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October 27, 2010

Change the axis of service delivery

Although co-production is not a new concept in terms of public service design, it is often confused with attempts to simply encourage more active service user involvement.  In fact it’s a much more fundamental realignment of the service user – provider relationship.  Given current levels of interest in this approach, a leading proponent of co-produced services sets out why we need to be clear about this

As chief executive of an organisation which some consider an early pioneer for coproduction I’ve been asked to outline some thoughts on what I see as the challenges for coproduction.

I thought I might focus on a big one – people believe it is nothing new.

Having taken part in a variety of forums, discussions, networks et al whose primary focus has been to prepare the way for scaling up or mainstreaming coproduction I am consistently exposed to the mantra “we have always done this but we haven’t called it coproduction before”.

Wrong. Of course some of our methodologies share common principles and coproduction certainly lies somewhere on the service-user involvement continuum (sharing common ground with the ever growing family of co’s, design, collaboration, etc) however I understand coproduction to have a fundamental difference -coproduction changes the axis upon which services are delivered.

The challenge will be when people come to fully understand how coproduction alters the relationships between commissioners, providers and users. That it challenges our view of who the customer is.

Since it is the customer that creates the demand for any service provided it is for me, the most important question and we don’t ask it nearly enough. A relative easy step when we think of coproducing a community centre in the leafy suburbs, perhaps not so easy when we want to coproduce a criminal justice service.

We think we deliver services within a marketplace of supply and demand, albeit skewed. We don’t.


An overcomplicated system

We have traditionally confused identifying needs as the same thing as demand for an intervention. They are very different things. Rather than identifying, codifying and making the case for resources to meet ‘needs’ and then looking to get these needs purchased by a third party (the commissioner who we often regard as the customer) we should be focusing our efforts on creating demand. We have created an overcomplicated system.

Any reasonably experienced professional can identify need; we do it all the time. We then outline a case for funding based on how the identified need will improve the lot of an individual, a community, a ‘user’.

Once the cash (supply) is made available what happens? We have to find our beneficiaries and sell, cajole and persuade them.

Too many times our system means we are behind the curve. Our experts need to be salespeople, ‘we have the product we had now better find the user and quick!’

I am (a little) overweight and you can tell me, measure me, get a grant or even better a contract and try to persuade me, create lovely posters, run fabulous sessions but until I want to do something about it there isn’t actually a demand for your wares irrespective of whether you have identified the need or not.

Coproduction is a way of building demand from, by, and with.

We are attempting to establish a much firmer footing for providing services that are alive and thrive and not a range of products aimed at meeting unclaimed needs that need to be sold to a disconnected ‘end-user’.

It will be challenging, it will mean conducting ourselves in ways which reinforce the value in all and, we will have to invite everyone to play their part in ways that we have never done before.

Sam Hopley is chief executive of the Holy Cross Centre Trust which has been delivering co-produced services for the past four years