Srabani Sen is director of Srabani Sen OBE & Associates and an NCVO associate. She is a former chief executive of charities including Alcohol Concern, Contact a Family and the British Association of Adoption and Fostering.
Co-production. It’s a term that gets bandied about a lot, but what does it mean? Is it realistic? Co-production takes too much time and money, doesn’t it? Besides, civil society organisations know what service users need; they work with them every day. Which makes co-production a luxury, right?
The team that conducted the review of civil society support in London argues that, far from a luxury, co-production is a necessity. It is an important way for civil society to cost-effectively deliver the best outcomes for communities.
Working with the review’s reference group, we developed the following definition:
Co-production is where Londoners work with those in power, and each other, in a way in which all voices are heard equally in developing a shared understanding of need and in crafting solutions to make London a better place.
However, we propose a precise form of co-production which we call ‘pragmatic co-production’.
From need to solutions and beyond
In The Way Ahead: Civil Society at the Heart of London (available to download), we propose that pragmatic co-production should be hard-wired into the DNA of how all players involved in civil society work with communities; be they funders, commissioners, support organisations (commonly called infrastructure bodies) or frontline volunteers, groups and organisations.
Pragmatic co-production should cover a continuum of activity, starting with defining a shared understanding of the needs of a community. This shared understanding should be the basis on which funders fund, commissioners commission and frontline volunteers, groups and organisations work with communities.
The continuum of pragmatic co-production should stretch across how communities are enabled to find their own solutions, how communities work with agencies to design services offered by statutory and civil society providers, and how campaigning and influencing takes place.
Rooted in reality
Why ‘pragmatic’ co-production? Because co-production has to be rooted in reality. There are a number of constraints on the way civil society works – financial, practical or driven by policy. There may be tensions between the different players involved.
Pragmatic co-production is about surfacing these tensions and constraints and having frank conversations about what is possible within them. Pragmatic co-production should be an honest dialogue in which each voice has equal value and the power differential between players is openly discussed and smoothed out.
Pragmatic co-production should be the starting point for all interactions with communities in terms of understanding need and shaping solutions. The question shouldn’t be ‘should we engage in pragmatic co-production?’ but ‘why would we not?’
Hard work but worth it
In asking ‘why not?’ it is vital that we don’t give ourselves a get out of jail free card, simply because pragmatic co-production can be difficult and messy. Whilst there may be some communities that need support to engage in pragmatic co-production, civil society should always question its assumptions about the capability of communities, and guard against using flawed assumptions to avoid what can be hard work.
It is time that communities themselves are enabled to take control of their own lives. Civil society should focus on what communities are capable of rather than what they are not.
Pragmatic co-production is not just the right thing to do. It is one of the most important ways of targeting scarce and dwindling resources in ways that genuinely deliver the change communities say matters to them.
So much is changing, that the old model of civil society is unlikely to be sustainable. We believe that pragmatic co-production holds an important key to how civil society can evolve and create a new future for itself, and for the communities it serves.