Do you remember the Big Society, the ambition where the state would be rolled back and every effort would be made to engage people, neighbourhoods and organisations in a way that would build social capital? The means of doing this would be co-production. But where has this intention gone?
According to ACEVO, civil servants from a wide range of departments and local authority commissioners were encouraged to work with the charity and social enterprise sectors to share skills across a wide range of subjects. We would learn how each other worked and create more appropriate policies. It would make us all happier, but not just happy. We would also be building social capital because of the nature of co-production. This design would encourage better connections between top-down (public services) and bottom-up (communities) and then letting the bottom-up drive the approach.
Co-production would encourage community involvement to join up all the community assets and make sustainable improvements in the outcomes of their services. Successful co-production would involve bringing together surface and core economic agencies without spending large amounts of energy overcoming the friction between them. It would allow for fairer engagement and commissioning, more inclusivity and the whole approach would lead to better outcomes, safer communities and some have said might even improve house prices!
So why has it disappeared? Was it too hard to change the behaviours of the public sector and government departments? Did it make for too many uncomfortable conversations? It is true that for success, co-production depends on better communication through conversations rather than relying on consultations. It requires new and appropriate ways of engaging with the community. It needs a mutual assistance approach that deepens the capacity of communities to act for their own betterment and on their own behalf. It requires a new mind-set on everyone's part, particularly if the public sector and professionals are to play a part. I know many sectors which would welcome this because of their deepening suspicion about the independence and value of the consultation process, especially as so many consultations have been rejected, ignored or remain unpublished.
To really co-produce we need trust and visibility. It may seem daunting but there are simple but effective ways of doing it. Were people just too scared to emerge from the dark recesses of their council buildings and city halls, uncomfortable to become beacons and unable to hide in a government website which is an unhelpful combination of blandness and impenetrability? Were they just too fearful to come out and about in our neighbourhoods and chat with a range of people, not just the community leaders, so we understand what people need and why? Are we really unwilling to give power to communities and those who deliver services? There are some great examples of co-production driven by technology such as WHIS or IEYToday. These are simple platforms encouraging connection and ideas sharing to co-produce better services. At LEYF we have used the principle of co-production as part of our parent engagement strategy so we can actually address their issues from their perspectives.
Co-production is the process of joining the total resources of public services and communities co-efficiently to add sustainable value to the neighbourhood. It actively encourages families to engage in decision-making governance and goal setting, and builds authentic and reciprocal partnerships between public and private institutions and the community. It is more optimistic and offers greater hope for community success especially in a modern society which appears more marked by division than cohesion. It is a public acknowledgement that communities can achieve great things when we unleash community energy, great local leaders and the power to change. If we believe this and really want to deliver change, we need to listen in to the wider community. Do we want to develop communities to make decisions about priorities involving community organisations, the public, political leaders, public agencies and business? If so, we need to reclaim co-production.