Communities and Local Government Committee - Mutual and cooperative approaches to delivering local servicesWritten evidence from the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham



This note focuses on one particular facet of the “Cooperative Council”, namely its promotion of user and community co-production of public services. We argue that this will require a major drive to work through social enterprises as intermediary organisations, since users and communities have diverse needs which cannot and will not be well served by dealing directly with local public service providers like councils. Social enterprises can therefore help local councils to mobilise large scale resources in the community which are currently untapped—and can help to harness these resources in ways which are more likely to improve quality of life outcomes for users of council services and other local citizens.

The Co-operative Council as a Co-producing Council

By “co-production”, we mean “Professionals and citizens making better use of each other’s assets, resources and contributions to achieve better outcomes or improved efficiency”. This means focusing on what users and communities can positively contribute (the “assets model”, rather what they need to get from public services (“the deficits model”).

As the London Borough of Lambeth has argued in its drive to become a “Co-operative Council”, co-production is at the heart of a new co-operative relationship between a council and its citizens. Indeed, Lambeth might be described much more accurately as the “Co-production Council”, since that principle has driven its overall strategy much more than a commitment to any particular form of service delivery, such as co-ops or mutuals as providing organisations.

However, in practice there is a very strong link between the principle of co-production and the strategy of using co-operatives and mutuals to deliver services. This is because successful co-production does not usually arise and grow spontaneously —it needs a set of intermediary organisations which can capture the interest of users and other citizens in the co-production approach and then match the offers which these potential co-producers are prepared to make to what other service providers actually need—whether those service providers are in the public, private or third sectors.

Research which the Institute of Local Government Studies at University of Birmingham (INLOGOV) has been undertaking with Governance International, commissioned by the Directorate of Social Care and Inclusion at Walsall MBC, has already highlighted that the mapping of the “assets” and potential contributions of service users is not easy. (And, of course, co-production is not simply about getting service users to co-produce—there are very large gains to be had from getting ALL applicants for services to consider working with the council as co-producers, even if they do not themselves turn out to be eligible for the service for which they were applying).

Our argument in this submission is twofold:

The mapping of the assets and potential contributions of service users and other citizens in the local area is most likely to be done successfully by social enterprises, working with the council; and

Social enterprises are much more likely to seek out and make best use of the potential contributions of service users and other citizens in their core style of working than are public sector provider units or private firms.

We look at each of these two arguments in turn. However, first we need to explain the fundamental assumptions behind the co-production approach.

Co-production: Tapping the “Assets” and Potential Contributions from Users and Communities

Our research with Walsall MBC has been based on the assumption that every person in every community has capacities, capabilities and assets and that their quality of life is at least partly dependent upon whether they are able to make effective use of them. Capabilities refer to what “people are able to do or able to be—the opportunity they have to achieve various lifestyles and as a result, the ability to live a good life”.1 Individuals who are able to contribute to society feel self-sufficient, esteemed, and connected to their social circle. Moreover, the community they live in will be more cohesive and healthy. Strong communities are places in which the capabilities of residents are well-known and utilised.

However, social care (and the wider welfare state itself) has often started from a different set of assumptions, in which potential service users are essentially seen as people with “deficiencies” and for whom these “deficits” represent “needs” which social care services can fill. Where a community largely focuses on the deficiencies rather than the capacities of its members, weak communities are a natural consequence. Here, the capacity of residents to make a fundamental contribution to community wellbeing is not understood and not built upon.

This deficiency focus largely arises from concentrating on the services which individuals need to compensate them for the negative aspects of their lives. Needs in this context are seen as arising from problems and shortcomings. Whilst it is clear that every individual has needs, it is essential also to see that they have unique capabilities and skills. A positive spotlight concentrates on the attributes that give rise to or can be built up into a capability to contribute positively to their own wellbeing or that of others.

The danger of the standard “problem focused” or “needs-based” approaches is that they can have negative effects even when guided by positive intentions. They force professionals and citizens to highlight the challenging issues an individual faces in order to attract resources (a “glass half empty” approach). In this process, people are dealt with as potential clients and passive consumers, not holistically as people. At best, a needs based focus inadvertently creates a one dimensional profile of the individual assessed—at worst, it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy in which people are judged to be incapable and become victims of “learned dependency”.

By using a capability-based assessment tool, it is hoped that individuals can be recognised as citizens and producers (a “glass half full” approach), focusing on what they can do for themselves and others. If done effectively, it is hoped that this can transform them from passive recipients of services (which they have little or no role in determining or deciding) into active participants, engaged in activities they desire and able to utilise their full set of attributes for positive ends. The new capabilities assessment being developed at Walsall MBC therefore seeks to maximise the realisation of individual and community potential—an approach which the Marmot Review has highlighted as critical in reducing health inequalities and improving health and well-being for all.2

Mapping the Assets and Potential Contributions of Service users and other Citizens

Our research has highlighted that it is not easy for existing service providers to move to a co-production model of public service. That is why social enterprises are likely to be key in achieving this paradigm shift.

The barriers to a co-production approach can readily be seen by considering what successful co-production entails. Mind (2004) suggested that, in trying to find out what people might do that would contribute positively to outcomes in the area, it is important to take an approach which is:

supportive, recognising that many people are not entirely sure (or even aware) of the skills and resources they have which might help them to make useful contributions to outcomes in their area;


flexible—staff and organisations need to be enabled to experiment;

fun—people are often polled and asked to fill out forms that they find off-putting. A capabilities assessment should not be seen in this way. Instead it should educate and excite the individual about the talents they have and what they can offer the community;

cost-effective; and

enabling change—capabilities conversations, and the subsequent processes through which their resources are utilised, need to allow a fundamental culture change in how individuals, social workers, personal assistants, and the community view themselves and each other.

This list immediately highlights that current models of service provision in the public sector—and the models which public sector commissioners embed within the contracts that they let—just don’t get it. They generally contravene several—sometimes ALL—of the prerequisites in this list.

In our work with Walsall MBC, it has become clear that the mapping out of the capabilities of individuals (many of whom are vulnerable and lack self knowledge and self esteem) has to be a sensitive, imaginative and unhurried process—hugely different from the stressful, intrusive and often rushed “needs assessment” which is carried out by social care services in most councils nowadays. What is needed in order to divine the capabilities of service users and applicants is much more akin to what is done in the “support planning” process which social care recipients go through. However, even here this usually focuses on finding services which will meet the needs of the service user, not on finding out how they can help themselves and others.

Key here is that the assessor undertaking this stage of the assessment would not simply be seeking to map what the person could do but rather would be seeking to work with them to build their confidence and enthusiasm to become more actively involved in co-producing better outcomes for themselves and for others—so there should be an element of fun, too. The process will need to be seen as part of a co-creation exercise, in which the person undertaking the assessment works closely with the potential service user, their carer(s), personal assistant and any other relevant people who the potential service user wants to involve.

In our work, it has emerged that this detailed “user offer” might best be done by “community linkers”, who will not be traditional social workers, nor even necessarily community social workers—but rather will come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. The critical element will be their personal skills to carry out this task in an empathetic way, not the background from which they come.

In Walsall, we are focusing on ways in which social enterprises can provide expertise in this process, which is generally not available in most services provided by the council itself. The staff concerned need to be able to work with service users to develop an in-depth “Capabilities Offer”, which delves into areas where the individual is keen to make a contribution, to co-design what this contribution might entail, and to clarify the details of conditions in which this should take place. However, the key achievement in this second stage will be that at least one contribution is identified that the service user is willing to make and that this contribution can be linked to a person or an organisation who will benefit from this contribution. This second stage needs to be carried out by a “community linker”, who is adept at enthusing actual and potential service users about the opportunity to make better use of their resources and capabilities. For this to work convincingly, it will also be important that the “community linker” is familiar with the sorts of opportunities which exist locally for people with particular aptitudes, skills and experience.

Our work with Walsall MBC has already uncovered that these “community linkers” already exist but up to now have not been properly made use of in the service system. They are often in local community organisations or voluntary organisations; sometimes in local housing associations; occasionally in council or NHS services (although typically they do not currently get scope to use such skills in these organisations). In order for this work to be done systematically for a large body of service users (and for all future service applicants, in all council services), there needs to be a co-ordinated, quality-assessed cadre of people who can do this work and who embed the learning they get from their experiences in the practices and policies of their organisations. It has become clear in Walsall MBC that this is likely to mean working through social enterprises, both existing (eg some entrepreneurial housing associations in the area) and new organisations, specifically set up to undertake this work. Some of these are likely to employ existing staff from the council (and from other local public services, such as the NHS), and indeed there is scope for some “spin-offs” from the council and NHS in the form of mutuals and co-ops, but there is likely to be considerable variety in the organisational forms which spring up to undertake this work.

Social Enterprises and the Co-production Model of Public Services

In authorities which adopt this user and community co-production approach, a radical culture change will be needed—this has already been recognised by authorities such as Lambeth and Walsall, which have explicitly declared that they are setting out on wholly different paths to enabling high quality outcomes from public services.

A major part of this culture change will be linking the public services commissioning by the council to the community. In particular, the assets and potential contributions which service users and other citizens are prepared to make have to find a home—they have to be snapped up by individuals, groups and organisations in the community which can make genuine use of the “capability offers” which service users are being encouraged to make. This is almost entirely new territory for most public agencies—staff simply do not have experience of doing it and, indeed, have not even realised it could or should be done. That is where social enterprises come into their own—they already have experience (of course, not always successful experience) of making use of the offers which people in the community are prepared to make, finding a way of matching them to what others need.

Our work at Walsall suggests that not all social enterprises are likely to be good at this, and that some new social enterprises are likely to spring up in order to focus specifically on this kind of work, with staff who have real skills in this field—skills which up to now have typically not been recognised nor particularly valued. (Such social enterprises will often have some features in common with some of the “brokerage” activities which are already becoming common around the social care personalisation agenda—although the challenge in co-production is rather higher than just finding a local service provider for a person with an individual budget). The work will be demanding—if necessary, the community linkers will need to accompany the individuals with whom they are working and act as an advocate for them as they begin interacting with different people, projects and organisations. Throughout this process the “community linker” would be encouraging and enabling both parties—the service user making the offer and the organisation to which they will be making the offer—to want to become involved.

A number of ways of matching the “user offers” to available opportunities are already being explored. They include a range of variations on the concept of a Community Marketplace, which entails entering the information collected in the assessment process into a register which records both “capabilities” and also “seeking help” requests. Eventually, this will almost certainly be a computerised register. We are also exploring the potential for creating an open online citizen portal where any individual can enter and update their information, making it clear what their “user offer” is and what they are in turn seeking. Clearly personal data protection issues have to be handled appropriately in such approaches. Other approaches being explored include variants of the timebanking concept, “activities circles”, local “speedmatching” events, “taster sessions”, and a widening of the concept of “personal assistant”, so that, for example, some users can play such roles for others in specific activities.

The importance of social enterprises here is twofold. Firstly, it will be essential to recruit as “community linkers” a group of local individuals (following appropriate training) who have a strong presence within the community, who can accept responsibility for the assessment process and be persuasive in ensuring that care applicants buy-in to the new approach. (Once the project is up and running, individuals who have successfully passed through the assessment process could themselves be involved in advocating the positive effects of getting involved in the various projects—and become community linkers themselves.) It will be important to build up a team of “community linkers” which includes peers from all backgrounds, to ensure that the approach spreads quickly throughout the whole community. In particular this will be critical in getting to “hard to reach groups”.

Secondly, strong overall coordination of these volunteers will be crucial to ensure they undertake the tasks appropriately and are aware of all available opportunities. Incentives will probably be needed to ensure the sustainability of the approach, including keeping up the level of enthusiasm of existing participants and attracting new people into the scheme, so that the willingness to co-produce is continually refreshed. Moreover, there will be huge potential for developing the role of “community linkers” so that they can take on wider roles, working with other parts of the Council, ensuring that many other services, not just social care, take similar co-production approaches with service users and other citizens. The importance of this co-ordination and dissemination role requires that it is taken seriously as a main focus for the organisations concerned, not just a by-product of the other activities. It is clear from our work in Walsall MBC that this role will often be more focused and successful if it is carried out by local social enterprises.

May 2012

1 Anand, P, Hunter, G and Smith, R 2005. “Capabilities and well-being: Evidence based on the Sen-Nussbaum approach to welfare”, Social Indicators Research, 74: 9–55.

2 The Marmot Review—“Fair Society, Healthy Lives”, Strategic review of health inequalities in England post-2010.

Prepared 6th December 2012