Panel Paper: Rereading the Evidence Base for User and Community Co-Production of Public Services

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 3:50 PM
Grand Pavilion IV (Hyatt)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Tony Bovaird, University of Birmingham and Elke Loeffler, Governance International
User and community co-production of public services has become a central topic of discussion in local governance and public management in recent years. It has been proposed as a way of improving outcomes for service users, cutting costs for local public agencies and engaging users and citizens in a more meaningful way in the co-commissioning, co-design, co-delivery and co-assessment of public services. More generally, some authors have proposed that co-production can redress the power imbalance in the interactions between citizens and the state.

However, much of this discussion, both in the academic literature and in policy documentation, has been based on speculation and anecdote rather than a careful sifted evidence base. To some degree, this is inevitable given the wide-ranging ways in which the concept of ‘co-production’ has been interpreted and specific initiatives implemented. Moreover, the recent nature of the ‘turn to co-production’ means that the evidence which does exist is still relatively recent and therefore short-term in its nature.

However, there is another story to tell. In fact, interest in co-production goes back to the late 1970s in both public and private sectors, e.g. in the work of the Ostroms and their colleagues. Moreover, many public agencies have discovered in recent years, as they have turned to co-production as an approach for dealing with their problems that, usually to their surprise, “we have always been doing some of this”. It is therefore NOT the case that there is little evidence base, more that the evidence base is partial, fragmented and often labelled in ways that it is not identified as relevant.

This paper, based on a recent research project, therefore pieces together a fuller picture of the evidence which is relevant to the issue of the cost-effectiveness of user and community co-production of public services. The project has adopted a wide-ranging definition of ‘co-production’ and identified a set of core sub-concepts. An extensive literature search has been undertaken to identify empirical studies which have thrown light upon the extent, characteristics and impact of co-production initiatives and upon the policy processes which supported a co-production approach.

This paper reports a set of findings from the project which focus particularly on the level of co-production and its impact on service outcomes and service costs at local level. It collates evidence from a range of academic studies and policy evaluations in Europe and North America, covering mainly health, personal social services, local environmental services and community safety. The paper also reports on some evidence on the range of barriers and obstacles to co-production, although these are not as well represented in the literature. 

Finally, the paper makes proposals for how the evidence base might be extended and deepened, building on the experience to date in developing this evidence base and taking into account the areas in which the gaps in evidence appear most serious.