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Power to the people: 5 questions for serious co-producers 

Written by: Rose Mountague | 26th August 2022
7 min read

Co-production has climbed the national agenda. But organisations are still getting it wrong. What can they do to truly work in partnership with local people and communities?

“Londoners were promised a hill with a view. They got a pile of scaffolding”. So read a headline in the New York Times when the ill-fated Marble Arch Mound opened.

It drew comparisons with Teletubbyland, The Sims, Super Mario 64 and Minecraft. One visitor called it ‘the worst thing I’ve ever done in London’.

It was originally an idea to bring people back on to the streets of London following lockdown. A concept dreamed up in the halls of Westminster Council that would go on to cost £6 million – £4million more than its original budget. It also cost some council leaders their job.

Architects hit out at council staff and the construction firm for the ‘loveless execution’ of the design. An internal review at the council found a ‘lack of effective governance, grip and oversight’.

The intervention was remarkable in another way. No-one had asked for a mound to be built next door to Marble Arch. Who would?

Certainly not people who live nearby. After you take housing costs into account, over 41% of children in Westminster borough live in relative poverty. That’s the fourth highest rate of child poverty in London.

The Mound is an example of what can happen when decisions are made, plans are put in place, budgets committed and concepts delivered without involving local communities.

The future is co-produced

Co-production describes how service users, citizens, professionals, policy makers and community groups work together. It means different groups collaborating to identify priorities, establish what needs to be done, how it should be done and then working on a solution together.

It sees that professionals, citizens and communities all benefit from working together as equals. Co-production means they work together to shape an agenda, as opposed to citizens and communities only being involved after an agenda has already been set.

The significant benefits that the approach brings means that it is becoming more and more common in public policy across local and central government. It has been enshrined in legislation including the Care Act 2014 and is a key principle in the recent UK’s Care Quality Commission’s Strategy. In it they say,

“We want to be an advocate for change, with our regulation driven by people’s needs and their experiences of health and care services, rather than how providers want to deliver them. This means focusing on what matters to the public, and to local communities, when they access, use and move between services. Working in partnership with people who use services, we have an opportunity to help build care around the person: we want to regulate to make that happen.”

The benefits of harnessing the views of local people were also a factor in the restructuring of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) into Integrated Care Systems (ICSs). Reflecting the role of ICSs as partnerships between local authorities and the NHS, Cllr David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said in July 2022,

“Integrating health and care has the power to transform how, and how well we deliver these services to residents. Integrated Care Systems will allow local authorities and the NHS to pool their wealth of skills and local knowledge to ensure people are receiving appropriate, timely and effective care. But integration is not an end in itself – it is the most effective means by which we achieve better health outcomes for our communities”.

So how does co-production work?

Here at Magpie, this is our favourite explanation of co-production in practice:

“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change”.

Taken from David Boyle and Michael Harries, The Challenge of Co-Production (New Economics Foundation, The Lab, NESTA)

In their excellent resource ‘Co-production putting principles into practice’  Cath Roper, Flick Grey and Emma Cadogan identify four typical phases that co-produced initiatives go through. They outline that, while each of the following four phases can stand alone as a collaborative activity, all four need to be in place for true co-production. They say,

“There can be multiple stages during the development and delivery of services or initiatives where consumers are partners, such as in co-planning, co-design, co-delivery, and co-evaluation. In co-production, consumers are partners throughout all of these stages. The real difference is how co-production deliberately sets out to create a culture that values all expertise and knowledge, particularly the expertise and knowledge of the people that are most affected by the problem and solution.”


In co-planning, professionals and communities work together to agree on the problem to be solved, who to involve, which approaches to take, timeframes, funding and how initiatives might be managed.


In co-design, professionals and communities work together to define the problem, develop ideas and test solutions. The ongoing delivery of the resulting solution might be done without their on-going involvement.


In co-delivery, professionals and communities work together to agree how the initiative will be delivered, who should do what, where and how.


In co-evaluation, professionals and communities work together to agree what success looks like, what should be measured, whose opinion or view of the initiative should be sought or how data about the performance of the initiative will be secured.

So how do organisations set themselves up to hear unheard voices and co-produce with communities? Tony Bovaird shows how design and delivery meet in practice.

Are you ready to co-produce? Five questions to ask your organisation

Any organisation that is serious about co-production needs to ask itself five questions:

The questions are designed to identify how ready an organisation is to co-produce and share its power. They’re drawn from Harry Shier’s Pathways to Participation model which focuses on organisations’ readiness and capacity to involve service users in meaningful participation – ‘making it a reality in organisational and policy cultures’ (Oliver and Pitt, 2013).

Shier’s model illustrates five levels of participation, with each level connected to the next. There are three levels of commitment at each level:

Importantly, an organisation’s destination on the model might not always be Level 5 ‘Shared power and responsibility’. Shier likened the ‘ladder-like’ structure to how we use ladders in real life. We don’t always use them to get as high as possible – more often we use them to work at the appropriate height for the job in hand.

The new agenda for change

The legislative agenda has been set and co-production is here to stay. This unique form of collaboration and power sharing can create true change for good and is being adopted by an ever-increasing number of organisations looking to make a difference with communities across the UK.

We’re passionate about co-production at Magpie. We see it as a vital approach for any organisation wanting to have a positive impact and to work in partnership with local people and communities.

Want to find out more about co-production or curious about how your organisation could develop its pathways to participation?

Sign up to attend Magpie’s Change For Good 2022: tackling society’s biggest challenges through behavioural science, creativity and collaboration. Magpie’s 2022 Change For Good features a host of guest speakers showcasing the latest thinking in behavioural science and behaviour change campaigns with case studies and actionable ideas for your team. Details, including time and location, will be announced in September 2022.


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