Co-pro: what & how

‘Co-production’ is a term that is popping up more and more in Welsh political and civil life. Here’s our view of what co-production is (and isn’t).

Public services are changing both at national and at local levels, and in every sector. Service providers are being asked to do more and more, with less and less money. In response they are increasingly adopting co-production as a way of delivering better services, while using budgets and resources in a more effective, relevant way.

Co-production is a process – a way of working based on equal and reciprocal relationships between citizens and professionals. Here’s our definition:

Co-production enables citizens and professionals to share power and work together in equal partnership, to create opportunities for people to access support when they need it and to contribute to social change.

What it means in practice is acknowledging that everyone is an expert in their own life, everyone has something to contribute, and that enabling people to support each other builds strong, resilient communities. And that helps strengthen the relationship between citizens and service providers, improving the outcomes for everyone.

So what’s different?

Traditionally, service providers ask the ‘tick-box’ questions: what do you need, what are you eligible for, and how do you fit into the system? With co-production, the questions become a conversation: what does a good life look like for you, what strengths can we build on, and how can we work with you to achieve your goals? It’s about thinking less about fitting people into pre-determined services, and more about empowering people to contribute to achieving the outcomes that matter to them.

In other words it’s led by people, not by systems.

Of course, in some ways this approach is nothing new – it is already happening in many settings and sectors, and at different levels. At the most basic level, we co-produce a clean environment when we put out our correctly sorted rubbish on the allotted day, we co-produce our health when we take the medicine that our GP has prescribed for us, we co-produce an educated society when we send our kids to school or help them with their homework. At the intermediate level are good quality consultations or shared decision-making healthcare approaches. And at the transformative level citizens and professionals work as equal partners to commission, design, deliver and evaluate public services.

We’re aiming for transformative co-production. And the aim of transformative co-production is social justice – shared power and shared responsibility. In the words of Edgar Cahn:

no more throwaway people.

Regardless of what you call it, putting people first and building good relationships is the obvious way to get the best out of each other. Unfortunately, systems, processes and targets often get in the way of these simple interactions based on genuine conversations, and hinder rather than help. The jargon can get in the way too, leading people to assume that co-production is about the state stepping back and expecting citizens to pick up the slack. Or about professionals handing over the services they cannot afford to run, and relying on unpaid volunteers instead. The Big Society in other words.
Transformative co-production is not the Big Society. It’s about partnerships, equality, and social justice. Both service professionals and citizens are acknowledged as having expertise, in different areas; the combination leads to more effective and relevant services and more engaged and empowered citizens. Hundreds of projects, groups and organisations across Wales are already working to these values. The evidence is there to show that it works.

Here in Wales we have an extraordinary opportunity to turn words in to deeds: our Social Services & Well-being Act has co-production at its heart and it is a core principle of NHS Wales’ Prudent Healthcare strategy, strongly championed by former Health Minister Mark Drakeford (now Finance Minister and still a co-pro champion). He believes that co-production is

one of the most exciting opportunities we have to bring together the knowledge, experience and contributions of those who work in our public services and those who use them… recalibrating power through new relationships based on trust.

Change isn’t going to happen overnight for sure and we don’t underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. Beyond a shift in structures and processes, what is required is a profound change of culture. This will take time and commitment – but things have started to move in promising directions. And at its best, co-production can change the balance of power between citizens and public organisations, and create a truly participative democracy.

This is our vision: in 5 or 10 years’ time, if you stop someone in the street and ask them how their government and public services operate, they might not know it’s called ‘co-production’, but they will know that they have the opportunity to shape the services that support them to live the life they want.