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The government wants to build a ‘Big Society’ at the same time as a imposing a very big squeeze on spending for public services. This will not work unless spending is focused more sharply on preventing needs arising or intensifying ,and on supporting individuals and groups so that they can do more to help themselves and each other.
The danger is that the first victims of the squeeze will be the very things that are essential for preventing harm, improving well-being and encouraging self-help and mutual aid. Examples include healthy and appetising school meals, child care services, open access to swimming and other sports, community meeting places, training and other resources for local groups, ‘social prescribing’ by GPs, out of school activities for young people, programmes to keep older people active and socially connected, more and better green spaces in urban areas, and much more. Cuts in these areas will only push up demand for services in the longer run.
Read more about nef‘s take on the Big Society; why we think prevantative public services are valuable, especially for children; how welfare can be transformed to meet the economic and climate crises; and how co-production can improve the experience of service users and public servants.
Last week I received a call from a director of services from a large London council. Let’s call him Mr Borough. He had just read our latest report, Public Services Inside Out, which makes the case for people and professionals designing and delivering public services together in equal partnership: what we call ‘co-production’. This innovative approach, we argue, results in much better outcomes, often shifts towards a more preventative model of public services and can lower costs. Mr Borough had also been told that he would need to make a 30 per cent cut to his budget within the next three to five years. But instead of heading straight for the nearest pub to drown his sorrows, he was actually excited by what lay ahead. Mr Borough felt that the current ‘squeeze’ on public services represents the biggest opportunity he had ever faced to radically revisit the shape and style of the support he is able to offer people.
Co-production offers such an alternative, as a wider transformation of our public services by bringing new resources – people’s time, skills and experience – into the system.
Mention “co-production” to someone and the chances are most people won’t know what you’re talking about. But although the vocabulary of co-production isn’t well known, the practice of it is increasingly happening all around us. Almost any service can be co-produced: while the actual process and activities can vary, it almost always looks and feels the same as the principles which underpin the approach are manifested in everyday practices, as well as in strategic level governance.
I’ve spent the last week glued to the television. I hardly watch any normally, so this is enough to feel pretty exhausting. There is some opposition already about the coalition government, but – for some aspects at least of the new economics – it seems to me to open up some thrilling possibilities.
Yes, I am also a Liberal Democrat (I think I ought to declare my political leanings at this point) so my heart is bound to leap a little at the thought of Liberals being in government for the first time for 65 years.
But even if I wasn’t, the cancellation of the Heathrow third runway – in the face of all those corporate lobbyists, and all that money – would be enough to make me prick up my ears.
For the emerging new economics, there are at least four areas where things may now move quite fast:
- Tackling the banks: Vince Cable will be doing more than just putting in place the banking levy, the coalition agreement has set out a path towards breaking them up – and creating a more diverse, local and mutual banking system.
- Localism: it wasn’t clear whether there was anything behind the Conservative commitment to localism. Now there is: the coalition has committed itself to large scale decentralisation of power.
- Low carbon economy: did Cameron know what this was when he used the phrase? That isn’t clear. Why did Clegg repeatedly use the phrase ‘green sustainable growth’? That isn’t clear either. It is up to us to define it on their behalf, but it is clear that the political will is there for a major shift.
- Co-production: the same applies to the so-called ‘Big Society’. It wasn’t clear if there was any thought-through policy to support it. Now there is a commitment to devolve power to communities, and – if co-production is not explicitly on the agenda – there is a hole in coalition policy shaped like co-production.
But for some of these, if not all, the political rules have now changed. Two of the new cabinet in particular now control both elements of a potential Green New Deal, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. But if Cable acts on radical reform of the banking system, he will do so in the face of bitter opposition from the City of London and elements among bankbench Conservative MPs.
What he, and those like him, are going to need is explicit political support – as well as research, information and basic cheerleading – if they are going to be able to press forward their ambitions.
Those of us in the voluntary sector, or in campaigning NGOs, who have become used to simply demanding things of politicians, are going to need to develop a more sophisticated strategy.
We are going to encourage and then protect those ministers capable of creating a new economic revolution. Tackling the banks and building a low-carbon economy is a matter of co-production, and our side of the work starts now.
There’s something in the air at the moment. A combination of spring air, Icelandic ash, and the almost tangible pulsations of change vibrating up and down the country. The election comes. And with it is a sense that we can review and take stock of how we, as a country work. We look to new solutions, to innovative models and ideas which might point the new to a new direction – particularly, in our case, for how we might run our public services.
Last week, among this buzz of election fever, fifteen front line public sector workers and around a hundred guests came together to talk about one such innovation – an approach where public services are designed and delivered in equal partnership between people and professionals – also known as co-producing public services. We were launching our latest publication, Public Services Inside Out, and show people how co-production works on the ground.
Those who came were struck by how radically different the outcomes of co-production can be. Max, an eighteen year old participant in the national programme Learning to Lead, presented confidently and fluently to a large group about how their model of self elected student councils makes students the ‘crew, and not the passengers’ of their education. User Voice, whose strapline is ‘only the offender can stop re-offending’ made a persuasive and passionate argument for the importance of working with offenders to identify long term solutions and preventative measures that will break the current criminal justice deadlock. Mark, a member of KeyRing who was been supported to live independently, spoke about how his disabilities had previously marked him out as someone who ‘needed’ things, and that these needs had defined time and time again what he couldn’t do. Since joining KeyRing, the focus has shifted onto what he can do, and where his skills and abilities can be supported and developed to help him live within a mutual support network where he is integrated into the community.
All of the front line staff and people there illuminated the key to co-production. If we peg people up as ‘users’ of a public service which is delivered, they will be relegated to a passive role which adds little social value, and provides no opportunity for equal participation in our services. But if we understand that people have skills, capabilities, knowledge and experience to contribute then we can see the huge potential for unleashing these hidden assets and co-producing better outcomes across our services.
Last week, Professor Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, argued that the Nobel Prize for Economics was in need of an overhaul. For too long, she complained, the prize has been won by economists in a more-or-less neoclassical mould. The prize has never been awarded to a woman, and only twice to economists from developing countries. This would have to change, she concluded, if the prize was to retain any ‘wider legitmacy’ beyond the confines of Western academia and policymaking.
Here at nef, we could think of plenty of deserving economists who would break the mould: Herman Daly, Manfred Max-Neef and indeed Professor Ghosh herself. But we’re pleased that it’s gone to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to have won the prize.
Ostrom’s work focuses on the management and protection of natural resources, making her an excellent choice in an age of ecological debt. She argues that the solution to the over-exploitation is neither increased Government control nor mass privatisation of vast tracts of land. Instead, she claims, the people best able to take care of these resources are those who live closest to them.
Through exhaustive studies of fisheries, forests and water supplies, Ostrom found that common control and shared decision-making was most likely to lead to the resources being used sustainably. Her work is a vindication of the ideas found in peasant and indigenous people’s movements the world over.
Ostrom was also one of the originators of one of nef‘s key concepts: co-production, a means of engaging people and communities to develop solutions to problems that would otherwise be tackled in a top-down manner. Ostrom first developed the concept in the 1970s, when she was asked to explain to the Chicago police why the crime rate went up when the police came off the beat and into patrol cars. She used co-production as a way of explaining why the police need the community as much as the community need the police.Vodpod videos no longer available.
The inestimable Ben Goldacre worries that doctors might be culpable in “medicalising a social problem”:
There are 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit today, after all, the largest single group of workless people, and every practical aspect of their lives, their housing, their income, their social role, is founded in an ongoing belief in themselves as incapable people, sanctioned by doctors. We haven’t really researched what the consequences of that will be.
Indeed we haven’t (and it would be tricky to get an RCT past the ethics committee). Still, we might hazard a guess that they won’t be too positive. Having a sense of oneself as autonomous and capable is a critical component of experienced well-being; the converse, enduring low self esteem and feelings of worthlessness, are well-established risk factors for mental health difficulties such as depression. Given that around 40% of people on incapacity benefit got there in the first place because of just these kinds of problems, there seems to be every possibility of vicious circles forming.
But Ben might be blaming himself, or at least his profession, a little too much here. The broader thing to notice in the debate about incapacity benefit is how the notions of “capacity” and “being in paid work” have become tacitly synonymous. Because we fail to value unpaid and voluntary activities, the only kind of contribution that the welfare system recognises as worthwhile is having a full-time job. The result is that we end up sorting people into black and white categories: those who can work (the “capable”) and those who can’t. This is deeply unhelpful, not just because of the potential impact on them as individuals but also because of the sheer waste of talent and ability.
A simple change of terminology would be a good start – just because an illness or disability limits your ability to do some kinds of work, this does not render you “incapable”. But in the longer term a smarter system, based on principles of co-production and a much more thoroughgoing concept of “value”, would surely be better for everyone concerned. nef‘s recently launched report on timebanking, a system in which people’s contribution to helping each other or an agency is valued at 1 hour = 1 credit, offers an alternative way of valuing people’s skills and knowledge. Timebanking has been particularly effective in enabling people with mental health problems to contribute to society (not least by helping in each others’ recovery) outside the sphere of the market.