This article previously appeared in Monday Morning Blog.
The government’s Growth Plan for Denmark implies a DKK 7 billion modernisation of the public sector, but a mere four lines describe how this is to be done. Are we capable of developing welfare together with citizens? Is there even a basis for upscaling our ambitions?
What would happen if we focused more on assisting the husbands/wives of dementia sufferers to cope with living with a spouse who is ill? How would weaker school pupils cope if the local sports club coach was involved in their academic progress? How about equipping the well-functioning family to assist families in crisis?
As I have mentioned previously in this blog, we need to apply a new humility to the way we plan public policies and services, in a manner that takes citizens’ everyday lives more seriously.
Co-production is such an approach.
The concept of co-production is not a new one but can be traced back to the seventies, when American political scientist and Nobel prize-winner Elinor Ostrom pointed out the interplay between professionals such as social workers and police on one side, and the citizens they are trying to help on the other.
Ostrom’s major discovery was that effective public services depend just as much on citizens’ knowledge, resources and motivation as they do on professional skills.
Co-production starts out by asking how to generate the best possible effect for citizens and how to activate both citizens’ own resources and the resources nearest to them. This requires public organisations to plan their activities based on actual considerations of which types of partnerships between citizens, family members and organisations will have the greatest impact on the result.
This does not necessarily mean that we should delegate the production of public services to the citizens themselves, or to voluntary organisations or private companies. What is genuinely new about co-production is that the relationship between citizen and system is considered equal from the outset.
Three principles for co-production in practice
Together with my colleagues from MindLab, I drew up three central approaches to planning the work on co-production in practice in the new publication Co-production: Towards a new welfare model.
First of all, the task needs to be redefined from the point of view of effect. Across the three welfare areas I mentioned in the introduction (dementia, special needs education, families at risk), it could look like this:
A move away from the old notion of helping citizens suffering from dementia, in favour of a new perspective on how to best provide their family members with both skills and breathing space; a move away from focusing on what weaker students can’t do to instead focusing on the resources available to them; and a move away from considering when to forcibly put at-risk children into care, in favour of being curious about how to get families in crisis back on their feet.
Secondly, we must invest in enabling citizens’ own resources. This could mean setting up a family-members’ café in the municipality, where family members of those suffering from dementia can share good advice and recharge their batteries to cope with their demanding lives. Fredensborg Municipality is working on this, for example.
It could mean equipping and training sports and leisure clubs to enter into partnerships with the school and the municipality (with the focus being on weaker pupils’ learning environments) so that everyone works together. This is being considered on Langeland.
Or it could mean running courses to enable families who are able to give back to help other families who are struggling to cope with everyday life. This has been done in Australia and Denmark for years, including under the auspices of the Red Cross family network.
Thirdly, we must do away with the role of authority. Public organisations often meet citizens in an authority capacity, simply because they have the power to do so. The consequence is that the public sector becomes powerless when it comes to creating positive change in people’s lives.
We must replace the concept of authority with the more open term platform, which means that the role of the public sector becomes more supportive and facilitating for others. In the field of dementia, it may be that the platform is reflected in a family network. In the field of special needs, the municipality might set up a website where young people can share experiences and challenges with others in the same situation and get advice and support from their peers. For families, it may be that the public sector supports the positive collaboration between at-risk families and socioeconomically-advantaged families, and follows up on their progress.
Co-production has implications for virtually every aspect of public sector modernisation work: management, financial management, procurement, digitisation, skills development, etc. Co-production raises questions such as:
• How do you manage welfare production if your role is not to exercise authority but to deploy resources to create a desired effect?
• What does it mean to be professional once we recognise that the citizen – e.g. student, patient, senior citizen – has an equally important role to play in the creation of welfare as the professionals do?
• Which approaches are able to activate those resources that are of greatest benefit to the citizen and how do you identify the right interaction between family members, friends, local communities, associations, companies and other public organisations?
These are difficult questions, but they are not insurmountable and are certainly worth getting to grips with. Experience with co-production, both at home and abroad, indicates that challenging our traditional understanding of how public service is created offers enormous potential.
I suggest that we would be able to create an even more appropriate and meaningful service for citizens in a series of service areas, while at the same time reaping a 20 per cent benefit in terms of costs. You could call it “20 per cent better, 20 per cent cheaper”.
That would indeed be an ambitious modernisation strategy.