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From passive customers to active co-producers: The role of co-production in public services

27th Jul 2011
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Tony Bovaird, Elke Löffler and Frankie Hine-Hughes explain what public service co-production is, and why it matters.

Co-production is rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about themes in public services and public policy around the world (Bovaird, 2007; nef, 2008; Löffler et al, 2008; Löffler, 2009; Department of Health, 2010). This article sets out what it is, why it matters and its implications for public and social marketing.
The movement to user and community co-production harks back to one of the key characteristics of services in the public and private sectors: the production and consumption of many services are inseparable. Quality in services often occurs during service delivery, usually in the interaction between the customer and provider, rather than just at the end of the process. This means that customers do not evaluate service quality based solely on the outcomes (e.g. the success of a medical treatment in a hospital) - they also consider the process of service delivery (e.g. how friendly and responsive were the hospital medical staff and how comfortable was the ward).
So co-production is not a new concept. What is new, however, is that in recent years in the public and private sectors we are seeing greater involvement of customers in services. As Box 1 shows this has often been for mixed motives – not simply in order to improve service quality by “bringing the user in” but also in order to cut costs, by making the user do more for themselves.  Clearly, this is now a major issue in an age of austerity. While the UK government has been at pains to suggest that its ‘Big Society’ initiative is not simply a response to the public spending cuts, there is clearly even more incentive now to explore the potential of co-production.
Motives for increased customer’s involvement in public services:
  • Improving public service quality by bringing in the expertise of customers and their networks
  • Providing more differentiated services and more choice
  • Making public services more responsive to users
  • Cutting costs
This trend has already begun to change the relationship between professional service providers and service users by making them more interdependent. As a result, there is now new interest on the part of professionals in the co-production of public services and its implications for service delivery.
Moreover, it is clear from the motives set out in Box 1 that there is a considerable overlap in interest between the co-production approach and the practice of social marketing, which is also aimed at improving service quality, providing services which are carefully tailored to the needs of specific groups and responding to the demands and needs of those who are affected by the services.
This overlap of interest is most dramatically evident in relation to ‘preventative’ approaches to social policy. In the last few decades, social marketing has had to ‘carry the weight’ of governmental approaches to behaviour change, seeking to convince citizens to take actions which would prevent future social problems, and therefore save future public spending. Much attention has been given to publicity campaigns aimed at changing public attitudes, hoping for spin-off effects on social behaviour.
Co-production complements this by directly involving citizens in how public services are conceived, planned and delivered, in the belief that behaviours can be changed directly. For example, people who are ‘expert patients’, giving advice to other patients, are less likely to relapse into the smoking or alcohol abuse behaviours which contributed to their own health problems. Again, people who help to tidy up their local park or children’s playground are less likely to let their dogs foul up the paths in these places. And young people who help to design and even construct public art in the spaces around their homes and gathering places are less likely to vandalise and paint graffiti.
What is co-production of public services?
Co-production puts the emphasis on the contribution made by the service beneficiary in the service delivery process. For example, in education, outcomes not only depend on the quality of teaching delivered by school teachers or university staff but also on the attitudes and behaviour of students. If students are not willing even to listen, or not prepared to carry out the follow-up work at home or the library, the amount that they learn will be very limited.
In a public sector context, the "co-operative behaviour" of service recipients may even extend to their acceptance of constraints or punishments – for example, improving community safety involves citizens in accepting speeding or parking restrictions and being willing to pay a fine when they have ignored these restraints. Fines would be unenforceable, if no-one paid them and the speeding or parking restrictions would no longer have any effect.
At the same time, citizens may engage in the delivery of services on behalf of other people, which we typically refer to as "volunteering". In the UK the role of this kind of activity is currently being strongly debated under the banner of "The Big Society". For example, most social care in the UK is not provided by the public sector but by family members looking after their elderly parents or children with care needs. However, such unpaid labour would benefit enormously from more support by public services, for example, by offering exhausted mothers support e.g. through providing occasional ‘respite care’, so that they can take a holiday.
Clearly, real co-production of public services does not mean just ‘self-help’ by individuals or ‘self-organising’ by communities – it’s about the contributions of BOTH citizens AND the public sector.  
Consequently, we define co-production as "the public sector and citizens making better use of each other's assets and resources to achieve better outcomes and improved efficiency." Its core principles are that (Bovaird and Löffler, 2011):
  • citizens know things that many professionals don’t know … (‘customers as innovators’)
  • ... and can make a service more effective by the extent to which they go along with its requirements and scrutinise it (‘customers as critical success factors’)
  • ... and have time, information and financial resources that they are willing to invest to improve their own quality of life and  into helping others (‘customers as resources’)
  • … and have diverse capabilities and talents which they can share with professionals and other citizens (‘customers as asset-holders’)
  • … and can engage in collaborative rather than paternalistic relationships with staff, with other service users and with other members of the public (‘customers as community-developers’).
Types of co-production
We can distinguish a wide range of service activities which can be included in the co-production umbrella.
Co-commissioning of services, which embraces:
  • Co-planning of policy – e.g. deliberative participation, Planning for Real, Open Space
  • Co-prioritisation services – e.g. individual budgets, Community Chests, participatory budgeting
  • Co-financing services – e.g. fundraising, charges, agreement to tax increases
  • Co-design of services – e.g. user consultation, Service Design Labs, Customer Journey
Co-delivery of services, which embraces:
  • Co-managing 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.
Distinguishing these different service activities allows us to identify a wide range of different approaches to ‘co-production’ – and in most public agencies it will readily be apparent that at least one of these of these types of co-production is already present. At the same time, this list also serves to make public managers aware that a much wider range of co-production activities is possible.
Implications for social marketing
The growth of co-production has been rapid and topsy-turvy. It is not surprising that there is still great ignorance of (and even hostility to) the concept. As a radical experiment in policy innovation, it has yet to prove itself. Indeed, this drive towards co-production will come too little if it is not backed up by practical techniques to encourage more people to engage in co-production, to ensure that their efforts effectively increase the outcomes which people experience, and that those engaging in this way feel appreciated for their inputs, so that the approach is sustainable. 
Social marketing can play a major role in ensuring that each of these drivers works well. Future articles will explore the practical social marketing approaches which can support co-commissioning, co-design, co-delivery and co-assessment of public services.
  • Bovaird, Tony (2007) “Beyond engagement and participation – user and community co-production of public services”, Public Administration Review, 67 (5): 846-860.
  • Bovaird, Tony and Löffler, Elke (2011), “From Engagement to Co-production: How Users and Communities Contribute to Public Services” in Taco Brandsen and Victor Pestoff (Eds), New Public Governance, the Third Sector and Co-Production. London: Routledge.
  • Department of Health (2010), “Practical approaches to co-production: Building effective partnerships with people using services, carers, families and citizens”, London.
  • Löffler, Elke; Parrado, Salvador; Bovaird, Tony and van Ryzin,Greg (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.Report to the EU Presidency. Paris: Ministry of Finance, Budget and Public Services (available at
  • Löffler, Elke (2009), A future research agenda for co-production: Overview paper. Swindon: Local Authorities Research Council Initiative.
  • nef (2008). Co-production: A manifesto for growing the core economy, London: New Economics Foundation.

Tony Bovaird is professor of Public Management and Policy at the University of Birmingham, and works on the Third Sector Research Centre’s Service Delivery Stream. He is a member of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) in the School of Government and Society within the University of Birmingham.

Elke Löffler is chief executive of Governance International. Frankie Hine-Hughes is project manager at Governance International.


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