Bottom-up public services

Yesterday, Ed Miliband set out his party’s vision for a more responsive, more accountable state. While he acknowledged the need for further cuts, it is also highly encouraging to see Labour committing to public services designed from the bottom up as the key to saving costs in the long run.

It’s heartening, too, to see Miliband building on the ‘choice and competition’ agenda which, though a watchword of the Coalition’s reforms, also underpinned the previous Labour government’s policy.

Miliband is set to acknowledge that simply increasing competition, by opening public services to a wider provider market, is not sufficient to guarantee choice. He will argue that public services differ from other goods and services we consume in this respect – ‘parents cannot switch schools in the same way people go down to the shops or choose to go to a different café’.

This represents a real step forward. Having a good mix of providers is a prerequisite for choice, and can be successful in driving up quality, but it won’t, of itself, solve the problem of monolithic, inflexible public services. Progress will involve working at understanding demand, and allowing that understanding to shape the supply and design of services.

This holds true even where the process involves some uncomfortable adjustments. Underpinning the Labour vision is the ethos of coproduction – essentially a revisiting of the relationship between service providers and service users that acknowledges and values the expertise of the latter, and harnesses the power of social networks and the wider community. Like any fitness regime, coproduction should feel uncomfortable if you’re doing it right.

Among the pledges to be announced, two in particular stand out as coproductive in nature. First, where enough parents at a school voice concerns, they will have the power to swiftly trigger intervention by a specialist team, bypassing the Secretary of State. Second, Miliband plans to introduce a right for public service users to come together to share experience and expertise.

Both of these represent a significant departure from current procedure – transferring the power to identify and deal with failing schools from the Secretary of State to parents, and valuing the expertise of networks of service users. Already, though, there’s room to ask: are these enough to make services feel the burn?

Demos is running a two-year pilot of coproduction in secondary schools. In four schools across the UK, a small cohort of students identified as at risk of disengagement are working with teachers to identify changes they want to see in their schools, harness their community networks, and enact solutions.

Half a school year in, some of our participating students are already reporting improved behaviour and increased engagement. Schools are listening and adapting, teachers are working with students in new ways, and students in turn are re-evaluating how they think of the school.

The most important bit of learning so far? Schools and teachers are finding the process hard: where can they find the time to sit down with students and hear what they want? What if students want something that’s not in their best interests? What if school policies mean they can’t deliver the changes the students want to see? Identifying the need for a shift in power is just the first step in a process that requires planning and commitment.

Based on our experience of working with these schools, I want to contribute four insights into the sources of discomfort that characterise coproduction:

1. Identifying who the real service users are

Empowering and engaging parents can play a big part in improving children’s outcomes, and to embedding schools in their communities. But, although parents are the ‘consumers’ (where they can, they exercise choice over what school to send their children to), they are not the end service users. A truly responsive education system needs to incorporate responsiveness to children’s choices and preferences.

2. Finding the balance of expertise

Children have expert knowledge that parents do not; spending every day in the school, they are best placed to say what lessons, facilities and the general atmosphere are like, alongside having valuable insights into what helps them to achieve and thrive. Coproductive education does not mean ceding complete control to children – any more than coproductive healthcare requires people with dementia or a learning disability to design their entire care plan from scratch. Rather, the expertise of doctors, teachers, parents and carers should be balanced with the complementary, and equally valuable, expertise of the service user.

3. Asking the right questions

Entrenched roles and expectations are perhaps the greatest barrier to bottom-up service transformation. There is a tendency for providers to consult users only on the things they can be ‘expected’ to have an opinion on – or worse, only on the things that providers are prepared to let them have an opinion on. In schools, the result is that consultation with pupils is very often mired in the same, shallow issues: playground, uniform and school dinners. Coproduction is several steps ahead of mere ‘user voice’; users are expected – are challenged – to bring their expertise to bear across all elements of a service.

4. Following through

All too often, where consultation with service users does occur, there is no real mechanism for their views to shape service delivery. This can result in ‘consultation fatigue’, eroding an already precarious sense of trust in services. True coproduction removes the need for such a ‘feedback loop’, as users not only identify the changes to be made but use their own assets and those in the community to bring about change themselves.

A programme for wholesale, bottom-up public service reform will need to rise to the challenges set out above – the much thornier challenges of the ‘demand’ side of the equation. Beyond just empowering parents to trigger intervention for failing schools, parents and children need to be fully involved in the work of that taskforce; beyond just sharing their experiences, service user networks need to work directly with providers on service redesign.

Ed Miliband is right that there is plenty of room for a shift in power in our public services, but there is none at all for complacency about how easy this is to achieve.