Building public services around people – in Scotland and beyond

“No, no, I’m not an academic at all,” says Fiona Garven.

The incredulity in her voice, however, belies a deep reservoir of knowledge about the challenges and opportunities facing communities the length and breadth of her native Scotland. And it transpires that it’s work she has been doing since she was 18. “I never thought of myself as a community activist, more of a volunteer. I went on to train as a community worker in my 20s and have been involved in community development in personal and professional life ever since,” she says.

Having also worked in local government in Scotland, for the past ten years she has been employed by the Scottish Community Development Centre, home of the Scottish Co-Production Network, a hub for the sharing of learning and the exchange of co-production practice. But what is ‘co-production’ exactly?

“It’s a term for something that is both simple and quite complex at the same time,” replies Garven. “For me, it’s about an equal relationship between service providers and the people who are using the services. Traditionally, professionals run public services that are consumed by service users. But co-production is about really listening to people and engaging at community level, starting a conversation and jointly exploring the best solutions and the best way to deliver them – this enables all parties to have a stake in being able to achieve the kind of outcomes we all want to see.”

Co-production: empowering the public

Co-production is not a brand new phenomenon. After all, communities have always self-organised and self-mobilised around the issues they experience. And the term itself has been widely used by policymakers in the UK for 10 years or more. Garven believes that it is an idea that has firm roots, and for a variety of reasons. “Public service delivery has evolved based on a deficit approach – focusing on the problems, needs and deficiencies of individuals and communities, and designing services to fill the gaps and fix the problems. Arguably this has led to individuals and communities becoming both disempowered and dependent. In effect, we continue to generate demand rather than address the root causes of social and health inequality,” she says.

“An example is community safety based on mediation. You could argue that there is too often a reliance on public services to step in and address issues such as disputes with neighbours or local antisocial behaviour, rather than supporting community efforts to resolve some of those issues at their core.”

“In Scotland, there are many community-led organisations helping people and groups to organise around issues as varied as local environmental improvement and supporting people with dementia to live longer in their own homes. And who knows better than the people living in those communities and experiencing those issues when it comes to designing and implementing solutions?”

Although a lot of this work sits outside the mainstream, it shows that public services actually partnering with the public to design and deliver services can lead to better outcomes. That sense of ownership, involvement and collaboration, a stake in what happens: all are powerful tools in the ongoing need for improved services and results. “The fact is that we can achieve more by working together than we can apart,” says Garven. “Co-production comes down to pooling the knowledge and myriad experiences of the people who use services, deliver and commission them, and working together on an equal basis to make the changes we want to see.”

The story in Scotland

As part of their work at the Network, Garven and her team collate and promote stories of successful co-production projects from across the country. “We know from our work across Scotland that there are a growing number of compelling examples where co-production has delivered better outcomes for people and communities,” she says. However, she goes on to say that it remains a work in progress.

“There’s no doubt that we are quite advanced in the debate in Scotland, but there is still more to do in terms of shifting towards a really systemic approach to co-production,” she admits. “We are curious and we are testing new approaches, but people are still calling for more evidence on this – which we do not yet have at population scale because it takes a long time to generate. Instead, it is about combining the stories at individual and community level into a big enough body of evidence to convince more people to make a really big shift towards this way of working. So while the debate is strong and healthy, we still have some way to go when it comes to the actual practice of it.”

And another note of caution stems from her – slight – concern that there is a tendency to think that communities are sitting waiting to co-produce. “When we’re talking about better social and health outcomes, we need to be careful not to impose external agendas but instead work with the public to decide what those outcomes are and what we need to do to achieve them,” she explains. “Actually, there is a sophisticated dialogue that needs to take place which involves people in public servicesreally listening to what communities know in order to get real traction.”

This two-way dialogue may help to overcome some of the challenges that reductions in financial resources will bring in the years ahead. “With less money going around, there is a challenge for people working at local government level to respond to a changing agenda and at the same time protect vulnerable people and essential services,” she admits. “We need to ensure those communities that are operating under quite adverse circumstances have the facilities put in place to help them organise effectively, have more influence in terms of how public services are being delivered, and be more demanding around that.”

But it’s not all bad. “Progress at this level of system change takes a long time to embed, and we are certainly on a very positive trajectory,” she concludes. “And there are some examples of quite radical legislation underpinning what we do. For example, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 is about providing opportunities for community voices to be heard in shaping local outcome improvement plans, and how public budgets are spent, and much more. We’re looking at real foundations being put in place in Scotland for co-production to flourish.”


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