The shape of public services to come is a feature of all three Party manifestos. In particular there is a focus on delivering public services in a different way. The focus is on developing a different relationship between those who design and deliver public services, and those who use them; this new relationship is being called in policy wonk speak ‘co-production’.
Co-production can be loosely defined as ‘delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals [and] people using services…Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change’.
This theme is prevalent within the Conservative party manifesto. David Cameron aims to hand people ‘direct control’ over how they are governed nationally and locally, with the core idea of ‘replacing state control with social responsibility’. The Conservative vision aims to give greater responsibility to individuals through for example, enabling parents to start new schools; empowering communities to take over local amenities such as parks and libraries that are under threat; and enabling residents to hold the police to account in neighbourhood beat meetings.
A Liberal Democrat government will radically decentralise politics so that local people have the powers and the funding to deliver what they want for their communities. The Liberal Democrats are encouraging participation in public services through elected Local Health Boards who would have the freedom to commission services for local people from a range of different types of provider. As Nick Clegg stated in The Liberal Moment,
‘we should not all be supplicants at the state machine, but enabled to take charge of our health’.
The Liberals are also advocating local authorities to provide youth services in partnership with young people and the voluntary sector.
The Labour party, too, has stressed new rights for users of public services in its manifesto, including new rights for parents who want to change the running of their local schools. They also present new rights for patients seeking treatment on the NHS, including a guarantee of cancer test results within a week and a maximum wait of 18 weeks for specialist treatment, as well as giving the public a say in community sentences. As part of plans for ‘Protecting Community Life’ a Labour Government will also extend the use of participatory budgeting as a way of giving people a stronger say in local decision making.
Nesta and the New Economics Foundation (nef) have recently published a series of reports on the concept of co-production. The most recent of which, published this month, examines a new understanding of the relationship between state and citizen. It establishes a new partnership in which the creativity and commitment of members of the public is combined with that of frontline workers. The authors outline six elements that they believe are the foundation stones of co-production. These include:
Within the report there is a lot of evidence that co-production can result in better services and outcomes. It is shown to often be cheaper than conventional services, and many additional social benefits. An upcoming Consumer Focus England report written by Involve is also aimed at supporting public sector workers to make the business case for co-production and public engagement. It emphasises how collaboration with the public on public service decisions can create efficiencies as well as intangible benefits such as increased community cohesion. However, co-production is not easy. Funding is a particular problem, but so is generating evidence of the value of such an approach for those who scrutinise and audit public services.
Importantly, what the Nesta and nef report outlines as a central difficulty underlying these barriers, is that co-production takes seriously the current political rhetoric outlined above, centred on ‘devolving power’ and ‘empowering communities’.
Co-production is a fundamental part of re-building the relationship between citizen and state and is a tangible and practical way that all three political parties can hand power back to the people. The main parties have successfully built this understanding into their rhetoric and political campaigns. What is important is that whoever takes on the role of governing the United Kingdom on May 7th, meaningfully brings the vision of co-production to life. That public services are designed around the public, they are better at building people’s capabilities to be productive and healthy citizens and as a result ‘are more efficient, effective and sustainable’.