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Social Policy & Society 7:2, 221–231 Printed in the United Kingdom

C 2007 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S1474746407004174

Realising the Potential of Co-production: Negotiating

Improvements in Public Services
Catherine Needham
Queen Mary, University of London

The concept of co-production – also called co-creation – is gaining widespread attention

as a way to increase user involvement in service provision in the UK. It is usually taken as
self-evident that more co-production will improve services. However, it is necessary to be
clear about how far and in what ways co-production can improve public services. This
article looks at the purported advantages of co-production, and considers how these can
best be accessed. A case study workshop involving social housing users and providers,
conducted as part of the National Consumer Council-Unison Shared Solutions project, is
used to illustrate the need for collective dialogue and deliberation between co-producers
rather than purely transactional forms of co-production.

I n t ro d u c t i o n

The concept of co-production – also called co-creation – is gaining widespread attention

as a way to improve public service provision in the UK (Kelly et al., 2002; Needham,
2003, 2007; Halpern et al., 2004; Leadbeater, 2004; Miller and Stirling, 2004; Lawson,
2005; Cottam and Leadbeater, 2006; Hart, 2006; Parker and Heapy, 2006). Rather than
separating out the consumption and production of government services, co-production
emphasises the role that service users play in both the consumption and production of
public services (Whitaker, 1980; Parks et al., 1981; Brudney and England, 1983; Brudney,
1984; Kiser, 1984; Percy, 1984; Offe, 1985; Moore, 1995; Ostrom, 1996). It signals a shift
away from defining public services solely in terms of the productive activities of the state
(Ostrom, 1989: 148; Stoker, 1989; Hoggett, 1991). It challenges public choice approaches
that position consumer–producer relationships in adversarial terms, highlighting instead
their interdependence (Ostrom, 1996).
Alford defines co-production as ‘the involvement of citizens, clients, consumers,
volunteers and/or community organisations in producing public services as well as
consuming or otherwise benefiting from them’ (Alford, 1998: 128 – emphasis in the
original). A term developed by political scientists in the late 1970s, co-production was
associated with efforts to respond to urban fiscal cutbacks in the United States at a time
of rising public expectations of services (Parks et al., 1981; Brudney, 1984). The scope
for co-production to supplement weak state capacity has led a number of authors to
explore its usage in developing countries (Ostrom, 1996; Joshi and Moore, 2003). In the
UK, attention to co-production has been relatively recent and can be associated with
the public service reforms of the Labour governments since 1997. The concept has been
invoked by academics and commentators calling for new directions in service delivery
(Needham, 2003, 2007; Miller and Stirling, 2004; Lawson, 2005; Parker and Heapy,

Catherine Needham

2006), but has also gained attention within government (Kelly et al., 2002; Halpern et al.,
2004). Ed Miliband, then Minister for the Third Sector, told a conference in January 2007:

Rather than a ‘letterbox’ model in which we see the individual as simply having the service
‘delivered’ to them, we must think in terms of a more collaborative model. . . The task for the
future must surely also be to systematically look at each public service and think about how
the user can become an integral co-producer. (Miliband, 2007)

Interest in co-production in the UK is growing across a range of institutions. When the

Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) announced its inquiry ‘Public Services:
Putting People First’ in November 2006, it included an examination of how users could be
more involved in service design through co-production (PASC, 2006). In the same month,
the National Consumer Council (NCC) and the trade union Unison published a report
entitled Shared Solutions, which emphasised the need for public service users and staff to
work together to shape service delivery collaboratively (NCC/Unison, 2006). Recognising
this attention, a Demos pamphlet noted: ‘The notion of co-production, initially dismissed
as jargon that featured only in the lexicon of aspiring ministers and seasoned thinktankers,
has become part of the new consensus about future approaches to public service reform’
(Parker and Heapy, 2006: 13). A range of recent policy initiatives can be seen as co-
productive in nature, bringing service users more fully into the production of service
outcomes. These include direct payments in social care, expert patient programmes in
the NHS, home–school contracts in education and a greater emphasis on community
justice in policing.
Given this recent attention on co-production, and the range of initiatives which
appear to be premised on co-productive insights, it is necessary to be clear about how
far and in what ways co-production can improve public services. This article looks at the
purported advantages of co-production, and considers how these can best be accessed. A
case study workshop involving social housing users and providers, conducted as part of
the National Consumer Council–Unison Shared Solutions project, is used to illustrate the
need for collective dialogue and deliberation between co-producers rather than purely
transactional forms of co-production.

C o - p ro d u c t i o n a n d i t s b e n e fi t s

One reason for the recent attention on co-production is its potential to deal with a range
of factors inhibiting effective public service provision. Although some attention has been
given to the potential limitations of co-production – such as the blurring of boundaries
between public and private interests and the shifting of costs and risks on to users (Ostrom,
1996: 1082; Needham, 2006; Bovaird, forthcoming) – most writers have emphasised
its desirability. It is seen as an approach that can make services more efficient and
effective, whilst also enhancing the morale of bureaucrats and citizens. In particular, co-
production offers three advantages over traditional bureau-professional models of service
First, in the co-productive model, staff on the frontlines of public services are
recognised to have a distinctive voice and expertise as a result of regular interaction
with service users. Whilst post-war bureau-professional models of public service tended

Realising the Potential of Co-production

to emphasise the dominance of bureaucrats over users (Clarke et al., 1987), there
was also a class of low-paid frontline workers whose perspectives were marginalised
(London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, 1979). Implementation research by Lipsky
(1980), Sabatier (1991) and others began to orient attention towards these ‘street-
level bureaucrats’ and emphasised the importance of frontline interactions as places
where ‘public policies are effectively made or produced in important ways’ (Wirth,
1991: 78). The co-productive approach continues this process of valorising frontline
experience, moving away from the misleading ‘neo-Taylorist’ accounts of public
service delivery (Clarke and Newman, 1997: 111) to a recognition that the user’s
experience of the service is shaped almost entirely by their interaction with the frontline
Second, co-production can transform citizen attitudes in ways that improve service
quality. The emphasis on user agency and empowerment rather than dependence marks
a move away from the traditional client model (Barnes et al., 1999); nor are users
‘merely consumers, choosing between different packages offered to them’ (Leadbeater,
2004: 60). Co-production creates ‘more involved, responsible users’ (Leadbeater, 2004:
59), who are ‘more knowledgeable of the content, costs and limitations of municipal
services and their joint responsibility with service agents for their delivery’ (Brudney
and England, 1983: 62). It may be that positive experiences of co-production encourage
individuals to become more civically minded in other areas of their lives. As Ostrom
argues, ‘The experience of success of co-production also encourages citizens to develop
other horizontal relationships and social capital’ (1996: 1083).
Third, by emphasising user input into the productive process, co-production improves
allocative efficiency, making frontline providers and their managers more sensitive to user
needs and preferences (Percy, 1984: 437). Co-production connects closely with concepts
such as ‘public value’ (Moore, 1995) and ‘relationship value’ (Zuboff and Maxmin, 2003),
which have gained attention in government for their potential to replace narrow cost-
efficiency analyses of public services (Kelly et al., 2002). Co-productive relationships,
premised on credible commitments from both government agencies and citizens, can
be the basis for more constructive interactions, ending cycles of hostility (Ostrom, 1996:
1082). As users take on new responsibilities, the role of providers may change as they
‘help to create platforms and environments, peer-to-peer support networks, which allow
people to devise these solutions collaboratively’ (Leadbeater, 2004: 24). Accountability
may be enhanced as user involvement in the production of services ‘fosters an active,
vocal constituency that puts in motion the accountability mechanisms needed for good
agency performance’ (Ostrom, 1996: 1075).
Thus co-production can be a therapeutic tool (building trust and communication
between participants, allowing bureaucrats and citizens to explain their perspective and
listen to others) as well as a diagnostic one (revealing citizens’ needs, identifying the
main causes of delivery problems and negotiating effective means to resolve them). Taken
cumulatively, the benefits of co-production appear to be considerable:

More personalised solutions, in which the user takes responsibility for providing part of the
service, should enable society to create better collective solutions with a less coercive, intrusive
state, a lower tax burden, a more responsible and engaged citizenry and stronger capacity within
civil society to find and devise solutions to problems without intervention. (Leadbeater, 2004:

Catherine Needham

R e a l i s i n g t h e b e n e fi t s o f c o - p ro d u c t i o n

This cure-all potential of co-production is in part a result of excessive elasticity in its

definition. Some authors see co-production as no more than a description of the status
quo: as Garn et al. point out, all services, public and private, require some input from
consumers and producers (1976: 14–15). Others position it as a radical break from
existing delivery models, highlighting its transformative potential (Halpern et al., 2004;
Parker and Heapy, 2006; Miliband, 2007). More specificity is required if the potential of
co-production to improve public service provision is to be evaluated. A number of authors
have offered typologies of co-production to separate out its different manifestations, and
these provide a starting point for disaggregating its effects. Brudney and England, for
example, distinguish individualistic forms of co-production from group and collective
types (1983: 63–64). Individualistic co-production may mean filling in a tax return or
taking medication at the right time, whereas group modes of co-production may bring
users together to shape or provide services, perhaps in the form of ‘walking bus’ initiatives
for school children. Collective co-production refers to programmes that benefit the whole
community rather than groups of users, such as lay magistrates and jurors.
Dualities between beneficial and detrimental co-production have also been
developed, in other words between citizen activity which enhances services (such as
recycling) and activity which does not (such as dropping litter) (Rich, 1981). Others
have explained co-production as a continuum ranging from high levels of official input
and passive users to minimal official input and high levels of citizen production (Miller
and Stirling, 2004: 5). It is also possible to distinguish between zero-sum models
of co-production, in which citizens substitute their labour for that of professionals
(for example using recycling centres rather than having doorstep collections), and
positive-sum forms of co-production in which public officials and citizens collaborate,
such as safer neighbourhood initiatives (Parks et al., 1981: 1003; Ostrom, 1996:
Some of these types of co-production appear better suited than others to deliver the
diagnostic and therapeutic benefits noted above. So-called detrimental co-production,
in which users contribute to services by vandalising street furniture or fly-tipping
are unlikely to bring users and providers closer together (Rich, 1981). Positive sum
approaches, in which bureaucrats and citizens play an active and complimentary role,
offer more scope to expand service capacity than the zero-sum substitution approaches,
which can be perceived by citizens as a way to deliver services on the cheap (Wirth,
1991: 82). Collective forms of co-production are generally seen as more beneficial
than individualistic forms. Brudney and England argue that individualistic forms of co-
production should be placed at the bottom of a hierarchy of co-productive activity, and
it is not until co-production is undertaken at the group or collective level that it begins to
transform service: ‘Inherent in the definition of collective co-production is the notion of
a redistribution of benefits from citizen activity. Regardless of which citizens participate
in the service delivery process, the benefits accrue to the city as a collectivity’ (1983:
To access the benefits of co-production, it is also important to be clear about the
arenas within which effective co-productive relationships are most likely to develop.
Parker and Heapy emphasise that engagement between users and producers must occur

Realising the Potential of Co-production

as part of the service delivery process – rather than in abstracted consultation exercises:
‘[E]ngaging people in co-production does not happen through consultations, on citizens’
juries or at council meetings: it needs to happen at the point of delivery and through
conversation and dialogue rather than chance alone’ (Parker and Heapy, 2006: 15 –
emphasis in the original). This distinction between co-production and consultation is
an important one: whereas consultation tends to reassert traditional roles and divisions
between users and officials by involving them in separate consultative exercises and
generating wish-lists, effective co-production emphasises the importance of dialogue,
interaction and negotiation.
Thus, the forms of co-production most likely to access its therapeutic and diagnostic
benefits are those that are collective, dialogical, positive-sum and focused at the point of
delivery, rather than individualised, zero-sum and abstracted from service experiences.
However, it is not clear that all of these features of co-production can be accessed
simultaneously. In particular, the call to focus co-production on the point of delivery
may run counter to efforts to ensure that it is collective and dialogical in nature. Whilst
most public services have collective externalities, the interaction between bureaucrat
and citizen at the point of delivery is in most cases on a one-to-one basis – at the
doctor’s surgery, the housing office, the job centre, the police station. There is a danger
that any co-production that occurs will be individualised, transactional and substitutive,
particularly where users lack individual and social capital (Miller and Stirling, 2004: 5),
and where staff are low-paid and under pressure to dispatch clients as quickly as possible.
For example, co-production in a job centre context may mean only that users demonstrate
that they have been proactive in looking for work, rather than staff and users exploring
ways in which the service can be remodelled to more effectively mobilise their combined
resources. Daily service interactions on the frontlines can provide little opportunity for
users and staff to share their expectations and experiences, explain their behaviour and
agree mutually beneficial service norms, particularly where citizens must petition officials
for access to scarce resources.
To facilitate collective, dialogical and positive-sum co-production in such an
environment, mechanisms are needed in which users and providers can discuss service
provision away from the point of delivery. A forum such as a staff–user workshop may be
an effective environment for officers and citizens to engage in dialogue as co-producers.
In such a setting participants are invited to give their individual perspectives on the
service, but may adopt some of the norms of collective participation. For example, it can
be hypothesised that they are more likely than in individual or user-only consultation
exercises to give accurate (rather than exaggerated) accounts of service limitations
and to suggest service improvements that will benefit users generally rather than only
themselves. They are placed in a speech situation that prevents the expression of purely
self-regarding justifications, akin to forms of deliberative democracy (Miller, 2000: 16).
Through creating dialogue between bureaucrats and citizens, their interdependence
as co-producers of the service is likely to be exposed in a way that may not be
happen in their day-to-day interactions. The following case study, drawn from research
conducted as part of the Shared Solutions project undertaken by the National Consumer
Council and Unison, presents an example of the potential advantages of allowing co-
producers to engage in collective dialogue outside of their daily and individualised service

Catherine Needham

D i a l o g u e b e t w e e n c o - p ro d u c e r s : a c a s e s t u d y

In February 2006, a small group of social housing tenants and officers were brought
together in a workshop to discuss service delivery. The research was conducted in
a city in the north of England, which had several features relevant to the broader
debate surrounding social housing in England: choice-based letting arrangements,
stock management by an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) and an
ongoing regeneration programme to improve housing stock. The workshop was designed,
facilitated and transcribed by an independent research agency (Opinion Leader Research).
Fifteen social housing residents were recruited, selected to be representative of social
housing users nationally, by gender, social class and ethnicity. They were paid a small
incentive to cover their expenses for the day. Ten frontline housing officers from the ALMO
volunteered to take part in the workshop, and were given permission by their managers
to attend the workshop during working hours. By asking for staff volunteers, it was not
possible to achieve a representative sample of officers. However, as Parker and Heapy
point out: ‘A participatory design project . . . is not something that staff can be coerced or
targeted to get involved in. Vital to its success is that those who take part are willing and
energised participants’ (2006: 40).
The day involved an initial plenary session for all participants, morning break-out
sessions in which tenants and officers talked separately about issues, followed by mixed
and plenary sessions in the afternoon. The sessions were designed to be inclusive and
appropriate for the range of stakeholders participating. Most evident at the start of the day
was the level of hostility felt by some of the tenants to the officers. For example when asked
in a warm-up exercise ‘If you were an animal what animal would you be’, one tenant
chose a lion: ‘And the reason I want to be a lion, I can maul all these council workers
to death’. Complaints about council properties were raised in the warm-up session even
though tenants were only being asked to introduce themselves. One officer left the event
in tears, feeling that tenants were victimising her. Such experiences highlight the barriers
to effective frontline co-production in a situation where access to a key service such as
housing is rationed and officers act as gatekeepers defending council policy in a low-trust
Separated from officers in the morning sessions, tenants recognised that some aspects
of the service were positive, such as the introduction of concierges and the modernisation
of some properties. However, most of the session focused on a range of grievances against
the housing provider (often referred to as the council, despite the creation of the ALMO).
When asked what the negatives were of living in the area, one said, ‘It’s just the council
really. Ask the council about anything and it goes over their heads.’ Attitudes to the
frontline housing staff were particularly hostile:

First respondent: ‘The people in the rent office . . . there’s no help whatsoever.’

Second respondent: ‘Because when you go down they think you should be paying them to
speak to you.’ [Tenant group 1]

First respondent: ‘I think it goes down to the staff are not trained to deal with the public, top
and bottom of it.’

Second respondent: ‘They look down at you, they think that they’re better than you.’ [Tenant
group 2]

Realising the Potential of Co-production

Officers were well aware of this hostility and reflected on it in their own groups. As
one put it, ‘I think something we suffer is the abuse, that has to be really recognised, is
the abuse.’
In accounting for the perceived levels of mutual hostility, tenants and officers
working in separate groups articulated common explanations, particularly around the
fragmentation of the service. The language of an arms-length management organisation
was rejected. As one tenant put it, ‘I don’t like the title arms-length. I think it should
say hands on.’ Several officers similarly felt that fragmentation between housing benefit
services and local estate offices exacerbated hostility. As one put it, ‘Because we’re putting
services away from them, we’re getting distanced from the tenants . . . and it’s becoming
adversarial, it’s becoming them and us.’ Both tenants and officers wanted a more personal
service. According to one tenant, ‘We think it’s great when there’s someone who knows
you when you go into a council office . . . If you’ve got more personal service it’s just
better for everyone involved really isn’t it?’ Officers expressed frustration at how service
reorganisation prevented them from providing a personal service: ‘There was a little old
man who came in every week and if he wasn’t there that week the cashier would alert
the staff, the good neighbour role really, and we don’t do that now.’
Whilst the separate sessions revealed a good deal of common ground, they also
highlighted the gulf in perceptions between tenants and officers. Officers felt that rising
expectations lay behind tenant frustrations with the service: [P]eople’s aspirations are
different now. People won’t just accept a council house now. They want a house in a nice
area with a nice garden with nice neighbours.’ However, in the tenants’ sessions, when
people were asked about what they wanted from social housing, in general expectations
were low rather than high. As one said, ‘there’s no way I would get a house with a garden
and all that. It’s just that I’ll be happy if they modernise the flats and do what they say
they’re going to do.’ Another said, ‘I’m not bothered, as long as the street was tidy and
I didn’t have bins, loads of bin bags outside me front door that don’t even belong to us,
just rubbish.’
Tenants put their frustration down to a sense that officers were indifferent to their
problems. As one put it:

At the end of the day the officers are not really bothered. You could talk to them for two and
three hours and it just goes in one ear and out the other, they are not bothered because they
don’t live in the area, they can go home and close the door, they live in a nice area.

However, officers felt that they were unable to respond effectively to tenants
because of their own disempowerment in the organisation. According to one, ‘We don’t
know what’s going on, we can’t tell tenants what’s going on.’ Another said, ‘Lack of
communication from the higher management to the frontline staff I think is a huge issue.’
According to a third, ‘Nobody seems to be actually taking into consideration . . . staff who
are face to face with the tenant, who are listening to what the tenants are wanting.’
Thus, the separate sessions diagnosed common problems with the service, but
revealed gulfs in perception about the motivations of tenants and officers. Officers
felt that tenants had excessively high expectations; tenants did not recognise how
marginalised officers felt within their own organisation. The joint afternoon sessions
were an opportunity to report back on these separate discussions, allowing recognition
of the amount of common ground and discussion of misconceptions over expectations

Catherine Needham

and attitudes. During these sessions, tenants were surprised to see the concerns of the
officers overlapping so closely with their own. One said, ‘They do seem to be the same
problems, just crossing over.’ There were shared frustrations about recent changes to the
housing benefit system:

Tenant: ‘Whoever you speak to they always seem to send you to someone else, do you know
what I mean? It’s like round the houses. They all have a good laugh about it.’

Officer: ‘That happens internally as well.’

By the final plenary session of the day, tenants and officers were able to identify
shared priorities around improving the promptness of repairs, stronger action against
anti-social behaviour, more information around choice-based lettings and revision of the
priority allocation system. One officer said:

I think there’s a lot of common concerns between the customers and our organisation, that’s
been apparent from this morning, because it’s, the common vein has run through the whole
day that our frustrations and concerns are also the tenants’. It’s about how we deal and tackle
them of course is the key.

A tenant responded: ‘It looked as if we’ve all been looking at each other’s sheets cos
we’re all saying the same thing.’ Another tenant reflected on the frustrations of the officers:
‘maybe they feel like they’re being held back from people above them.’ The officers made
a plea for better tenant understanding of the pressures they faced: ‘Treat people with
respect. That goes both ways. So you have to realise we’re not an organisation, we are
people.’ A tenant said: ‘As you say we’ve been at the same thing all day, it just keeps
coming back down to the same problem. So if we can do something about it, that would
be great and you’d have happy tenants.’
The case study highlights how user and producer perspectives shift when they have
to talk about services in environments that make explicit the co-produced nature of
service delivery. The workshop showed the therapeutic and diagnostic benefits of dialogue
between co-producers. It was useful in the identification of problems and priorities, but it
also allowed frontline staff and service users to share expertise and recognise a common
agenda. From the high levels of mistrust and hostility that characterised the relationship
between tenants and housing officers at the start of the day, and the combination of
common ground and misperceptions that emerged in the separate sessions, it was possible
to see the interrogative and ultimately consensual nature of joint sessions. Some of the
issues raised in the workshop – around a shortage of housing stock, delays in regeneration
projects and the allocation of housing to priority groups – stem from national policies or
legal requirements, which cannot be addressed at the frontline. However, at the end of
the workshop it was possible to communicate a set of shared priorities, around repairs,
anti-social behaviour, service fragmentation and the design of the choice-based letting
system, which could be dealt with locally.
Such a workshop, therefore, has the potential to be the beginning of a collaborative
process of co-production, which could lead to more effective engagement at the point
of delivery. Issues of representativeness (only a small proportion of staff and users can
participate) and constraints on resources (recruitment and facilitation are expensive)
ensure that such workshops alone cannot transform service delivery. However they can be
an important tool in diagnosing problems in public services, exposing blocks to effective
staff–user relationships and identifying routes to more effective delivery.
Realising the Potential of Co-production


The growing interest in co-productive approaches to service reform stems from their
apparent bridging of the polarities in public service debate. Co-production avoids
overly passive accounts of the service user, although it also steers clear of potentially
unsustainable demands for a neo-republican citizenry. It can reduce the costs of service
provision whilst giving more autonomy to frontline users and bureaucrats. As co-
production moves to the mainstream of policy-making – offering scope for services
to be delivered more effectively and at a lower cost to the state – it is important to
understand better its implications. The insight of co-production – that services rely on
input from those styled as their consumers as well as those positioned as producers – has
a descriptive accuracy across public and private services. Its potential to improve service
provision depends on how this insight is utilised.
By emphasising collective, collaborative and deliberative mechanisms of co-
production, it is possible to go beyond individualised co-productive approaches which
may only entrench patterns of hostility or pass the costs and responsibilities of production
on to service users. To build effective co-productive relationships it may be necessary,
at least initially, to move away from the point of delivery and create forums in which
officials and citizens can articulate service experiences, recognise common ground
and negotiate service improvements. Although a very small-scale example, the Shared
Solutions workshop suggests that a forum of collective deliberation can make explicit
co-productive relationships, which at the frontline may be implicit or dysfunctional.
Such deliberative workshops will not necessarily create consensus or solve the
problems of service provision. Where poor relationships between officials and citizens are
a product of national policy priorities – such as a shortage of social housing provision –
small-scale meetings will not be able to solve core problems. Indeed, it is important
to be explicit about the limitations of such exercises, to avoid raising expectations that
cannot be fulfilled. Nor should such exercises be perceived as a way to co-opt awkward
tenants and marginalise their complaints (Ilcan and Basok, 2004). However if managed
appropriately, such workshops can begin the process of accessing the collective and
transformative potential of co-produced public services.


Many thanks to the National Consumer Council and Unison for the use of
transcript data from their Shared Solutions project. For more details about the
project see Advice on how to set up
a project using the Shared Solutions methodology is available from WA Partnerships
( For information about the policy applications of the
project contact Abena Dadze-Arthur at the National Consumer Council (a.dadze-, 0207 881 3007).

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Catherine Needham

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