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Much of our understanding of co-production rests upon an assumption that professionals are the “regular” producer of public services, and that their practices are changed when citizen co-producers are brought into the process of service delivery. Important research has refined our understanding of the role and motivations of professionals (Tuurnas, 2015) and of citizens (Van Eijk and Steen, 2014; Vanleene et al., 2017) in co-production activities. As citizen participation and co-production of public services become more widely spread, many public service providers increasingly claim that services are designed “bottom-up” or that they are “client/service-user/community driven”, but in reality professionals maintain ownership of the service or project. While literature on active citizenship has considered the role of professionals in facilitating citizen projects (Verhoeven & Tonkens, 2013), the literature on co-production focuses primarily on services that have traditionally been provided by professionals, and relatively limited attention has been paid to the co-production of services that are initiated and controlled by citizens.
This paper addresses this gap, by considering the research question: How can we understand the role of professionals in co-producing services and projects that are ‘citizen-led’? The research is based on a comparative analysis of case studies of different forms of citizen-led co-production in three contexts: a parents’ activity group in England, a weekly community picnic in France, and a drop-in service for vulnerable people in Quebec. These cases were selected from among a broader comparative study of co-production and the non-profit sector in these three contexts, having each been proposed by interviewees as examples where citizens have either initiated or taken the lead in co-producing the service/project in different ways. The paper identifies three different forms of ‘citizen-led’ co-production: (1) citizen owned co-production (or the facilitation of citizen initiatives), (2) citizen-driven co-production (where citizens initiate the collaboration, but the public or non-profit organization maintains control/ownership of the initiative), and (3) transitional and enforced co-production (where co-production is initiated as a means to transfer to full community/ self-organized service provision).
The paper makes an important contribution to the co-production literature, first, by producing new data about the role of professionals in co-production in different contexts and their motivations in taking part in co-production of services where they are not the “regular producer”. Second, the study considers an area of co-production that has been under researched, which is the co-production of services/projects that are citizen led and initiated and where the involvement of the professional is secondary, rather than vice versa. The research therefore creates a much-needed bridge between the literatures on active citizenship/ citizen initiatives and co-production.