom et al’s methods. Nor will they need to set up a Cahn-inspired time bank before they can get on with the task. But if the people doing the planning take into account the views, wishes and feelings of children, young people, parents and carers, but overlook the unpaid activities they all do that contribute to the development and well-being of the child or young person, what’s happening is co-design, not co-production.

Co-production PCF-style encourages parent carers to complete surveys, take part in consultations and conferences, and work with their local PCF in planning services at ‘strategic’ level. For most parent carers, this is on top of their already time-consuming caring responsibilities. A few get a nominal remuneration via the PCF. Most don’t.

Involve’s ‘active participation’ and NESTA’s ‘giving back’ also expect people to engage with public sector services in addition to whatever unpaid activities they do already. Sometimes, that participation can result in a power-shift leading to increased ‘citizen control’. It can also result in citizens having even less free time (and thus fewer resources) than previously. If expenses aren’t paid, they can be out of pocket as well.

In all the new co-production models, the unpaid contribution of carers to the well-being of the people they care for is almost invisible. There are nods to it, in the shape of Carer’s Allowance and ‘celebrating’ it during Carers’ Week. Parent Carer Forums are well aware of unpaid production on the part of parent carers and frequently refer to it, but it’s not an integral part of their model of co-production, and one has to wonder why not. I’ll come back to that point later.

culture change

The Involve participation report devotes an entire section (2.4 p.22ff) to issues and tensions. It includes several paragraphs on culture change. Culture change is frequently cited as the reason new legislation hasn’t been properly implemented in public services.  Involve describes an organisation’s management culture as “a reflection of the values that underpin how they do their work” (p.26). PCFs frequently cite culture change as a key challenge, and see co-production as an important route to changing the values of public services, thus changing their culture.

Organisational culture is a reflection of values, obviously, but that’s not all there is to it.   Culture is an emergent feature of an organisation – an outcome of the interaction between a wide range of factors. I can’t better the Wikipedia list, attributed to David Needle’s book Business in Context: An Introduction to Business and Its Environment. The factors include “history, product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture”. Culture manifests itself as “vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, environment, location, beliefs and habits.”

It is difficult to change people’s values, and one way to do it, in the case of implementing new legislation relating to people with disabilities (e.g. Mental Capacity Act, Children and Families Act, Care Act) is to ensure public services are aware of, and comply with, statutory requirements.

The current system explicitly expects people with disabilities and their carers – who together form one of the most vulnerable and resource-poor demographic groups – to enforce compliance, using their knowledge of the law, and via complaints and litigation. This is inequitable. And blaming culture change for the system not working, to me looks like an excuse.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard organisational culture cited as the reason public services don’t carry out their statutory duties, or why new legislation isn’t being properly implemented. Culture change, apparently, takes years to effect and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about that. Which provides a convenient excuse for poorly drafted legislation, non-compliance, and any failure of participation, engagement or co-production initiatives.

co-production has been framed

Earlier, I wondered why the invisible activities of children, young people, parents and carers have remained invisible in the co-production model adopted by Parent Carer Forums. After all, the forums are acutely aware of those activities.

The most likely explanation is that the idea of co-production has passed from one organisation to another, becoming transformed on the way by a process of conceptual Chinese whispers, and that few people have read Ostrom or Cahn. And so have missed their key point about activities in the non-money economy.  Parent carers are sometimes paid for participation, but that just makes participation part of the very money-based economy that co-production is supposed to help reform.

The NESTA authors clearly have read Ostrom and Cahn, and understand the informal non-money economy and the contribution it can make to communities. But they’ve framed tapping into that economy as “patients, pupils, parents or service users are being asked to do something, to give back and to help deliver the service.” (Challenge of co-production p.14)

To me this comes across as somewhat paternalistic. It frames co-production in terms of the state being in charge, service users being obliged to it for the services it provides, and being expected to ‘give back’. An alternative perspective, and the one taken by Ostrom and Cahn, is that the state exists for the protection of the people, that public services exist for their benefit, that people informally exchange activities, and that informal system of exchange can interact with public sector services so that everybody benefits.

Ironically, given the number of times Sherry Arnstein’s analysis of power structures has been cited alongside models of co-production, it’s not just unpaid activities that have remained invisible. Power structures have too.

references

Arnstein, S. (1969).  A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, (4), 216-224.

Boyle, D. & Harris, M. (2009).  The Challenge of Co-production: How equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, NESTA.

Britton, C. & Taylor, J. (2013).  Co-production with parent carers: the SE7 experience, Mott Macdonald & South-East 7.

Cahn, E. S. (2004) No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative (2nd edition).  Essential Books, Washington DC.

Department for Education (2011).  Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability: a consultation.

HM Treasury & Department for Education and Skills (2007). Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families.

Involve (2005/6). People & Participation:  How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making.

National Council for Voluntary Organisations (2011).  Participation: Trends, facts and figures. 

Parks, R.B., Baker, P.C., Kiser, L., Oakerson, R., Ostrom E., Ostrom V., Percy, S.L., Vandivort, M.B., Whitaker, G.P. & Wilson, R. (1981).  Consumers as Coproducers of Public Services:  Some Economic and Institutional Considerations, Policy Studies Journal, 9 (7), 1001-1011.

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