Guest Post: Bethany Rex on the Co-Production of Public Services Conference

I’ve just returned from attending the International Institute of Administrative Science’s conference on the ‘Co-production of Public Services’ held at Radboud University in delightful Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The conference was a chance for members of IIAS’s study group on the ‘Co-production of Public Services’ to meet, share and discus their work and debate some of the thorny issues that arise when we talk about the increasing role that citizens are expected to play in the design, delivery and evaluation of public services. This study group is made up of scholars working in a variety of disciplines from public administration, to political science, and a handful of others whose work cuts across multiple fields.

The umbrella topic of my doctoral research is local authority museum management, an area which is rapidly transforming in response to the significant funding reductions to local government finances across the country. This transformation can take place at various levels from the creation of charitable bodies (aka museum trusts) designed to deliver a museum service in it’s entirely, to the transfer of individual museum sites from the local authority to another group considered to be local in one way or another (community organisations, voluntary groups, faith organisations). I’m focusing on the latter as I think it represents a shift in how we think about the delivery of museums as a public service. Now, there’s the issue of the label ‘co-production’ or ‘co-management’. The concept itself can be dated back to the work of Elinor Ostrom in the 1970s and other scholars working in the US at that time. However, since then it has taken on a life of its own – travelling across the globe and shape-shifting to fit national and local circumstances, different political administrations and opposing ideological stances. The papers presented at the conference confirmed this; with Victor Pestoff, a key author in the field, describing co-production existing at the crossroads between a number of different approaches to public service delivery.

Instead of concentrating on the formal structure of these new arrangements, or evaluating them in order to categorise their success or failure, I’ve been exploring the process by which these individual museum sites came to be managed by someone other than the council in the first place. It was this process-driven aspect of my work that I presented at this conference. Although the majority of presentations concentrated on fields such as health and social care and education; there were a number of speakers who drew attention to the importance of process in understanding how the co-management of services works in practice. For me, it was interesting that for scholars with backgrounds in public administration and other cognate fields, the rationale for focusing on process was in order to roadmap how to achieve better outcomes. A thirst for models of ‘good practice’ prevailed. I’m not adverse to gaining a more in-depth understanding of how process impacts upon outcome at my empirical case studies, but for me this focus on process is about exploring the theoretical issues that I’ve been pre-occupied with since I started my PhD: the identity of the museum profession in community governance arrangements, the ‘responsibilisation’ of citizens in policy and how this is interpreted in practice and the difficult question of locating accountability in these settings.

The presentations from the conference will be made available online in the near future.

Follow Bethany Rex on Twitter (please link to: http://www.twitter.com/bethanyrex)

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