Go back to article: The ‘co’ in co-production: Museums, community participation and Science and Technology Studies

Co-production: public institutions and communities

The first genealogy of co-production I trace here comes from the context of government and public services, where co-production has been used to ‘imply that citizens can play an active role in producing public goods and services of consequence to them’ (Ostrom, 1996, p 1,073). The term co-production was used by Elinor Ostrom, and her colleagues Roger B Parks, Gordon P Whitaker and Stephen L Percy, in exploring law enforcement. They found that law enforcement was not just a case of what the police themselves did; rather citizens constantly played a role through a variety of actions such as locking their door, reporting crimes (or not) or by subverting police efforts (1978, p 383). Co-production was then picked up in the 1990s, again in the US, with a focus on co-production between a core economy of family, friends and community and private sector and government agencies (Cahn, 2004) and then again late in the first decade of this century in the context of UK reform of public service and the welfare state (Goss, 2007; Gammon and Lawson, 2008; Stephens, Collins and Boyle, 2008) and in terms of local democracy, the third sector and participatory models of policy produce and governance (e.g. Verschuere, Brandsen and Pestoff, 2012; Durose and Richardson, 2016).

Reading across these different iterations of public policy approaches to co-production, it is possible to identify two key moves. The first is to pluralise the variety and variability of factors that lead to good public policy outcomes. For example, in developing understandings of what they termed ‘the public policy production process’, Ostrom et al enrich and complicate the picture beyond any idea of a generic causality between the ‘input’ of police and the outcomes of law enforcement. Instead they draw a more complex picture of interacting elements, including the organisational arrangements within the particular police departments, such as access to resources, for example cars and radios, but also the individual characteristics both of police (do they sit in their car or walk around?) and citizens (do they lock the door or report crime?) (Ostrom et al, 1978, pp 387–88). In one of their 1978 diagrams they indicate a web, a nonlinear network of variable inputs, which interact in various ways depending on the people involved and local circumstances and leading to a variety of outputs and outcomes (1978, p 386).

This first move to pluralise and show a greater complexity of cause and effect tends also to be accompanied by a second move.[2] This second move, present both in Ostrom et al’s work and the UK 2000s debate, is focussed on reinventing the relevance and responsiveness of state provision of welfare and health care and, in doing this, on making the case for the distinctive and necessary contribution of the state or public institutions:

Crucially, co-production will help us manage the central paradox of public service reform, namely our competing desires for equality, or universalism, and the need for innovation through diversity. It can achieve this by creating spaces where tensions can be understood, shared and managed.
[…]
The benefits of co-production are both instrumental – more responsive and better services produced more efficiently – and intrinsic – ensuring services are valued because they are social, collective and participatory. Co-production adds to our sense of community and feeling of well-being. It provides a moral underpinning for public services (Gammon and Lawson, 2008, p 5).

As such, co-production offers a particular kind of political bargain. In its public policy iteration, co-production involves an opening up, offering a way of recognising that more people – variety and variable constituencies of ‘co’ – can helpfully produce public goods. Yet, at the same time, co-production implies a demarcation and stabilisation between different types of agencies, between state/government and public/communities/users.  

This double move of expansion (to include more people) and stabilisation of difference (between public agency and the public) resonates both with the development of displays and their glass cases and also with newer practices of community participation in museums. As my argument unfolds, I will suggest that the increasingly well-documented tensions in museum community projects – the difficulties of ‘sharing authority’ (Lynch and Alberti, 2010; Waterton and Smith, 2010) – relate to the desire to expand the number of people involved, while seeking to retain, and even stabilise, museums’ political assumptions. A key contribution the STS genealogy of co-production brings when fused with museum community co-production is that increasing the variety of people tends also to open up more fundamental questions, not least what the ‘it’ is that co-production creates.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160502/001