Co-production: the ‘give’ and ‘take game…

Catherine Durose 

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.

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.