Co-production is considered an essential element in the successful design and delivery of contemporary public services globally because it is thought to offer opportunities for users to gain empowerment. In a context of increased calls for innovation, it seems likely that there would be a relationship between the capacity of an organisation to co-produce and the levels of innovation it creates. Within the co-production literature, service design, service implementation and service delivery are sometimes all bundled together under the practice of co-production. Although co-production - defined as the engagement of users in improving the delivery of public services - can be used in different phases, in this purpose we focus on its application in developing innovative ways to implement policy and provide services. Our review of the academic and practitioner literature reveals that, at its core, co-production is a process that is entered into collaboratively, but how this is constituted depends on a number of factors. It depends on the level the co-production is involved in to enable service delivery, and whether implementation is grounded in management, service or systems theory. The reality is that too often many of those who use this concept fail to distinguish such factors, or to articulate the assumptions and mental models their research or practice is based on.
In the paper we outline three alternative theoretical perspectives of co-production. First, a public administration approach where the focus is upon the creation of the ideal service design and delivery by experts. Second is an approach which considers the delivery of public services as “services” to be delivered with the user within a service management system, rather than “manufactured goods” delivered to them; the contextual impact from the system is recognised, meaning that there is no one best way of delivering services. The third approach is the systems approach where the focus shifts from participation in a single service to value gained from interactions across the system as a whole. Each individual organisational “system” exists within a complex public service system where interactions between citizens or service users are dynamic; each participant has a personal pathway through the system influenced by their individual lived experiences, which enables them to make sense of their world and disturbs the interactions of others. It is these interactions between multiple stakeholders that can give rise to the emergent properties, or unexpected outcomes, within the system that facilitate evolution and innovation. Thus, for innovation to be really supported there needs to be a service integration approach to coproduction where the user is central to the service design and delivery.
From this we suggest that the way that this changes the roles of the different actors in the co-production system has three implications:
1. Who benefits from co-production changes: the paper demonstrates that the move from product focused, where the most likely beneficiary was the service provider, to service integrated would be where most users would benefit. However, this could be a major change as it requires the capacity to work in an effective joined-up way. Part of the reason for the aspiration for joined-up working is a recognition that such methods enable innovation and so we suggest that focusing on how such work enables service integrated co-production might help develop both future research and conversations between systems stakeholders, as there seems to be no doubt that if done well all parties in the system would benefit.
2. Different skills are required within government such that the public servants are able to support this model. The public service is responsible for setting outcomes and priorities across the whole of the public service, rather than giving directions within a specific program or silo of a department. The ability of public servants to lead expert groups, steward service-wide programs of work and span boundaries within, and external to, the public service is significant; those with these abilities will be able to work more effectively in this innovative environment.
3. The focus of how to create and sustain innovation moves away from stand-alone innovation processes, towards using service integrated co-production as the mechanism that will enable innovation to emerge. We submit that when there is the call for collaboration to enable innovation, what is needed, in fact, is the development of service integrated co-production. If this way of working is embedded into government systems and structures, ongoing calls for transparency, accountability, agility and innovation would, inevitably, have to be addressed.
As a result of our analysis we suggest that the way forward for both academics and practitioners is to consider some new questions. Is the service integrated systems model with its claims of innovation and long-term cost saving legitimate? What is the social impact of user centred co-production when the system includes the third sector? What is the evidence of the success of co-production as an innovation tool, and how can it be evaluated within the Australian context? Does understanding that there are different forms of co-production help clarify the wide range of potential uses that range from a relationship for enduring and voluntary outcomes (such as school participation) to the mundane and at times involuntary or compulsory activities with immediate outcomes (completing a tax return)? What is the role of information technology and social media in co-production?
To answer these new questions we call for more diversity in research approaches. The research to date has concentrated on using case studies to explore and explain co-production. A lack of contextual clarity makes it almost impossible to compare or contrast existing studies. To begin to identify sound principles and practices for co-production that can be used to support innovation and transferred to other situations, we advocate researchers choose a wider range of methodologies and methods to help evaluate whether co-production is delivering anticipated innovation results.