Jumping the gun, by Vivienne Russell

31 Aug 06
'Co-production' is the latest big idea buzzing round Whitehall, with the aim of involving citizens more in the design and delivery of local public services. But, as Vivienne Russell discovered, there are plenty of local communities who are already doing it for themselves

01 September 2006

'Co-production' is the latest big idea buzzing round Whitehall, with the aim of involving citizens more in the design and delivery of local public services. But, as Vivienne Russell discovered, there are plenty of local communities who are already doing it for themselves

The quiet village of Ash in south Somerset seems like an unlikely birthplace for a revolution. Nestling on a B road a few miles north of Yeovil and with a population of just 616, one wouldn't expect the hamlet to be at the cutting edge of public service reform. But that's just where residents found themselves four years ago when they decided to take a local problem into their own hands – literally.

Cars speeding through the village were worrying local people and having a detrimental effect on their quality of life. 'There has been a lot of bother with speed,' says Ash resident David Young. 'Many drivers see the road as a racetrack and try to go as fast as they can down the hill. It is quite dangerous because of the concealed entrances as well as the school nearby and elderly people.'

But, as ever, resources were tight and Avon and Somerset Constabulary was unable to investigate every speeding complaint. So the situation persisted until one local officer remembered there was a speed detection device gathering dust back at the station and suggested it be given to the locals to use. Thus Community Speed Watch was born.

Working in pairs, Community Speed Watch volunteers stand by the roadside armed with the speed detection device and pencil and paper, noting down the time, date, place, speed and registration number of offending vehicles. This information is fed back to the local beat manager, who sends a letter to the drivers warning that they've been seen speeding. Should any driver commit a second speeding offence, a more robust letter will be sent threatening police action.

'We take the view that it's helping us to address the issue of speeding,' explains Avon and Somerset traffic management sergeant Steve Wright. 'Helping us, not actually doing it,' he stresses.

'What it's doing is getting information for us and saying there is a speeding problem. If we identify a repeat problem by one particular car, we go out there and intervene. We know he's coming through, we've got his registration number, he gets a ticket.'

The project has been recognised as an official police activity – volunteers are covered by police insurance – and the idea has snowballed. There are now approximately 120 watches throughout Avon and Somerset, involving several hundred people, and similar schemes are successfully running in Essex, Surrey, East Sussex and other areas. What started as an improvised solution to a local problem has been hailed as a sterling example of the latest big idea: co-production.

According to Audit Commission chief executive Steve Bundred, a declared fan of Community Speed Watch: 'Co-production takes the notion of user engagement a step further [than choice]. It involves users directly in the design and delivery of services – harnessing ideas from the public, saving money and ultimately leading to higher levels of satisfaction.'

An example of 'double devolution' in practice, co-production is being touted as the key to unlocking the potential in public services. Neil Bentley, director of public services policy at the CBI business organisation, expects the forthcoming local government white paper to promote co-production as a concept, although he is doubtful about how much clarity the paper will provide when it comes to defining exactly what it means.

In any case, Bentley rejects claims that co-production is the next big thing, arguing that, in fact, involving citizens in shaping services is something that high-performing public bodies already do. For him, the emphasis should be on establishing it as standard practice across the sector.

Earlier this year, the CBI, the National Consumer Council and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations launched the Future Services Network to campaign on this issue and try to focus minds on how citizens can be involved in public service delivery.

'What we're promoting are key principles around user-engagement for health services, education, children's services, local government and offender management, where we do increasingly have to look at who we are serving, who is being best served and how we do that,' Bentley says.

'A lot of public service debate is couched in terms of “This is what we should do” coming from central government and we need to get a much better flavour of what people want from their local services.'

Bundred concurs. He sees co-production as the key to unlocking a transformation in public sector performance that is not only desirable but necessary. 'To achieve this step change we must create a culture that is more conducive to innovation and that involves a different relationship with users. Greater choice can be, and should be, part of a new relationship with users,' he told CIPFA delegates at their annual conference in June.

Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the eponymous local government inquiry and one of the government's favourite public sector gurus, agrees that co-production is an option that should be explored more fully. Although there is a current buzz around the concept, Lyons, who is also acting chair of the Audit Commission, says that it's an old idea. Sir William Beveridge might not have coined the term but in his 1948 report Voluntary Action, the great economist warned that over time people could become too reliant on the state to meet all their needs, resulting in poor social cohesion and prohibitive costs. The voluntary action he described is no different from the concept of co-production being discussed today, Lyons says.

'I'm following that pathway by saying that as we look for a solution to high quality public services, in some cases co-production will help us to achieve that with higher levels of satisfaction and lower cost to the public purse,' he told Public Finance.

'One attraction it has for me is it challenges professional domination of services. It says people who use and benefit from services actually have their own wisdom and their own energy to contribute and we should make more of that.'

For Lyons, the benefits are threefold. First, people are happier, secondly, they feel more involved in their communities, and thirdly, they ensure that people have realistic expectations about what the state can do. 'The council or other public agency can act to bring people together but with voluntary effort contributing a substantial part of the cost,' he says. 'We want to live in more pleasant communities, we want to live in more attractive communities, we don't want to have to pay a lot of extra tax for that. Some things we can do collectively as citizens and we cover more of the cost.'

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that much of the public sector is already ahead of the curve. Local authorities and other agencies have been grappling with this agenda in strikingly different ways for some time.

In leafy Woking in Surrey, residents are regularly consulted on their satisfaction with environmental services. Woking Borough Council and its private sector contractor Serco have jointly procured a marketing company to ask local people's views on everything from the cleanliness of their streets and the quality of parks to the council's summer floral displays.

'It gives us a fairly accurate picture, which usually coincides with our take on things,' environmental services head Dave Ward says. What is unusual about the contract is that Serco forfeits up to 10% of its payment if satisfaction levels dip below 60%.

It's a different way of doing things, Ward agrees. 'The idea was to deliver a green and clean borough,' he says. 'It's an outcome-driven contract. Rather than us policing [the contractor] to death, we needed a partner that was technically proficient – and let them get on with it.'

Last winter, Serco gave disposable cameras to councillors and members of residents' groups, encouraging them to photograph 'grot spots' so the contractor could direct resources to areas that were being missed.

Satisfaction levels are creeping up. In March 2003, just before Serco took on the contract, satisfaction stood at 74%. The latest figures show it has risen to 77.8%. 'The trend is moving in the right direction,' Ward says.

A different approach is adopted in inner London council Hackney, where the diversity of the community made co-production a necessity long before it emerged from the lips of ministers and their advisers.

Susmita Noonan, director of housing services at Hackney Homes, the arm's-length management organisation that now takes charge of housing in the east London borough, says a conscious choice was made to consult residents so they could be provided with a range of services tailored to their needs. 'Hackney's a melting pot, which makes it great fun but challenging to deliver services, which is why the strategy is to go out and ask them what they want,' she says.

Noonan reels off a list of initiatives that have emerged thanks to this consultative approach. One of the most eye-catching is the 'mystery shopper' project, whereby tenants are recruited to anonymously test whether services are being provided to an acceptable standard. They test the service for potential points of weakness, such as waiting times in reception areas, and report their findings back to management. What is particularly notable is that it is encouraging new people to get involved, not the same old faces from tenants' and residents' associations.

'We're attracting people who wouldn't traditionally have got involved in the residents' association,' Noonan says. 'They're a lot younger, which is great for us, and they're from black and minority ethnic backgrounds as well. We've got 20 mystery shoppers trained up. We pay them in vouchers for the sessions they run and it actively helps us to improve the services.'

Then there's Hackney's Pride of Place reward scheme, which every quarter gives £500-worth of home improvements to a selection of randomly chosen tenants who are abiding by their conditions. Again, the impetus came from residents themselves.

Noonan explains: 'Pride of Place is saying thanks to tenants who in the past have been ignored because they're abiding by their conditions, but the big thing for us in promoting this is it was residents who said in the annual survey, “We actually want this to happen.” It's gone down very well in the first quarter. We're very excited about it. It's very innovative.'

What Hackney has recognised is that it will not get very far by replicating old structures. Although tenants' and residents' associations do good work and continue to be supported, there is a growing proportion of people who want to participate in new ways, be it through answering a survey or attending a fun day, says Noonan.

This is a point that Bentley emphasises. There cannot be a co-production template enforced by Whitehall, he says. Each local authority will have to find what works best for its communities. He echoes Noonan in saying that formal structures such as neighbourhood councils are fine as far they go but aren't the only solution.

'In other areas people may not want that,' he says. 'They may want simply to be involved in polling, asked whether they're satisfied or join some sort of consumer panel. It's really important that we capture a diversity of approach… I hope that the government's policy, as reflected in the white paper, will not set out down a path that has a “one size fits all” solution. That will just undermine the current work that's going on successfully delivering better and better public services.'

Of course, there are some sceptical voices. Recent protests by residents in Scunthorpe, over cuts to bin collections aimed at encouraging recycling, suggest that involving users in service improvement can prove controversial. And the Trades Union Congress, while supportive of a system that puts users at the centre of a service, fears that it could lead to unacceptable variations in service standards across the country.

Lyons dismisses such worries. 'There is always local variation,' he says. 'Always. It depends on not just the type of services you provide but the characteristics of the community, the physical setting that they're in. There's a world of difference in trying to provide a public service in a county like Cornwall and a county like Lancashire.'

Bentley says lessons can be drawn from the private sector. The Future Services Network will be launching some research later this year setting out what the private sector does well in terms of responding to customer needs. 'I'm not saying that public services can be easily compared to running a supermarket,' he says. 'But I think we just need to take a step back and look at principles and what it is that drives some private sector organisations to really focus on customer needs.'

Back in Avon and Somerset, Community Speed Watch continues to flourish and is achieving results. 'I hope it continues because it seems to have started to work, with traffic at the busiest times driving more slowly,' says villager David Young.

It has also given the police an extra weapon in their armoury, Sergeant Wright says. 'We've now got another tool we can roll out and say, “Look, we're really strapped. We're meeting government priorities and haven't got the resources to deal with your speeding problem. How about going out there and doing a little bit of it for yourself?”'

With resources only likely to tighten over the forthcoming spending round, encouraging people to do a little bit for themselves is a challenge the whole public sector needs to grapple with.


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