Coproduction is… ‘the process by which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organisation’.
This is the definition given by the leading expert in what economists call ‘common pool resources’ and 2009 Nobel economics laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom made studies of collective action in both the developed and developing world: pasture management in Africa; and irrigation engineering in Nepal. In the 1970s she studied policing in Chicago. In particular, she wanted to explain why the adoption of centralised service delivery through large institutions was less effective than predicted. Why did ‘modernising’ policing, lead to an increase in crime and a decrease in public perceptions of police effectiveness?
Ostrom found that the policies of large public agencies don’t work as expected because they only influence a proportion of the inputs used to produce the service. The Chicago PD was just one of the players in determining the city’s ability to deal with crime. Centralised policies adopted by public agencies and applied ‘top down’ without reference to communities and existing community assets disrupted things like ‘co-operation’ and ‘trust’ and even actions like ‘looking out for your neighbour’. The ‘core economy’ is a term coined by economist Neva Goodwin and developed by US civil rights lawyer and social activist Edgar Cahn to identify collectively these underlying norms and activities on which private enterprise and public services both depend.
Whilst coproduction also exists between different public agencies and private companies, most of it, in practice, relies on factors in the local core economy. In other words, the success of public and private services depends on what goes on in families and communities. The motive forces in the core economy might be called ‘love’ or ‘emotional affiliation’ – as opposed to ‘profit’. Rationality, in the core economy, doesn’t imply maximisation. Economists think of people as ‘profit maximisers’ but, in the core economy, ‘enough love (or respect)’ is usually good enough.
Cahn also developed practical approaches that showed how public goods could be delivered with regard to the core economy. At the heart of this area of work is his idea of the ‘Time Dollar’. Cahn proposed that time – hours and days – is the ‘currency’ of the core economy; the essential resource we invest in families and communities – and get back from them. Cahn set up the Time Dollar Institute in Washington DC in the 1980s and has pioneered the development of Time Banks and, specifically, the use of time dollars in youth justice and in providing legal aid.
Edgar Cahn compares the core economy to a computer operating system. That is, the computer software that manages the way different programmes use the computer and regulates the ways that a user can control it. Like Microsoft Windows or the MAC Operating System, the core economy underpins the applications we use to get jobs done: word processing, spreadsheets, email or browsing the web in the case of computers; effective public services and private enterprise in the case of the core economy.
To work efficiently and effectively, applications (in computer systems) and services (in social and economic systems) need to use the beneficial features of the operating system: to ‘work with the grain’ of the underlying system. Working in this way is effective coproduction. Coproduced public services are efficient and effective because they integrate well with the underlying core economy. Working ‘against the grain’ or trying to ‘engineer’ the underlying core economy to fit in with services is less efficient, more wasteful and harder to sustain. In our work on neighbourhood coproduction in the city of Birmingham, Chamberlain Forum used the word ‘co-efficiency’ to describe the extent to which services or applications work effectively with the underlying core economy or operating system. The more ‘co-efficient’ an approach to delivering public services is, in relation to the local core economy, the better the outcomes of it, and the value for money achieved by it, will be.