David Boyle

Right here, right now

Speech to the launch of the report on co-production at NESTA, 20 July 2010.

I want to make four quick points and to thank three sets of people.

The first is all of you for coming so early.  Was it William Morris who said that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.

The evidence so far on this project is that co-production seems to involve getting up very early.

The second set of thanks goes to Nesta.

Not just for hosting us this morning, but because we’ve reach the third of three publications we agreed to do together on co-production. 

When we realised we needed a partner to take the co-production idea forward, it was obvious really who was the first choice. 

So I’m enormously grateful to Nesta, especially Chris and Mike, for all the energy and imagination they have brought to this project.

We haven’t always seen things the same way, but that’s been a useful part of the challenge.  They have brought a range of skills and knowledge that have added enormously to the success of the project.

The third thanks is to the innovative and energetic and pioneering members of our network of co-production practitioners.  Without which none of this would have been possible.

They are the key to co-production, testing out, hammering out new approaches, almost alone, often in the face of scepticism from fellow professionals and downright obstruction from regulators.

They are the unsung heroes of co-production and we all owe them a debt.

Which brings me to the first point.

Michelangelo used to talk about his statues existing already in the marble, and that his task was just to find them there.  Coleridge used to talk about hearing his poems in his head and having to write them down.

It’s the same with co-production.

This isn’t an idea which has emerged from the ivory towers of a think-tank and has to somehow, exhaustingly be made to work on the ground.

It’s a description of radically changing public services and charitable work which has been emerging all by itself.

All over the country.   Often led by pioneers who had no idea that there was anyone else doing it.

Our task at the New Economics Foundation has been to describe this phenomenon as it emerged.

What’s been thrilling for us is to find, even though so many of the projects we’ve written about have emerged in isolation, that so many of their values, features, techniques and results have been so amazingly similar.

It is one idea, and an idea that is suddenly very relevant to the crises we face.

OK, second point.

There are definitions of co-production in the USA, thanks to pioneers like Edgar Cahn.

I have resisted the idea of defining co-production for the UK, but Nesta persuaded us otherwise and they were right. 

It’s only a working definition, and you’ll find it on page 3.

I also commend to you the first sentence of the executive summary: “People’s needs are better met when they are involved in an equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals and others, working to get things done.”

I think that describes it very well.  It’s also the basis of a powerful critique of the way public services work now.

I’m also very aware that many kinds of co-production fall outside our working definition.  I think that’s inevitable.

Of course, for example, having users take more decisions are a kind of co-production.  So is co-design.

But we’ve deliberately emphasised the more radical aspects, because otherwise we were afraid any public body could dredge up some kind of consultation and call it co-production.

The point about co-production is that it’s about doing things.  It’s about delivering services alongside professionals. 

Not the same things, of course.  Not brain surgery.  But the kind of outreach and mutual support that ordinary people can actually do better than professionals.

It includes consultation of course.  But it also involves a critique of services that only ask users for their brains – not the other human skills they have.

It’s about broadening and deepening the kind of services we provide, and often doing it for less money.

Which brings me to the third point, about the recommendations that this report puts forward.

I’m proposing that we kind of co-produce this part.  I promise not to go through each recommendation, and you promise to read the report.

But the issue we’re wrestling with here is how to make co-production the default model for public services.

To get there we have to struggle with issues around measurement, about public service silos, about regulation and about how you recoup the savings that co-production can create, in order to fund the idea in the first place.

Those are all barriers in the way of co-production, sometimes serious ones.

We decided we really didn’t want to insert a new layer of co-production champions or co-production officers.  This is about changing the direct relationship between professionals and clients.

On the other hand, there are fascinating parallels between the kind of people who are making co-production work in every sector. 

It may not be a new kind of profession, but it is certainly a new kind of professional.  And we talk about that in the report too.

Nor do we want to erect a new legal or bureaucratic edifice.

But we’ve suggested that we turn what the prime minister said about the big society – his promise that, if you want to make a difference, the government will back you – into some kind of guarantee.

Some kind of agreement which you can appeal to in order to break through inappropriate regulation.  We call this the Co-production Guarantee. 

I’d be interested what you think of the idea in practice.

Final point.

And it’s about direction of travel.

One of the difficulties for pioneer co-producers is that they often seem to fly in the face of the way public services have been developing over the past generation.

They rely on face to face influence when the trend has been virtual.

They appeal to general skills when the trend has been increasingly specialist.

They believe in ordinary skills, amateur in the best sense, when the trend has been increasingly over-professionalised.

Most important perhaps, co-production relies on the idea that the users of services, and their families and neighbours, are a vast untapped resource – when the trend has been to regard them as drains on an overstretched system.

Because of this, coproduction represents a seriously different idea of the future of public services.

Which can use these new resources to reach out upstream of problems and prevent them from happening in the first place.

It’s an idea of public services which are, as their basic purpose, hubs to make possible a massive increase in voluntary activity.

Not through the voluntary sector but through the public sector.

They are catalysts for knitting society together again around them.

I believe our contribution to the Big Society debate is that public services have an absolutely critical role to play – if we can re-imagine them along these lines.

Co-production is a difficult phrase, and it describes a key to making the Big Society possible.



Back to top


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers