28 May 2015

Co-production: Do we know what it is and what it achieves?

Guest blogger Elinor Findlay, Office of the Chief Social Policy Adviser, Scottish Government, discusses our understanding of 'co-production', an increasingly popular term used in policy design and in response to the challenges associated with public sector reform. But, what is it? What does it mean for how services are designed and delivered? And, what does it mean for people and communities, and how they engage with each other and with services? And – an important question for me as a researcher – what evidence is there of its benefits and impact?

In the middle of 2014, I started what I assumed would be the relatively simple task of looking to the evidence to answer some of these questions. A quick look demonstrated this would be no easy task. There were varied definitions and descriptions. There was no simple manual or toolkit explaining how to do ‘it’. And there was a diverse evidence base with few attempts to bring it all together. I was taken into complex territory where evidence and practice are wedded and evolving. And so, in the hope of providing some clarity to colleagues within the Scottish Government interested in this approach, I produced an analytical paper to help provide insights into some of these issues. Appropriately, I could only achieve this with the collaborative contributions from colleagues.

What is co-production?

There are many definitions – which in some way is symptomatic of the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the approach and of the different types of co-production that exist. Essentially it’s about relationships – which are notoriously difficult to describe or measure analytically, but which I’ve realised lie at the conceptual and practitioner heart of this approach. One definition I found particularly helpful comes from the work of Julia Slay at the New Economics Foundation who describes it as 'a relationship where professionals and citizens share power to design, plan and deliver support together, recognising that both partners have vital contributions to make in order to improve quality of life for people and communities'.

The approach ultimately revitalises how we all – policy-makers, analysts, practitioners and citizens – think and act when designing and delivering services.

What does it look like in practice?

There’s an important distinction to be made between individualised and collective co-production. Individualised co-production is primarily about a relationship between citizens and service providers. Collective co-production – the main focus of my paper – is about developing relationships between people and communities as well as with professionals and can take many forms, including reciprocal exchange systems, peer support networks, citizen jury panels and participatory budgeting. The paper I’ve written discusses three of these – time banks, peer support and participatory budgeting – and gives examples of how and where these approaches have been used in Scotland. This ranges from ‘Canny wi Cash’ which enabled older people to make decisions on small grants for work involving or affecting them to a west Edinburgh time bank working with HM Prison to allow prisoners to earn time credits for voluntary work. But, ultimately, co-production is about designing and delivering services which are based on the underlying principles of the approach – and this means reflecting local circumstances, and services which may not be easily scaled up or mainstreamed.

What empirical evidence is there?

Some empirical evidence is available, although the best way to describe it is ‘evolving’. It’s mainly based on case studies,illustrative examples and qualitative insights making it difficult to draw conclusions about causality or measure the impact it can have on people and community outcomes. Case study evaluations highlight consistently improved outcomes in relation to human and social capital, well-being and the preventative impact of co-production.

However, we have to acknowledge the underlying reasons for this ‘evolving’ evidence. It’s in part due to methodological challenges, but also because many examples of successful co-production are not subject to formal monitoring and evaluation. Further efforts are needed to generate evidence about its impact and cost-effectiveness – using appropriate research and evaluation methods and techniques – to ensure current practice is adequately reflected. There won’t be a silver bullet for this – the size, shape and scope of practice, and its success, is entirely in the hands of the people and communities who get involved. The resulting practice, effects and evidence will therefore be complex and diverse.

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland.

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