Co-production-an alternative way to deliver public services?

April 26, 2013

The on-going effort of the Government in the United Kingdom to move away from the traditional centralised public service model, particularly in England, has been featured in several previous articles.

Cameron’s New Localism initiative is beginning to bring a new lease of life into City Government and, importantly, has finally begun to row back the years of merger and acquisition which was started under the Thatcher Government and continued, in part, under New Labour. This did have the expect of creating reform fatigue in the English local government system.

Many do argue, cogently, that this renewed vision for local government in England, is best associated with the need to control public finances which remain problematic for the current UK Government. Nonetheless, there is a clear ideology underpinning the move towards allowing communities take responsibility for local services, something which may well reflect the thinking, not just of Cameron but also his coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats.

Whatever about the political ideology the thinking underpinning the reform agenda in England is beginning to create a platform for a more localised approach to strategic planning and service delivery where partnership between the public sector and the private sector is clearly a driver in the design of local policies.

In addition, the renewal of parish based electoral governance is moving England back towards a more mainstream, ironically, European form of local government, not quite as extreme as in France with its 37,000 local councils! but not a million kilometres (or should that be miles) from it either.

The renewal of the parish council process, councils akin to the municipal structures proposed in Ireland will be interesting. Equally, the move towards joint partnerships between both local public service leaders and the private sector is an interesting model to keep an eye on.

A key principal in both is that of facilitating co-production of public services. In other words the public service remains at the heart of the policy process but increasingly is using local communities themselves to take ownership of some services within a democratically accountable framework. Alternatively the private sector, in partnership with local government is becoming a provider within the policy direction of either national or local government.

At face value it might seem that this is something that has been around for many years and to some extent it has. It is a model of service delivery which has been built on the lessons from on-going service reform since the advent of New Public Management, one of which is that the further you remove service planning from the citizen the more probable that it will become inefficient and ineffective.

Electors voting for people who are responsible for things like local education, housing and social services are more likely to be more critical when it comes to the levels of tax falling upon them. Equally, they are likely to be less tolerant of decisions taken which will be seen as creating unnecessary barriers to community or economic development. This is at the heart of current thinking in local public service reform in England.

Placing the voice of a community at the heart of the decision-making is increasingly seen as central to policy development but, equally, allowing the local voice to facilitate the level and type of services to be provided could possibly create the sort of flexibility in service design that best meets local expectations.

Of course such thinking cannot happen in the absence of democratically accountable structures which facilitate the enhanced voice of the community whilst also providing for more transparent accountability in service design.

Hence the radical proposals now adopted under the New Localism legislation providing for neighbourhood planning. Equally ironic is that, at a time when political leaders in the UK are claiming some lineage with that most centralising of political perspectives, Thatcherism, Messrs Cameron and Co are rolling out a very unThatcher policy of empowering local communities to take ownership of service delivery through co-production processes.

Even more so given that such thinking is something most associated with public service reforms in the Nordic countries with their social democratic traditions!

So what exactly does co-production mean. In many respects there are many examples to be found in Ireland, through, for example, local boards of management of primary schools, the role of the local, rural and community development sector etc. albeit that the missing and critical piece of the jigsaw is now only beginning to be put, somewhat tentatively in place, with the proposed socio-economic committees as proposed in the Action Programme for Local Government Reform-Putting People First.

The idea that planning for person centred service delivery within a strategic planning framework started out with the establishment of the County and City Development Boards. These failed to live up to expectation given the lack of national buy-in.

This lesson seems, finally, to have been learnt in Ireland. The question on whether the planning of local services to meet local expectations, within the socio-economic policy process now proposed now needs to be underpinned by the actual process which will hopefully be rolled out in the next number of months and years under the alignment process and the general reform of local government.
Equally, it needs to be embedded fully into the national policy process which, in turn, has to complement change at local level.

In England co-production of public service is to be a central feature of the change process. The parallels with Ireland suggest that there is much for both national and local policy-makers to learn from in what is occurring over the other side of the Irish Sea. The key characteristics of public service co-production have been highlighted as:

• Recognising that local people are an asset to their community and not a burden
• Building on people’s existing capabilities to underpin growth in their community
• Promoting mutuality and reciprocity between community and the local/national democratic process
• Developing peer support networks across the public service and the private sector and within communities
• Breaking down barriers between professionals and recipients
• Facilitating through the public authority rather than delivering services directly where possible

But in essence it means communities at a very local level working under the patronage of the democratic process to deliver services though both public and private delivery vehicles.

The neighbourhood planning in England, community planning in Scotland and similar examples in New Zealand and the Nordic Countries provide plenty of interesting case studies for Ireland which will hopefully inform how such processes can role forward in Ireland within a much reformed public service model that itself might become a model for others to consider as they confront the need for more efficient and effective public service delivery.

Now that hardly something the late Prime Minister of our near neighbour would be comfortable with!