Co-production in urban governance: why, when, with who, where and how?

Catherine Durose

Debates on the future of governance are shaped by a growing recognition that no single actor has the expertise to address complex problems. This acknowledgement has in part inspired the growing scope of participation in public policy making and governance. The argument here is that government cannot govern alone as effectively as it could in collaboration with citizens. It in this context that interest in co-production has surged.

We can understand co-production as a process bringing together different forms of expertise and experience from different groups, such as public officials and citizens. For seminal thinkers, such as Nobel Prize Winner, Elinor Ostrom, co-production was a response to not only some of the myths around efficiency perpetuated through new public management. But also a call to arms to focus on the synergies that may be forged by working across traditional boundaries, rather than being paralysed by them.

The appeal of co-production is now wide-reaching, but it is a term that is often conceptually stretched. Discussing why, when, how, where and with who to co-produce was the focus of sessions with a group of a hundred civil servants drawn from state and national governments in Australia and New Zealand, during a recent Fellowship at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

Using insights from research I have been involved with as part of the Jam and Justice: co-producing urban governance project, we debated the following insights:

  • Why co-produce?

We should not engage in co-production unless it helps us to advance our core values, for example, effectiveness, justice or legitimacy of public policy.

  • When to co-produce?

Co-production isn’t universally advantageous, we shouldn’t co-produce everything. But co-production is a useful tool, particularly when problems are complex and defy traditional solutions, where the conditions and solutions are not clear or are contested.

  • With who to co-produce?

Co-production isn’t about engaging for the sake of it, but rather engaging those with a stake in it.

  • How to co-produce?

Co-production is a necessarily intensive process that demands an investment of time and effort into building relationships between those involved, in order to find common purpose.

  • Where to co-produce?

Co-production works best when it can be locally tailored. Spreading co-production isn’t about scaling up, but scaling out.

Co-production can help to opening up policy-making and governance process, creating synergies and seeding change. The promise of co-production is seductive, but there’s no quick fix here.


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.

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