Participation is now an accepted part of planning practice and generally seen as a ‘good thing’. Nonetheless, debates continue about how best to engage with the public, with concerns about the effectiveness and equity of such processes, as well as debate about how best to resource and support them in a context of limited resources. Participation is variously invoked as desirable as a means of increasing inclusion and equity, as an aid to delivering cost-effective services, as an essential part of governance, as adding legitimacy to decision making, as building capacity and civic skills and as necessary to provide multiple perspectives when endeavouring to deal with ‘wicked problems’. These desired outcomes can pull in different directions; for instance, drives for cost saving versus desire for empowerment.
The concept of coproduction offers some utility in navigating through these tensions. Ostrom (1996, 1073) and her team are credited with introducing the term ‘coproduction’, defining it as ‘the process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not “in” the same organisation’, a broad definition we adopt here. Participation, collaborative planning and coproduction all overlap in terms of an endeavour to involve citizens and stakeholders in decision making. Coproduction differs with its implicit consideration of civic society’s involvement in delivery and implementation.
If coproduction is about involvement in order to co-design and co-create systems, services or spaces, two critical questions arise. What is their purpose? Whose purpose is it? Systems and services exist to serve their stakeholders, and spaces both shape and are shaped by human activity – so the answer to these questions would ideally be ‘the purpose that all the stakeholders decide upon’. However, consensus and decision making become more challenging when more people and organisations are involved. Nevertheless, the multiplicity of perspectives from diverse stakeholders needs to be represented and considered in the formulation of goals, directions and strategies if coproduction is to be enacted. Defining ‘the problem’ is thus a central task in any coproduction process. Furthermore, not all stakeholders perceive the issues, problems or even basic ‘facts’ about the situation in the same way. We argue that an effective process of dialogue and ‘map-making’, which enables the voices of all stakeholders to be reflected in a shared understanding of the situation, provides a solid basis for any attempts at collaborative decision making or action, and is also likely to generate a range of valuable outcomes in and of itself. Such collaborative map-making produces knowledge for change, which we argue is a critical foundation for effective coproduction.
This article introduces a heuristic for effective coproduction processes, based on such map-making. It is underpinned by three core concepts that we describe as ‘pillars’, and is situated within broader loops of action and learning. The pillars resonate with systems-thinking concepts, tested ‘in the field’ through our experience designing and facilitating over 250 engagement events with at least 7,000 participants, and assisting with the design of the wider programmes in which many of these events were situated. This codification of our practice, enabled by reflection on the theories that inspired it, helps respond to the recognition by Steen et al. (2016, 3):
Despite the growing scholarly interest in the coproduction of public services, practice is still leading both theory and research, and there is a continuous need to bring together theoretical insights and empirical data to enable a better understanding of public service coproduction.
We present this as a heuristic because it is not a fixed prescription, but is instead a guide to inform those wishing to understand and practice participation towards social and system change. Ulrich (2005, 1) points to the Greek etymology of the word ‘heuristics’ (heuriskein – ‘find’ or ‘discover’) to describe it as ‘the art (or practice) of discovery’. He suggests that a heuristic offers a framework for reflection, guiding questions when the problems faced are fuzzy and ill-defined. The heuristic developed here is normative with regard to process. Arnstein’s (1969) development of the metaphor of the ladder of participation was a provocation to improve planning processes, with an emphasis on the ends – increasing degrees of citizen empowerment (Gaber, 2019). Here we focus on the means of participation in planning, aiming to develop a heuristic comprehensive enough to guide the design of effective processes. It is presented as a visualisation so it can be widely shared and prompt more reflective practice.
Arnstein’s ladder offers a useful lens for considering issues of power, and it is important to consider where an initiative may be on the ladder, with the lower rungs equating to non-participation and the higher ones equating to citizen power. But to extend the metaphor, climbing a ladder is a means to an end, so it is also vital to consider where the ladder is placed, and where it leads to – the goal. Consideration of the goal(s) of the group is intrinsic to the shared map-making process at the heart of this heuristic. Although coproduction of knowledge for change with shared goals does not magically solve the many challenges of power imbalance or of how to successfully implement change, we argue that it is a necessary foundation. This is perhaps elucidated by the well-known business ‘guru’ Stephen Covey (1989, 101): ‘Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall’.
Situating coproduction: potential and critique
The ladder of participation has been a key metaphor in discussions of participation in the five decades since Arnstein’s paper was published. Its emphasis was on ways in which citizens, in particular the poor and vulnerable, could have an impact on decision making. The role of the planner was seen as developing mechanisms for citizens to be involved in the planning process, a shift from seeing planning as primarily technocratic. Critiques of the ladder metaphor have suggested that there is often an implicit assumption that the higher rungs of the ladder are ‘better’, but it is not always appropriate to aim for the ‘top rung’ of the ladder of fully delegated citizen control (Collins and Ison, 2009).
Theoretical developments in the form of communicative and collaborative planning (Healey, 2003; Innes and Booher, 2016) shifted the emphasis to the nature of the dialogue process. The planner’s role is seen as creating the conditions for the careful consideration of different points of view through mutually respectful dialogue, with the aim of promoting communicative, or collaborative, rationality. Such a focus is echoed in deliberative democracy. The creation of plans and policy is seen as an argumentative practice, with decisions based on consensus as opposed to the aggregation of votes, leading to questions about appropriate interfaces between participatory and direct democracy (O’Riordan, 1998). Critiques of the collaborative turn have hinged on issues of rationality and dissent. There is a question whether it is possible to hold a dialogue process that is ‘rational’, i.e. one that is not mediated through existing power relations. The way embedded presuppositions, roles and relationships shape debate is not readily amenable to conscious consideration (Flyvberg, 2003). Furthermore, a focus on consensus and collaboration could impede needed dissent and protest. Critics have questioned whether the wide-scale roll out of participatory processes gives an illusion of empowerment, whilst in fact obscuring the need to challenge structural inequalities (elucidated as the ‘tyranny of participation’ in Cooke and Kothari, 2001).
A further shift in thinking has emerged from recent attempts to develop coproduction processes in planning, incorporating learning from other areas of public-service delivery. Watson (2014, 69) compares coproduction and collaborative planning with a view from the global South, suggesting that they have several common features, including underlying goals around improving quality of life and justice, and working in a ‘context of democracy’. She highlights a key difference, with coproduction including a focus on both shared formative design and delivery of services. Coproduction gives more possibilities for strategic and local planning to be initiated by actors other than the state and planners (Albrechts, 2013). Coproduction promises to produce better decisions, as ideas are better tested, with fewer opportunities for surprises from information emerging late in the process. As with all participatory processes, there are, however, enduring challenges.
Critical challenges of power in participatory planning
In their review of fifty years of debate about participation, Brownhill and Inch (2019, 10) posit that the longevity of Arnstein’s ladder metaphor stems both from its simplicity and from its identification ‘that debates about participation are debates about power’. Issues of power are inherent in any endeavour to effect change, thus reflexive awareness is required so they can be managed as well as possible. Two key areas to consider are: whose voices are heard and the influence they exert on decisions.
With regard to whose voices are heard, an enduring concern has been around how to engage with ‘the seldom heard’ so that their perspectives and needs are represented and considered (e.g. Bloomfield et al., 2001). It is possible that participatory processes may amplify already privileged voices. A review of 120 neighbourhood plans in England found that collaborative planning may be ‘susceptible to co-option by powerful interests’, for instance with decisions on development (for or against) favouring those who have the time and capacity to make their views heard (Parker et al., 2015, 520). There are capacity issues on both sides of the equation, with convenors of initiatives lacking time and resources to support citizens sufficiently to enable authentic and meaningful participation.
With regard to influence, even if people’s ideas are heard in a genuine dialogue, are there opportunities within programmes and policy, resources and willingness to make them happen? Planners are often seen as intermediaries, attempting to translate public preferences into changes (or conservation) in physical space. Tasan-Kok et al. (2016, 623) report that public-sector planners often feel they have ‘limited influence, being a “small cog in the machinery,” or even sometimes “mere spectators”’. Consultation fatigue, often a consequence of a perceived lack of agency, can in turn have a negative impact on endeavours to increase inclusion.
There are issues of power related to the way that options are framed in the first place. How is the scope of the participation shaped, and by whom? The lowest two rungs of Arnstein’s ladder are exemplified by the practice of consulting participants about a preformed set of options. In the intervening decades there are still many examples of participation as a ‘multiple-choice’ set of options, which does not seriously engage with questions of overall direction and goals. For instance, in a recent policy review of infrastructure-based services in Australia, Wiewiora et al. (2016) report that coproduction was often found to be superficial. What is considered ‘open for question’ is frequently limited to the issues concerning a particular project or sector that is initiating the consultation, which in turn is likely to be constrained by policy requirements, funding and reporting cycles. Kaethler et al. (2017, 177) suggest that participation is embraced ‘as an administrative tool as opposed to an emancipatory one, where alternatives are governed by the implicit acceptance of a post-ideological market driven world’.
We argue that an effective process of ‘map-making of knowledge for change’ within a coproduction or participation initiative, regardless of whether or not it is towards the top rung of the ladder, should be viewed as a foundational activity that helps to mitigate these challenges. Before working on detailed designs, deciding and changing things, it is valuable to coproduce a ‘map’ of the situation from the different points of view of diverse stakeholders. This creates the conditions for effective orientation, goal setting and strategy. Hence the notion in our title: it is worth undertaking an effective process for exploring where the ‘ladder’ could be leaning – where it could lead to and why – before diving into debates about how to climb it, or which rung we should be working from. Debates about appropriate mechanisms for delivery of these goals and levels of further involvement form part of the subsequent/ongoing map-making.
Methods and foundations
The heuristic presented here has emerged from our practice, with concentrated periods of reflection to surface key principles. This process could be termed ‘punctuated reflective practice’. This is an echo of the ecosystem concept of punctuated equilibrium, resonant with Tippett’s early work applying ecological design to the grounds of schools and rural villages. As part of this work in rural Lesotho in the mid-1990s, she developed a ‘hands-on’ approach for community engagement to encourage genuine dialogue across cultures and between genders. This was in a context where male voices were often the only ones heard. The approach was inspired by thinking on endogenous development (in particular Freire, 1970; Illich, 1987; Max-Neef, 1991), shifts in development practice inspired by Chambers (1994), and mind-mapping as a tool for creative thinking (Buzan and Buzan, 1993).
In the early 2000s Tippett applied this approach in the Mersey basin campaign (UK), in research exploring the systems-based approaches in catchment planning (Tippett, 2004; Tippett et al., 2007). This action research developed a future vision at two levels of scale: a former landfill site (Moston Vale) and the lower Irk river valley. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ interviews with participants showed that the tactile and visual nature of the approach led to novel insights and shared ownership of ideas. This inspired development of a physical product, and the subsequent launch of a social business producing ‘Ketso’ kits in 2009.1 This in turn has created opportunities for work across multiple sectors, with both authors running engagement events and providing advice to practitioners using Ketso in seventy-seven countries.
Several key co-productive change initiatives have been significant in our learning, due to the scale and scope of the engagement, and our role supporting partners both in delivery and analysis:
Renfrewshire Council’s Community Planning conference, gathering input from 412 community members, including ideas for the local area and sustainable living (2010)
Cross-sectoral dialogue with refugees, asylum seekers and the public sector, including housing, to inform the Scottish Refugee Integration Strategy (2013)
Work with See Me Scotland to coproduce Scotland’s strategy to end stigma in mental health with over 200 participants, including exploration of rural–urban differences (2014)
Engagement with vulnerable groups to inform the Well North programme and mental health service transformation with West Lancashire Clinical Commissioning Group, including exploration of physical environment and well-being (2016–2017)
Integrating discussion of sustainability and heritage in community and stakeholder engagement, to reimagine a post-industrial landscape as the Carbon Landscape (2013–2020).
The heuristic was tested through observation of the processes, discussions with the convenors (before, during and after engagement events), analysis of the outcomes and review of feedback from participants. After several years of activity developing knowledge for change using Ketso, new opportunities emerged for us to train others as facilitators, in order to build capacity for large-scale coproduction processes (including DEFRA’s catchment-based approach). This provided the stimulus to systematise and clarify lessons from our practice, abstracting broad principles that could be transferred across contexts.
Preparation for this training led us to reflect again on the theoretical influences on this work. Tippett’s (2004) early research explored the use of living-systems metaphors to animate participatory ecological design processes. Looking back at this work, with the hindsight of subsequent practice, enabled us to elucidate a set of three core systems principles that inform effective coproduction, namely an appreciative and asset-based approach, nested systems and boundaries, and emergence and learning. Integrating what we have found to work in practice with these core systems ideas led us to codify three principles, or ‘pillars’, of effective coproduction processes: ‘hear everyone’s voice’, ‘structure effective thinking and creativity’ and ‘link information across time and place’. These pillars are developed in the following section, along with an articulation of the links with their underpinning systems principles. We have consciously designed this framework with the intent that each of these pillars is necessary and, taken together, sufficient to guide effective participatory processes.
The process of developing this heuristic was an attempt to codify our reflections from practice, and was not data-driven. We did, however, include a deliberate stage of testing our emerging model against data generated in 24 workshops that we had run with an explicit focus on coproduction, community engagement and partnership working (4,000 comments/ideas). We developed and refined the heuristic by testing it for fit and completeness against these data, thus triangulating our reflections with the field experience of practitioners.
Normative heuristic for effective coproduction processes
A great variety of participation and coproduction activity is taking place and is needed, both in planning contexts and beyond. We are suggesting that the process, the ‘how’ of this activity, is highly significant and is likely to shape the outcomes of any given effort in a variety of ways. In other words, a normative process is a useful, even vital, consideration.
Our heuristic for effective coproduction processes is as follows:
Engage stakeholders in a process of map-making of knowledge for change (as a core activity).
Follow the ‘pillars of effective coproduction processes’: hear everyone’s voice structure effective thinking and creativity link information across time and place.
hear everyone’s voice
structure effective thinking and creativity
link information across time and place.
Create ‘joined-up’ cycles of action and learning (to the extent possible/appropriate). Map-making is the core activity proposed at the heart of this heuristic. Here we talk of maps as extending beyond geographical maps to more conceptual maps of a given system or situation, that represent the salient features of the ‘terrain’, including goals, aspirations, assets, creative possibilities, problems, constraints and areas of disagreement or contention. As such they are able to provide a common ground, a foundation upon which further dialogues and decision making can take place.
In order to coproduce useful maps of this knowledge for change, the map-making process itself needs to be done in an effective way. The pillar ‘hear everyone’s voice’ foregrounds the need to recognise and consider multiple perspectives in any attempt to consider changes to systems, services or spaces. This pillar builds on the asset-based approach to community development elucidated by Kretzmann and McKnight (1993), recognising the value of actively exploring the potential of local resources and capacities with the people who know about them. This value goes beyond an ethical stance on inclusion: it is central to the creative process. In discussing change in contexts characterised by high uncertainty, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994) conclude that deliberating about different viewpoints is essential due to inherent subjectivity regarding the nature of the problems themselves.
The provocative injunction to hear everyone’s voice can seem trite at first, and of course impossible – in the same way that a map has to select information about a landscape to be represented, any process can only engage a selection of people. There are, however, critical questions to be asked about who is involved and how: what are the essential different points of view? Are the people affected being listened to, including the most vulnerable? Are the people who can effect change (people with perceived power) also engaged? It is also important to ask who is already engaged (and why) and work with them in order to build momentum.
Hearing everyone’s voice not only requires us to make sure that the appropriate stakeholders are present; we need also to make sure that the voices of diverse participants are actually heard: metaphorically this pillar is about both bringing ‘all’ the people to the table, and then hearing their voices at the table. Chambers’s (1994) work in participatory rural appraisal surfaced a key insight that the nature of the workshops matters if they are to be inclusive. Hands-on and visual approaches enable participants with diverse educational backgrounds, and strengths in different types of intelligence (Gardner, 2000), to share and discuss ideas more effectively. This has been borne out in our experience with the hands-on Ketso kit used in the practice referred to in this article (shown in
Participants building their individual ideas into a shared picture on a Ketso workspace
Source: Authors’ own
The quality of thinking used to develop ideas for change is critical. Whilst this can be seen as a statement of the obvious, our experience suggests that conscious attempts to design effective processes for thinking in groups are rare. Albrechts (2005, 262) emphasises the importance of creative thinking for planners: ‘how many different ways they can look at the problem, how they can rethink it, and how many different ways they can tackle it’. The pillar ‘structure effective thinking and creativity’ reflects the increasing recognition that it is possible to ‘provide a way for people to plan their thinking in a more detailed and explicit way’ (Landry and Bianchini, 1995, 19) – that there are ways of approaching thinking about issues that are more likely to lead to novel insights and possibilities. It is not enough to get a group of different people in the room and ‘have a chat’. This pillar is about the way that ideas are explored and elicited, emphasising the value of conscious application of creative thinking techniques.
A good example of this is applying the systems concept of an appreciative and asset-based approach to the design of coproduction. Sir Geoffrey Vickers (1965) developed the concept of an appreciative system to describe the way in which humans set standards to judge actions and ascribe meaning to concepts. Application of these concepts in grappling with change has led to an increased awareness of the value of taking a positive, appreciative approach to enquiry (Cooperrider and Whitney, 1999). Starting with questions about existing assets helps participants to recognise the value of what is already working. Such a focus on the positive can encourage creativity, whereas starting with a focus on the negative aspects can impede open consideration of new possibilities (de Bono, 1992).
A way of structuring thinking by using different-coloured ‘leaves’ to gather individuals’ ideas (using Ketso) illustrates a process designed to structure effective thinking and creativity. Building on Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) insights into the fundamental importance of metaphor in structuring our thinking, we often use a simple growth metaphor based on the colours of leaves:
brown represents the soil we stand on, the assets that we start with
green represents growth, the shoots of new ideas
grey represents rain clouds, challenges and problems and
yellow represents the sun, the goals that drive us.
Each leaf colour is used in turn for participants to develop their answers to questions of different types, starting with assets, then focusing on future options, before the (very important) attention to challenges and ways to overcome them. We have observed participants generating more ideas, and more creative ideas, when questions are asked in this way than when the discussion starts by thinking about the problems. Like a language, this process gains in utility as it is practised, as using it builds more capacity for effective thinking.
Structuring effective thinking requires more than just consideration of the types and order of questions that are asked. Attention also needs to be given to the scope and topics of discussion. For instance, it is important to consider the tangible elements of urban form as well as the social connections and values that people attribute to places, and to provide prompts to encourage a holistic view – otherwise it is likely that key issues will be overlooked.
Similarly, it is important to ensure that issues are considered across levels of scale. Systems thinking identifies the operational value of considering any phenomenon as a nested system (Checkland, 1992). The functions and relations of these nested systems all need to be considered – ideally looking at least one level of scale up and down from the system of concern. This has implications for the design of a thinking process. What levels of scale are appropriate foci for the discussion? What are the strategies for surfacing issues that pertain at different levels of scale? Are the themes being used to structure the discussion sufficiently comprehensive to allow exploration of issues at varying levels of scale?
The pillar ‘link information across time and place’ is inspired by the systems concept of emergence and learning. An emergent property is one that comes from the interaction of parts – which cannot be predicted by the parts. It is impossible to precisely predict the outcomes of changes made in a complex system, hence there is a need to learn from the impacts of our actions (Holling, 1978). We cannot learn from what has gone before if we do not know about it. This applies on many levels, a basic one being the need to gather information about the results of any given actions or interventions so that we can reflect upon them and navigate towards desired outcomes effectively.
This pillar leads to the final injunction of this heuristic – to create joined-up cycles of action and learning – where appropriate and possible. In the context of an ongoing process, the group of engaged stakeholders will naturally shift over time; there will always be an element of having a ‘moving target’, and consequently shared maps of vision/purpose and action plans will need to be renegotiated and refined repeatedly as the system changes (hopefully) towards the desired state.
The full heuristic is depicted in
Proposed normative heuristic for effective coproduction processes
Source: Authors’ own
Seek to engage and include ‘everyone’.
A Have a map-making dialogue.
B Feed the results of the map-making process back to stakeholders (as widely as possible).
Act, make interventions/changes, informed by the shared visions and action plans.
Feed results of actions back to stakeholders and into further dialogues and map-making.
The heuristic set within this action and learning sequence has the following features of note:
A system of interest – the boundary is defined through the coproduction process, and is likely to include nested and overlapping subsystems. It includes influence from broader systems such as the environment, policies and economics.
A grouping of stakeholders relevant to the system of interest, with connections and relations amongst them that change over time. There is a fluid boundary between engaged stakeholders and those not actively engaged. This includes a vital coordination role that supports and resources the dialogues and enables feedback to partners and sharing information with wider stakeholders.
This includes a vital coordination role that supports and resources the dialogues and enables feedback to partners and sharing information with wider stakeholders.
A core activity – dialogues with the co-creation of shared maps.
Feedback to stakeholders after events – important for building relationships, capacity and engagement.
An action-learning cycle of interventions, informed by the map-making, leading to results that can be observed and fed back to support further dialogue and actions. Actions can be both specific to the initiative and others that stakeholders are carrying out – activity is informed, rather than prescribed, by the shared maps. The feasibility or desirability of shared delivery can be considered in the dialogue.
Actions can be both specific to the initiative and others that stakeholders are carrying out – activity is informed, rather than prescribed, by the shared maps.
The feasibility or desirability of shared delivery can be considered in the dialogue.
Potential benefits of applying the heuristic
This heuristic is designed to be applicable to coproduction initiatives of any focus and level of scale. It is not always possible or desirable to aim for ongoing cycles of action and learning, but map-making of knowledge for change can be beneficial even in ‘one-off’ events. First, engaging with a well-designed process that is aligned with the pillars can create immediate value for the participants, acting as concentrated times of developing ideas and mutual understanding. Second, if the coproduced maps are recorded and shared, the shared perspectives can propagate more widely across all stakeholders to build knowledge and connections over time. Our experience has identified potential beneficial outcomes that can arise from map-making aligned with the heuristic. They are by no means guaranteed: this is not an exact science, and there are few data that can be used to directly measure outcomes at this time. However, below are some examples that illustrate several such benefits.
Dialogue amongst stakeholders can lead to actionable insights, some of which can be readily realised through the activity of one or more partners. For example, in a workshop on education leading to the production of the Scottish refugee integration strategy, a refugee wrote that ‘refugees speak several business-critical languages’. The discussion before this had been fraught with tensions around the difficulty of providing translators in schools. Once this idea was added to the shared picture, the emphasis shifted towards making the most of refugees’ language skills as an educational asset.
An example of how application of the pillars makes ideas more readily actionable came from a two-day event coordinated by See Me Scotland to help develop a national strategy for tackling stigma in mental health. Over 3,000 ideas were developed by 200 participants. Having participants organise these ideas as they were gathered, with each table using the same set of simple themes and colour codes for types of question, made the ideas easier to analyse and easier to act upon. This ‘structuring effective thinking’ also made it easier to feed ideas forwards into future thinking (thus supporting ‘linking ideas across time and place’).
The process of questioning options for the future together can lead to changes in attitude and knowledge. Several years after workshops developing a plan for a former landfill site in Moston Vale, Manchester, Tippett was told of an occasion when workers from the local council arrived to mow an area that was being developed as a wildflower meadow. Having heard the machinery, several residents rushed out to prevent the workers from mowing. Due to having attended workshops with environmental stakeholders, they knew of the meadow’s ecological value, despite its untidy appearance. The residents called the council and asked for assurances that this would not happen again.
The process can surface place-based knowledge, as noted by a City Council officer: ‘I’ve learned far more now about the Irk valley than I could have thought possible’ (quoted in Tippett, 2004). This benefit also emerges even if the focus is not on planning. A coproduction process exploring well-being and health in west Lancashire with a clinical commissioning group and partners illustrated the value of careful consideration of themes used to structure thinking. Taking a holistic approach meant that a wider range of issues was considered than was likely in a discussion based on service provision alone. Themes around the physical environment, transport and community spirit were included, which led to a realisation of the possible links between poor mental health and the lack of a cemetery in a town with high levels of health inequality. This town also had poor transport connections, which meant that some residents struggled to visit their dead, and therefore deal with their grief.
An opportunity for synergistic working emerged in a workshop bringing together people who live or work in South Manchester, community-sector organisations and social care and health providers to identify the practical skills, knowledge and assets that could improve residents’ health and well-being. A housing association had been planning to set up a cancer support group, but through the workshop learned that there was already such a group that their members could access, and which they could support with their skills. This created beneficial connections and saved resources.
Map-making dialogue can build relationships, trust and mutual understanding. For instance, the value of bringing forward earlier ideas to inform new thinking was demonstrated in an ESRC N8-funded project exploring coproduction in skills development in Greater Manchester. Themes that emerged in analysis of the first workshop were used to structure subsequent workshops, which were seen as ‘ground-clearing, partnership-building and agenda-setting: for local stakeholders, the key learning point was understanding different people’s viewpoints and how the skills system as a whole works together’ (Irvine et al., 2016, 64). In turn, such relationships and understanding can lead to more effective cross-sectoral partnership working.
A useful way of considering these potential benefits as a whole is that of fostering the conditions for systemic change. Many of these potential outcomes could be considered increases in social capital (which emerges from the interactions between people). It is a difficult thing to ‘aim for’ directly, but through engaging with coproduction it can be strengthened (Powell and Dalton, 2003). This, in and of itself, is a significant positive outcome.
Limitations of the heuristic
There is a potential danger in offering a ‘universal’ model – that we risk suggesting inappropriate ways of working in contexts different to the one where the model was created. Healey (2011, 195) reflects that ‘learning from the contingent experiences of others … should help to make we planners less experientially innocent and to deepen our collective memories’. We present this heuristic as a visualisation and a simple set of pillars so that it can be understood by many different actors, thus the means of coproduction can be more readily explored, and designed to suit the context as part of the process.
This heuristic does not cover all aspects of coproduction. It is general and therefore by necessity does not specify, or offer guidance on many of the details that will be needed in a real-life situation. It does not include a particular normative view of ‘good’ outcomes, though the use of such frameworks can be considered as part of structuring effective thinking. It does not show how to turn the coproduced maps into action plans. Nor does it demonstrate how to apply the model to meet particular legislative requirements. Rather, we intend the heuristic to be viewed as a handful of general principles to be applied appropriately to suit the context.
Even careful and skilled application of the ideas and principles within this model will not ‘solve’ broader challenges of power that infuse all real-world contexts. They can, however, go some way towards mitigating these challenges. This is discussed further below, following an exploration of ways the heuristic could sit within planning practice.
Discussion: the heuristic in the context of planning and power
There are three broad contexts in which we anticipate planners might find this heuristic useful. The first is in plan-making. The process of map-making of knowledge for change could usefully inform both the creation of spatial plans and frameworks to guide local development. Its application could extend the ‘map’ (the knowledge of place), creating a richer picture and encouraging a wider questioning around options and resources to help achieve them. The second context is supporting citizens in bottom-up plan-making processes, either as part of statutory planning (such as in Neighbourhood Planning, England), or in ‘uninvited’ spaces and modes of insurgent planning, where community members wish to come up with plans of their own outside the formal planning system. Spatial planning can encompass issues such as climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and spatial policies for improving health and addressing issues of social justice. The third context is cross-sectoral dialogues and partnerships, where planners can play a role as stakeholders or convenors. In addition to bringing spatial knowledge and analytical skills to such contexts, planners can help shape the participatory processes. The heuristic offers guidance in this shaping, and can be shared with partners and participants. This can prompt discussion about how the process can be carried out to greatest effect, and open up possibilities for more reflexive practice.
Any attempt to embrace this approach would need to be weighed against issues of resources, as well as how to adapt it to fit within the particular regulatory system. There could be concern about raising people’s expectations where delivery may not be feasible, especially when opening up the discussion to issues beyond the immediate remit and requirements of a policy or funding initiative. This requires the convenors to be clear about what they are able to do with ideas, which can include making ideas outside their remit available to others who may be able to use them. An example of such sharing of ideas came from Renfrewshire Council’s 2010 Community Planning conference. Participants’ ideas were synthesised to show key priorities for the community plan. The report was circulated widely with an appendix that included all of the ideas contributed, structured by the types of question asked and the themes used to gather ideas. Sharing an accessible record of the group’s thinking helps guard against politicised ‘cherry picking’ of ideas to suit powerful interests.
Mitigating challenges of power and participation
Application of the heuristic can help to mitigate the challenges of power and participation that were set out earlier in this article: concerns about whose voices are heard and the influence brought to bear. This is illustrated below with a vignette from our foundational experience in Moston Vale (participants’ quotations are taken from Tippett, 2004).
Community members and other stakeholders were invited by Tippett to participate in creating a long-term vision for sustainability in the Irk valley in north Manchester, plus a more detailed plan for a twenty-two-hectare former landfill within the valley, Moston Vale. This was in a ward measured as amongst the 8 per cent most deprived in the country. The envisioning was carried out with fifty-one participants from NGOs, community groups, academia, and public- and private-sector organisations, through 18 workshops and site visits.
Participants were made aware that there was no likely source of funding for implementation. An official from the local authority asked to say a few words at the first Moston Vale workshop. He started by clarifying that this was not a formal consultation, and went on (unexpectedly) to stress that there were no guarantees that anything at all would be done with participants’ ideas. This statement threw the challenges of power into stark relief – with the inference that participants’ ideas were not likely to be listened to or to have any influence, and this in turn reduced participants’ willingness to engage. Despite this inauspicious beginning, the way that ideas were jointly developed contributed to the former landfill site being turned into an urban park and community woodland. The initiative explored and tested the ideas that were later to be articulated in this heuristic. The experience showed that all three pillars of the heuristic were important in navigating through issues of power.
In terms of inclusion, Moston Vale residents reported at the outset that they had seen many regeneration programmes but little apparent change. Their sense of not being listened to was reinforced by the comments from the local-authority representative. In such a context of scepticism and wariness about engagement, an attempt to ‘link information across time and space’ helped to build trust. Reports from previous engagement in the neighbourhood were synthesised, and the key issues were introduced in the first workshop. This was identified in follow-up interviews as an important factor in encouraging community members to invest time in this new initiative.
Including different perspectives requires consideration of who is invited and empowered to attend the dialogue. The pillar ‘hear everyone’s voice’ prompts reflection around the following questions: who should be involved? (all who have a stake, both those who are considered ‘socially excluded’ and those with perceived power to effect change). And how can we design the process to have the most potential value for these diverse stakeholders and thus enable them to take part? Such questioning helped to broaden the boundaries of inclusion in Moston Vale. When residents were asked what would help unemployed residents be involved, one answer was ‘gaining a qualification’. This prompted accreditation of the process as a course through the Open College Network, and several participants gained a qualification by taking part in the initiative. It is still possible that groups will be missed out (or feel this is the case). For example, the leader of the youth group commented that they had not been invited, despite a site visit deliberately designed just after the time the group met to make it easy for them to attend. It is important to reiterate the invitation at multiple intervals. This highlights the vital coordination role.
For diverse perspectives to be included in the dialogue, it is not enough for participants to simply attend. Hands-on and visual approaches to gather participants’ ideas are also important to make sure that we ‘hear everyone’s voice’. An unemployed participant reflected,
A lot of people are like me and they’re not good at speaking … But that doesn’t mean to say that everyone else doesn’t want to say things, but they can’t … So they don’t really participate. This [hands-on approach] is magnificent at getting people to participate, and very important.
For participation to have influence, there needs to be both opportunities and resources to implement the ideas developed. Residents commented in interviews that the early focus on assets helped them to think about how they could use existing resources to make the changes they wanted to see. In addition, the very process of blending ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ knowledge helps produce realistic ideas for action, increasing the probability of implementation.
Deliberative processes can produce what Innes (2004, 13) terms ‘network power’, which means that they ‘collectively have a power to influence change or produce their desired outcomes. This is a form of power that grows as it is shared’. Such power was demonstrated when community members discussed their vision for Moston Vale with participants from actors working at the regional scale, who had been invited to attend the final workshop (‘linking information across time and place’). At a table where community members were animatedly placing leaves on a Ketso felt and discussing how their ideas fit into the bigger picture with regional stakeholders, a potential funder was heard to say (with surprise), ‘But that is doable!’. The social interaction sparked this realisation. Further contributing factors to Moston Vale receiving funding from the Newlands regeneration scheme were identified in interviews: the enthusiasm of the community members and participating NGOs, the fact that the plan was well tested, and the close fit of the vision with the ecological objectives of the scheme (enabled by the collaborative process).
The experience in Moston Vale demonstrated that the order in which questions are asked (‘structure effective thinking processes’) can affect the power dynamics between actors. If we start by asking about the problems and challenges, community members and service users are cast as having problems, with experts there to solve their problems. Conversely, starting with a focus on existing assets sets a framing that the participants have knowledge, skills and resources that can be utilised. The resultant sense of empowerment was commented on in the ‘after’ interviews. The process of residents/service users and project officers developing ideas together helps build capacity, developing their ‘power to’ make change (as opposed to waiting for those with ‘power over’ to make changes for them). Thus power can be seen as ‘productive and positive, not only as restrictive and negative’ (Flyvberg, 2001, 131).
There is a danger that a focus on ‘realistic’ plans, and what can be achieved given existing resources, can impede more fundamental questioning about assumptions and overall direction. The heuristic sets out a way to craft a useful learning process that enables stakeholders – all of them – to explore and define for themselves what ‘success’ would look like in their particular context, and how improvements to spaces or systems might be achieved. This can open up consideration of what should be done as well as what can be done with the resources to hand. The process can encourage dialogue about how and when to try to make the more ambitious/fundamental changes happen. This does not solve the problem of a lack of resources, but can aid in finding synergies and ways to work together to make the most of what is available. Having a record of the ideas that cannot be achieved given the current resources can act as an impetus for future change, and the ‘map’ of future desired directions can steer future activity.
Even when major decisions have been made, with no scope to change the decision, for example if a major infrastructure project will be going into an area, it is possible to explore how to make the most of opportunities arising from the change. A participatory process can ascertain what is seen as valuable in an area, so that plans may be modified to save valued local features, or different ways to realise those values can be developed. A small-scale example of such modification in the face of an existing decision came from the map-making in Moston Vale. This elicited information about the Witches’ Stone, a large stone originally from Wales that was used by local children for making wishes. It was located where the water company was about to place a combined sewer overflow, and could easily have been destroyed in the construction work. The stone now sits by a path that traces the 1860 path of the brook (marked with blue lines to represent the buried waterway), both acting as visible echoes of local heritage.
Applying the ideas set out in this discussion could require a culture shift amongst those who convene participatory processes. This was recognised by a regional stakeholder interviewed about the findings from the Moston Vale process: ‘It’s a brave thing to do, to go into an open public participation … because I think that most organisations in the public sector have got an agenda’. He reflected that there are likely to be tensions when this agenda is brought into ‘local communities that have different perspectives, different approaches, different values’. By its nature, coproduction requires new approaches and ways of working on behalf of those who typically are seen to ‘hold power’ in participatory processes – the convenors – as well as on behalf of the ‘participants’. This heuristic sets out broad principles that can guide this process of mutual learning and change.
We developed the heuristic by blending lessons learned from twenty-five years of practice in a variety of different contexts, including environmental and community planning, health and well-being, workforce skills and refugee integration. The aim was to extract a heuristic with sufficient explanatory power, coupled with simplicity and clarity, to be useful when translated between spatial planning and other contexts, and to enable dialogue and learning about the coproduction process itself.
The heuristic is underpinned by three pillars that have been derived from well-established systems theory and extensive practice. Each is conceptually distinct and covers ground that the others do not: the first about who is involved and how, the second about the efficacy of thinking and creative processes themselves, and the third about information flows and feedback over time and place. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive overview and enhance our ability to design effective coproduction processes, and hence to make the most of the time and effort expended in participation.
A key contribution of this article lies in clarifying these three pillars and situating them within a model of coproduction, providing a normative heuristic for the means of participation in planning. Many of the insights behind these pillars have been explored by other planning scholars, for instance Innes and Booher’s (2016) discussion of the conditions that promote ‘collaborative rationality’ echo the pillar ‘hear everyone’s voice’ and include some key insights into ways of ‘structuring effective thinking’, such as looking at how dialogue can reframe issues. Albrechts (2005) has written about the need for planners to explicitly embed creative thinking in their work. The heuristic presented here adds to this earlier work by bringing such insights together in a practical way that can be applied within any planning process. In addition, the heuristic is intentionally designed to increase the tendency for the outcomes of participatory endeavours to add up over time and across organisations and settings, with all three pillars working together to create the conditions for broader synergies to emerge. The considerations encouraged by the pillar ‘linking ideas, information and results across time and place’ are especially important when trying to solve wicked problems that span sectors and levels of scale, and in a context of limited resources to support participatory approaches. For example, it encourages convenors to find out what other engagement has happened in the area to inform their deliberations, and to make the outcomes of their work visible and widely available to others. Whilst some of this concept is touched upon in Innes and Booher’s (2016, 9) discussion of the need for ‘shared understanding of what was decided or what the next steps will be’, the heuristic prompts consideration of how to maximise beneficial connections between and across different participatory dialogues, so that even small-scale endeavours can add up to more than the sum of their parts. This may promote further cross-sectoral and civic innovation, as ideas from participatory events are shared more widely, responding to Galuszka’s (2018, 156) insight that ‘institutional change is highly unlikely to take place without an active civil-society sector that is able to build up its own knowledge and resource bases’.
Surfacing these insights into a coherent visualisation enables more actors to steer effective participatory processes. Even when the full learning loops of the coproduction process outlined here cannot be undertaken, a more limited process of map-making, aligned with the pillars, can lead to beneficial outcomes. Examples of possible beneficial outcomes were illustrated from our practice: participants gaining actionable insights; changes in attitude and motivation; surfacing of place-based knowledge; emergence of synergistic opportunities; building relationships, trust and mutual understanding (supporting effective partnership working); and capacity building to support further action and learning over time.
A further contribution arises from situating this heuristic within a discussion of the challenges of power and participation, which were surfaced from the planning literature. The vignette of Moston Vale illustrates how effective dialogue about desired future directions and possible means of achieving them can increase participants’ capacity to engage and influence change. Applying the three pillars of effective coproduction can increase inclusion and enable greater impact from the process, both directly through developing plans that are more likely to be implemented, and indirectly through creating and sharing maps of knowledge for change. Challenges of power are inevitable, and there is a risk that critiques of the failure of participation to fully realise its emancipatory promise could impede further attempts to transform practice. By enabling more reflective practice and a wider sharing of the principles of effective coproduction, this heuristic may help actors navigate these challenges and move forward, even when resources to support participatory processes are limited.
Developing and using the Ketso kit gave us a way to operationalise the insights of earlier participation scholars and practitioners. Whilst we have seen many benefits arising from application of the pillars, both in our work and reported in the work of others, there is need for further testing of the heuristic. In particular, further work is needed to operationalise the heuristic in a spatial-planning context, such as through communities and local planning authorities applying it in engagement to develop neighbourhood and local plans. Our hope is that by visualising a comprehensive model, it will be possible for more people to apply and test the ideas set out in this article. Thus we can develop more effective processes of participation, enabling more inclusive and transformative practice in planning and beyond.