National and local government need to work together to achieve crucial co-production
Hannah Sampson argues that listening to the voices of service users needs to underpin effective relationships between national and local government.
Co-production with citizens and communities is crucial to good policy making and public service design.
This is not a revolutionary statement – co-production has long been considered the gold standard when making policy and designing services that will work for service users. Involving the people that will deliver a programme, use a service or be impacted by a policy, is obvious. It just makes sense.
Through my experience working in central government, and now as a consultant in the public sector working with both central and local government, I have seen varying degrees of success (and failure) when programmes are centrally-designed in isolation from services users and then implemented locally.
By engaging with local government from the start of programme design, and the ways in which they engage with residents and users, central government can gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by different regions - and design programmes and policies that are relevant and responsive to the diverse needs of citizens and communities. Implementation challenges at a local level will also be better understood, which means that risks – and unintended consequences – can be navigated through.
But if co-production is the solution for implementing central government policy how do we get there?
The answer: by shifting focus to prioritise building relationships between national and local government.
As the National Co-production Advisory Group state, “co-production is not just a word, it’s not just a concept, it is a meeting of minds coming together to find a shared solution.”
From my experience, the programmes that are most successful are those that from the outset focussed on doing with rather than doing for local government. To achieve this, an emphasis on relationships between national and local colleagues is essential.
For example, Department for Education's Regional Adoption Agencies Programme involved the central government team working with local RAAs, all of which were involving adopter families in the design of their local services and learn what did and didn’t work. Elsewhere, a national programme to reduce reoffending saw the Home Office work with a London Borough and commission a group of local organisations to support women who were in (or leaving) parts of the criminal justice system, who worked closely together with engagement with users shaping the way the programme was delivered.
Whilst there is no prescription for how to build positive and trusting working relationships, I have found five principles to be useful cornerstones:
Communication: everyone is open and honest with each other, working towards a common goal.
Equality: everyone's voice is heard, and everyone's contributions are valued.
Joint ownership: everyone involved has a responsibility to contribute to the success of the policy, service or programme.
Transparency: everyone’s intentions and roles are clear so that people can be held accountable for their actions.
Understanding: everyone has a shared respect and understanding of the differences between the two ‘worlds’ of central and local government, including cultures, decision-making and skillsets.
Co-production should be central to all policy making and implementation. To do this well, alongside the voice of users themselves, there needs to be a ‘meeting of minds’ between national and local colleagues. That means viewing building relationships as a priority.