Beyond Co-production – Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

On Wednesday, May 21st, David Boyle published an engaging piece in the Guardian Professional. His opening lines read as follows:

“When William Beveridge released his famous blueprint for the welfare state at the end of 1942, his assumptions suggested that the cost burden would reduce over time because welfare spending would progressively reduce need.

As we now know, he was wrong. It wasn’t just him; the same mistake was made in most welfare states. The problem wasn’t that Beveridge failed to slay his ‘five giants’ – ignorance, want, squalor, disease and idleness – but that they came back to life in every generation, and had to be slain all over again. Every time at increasing expense.”

In an attempt to offer an explanation for the current malaise he goes on to say, rightly in my view:

“The difficulty was that Beveridge’s welfare services developed in a direction he never intended: over-professionalised; dismissive and suspicious of the neighbourhood networks which had underpinned people’s lives for generations; undermining informal advice and support; allowing the ties of mutual support to atrophy.

Services developed the attitude that high-tech equipment, sophisticated processes and professional knowledge is somehow all that is required to provide help to the grateful, passive multitude. Two generations later, those informal networks of support have been corroded.”

David Boyle goes on to place the theories and practices of co-production at the centre of the reform agenda. While I believe co-production is essential, I would argue it will not be sufficient to bring about the change he so rightly advocates for. Here are the four reasons why:

1. Co-production does not adequately challenge the larger implicit (and sometimes explicit) and wrongly held notion that people are poor because of personal failings, rather than a result of systems and policies that are structured to maintain a class system that benefits some at the expense of others. What makes the rich richer, makes the poor poorer.

2. It fails to acknowledge that much social change, and that which determines a good life, has nothing to do with institutional reform, or professional intervention, or services of any kind, and everything to do with the urgent need for the radical reseeding of associational and civic life on its own ground separate from institutional life. This is what Ben Barber is pointing to in his recent publication ‘Strong Democracy, as is Harry Boyte, in ‘The Backyard Revolution’. This hyper local civic renewal, while seeking to put citizens at the centre of democracy, also argues that for this to happen, institutions and professionals need to cede significant ground and power.

This is particularly true when the ground does not require professional intervention in the first place, not even co-productively. The point to be made here is this: there are certain things that cannot be done by either citizens or professionals working alone or at cross-purposes to each other. These things lend themselves to co-production. But there are many things that are best done by citizens in their own right, and on their own collective terms. These do not require co-production, or any other service based response. These are not achieved through partnerships between citizens and professionals, but by citizens becoming community. What they require is community building, and a commitment to the nurturing of citizen-led action, and place based investment.

3. Co-production seems to stand back from challenging the legislated poverty inherent / implicit in a social service economy that sees money intended to address issues of poverty not sufficiently going into the hands of the poor, but instead going to paid professionals.

4. It is silent on the issues of distributive wealth, personalisation and economic justice that need to be placed at the centre of this debate. The introduction of a universal basic income and an active movement away from benefit systems that subjugate poor people, would radically shift the current state of play.

If we are serious about co-production of services, and of a life beyond services, then we need a much more radical solution than the current framing of co-production offers.

By the way, I take the same view regarding Asset Based Community Development. We all need to do a better job of speaking on these issues. And we need a more radical understanding of the institutional problem.

Below is an extract from my forthcoming book. It features an excerpt of an interview with Prof John McKnight. Here he is reflecting on the issues discussed above by citing the experiences of Judith Snow.

Judith is primarily an artist. She is also someone that many have labeled throughout her life. She was born with a capacity to physically do very little with her body. She could move her face, and a couple of fingers, and her thumb. She lives her life using a wheelchair and needs 24-hour attendance to enable her to participate.

John McKnight: So in a professional world they would label her as totally and vocationally disabled. They’d have a whole set of labels for her, portraying her as totally incompetent.

She led the fight in Canada to get income instead of services.
And with her circle of support that she built around herself she became the first person in the province of Ontario to get an annual personal budget from the government – maybe $70,000 – to use for her own wellbeing.

Now she also is a wonderful speaker and trainer and enabler, so she makes money that way too. And as she has to have round-the-clock support, she needs more money than most people.

But after she had been on an income system for two or three years I remember saying to Judith:

“So Judith tell me how many services for a disabled person have you used in the last year? Because you are now the empirical proof of what is needed as against what professionals say you need.”

And she said:

“In the last year I have used two services that are unique to me. And one of them I didn’t want. So the first one was my very complex wheelchair. I have it because I don’t walk so it’s related to my disability and so I went to a company of mechanics who understand wheelchair technology and I went to them because I needed them.

The second service was that then every time I want to go somewhere on an airplane they insisted I talk to their disability specialist. I don’t need them but I had to go: to get on an airplane I had to go through them. But as regards all the services that I was dependent on before, I’ve used none.”

And this is a woman who is as physically dependent as you could possibly be.

So if you looked at her you’d think she might need a whole lot of compensatory stuff. But all the system did was justify itself by saying she needed this complex set of services, when what her life demonstrated was that mostly, she didn’t.

The service system needs her. She doesn’t need it.

The Careless Society, Community and its Counterfeits is pretty critical of the service system, so when people say to me, “Well, don’t you think there is some place for them {Systems}?”, my answer is yes; but when people say so.

And for people to be able to say so – what needs to happen? Systems must be prepared to say: ‘you’re going to have the income to make all the choices you need to make in a regular life’, (that’s what Judith’s income allowed her to do).

What we need is what those people need.

We never have the foggiest idea what people need until we give them those unique resources that allow them to be an active part of the community making their own choices. Then we’ll see what they need of us.

And Judith is the best proof of that. As far as she’s concerned she never uses them, (services), at all, right? Yet in the whole architecture she’s the poster child of neediness! So she is the great living example of a huge edifice that for most people is not needed at all – they just need income, access to an everyday community and the relationships there, and of course, choice.

And systems focused on people who are labelled are an alternative to choice. They say: ‘your choice is us’, right? We run the zoo and you’re living in it.’

The point here, is that essentially co-production fails to get beyond professional led co-design, albeit with citizens, but with them in the back seat and largely still as individual clients with service requirements. Co-production regularly falls short of total place citizen led action. Instead its focus is on individuals, tends to be professionally led, and primarily about service design.

Co-production is of course most welcome, alongside:

  1. Citizenship
  2. Democracy
  3. Self directed budgets
  4. Challenge to professionalisation of personal and civic space
  5. Community Building and Asset Based Community Development
  6. Universal basic income.

The solution then to the challenge of exhausted professionals and passive clients, is in the shift from redesigning services with clients to deepening democracies with citizens.

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  • Philip Booth

    Great piece. I’ve come across lots of misunderstanding about co-production – it is not about consulting with ‘clients’ or asking opinions nor some sort of ideal to aspire too……but rather a genuine partnership and more….’essential’ as you say but not enough….thanks for thought-provoking blog.

    May 26, 2014 at 10:08 am
    • 999phoenix999

      As you say Philip a genuine partnership is not usual case. Professionals hear what they want to hear and ignore uncomfortable realities of their services. Also cherry pick good ideas and then promote as their own. Co-production will only ever happen when people become citizens in their own right, under their own self-empowerment and become decision-makers themselves. Services historically run those who blame people for their own ‘ignorance, want, squalor, disease and idleness’.

      May 26, 2014 at 10:23 am
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