Public admin explainer: What is co-production?

Teacher in a classroom with students
  • Published Date: 31 July 2017

When a government organisation delivers a service, it seems obvious who is the producer and who the consumer. But a closer look reveals a more complex picture: often, some of the production is done by the consumer. Co-production of public services is a concept with many meanings and many faces, but it basically refers to citizens and clients assisting in the production of public services. Some definitions encompass service decision-making and design, but we focus on the delivery aspect: we ask “who does the work?”

Co-production does not need to be simultaneous

In co-production, ‘co-’ means that the activity is done jointly by two or more parties. This conjures up images of people working alongside each other - perhaps a government agency getting together with citizens to design a public program. But co-production is a reciprocal process: the government organisation and the citizen each give something - such as time, effort, or resources - to each other. But it doesn’t have to be at the same time. An example is when taxpayers fill in their own online tax returns, with software and other support systems provided by the government.

Co-production: who does the work?

Moving to the second part of the term, ‘production’ means that the activity involves some kind of transformation of tangible or intangible inputs into more valuable outputs. Citizen engagement in government is a very broad field, and includes ways to involve citizens in policy-making, planning and service design to delivery and evaluation. Some definitions of co-production (for example that of Nabatchi and colleagues in this recent article) are broad enough to encompass all of the things in the middle column of Table 1. However, such a broad definition conceals the crucial feature that originally attracted so much attention in the 1980s: it is about who does the work, not who decides whether or how it is to be done.

Table 1. Pinpointing co-production

co production table

Public or private value? Or both?

It’s also important to consider what type of value is being co-produced. Is it private value: a type of value that is personally consumed, like better fitness levels? Or are they working to produce value that is jointly consumed by citizens, like an efficient tax collection system? To qualify as co-production, there must be some value of this type produced by the activity. Often, of course, the value involved in co-production is of both types, because government services themselves often provide value to individuals for reasons and to pursue outcomes that are also publicly valuable. You can read more about public value elsewhere on our website.

Sometimes it's unavoidable

A definition of this type, that includes non-simultaneous activities, means that for many government departments and services, they’re already co-producing whether they like it or not. They need something from citizens or clients in order to do their jobs, so it makes sense for them to realise this and harness the co-production they are already tapping into. This is particularly relevant for regulators (such as prison providers or health inspectors), but also areas like human services, where agencies often need behaviour change from their clients for outcomes to improve. So public servants need to consider the following question: is co-production necessary to the performance of my service or agency, or is it optional?

Why do people co-produce?

Motivations are often complex to analyse, but a range of factors contribute to why people co-produce. Some of the reason is probably extrinsic – that is, people get private value from better outcomes. But it’s definitely not all about the material rewards, because people are not only motivated by money and personal gains. Other factors are intrinsic (because they enjoy the work), pro-social (because they enjoy the company, fellowship and esteem of others), and altruistic or normative (because co-production resonates with people’s moral values). The various factors interact with each other and will be present in varying degrees in different co-productive situations.

Not just a cost-saving measure

How do managers decide whether to use co-production? As we’ve just discussed, sometimes it’s unavoidable so the question is not ‘whether’, but ‘how’. For services where co-production is optional, the basic answer is that they should substitute co-production for some other tool if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Co-production might not always be the answer to the problem – for example it might theoretically be efficient to get parents to tutor their children at home, and help them with their homework. But depending on the parental education level of the area, many of the parents won’t have the expertise to do that, so putting in that kind of program across the board yields patchy results. In this instance, a program tailored to local circumstances might produce better results; in some areas this might mean getting professional tutors.

On the other hand, the example of mothers giving breastfeeding support to other mothers in the UK Sure Start program has several advantages over professional service provision. The training is relatively simple and inexpensive to get these co-producers ready to help out, and there is the additional advantage that new mothers are more likely to bond with and confide in other mothers than health professionals.

These examples show that decisions about the use of co-production should not be based solely on reducing expenditure. When we talk about the costs outweighing the benefits, we also refer to the quality of the service. With co-production, governments can sometimes tap into local knowledge or trust or special skills or locational advantage that they couldn’t get if they just paid an external provider to do the job.


References

Alford, J. (2009). Engaging public sector clients: from service-delivery to co-production. Palgrave Macmillan.

Alford, J. (2016). Co-Production, Interdependence and Publicness: Extending public service-dominant logic. Public Management Review, 18(5), 673-691.

Nabatchi, T., Sancino, A., & Sicilia, M. (2017). Varieties of Participation in Public Services: The Who, When, and What of Coproduction. Public Administration Review, early online, doi 10.1111/puar.12765.

Yates, S. (2016) Co-production: More than just co-design. Available at http://www.powertopersuade.org.au/blog/co-production-more-than-just-co-design.


Suggested citation: ANZSOG (2017). What is co-production? Public admin explainer, Melbourne: ANZSOG.