A duck by any other name?

By Anthony Noun | 02 April 2024

Twenty years ago co-production was hailed as the dawn of a new era for public services with much fanfare about its benefits – from tackling rising demand and expectations to alleviating disaffection and distrust with local democracy. Two decades on and we have yet to see widescale transformation at the magnitude envisaged or anticipated. So how can practitioners push past sporadic success stories to enable more pervasive change? This is the question I have asked over the last three years in my research with local authorities in England with interesting emerging insights.

Recent analysis by colleagues at the University of Manchester pointed to the ubiquity of the term co-production. They argued that its popularity suggests the idea has resonated with public service professionals who see the potential and want to put it into practice. Buzzwords in public services are not new – from prevention to collaboration, systems thinking and evidence-informed policy – such phrases represent progressive ideals for better policy making. These kinds of practices are often far from the existing realities, and can be hard to achieve, and therefore people promoting such ‘magical thinking’ have been called naïve.

My research counters accusations of naivety – those trying to implement co-production know only too well the challenges involved. However, there are risks a buzzword like co-production can become a so-called ‘fuzzword’ – vague, meaningless and tainted.

Senior local authority figures I’ve spoken to were grappling with everything increasingly being labelled as co-production, from standard consultations to what can only be described as service user feedback. One pointed out ‘there is no common operational model across my council’ and that they were ‘struggling to determine what counts as co-production, what should be included, and what doesn’t sit comfortably in this space’.

Other areas have experienced similar challenges, for example one recent review into the use of design approaches in public policy identified how cynicism can result from the application of poor quality versions of design – where design is seen as ‘post-it notes’ but little else of substance.

While co-production is becoming a widely-used term, it’s certainly not meaningless or tainted yet, with evidence on the ground of its value. As one local authority manager told me: ‘We know we’re far from the ideal but we’re pretty excited about getting there one day, and that’s pretty much what gets me going among the doom and gloom of service cuts.’

Another wish highlighted by one of the councils in the research is to reduce duplication across the system so every organisation does not need to have the same conversation with the same set of people. So if the term co-production means lots of different things to different people, then how can we define what it is? Part of the answer lies in understanding co-production as a set of principles.

This was illustrated powerfully at a recent workshop, where we had 60 seconds to build a duck out of Lego pieces. Creative techniques to help people materialise ideas, such as Lego Serious Play are also part of the co-production package. The aim of the task was to get participants thinking creatively about complex problems through building metaphors through Lego bricks. What resulted was that each person ended up with a very different looking duck from six identical Lego pieces.

Our reflection on the exercise was to value differences, while coalescing around the same set of principles. Ultimately, everyone either involved in or benefitting from co-production should get a duck experience rather than a snake or a hippo. To misquote Shakespeare, a duck is a duck by any other name, and smells as sweet, but only if it has the essence of ‘duckness’!

A new pathway to co-production?

Lego duck building is part of an approach called dialogic organisational development, using ‘appreciative inquiry’ – ideas that are instrumental to my research philosophy. Local public services need to rethink how to nudge progress along and good practice examples are not having the desired effect. My research has developed a pathway that public sector organisations can own by using a series of tried and tested organisational change methods to spur a different conversation about co-production.

This is less about learning from good practice elsewhere and more about helping public sector organisations build internal capacity and tools to create a series of dialogues that can shift internal conversations about the benefits of co-production while also allowing local government officers to re-imagine how they can collaboratively work with residents and local communities. There is science behind the power of reframing from the negative ‘problem we need to fix’ to ‘how do learn from what we are already doing well’ and continuing to build on that further.

Early results and insights

This practical research approach is already showing some hopeful signs. It’s too early to analyse its full effect, but some early findings and behind the scenes insights gained has uncovered the good, the not-yet-great and the plain counterproductive.

The good: Among the participants in my research, there was a strong commitment to the co-production ideals, mixed with an optimistic outlook on what it can do to improve services and community building. My sample was of people who are keen on the idea, so their perspective is not surprising, but their continued sense of possibility was – particularly in a context of local councils and services being so stretched on the ground.

They felt the argument had moved on from having to make the case for co-production. Instead, it’s now much more about how we practically implement it in the context of resource constraints. That sense of commitment also goes beyond fixing it for their organisation towards system change across a whole area, recognising the only way forward is through partnership working and collaboration.

Early findings from my research point to participants feeling a heightened sense of ‘trust’ and ‘openness’ where previously they experienced adversarial working relationships. Participants also reported feeling that a positive or appreciative approach enabled them to shift the conversation away from the problems of co-production and how to manage risks, to one that enabled participants to work together on finding a co-production framework with residents.

The not-yet-great: Progress of co-production is still being hampered by certain values, ways of working and by entrenched cultures that are finding it difficult to let go of the reins. For example, the defence of ‘we have statutory responsibilities’ is still played out too often, especially when there are ample examples of co-production in heavily regulated services like adult and children’s social services. Social workers are now well rehearsed in the art of co-designing care plans with looked-after children, yet sparse in areas that need it the most such as regeneration.

There’s rhetoric underlying a commitment to power sharing, but experience on the ground shows otherwise as one voluntary sector chief executive told me: ‘There’s still too much control. When will they truly work in partnerships with us, let alone local residents?’

Siloed working is also sabotaging progress and creating duplication. I’ve come across many examples over the last few years of several consultations and conversations about broadly the same topic directed at the same communities and service users with no visible effort to coordinate in the first instance. One voluntary sector senior manager spoke of the consultation fatigue many of his service users are feeling. This is coupled with some senior council managers who shared with me in private their frustration about the leadership team saying one thing about co-production but when it comes to the crunch, there’s little serious commitment from the top about implementation.

The counterproductive: It’s one thing to recognise power sharing has plenty of risks, but I’ve witnessed plenty of instances where leaders have tried to control the narrative. Another voluntary sector chief executive told me: ‘While I trust the officers on the ground for trying to build a relational atmosphere, I see a different story at the top where control is still king.’

Some of the council managers I spoke to are also deeply worried about fake co-production and its negative impact on residents’ perceptions and level of engagement. Let’s be clear – a resident survey to gather local opinions about something the council is already doing is not co-production, not unless it leads to genuine shared decision-making.

And pockets of resistance across some council services are visible. Statutory consultations aside, there is a real and growing need to regenerate from the bottom up to avoid white elephants. I interviewed a senior director of a council’s planning and environmental services who told me that you can’t co-produce bin collection.

But this somewhat belittles what you can do in this space where countless empty buildings like closed-down libraries have been turned into vibrant community hubs and spaces, built from the bottom up, that are vibrant, popular and loved than imposed multi-million-pound regeneration schemes.

What’s the solution?

There is no magic bullet, but there are better ways and means to move beyond the impasse. It doesn’t also require additional resources to implement, rather it’s reforming the usual top-down transformational programmes to create an organisational culture that favours bottom-up dialogues where the levers of control are decentralised.

You can’t adopt co-production externally if you don’t lead with some of those principles inside organisations – being co-creational inside out. Implementing co-production across an organisation or a system requires stimulating different ways of tackling the issues and connecting the people involved to learn from each other and work together to gravitate towards what is already working well, and less time dwelling on what went wrong.

And we need to give this latest reform more time and space to grow, for it is a more sustainable way to run public services.

My only wish, and that of many of the research participants I spoke to, is it becomes widely and effectively implemented – for the benefits are greater than the sum of all parts and, like those six pieces of Lego to build a duck, co-productions don’t need to look the same but at their heart, all share the same principle. So wherever you go and whatever service you use, you can instantly recognise a duck standard of co-production.

A spotlight on Camden’s Think & Do

The ‘Think & Do’ pop-up space is an example of civic collaboration in action following Camden Council holding the first ever Citizen’s Assemblies on tackling the climate crisis.

The council unanimously agreed to take forward all 17 recommendations of the Assembly. Since then, Think & Do is a living breathing space of co-creating ideas and projects to realise the shared purpose developed by the Citizens’ Assembly work and report.

Anthony Noun is a communication consultant and coach, and a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester

*My thanks to Liz Richardson, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Manchester for her comments on this article.

**No council or organisation involved in the research has been named in line with the research's ethical requirements.

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