Where did co-production come from?

Co-production was first described in the 1970s by Elinor Ostrom (opens new window), an Economist at Indiana University. Elinor Ostrom used the word co-production to explain why crime rates rose when the police changed from walking the beat to patrolling in cars. The relationships that police developed with people and the informal knowledge that they exchanged with the community when they walked the beat were critical in preventing and solving crimes. She argued that the police need communities as much as communities need the police, and used the term co-production to describe this relationship.

The term was used again by Anna Coote and others (opens new window) at the Kings Fund and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to make the point that the reciprocal relationship between doctors and patients is essential; without it, both sides fail.

At the same time, co-production was developed by Edgar Cahn (opens new window) to reform the youth justice system of Washington DC in the United States of America. The system was in a desperate state, nearing collapse because of the huge amount of cases it had to deal with. Cahn had an impact on crime rates and rates of reoffending by involving both young people and their families in the judicial process.

During the 1990s, people mainly stopped talking about co-production because the idea of the market driving improvement in public services was seen as more important. This approach focused on the importance of management and the division between 'service producers' and 'service consumers'. That meant that health and social care was treated in the same way as other goods and services that are bought and sold. Often people who use services were seen more as needing to have things done 'to' or 'for' them rather than being involved themselves in developing services or support.

Since the mid-2000s people have become interested in co-production again. It has increasingly been put into practice across the public and voluntary sectors in the United Kingdom: from mental health to social care, from youth services to restorative justice.

The rise of co-production in social care, in particular, is strongly linked with the disability movement and the mental health user movement.

The disability movement is an approach that advocates the social model of disability (which says that society disables people through barriers in the environment, in organisations and through other people's attitudes). People involved with the movement believe that disabled people are the best people to make decisions about their own lives and that when disabled people work together they can make changes in society that currently disables them.

The approach of the mental health user movement opposes the medical model of mental health and promotes recovery and empowerment. It also has a long history of developing ideas and ways of working in equal partnerships with professionals.