Published on July 21, 2014

Defining Coproduction

By Sonia Bussu

Dr Sonia Bussu is a researcher at Involve. She is passionate about increasing citizen voice in public policy (so much so that she did a PhD on the topic) and over the past few years she has been involved in several research projects on citizen participation in policy-making.


“Working Together” By Eric

There is a bit of confusion over the idea of coproduction, one of those public policy buzz words that are increasingly hard to define. I thought I would give it a go, hopefully contributing to bringing some clarity rather than more confusion. Here I will be referring to coproduction of public services only, but I often see the word used with reference to knowledge and research, which has different implications.

The concept of coproduction of public services first emerged in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at a time, like now, of deep economic crisis. This is because coproduction promises to help cut costs in the long-term, as you get people/ service users involved in producing the service. So this is very different from customer and user satisfaction surveys. It’s about users helping shape the services they need. The emphasis then shifts from addressing acute needs and emergencies to prevention, and users are offered greater agency but also bear more responsibilities. In the 1980s the concept of coproduction lost to the enthusiasm for a market approach to users as consumers, which led to the development of the New Public Management of services.

Today, coproduction is regaining popularity. But turning to coproduction as a response to cuts can prove a self-defeating strategy. It may well cut costs in the long term, but without initial investment the added value is likely to be limited.

Coproduction: what it is and what it is not

There are two overarching dimensions to coproduction: the product and the process. The product is about creation of public value: the emphasis is on “results” and outcomes rather than outputs, which requires the direct involvement of the users of a service working with the professionals delivering it.

In terms of the process we can identify 4 dimensions.

                               The process of coproduction: 4 dimensions
It is Additive NOT Substitutive It is Relational NOT Transactional
It is Voluntary NOT Compliant It is both Individual and Collective

1.         Additive vs substitutive/ self-help. Coproduction should be understood as additive because it adds user inputs to regular production, but also professional support to individual self-help or community self-organising. It doesn’t mean parallel, or substitutive, production, which is instead produced by individuals without interaction with public agencies. Coproduction, as well as citizen participation, is more effective in decentralised service delivery, since centralised services increase the costs of citizens participating and making demands and decrease government responsiveness (on this see the work of Elinor Ostrom).

2.         Voluntary v. compliant. If coproduction is to be understood as analogous to production, it should not only describe active and intentional behaviour, but also exclude more generally civic activities associated with citizenship, such as obeying the law and following regulations.

3.         Individual vs. collective involvement. Coproduction can be both individual and collective. Individualist forms of coproduction can include personalisation and other schemes such as Family Nurse Partnership. Group coproduction brings certain categories of users together to shape or provide services (e.g. peer-to-peer groups in mental health/ social care). Collective coproduction goes beyond and refers to programmes that benefit the whole community. People’s motivation to participate can be on three levels: intrinsic (self-acceptance, affiliation, self-determination), social (solidarity incentives), and normative (moral values). Being asked is important, and if people know and trust the person asking they are more likely to participate. This highlights the importance of social networks.

4.         Transactional v. inter-relational. Coproduction works best in highly relational services. Where tasks are highly specialised, coproduction is less likely to develop. In highly relational services, where users can be more competent and better placed than staff to develop solutions (from community development to mental health and crime prevention), coproduction’s benefits are likely to outweigh the costs.

Coproduction therefore refers to voluntary and intentional, individual and collective involvement of citizens in the production of services (either co-design and co-delivery or co-delivery of professionally designed services), with the support of public officials and using public resources. Coproduction will thus always be additive, as it adds user input to public services and entails an added value rather than a substitutive process.

The risk is that, in contexts of limited individual and social capital and deep cuts to services, public services will understand coproduction as individualised and substitutive, entrenching patterns of hostility and/or offloading the burden and costs of service delivery onto users.


[1] This blog post is based on a paper I co-authored with Dr Galanti, University of Florence, which I presented at the last PSA conference in Manchester, Facilitating Coproduction




3 Responses to “Defining Coproduction”

  1. Deborah W. A. Foulkes
    August 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    In his book ‘Who owns the future?’, Jaron Lanier suggested a system of nanopayments to people for their personal data which is currently being used by internet companies to make huge profits without compensating these people. Such a system of nanopayments could be used to ‘give back’ to those who are at present contributing their ideas, creativity and time for free to improve our society. The nanopayments could be weighted retroactively according to how succesfully they were implemented and the perceived benefits to society. In this way a more egalitarian economy could be created, where ‘work’ is redefined simply as ‘positive contribution to society’ in whatever shape or form, instead of the currently narrow western capitalist definition. It would broaden our concept of ‘capital’ to include coproductive and cocreated capital.

    • Sonia Bussu
      Sonia Bussu
      August 29, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks Deborah. This is very interesting and I’ll certainly check out the book you mention. There is a concept that I really like, the idea of ‘Social productivity’, which focuses on the social value which is created through the interaction between public services and civil society. There is a big informal economy out there of socially useful activities that should be rewarded and enhanced, from urban renewal projects and other environmental projects to personal assistance to pensioners, and other community schemes. It would certainly be a positive approach to help offset our jobless growth model which is leaving close to 2/3 of the population either unemployed or in part-time/ precarious employment, further exacerbating inequalities.

Leave a Reply