Co-production is a process aiming to bring together those with different experiences and expertise to address a shared concern, for example about a public policy or service. As part of a recent Fellowship with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, I ran a session about co-production involving around a hundred civil servants drawn from state and national governments in Australia and New Zealand, and we played a game.
The game involved dividing the group into pairs, and agreeing who is the ‘giver’ and the ‘taker’. The ‘givers’ were asked to hand over an item of personal value to the ‘taker’ and then leave the room. Instructions were then shared with the ‘takers’, who were then told that the ‘givers’ will have one minute to negotiate the return of their item, but that the ‘takers’ should only return it if the ‘giver’ negotiates with the question ‘what will it take to return the item?’. When the ‘givers’ came back into the room, they were just told that they had one minute to get their item back.
The game provoked a lively response, and enthusiastic reactions. Some got their item back, most didn’t. Bribery and emotional blackmail were common. But this was a game with a point.
In discussions about co-production, the positives of greater inclusion, often push out reflection about questions about the politics involved. This can create a challenge when the ideals of co-production come up against the messier realities of practice. By using the ‘give’ and ‘take’ game, students were able to bring the question of power, and of emotion into the room. Our discussions centred on how it felt like to wield power, and to be denied it; who sets the rules of the game, and how these may operate, and to whose exclusion. Also, how people felt: frustration and discomfort were in evidence.
I first encountered this game through Jez Hall, one of my co-researchers as part of an event run as part of the Jam and Justice: co-producing urban governance project. Jez’s point in using the game, made more widely through our research, is that we need to humanise the process of co-production.
When citizens and public officials engage in co-production, the process does not begin with a blank sheet, it is coloured by prior experiences, and by dynamics of power. It is also a human contact sport, with emotional highs and lows. Yet, these aspects of the experience are often cleansed from accounts of co-production. Instead, we need to recognise and discuss what prior experiences people bring with their participation, make power visible and give space for the expression of a range of emotions. Doing so, will allow people to build relationships with each other and credible commitment to the process.
If co-production is going to have the transformative impact many claim for it, power needs to be made visible and we need to give space to emotion.
Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at the Institute of Local Government Studies and recent Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Government at the University of Birmingham. Catherine is a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, interested in questions of how we initiate and facilitate inclusive decision-making and social change in urban contexts. She has sought to address this question in her research, with particular focus on issues such as intermediation, participation, decentralisation and democratic innovation.