Activating collective and individual co-production: Some policy implications

Tony Bovaird

Recently we have been publishing the findings of an in-depth statistical analysis of user and community co-production, based on responses to a survey of 5000 citizens in five EU countries in 2008, funded by the French Presidency of the EU. The design of this survey was informed by a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews in each of the five countries (conducted by the authors) with officers working in public services (in public, private and third sectors) and representatives of users and community groups. The findings from the qualitative element of this study were reported in Loeffler et al[i], while findings on collective co-production were published in Bovaird et al[ii] and on individual co-production in Parrado et al[iii].

The findings show that there are significant and intriguing differences between collective and individual co-production – for example, age is strongly positively correlated with individual co-production but negatively correlated (if not so strongly) with collective co-production. Again, woman are particularly likely to engage in individual co-production but gender is not related to collective co-production.

Does this matter? I think it does. Victor Pestoff has concluded that “services produced by a small group at the micro-level often imply more collective interaction than collective action”. This social interaction effect is particularly likely to promote the development of social capital, mutualism and reciprocity. He suggests that there are both individual and collective benefits found in collective self-help efforts that are not available to the single or solo individual volunteer and, by implication, to other ‘lone citizen co-producers’.

As interest in mobilising user and community co-production surges across OECD countries, this has important policy implications. If the public sector wishes to reap the potential benefits of collective co-production, then more imaginative and attractive ways will need to be found to convince a higher proportion of citizens to re-orient their co-production activities towards more collective action.

Three obvious avenues for policy development are suggested by our findings. First, our finding that younger people are more likely than older people to engage directly in collective co-production (although it is often masked for policy makers by the fact that they are much less likely to engage in individual co-production, the dominant form of co-production) suggests that programmes to increase collective co-production should be aimed at younger age groups and be very different in style and content from approaches which appeal to the majority of current co-producing citizens.  Second, our findings demonstrate positive effects on co-production from well-regarded government information and consultation – this gives encouraging weight to initiatives which seek to engage citizens positively in civic affairs.

However, we found that the most important correlate of collective co-production is self-efficacy (even more strongly than with individual co-production). Our variable here is essentially ‘political self-efficacy’ – the feeling that individual action can have an impact upon political and social change, so we used the question: “How much of difference do you believe ordinary citizens can make … (to improving community safety, the environment, and health)”.

Identifying policies and initiatives which reinforce self-efficacy is therefore potentially attractive. Parallels from recent research in private sector services suggest that feelings of self-efficacy are likely to be encouraged by customising services to fit the circumstances of individual service users and then helping them to visualise and rehearse what it would be like to do things more closely with others – very much the approach that the personalisation agenda in UK social services has been practising in recent years. Furthermore, those who already have a high sense of self-efficacy may be particularly effective as mentors to raise this sense in those they mentor, indicating the power of peer support.

Of course, policy will generally seek to activate both kinds of co-production. This research simply sounds a warning: Don’t assume that this can be done by a single approach – it will almost certainly require quite separate strategies for individual and collective co-production.


Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV.  He worked in the UK Civil Service and several universities before moving to the University of Birmingham in 2006.  He recently led the UK contribution to an EU project on user and community co-production of public services in five European countries, and is currently directing a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on using ‘nudge’ techniques to influence individual service co-producers to participate in community co-production.

[i] Elke Loeffler, Salvador Parrado, Tony Bovaird, and Gregg Van Ryzin (2008),  “If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together”: Citizens and the co-production of public services. Paris: French Ministry of the Treasury, Public Accounts and Civil Service, on behalf of the Presidency of the EU.

[ii] Tony Bovaird, Gregg G. Van Ryzin, Elke Loeffler and Salvador Parrado (2012), “Influences on collective co-production of public services: which citizens most participate in complex governance mechanisms?”, Paper presented to Seminar on Co-production: The State of the Art, Corvinus University, Budapest, 22-23 November.

[iii] Salvador Parrado, Gregg van Ryzin, Tony Bovaird and Elke Loeffler (2013), “Correlates of co-production: Evidence from a five-nation study of citizens”. International Public Management Journal (forthcoming).

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