All in this together? Can citizens help transform public outcomes through co-production?

Tony Bovaird and Elke Loeffler

Co-production is big – it is rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about themes in public services not just in the UK but internationally.

Let us be clear what we mean here. We define user and community co-production of public services as “professionals and citizens making better use of each other’s assets, resources and contributions to achieve better outcomes and/or improved efficiency.” Put simply, it takes two – both the professional AND the citizen to produce these outcomes by ‘milking’ each other’s capabilities. This is potentially a transformational concept – it can turn public engagement into a ‘live’ connection, rather than the current set of contacts, which are often relatively dead, or at least misfiring.

Is this realistic? Or just a glib cover-up for public service spending cuts ? In our recent contribution to the new INLOGOV model of public services (Bovaird and Loeffler, 2013), we argue that co-production can indeed transform the achievement of public outcomes – if done well. However, this won’t necessarily come about just because we’d like to pretend it is. Co-production needs pro-active, coordinated intervention by the public sector – and it’s far from clear that this is what’s actually being provided in many parts of local government and other public agencies.

Of course, it’s obvious that co-production is indeed already happening everywhere. One of the key characteristics of services in the public and private sectors is that the production and consumption of many services are inseparable. The service is produced if and only if the service user agrees to and takes part in the process. However, the fact that co-production is happening doesn’t mean that it’s being done well. If the service user doesn’t contribute fully and creatively to the service process, or does not make full use of the potential of the service, then the service is likely to be less effective in its outcomes.

For example, a major benefit of properly co-produced services is that the right services are more likely to be commissioned and delivered, because people who use services may have the chance to influence the outcomes which are prioritised by public agencies. However, this potential is often neglected because of the paternalistic way in which services are commissioned and delivered.

Again, there is great scope for mobilising citizen inputs to help create public value. The contribution of formal volunteering and informal social activities to the overall value added in society is likely to be very high (although we are still not good at measuring it) – and potentially much higher, if it is systematically managed through a co-production strategy. However, in the current period of near-zero economic growth and major financial cutbacks in the public sector, the capacity of the third sector to help mobilise this potential has often been damaged by the very public sector which wants to make use of it.

If co-production is to be used more effectively in the future, it will be important to recognise the range of benefits which it can bring to different stakeholders and to agree to focus on the benefits which we see as the current priorities.

Potential benefits from increased user and community co-production of public services

For Users

  • Improved outcomes and quality of life.
  • Higher quality, more realistic and sustainable public services as a result of bringing in the expertise of users and their networks.

For Citizens

  • Increasing social capital and social cohesion.
  • Offering reassurance about availability and quality of services for the future.

For Frontline Staff

  • More responsibility and job satisfaction from working with satisfied service users.

For Top Managers

  • Limiting demands on the services.
  • Making services more efficient.

For Politicians

  • More votes through more satisfied service users.
  • Less need for public funding and therefore lower taxes.

With a clearer picture of the benefits we most want from co-production, we can decide on what kind of co-production we most need, from the wide range of joint activities that citizens can undertake with the public and third sectors:

  • Co-commissioning of services, which embraces:
    • Co-planning of policy – e.g. deliberative participation, Planning for Real, Open Space
    • Co-prioritisation of services – e.g. individual budgets, participatory budgeting
    • Co-financing of services – e.g. fundraising, charges, agreement to tax increases
  • Co-design of services – e.g. user consultation, service design labs, customer journey mapping
  • Co-delivery of services, which embraces:
    • Co-management of services – e.g. leisure centre trusts, community management of public assets, school governors
    • Co-performing of services – e.g. peer support groups (such as expert patients) , Nurse-Family Partnerships, meals-on-wheels, Neighbourhood Watch
  • Co-assessment (including co-monitoring and co-evaluation) of services – e.g. tenant inspectors, user on-line ratings, participatory village appraisals.

This list of various types of co-production reveals a paradox. In most public agencies it will readily be apparent that at least one of these of these types of co-production is already being harnessed. However, for many in the public sector, user and community co-production has been a well-kept secret over the past few decades – always important but rarely noticed, never mind discussed or explicitly managed. This suggests that not everyone in the public sector actually supports the concept – even though it is now fashionable to pretend that they do!

On the other hand, it is one of the great strengths of the co-production approach is that it is probably already being done well in your organisation – at least somewhere (and perhaps only occasionally). This means that the greatest challenge is not triggering co-production but rather managing it and making it more systematic.

However, to realise fully the transformative potential of co-production, the public sector needs to learn to harness, not waste, the co-production efforts of citizens and service users. Up to now, public sector accounting and evaluation systems have encouraged public agencies to be profligate in the way they have viewed citizen inputs, while being very parsimonious in their use of public sector inputs. This has meant that many opportunities for improvements of public outcomes have been lost or mismanaged. Co-production will only be well-managed when public sector managers and staff recognise what citizens are actually contributing to outcomes, rather than being fixated solely on their own contribution.

Moreover, most citizens are only likely to throw themselves wholeheartedly into co-production in a relatively narrow range of activities that are genuinely important to them personally. This is a great challenge to public agencies, which typically have little experience in tailoring their marketing to specific market segments. Moving from a ‘blunderbuss’ to a ‘rifle’ approach to citizen involvement will require a huge change in attitudes and skills on the part of staff.

Of course, co-production is not a panacea for all issues in the public sector. In particular, the role of service users and other citizens in co-production will usually demonstrate some conflicting priorities, which only political decision makers can resolve. Co-production should give politicians more choice in how they seek to have public outcomes achieved, reinforcing their role in local government, not undermining it.

Finally, we must recognise that, while citizen co-production can achieve major improvements in outcomes, service quality, and service costs, it is likely to require investment. Co-production may harness resources from outside the public sector but it always requires some public inputs as well – it is not ‘free’.


Tony Bovaird and Elke Loeffler (2013), We’re all in this together: Harnessing user and community co-production of public outcomes.  in Staite, C. (ed.)(2013). Making sense of the future: can we develop a new model for public services? (Birmingham: University of Birmingham/INLOGOV).





Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV and TSRC, University of Birmingham.

Elke Loeffler is CEO of Governance International.


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.


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