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.


Reducing Public Risk and Improving Public Resilience: What’s to Be Done?

Tony Bovaird and Barry Quirk

All is not well in the risk assessment and management field. Current approaches don’t seem to work well and may not even be worth the time and energy we spend on them – indeed, they may be actively damaging our ability to cope with the current risks in our environment. Why is this?

Risk is how we measure today the adverse impact or losses we think may happen in the future.  While risk is something that can be priced or measured, uncertainty is much harder to gauge. In line with practice in the risk assessment and management industry, we here use the word ‘risk’ to cover all the factors which contribute to uncertainty, whether or not they can be captured by probability estimates.

Although risk can be found everywhere, in public service it takes on a slightly different character.  One of the core purposes of government is to minimise risks to the public.  People expect their governments to act when there is a risk of serious harm, whether it be from market failure, social crisis or environmental disaster. And in a world of “big data” and hypercritical commentators, it is little wonder that politicians and public managers can often seem frozen in the glare of the possible risks of failure.

Paradoxically, some risks are themselves partly caused by public institutions.  In the current climate of reducing public resources, those risks that require perhaps the most attention are the risks to the public and to service users from the scale and nature of changes in the public sector itself. The prospect of public service failure is higher than ever before.  The radical cuts in public spending are in some areas leading to service withdrawal, service rationing and reductions in service standards.  This is occurring alongside significant welfare reform changes.  In consequence, many service users are experiencing a degradation of the service levels, standards and facilities which they may have previously regarded as critically important.   As part of the Government’s “Localism” strategy, local authorities are being encouraged to increase the level of their partnership and community engagement activities but it is already clear that there are real risks that partner bodies (from the community, voluntary, social and private sectors) may be unable to deliver the required services at an acceptable standard, particularly given the rapid pace of the transition that is underway.

The White Paper on Open Public Services commits HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to working closely with departments in order to develop ‘continuity regimes’, as an integral part of their modernisation programmes. However, it offers few details of what this might mean in practice.

The traditional approach to risk management is founded in institutional audit that understandably privileges financial control by pricing future uncertainties in a measurable way.  It fosters managerial compliance strategies that attempt to reduce or avoid repeated or systemic operational errors as well as measure foreseeable hazards and harms. These approaches are useful up to a point.  However, they have also resulted in complex “blame avoidance strategies” where public agencies attempt to minimise damage to themselves and deflect blame for failure.  Rather than opening up options, these approaches often close them down, undermining pragmatism and common sense.  The ubiquity of risk management in public service organisations can seem to stifle innovation by fostering a culture of paralysis focussed fearfully on, “what worst events might happen” and encouraging low risk appetites and risk averse behaviour.

While people are eager to embrace accountability for their actions when things go well, they are perhaps even more keen to avoid blame for when things go wrong. The difference, within public agencies, between a mature approach to accountability that fosters responsible and empowered risk taking and an immature blame culture that seeks to personalise error and fault, is the key to understanding how our approaches to public risk can be improved.

We therefore suggest that a radically new approach to risk is now urgently needed. This should begin with a focus more on risks to the public service outcomes experienced by service users and their communities.  In practice, more weight often appears to be given to risks experienced by politicians, senior managers, staff and their organisations. This is only likely to be put right if the power imbalance in public agencies is directly addressed, so that users and communities become directly involved in the strategic decisions around risk, and their views count in the calculus employed within the agency – a co-production approach between citizens and public agencies.

Secondly, the approach to risk in the public sector has also suffered from how it has been used in strategic decision making.  We can distinguish four quite distinct strategies towards risk in public services:

  • activity portfolio management: choosing a portfolio of activities with lower risk attached;
  • risk reduction in the environment: either reducing the likelihood of key risks or influencing their character so that particularly worrying features of those risks are made less damaging;
  • building resilience to risk into the service system, including the activities of providers and the behaviours of service users, their support networks and their communities;
  • risk enablement: encouraging decision makers in the service system to choose activities with appropriate levels of risk, rather than assuming that risk minimisation is always right.

These strategies are not, of course, mutually exclusive. The first two are essentially  preventative, the third is about mitigation of risks and the fourth is about learning to live appropriately with the levels of risk which the organisation faces.  In practice, the public sector has been highly selective in the risk strategies on which it has focused, giving most weight to the first two strategies. This needs to change, with risk enablement in particular becoming more dominant.

The concept of a  ‘risk enablement strategy’ builds in particular on innovative risk enablement practices in adult safeguarding in social care. It involves taking a balanced and proportionate approach to risk, finding ways to enable individuals, communities and organisations to achieve what care about, while considering what keeps individuals and the community safe from harm in a way that makes sense for them (Neill et al, 2008: 7). It requires public agencies to foster a culture of positive risk taking, where these ‘risky’ proposals offer a good prospect for raising the level of outcomes for citizens. A strategy of risk enablement rather than risk avoidance or minimisation needs to build on principles of: outcome-driven policies and activities; user and community co-production; transparency; resilience; collective responsibility and integrity; and professional responsibility and integrity.

Thirdly, we need to get to grips with resilience. The recent social science literature on resilience has stressed the idea of resilience as ‘adaptive ability’.  This goes beyond traditional definitions of resilience – ‘engineering resilience’ (where the level of resilience is measured by speed of return to the pre-existing equilibrium) and ‘ecological resilience’ (where the level of resilience is measured by the size of shock or disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes structure or function, shaped by a different set of processes).

A truly resilient system of public services, fashioned to achieve publicly desired outcomes, requires attention to the resilience of the agents within the system, specifically citizens (both as co-producting service users and collectively as communities) and organisations (specifically service providers), as well resilience in the design of the overall service system. We suggest that there must be at least some suspicion that public agencies often over-emphasise the embedding of resilience into the formal service provision process, given the potential for damage to agencies and their staff when service provision fails – but have therefore tended to underemphasise resilience of service users and communities.

Let us be clear. We are not suggesting that public organisations or staff should launch into radically higher levels of risk – what we are discussing is more likely to result in a different portfolio of risks. Indeed, our  approach is partly about owning up to the facts that service users are already facing quite high levels of risk to their desired outcomes and that the interventions of the public sector have only ever achieved limited risk reduction. The key is that the appropriate risk reduction strategies should be agreed by users and communities, not by agency leaders (based on their own self-interest).

We see this radically new approach to risk as being urgently needed. However, this new approach must itself be seen as tentative and unproven. The uncertainty that the public sector in that part of its work which operates in complex and chaotic knowledge domains requires all of us to possess more humility about how much we can know, how much we can change and how cost-effective our public interventions are likely to be.

Consequently, this new approach requires both experimentation and research.  Until better evidence is available, we need to own up to how little we really know about the risks we face in relation to the outcomes that matter to citizens.  We need to acknowledge the scale of the unknown factors and dynamics which can undermine the efficacy of even the best designed service.  And we also need to recognise the partial character and limited effectiveness of those mechanisms that are designed by government and public agencies to protect the public from future harms.  Such humility is a prerequisite to learning. Refusing to acknowledge the limitations to our knowledge is perhaps the biggest risk of all faced by government in this era of public service austerity.

Source: This blog is a summary  of: Tony Bovaird and Barry Quirk (2013), Reducing Public Risk and Improving Public Resilience: An Agenda for Risk Enablement Strategies. In Staite, C. (ed.)(2013). Making sense of the future: can we develop a new model for public services? (Birmingham: University of Birmingham/INLOGOV).

The full paper contains a set of references to the sources used in this blog.


Tony Bovaird, Professor of Public Management and Policy, INLOGOV and Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham.

Barry Quirk, CEO, London Borough of Lewisham and



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).