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Co-design makes consultation more efficient, effective and responsive to needs. More importantly, it makes communication more trustworthy, more valued – and transforming for those who use it.

The public become, not the passive recipients of services, but the active agents of their own life. They are trusted to make the right choices for themselves and their families. They become participants in the true sense of the word.

We believe that to develop and design for clients’ needs and desires is based on co-design...

Equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services.

There is no doubt that the idea of Co-design has arrived and this is important and exciting for those of us who have been trying to shape a new conversation along these lines, arguing that the key to reform is to encourage users to design and deliver services in equal partnership with professionals.

Obviously, the users are an immense hidden resource which can be used to transform services – and to strengthen their environments at the same time.

The reason for this interest is simple. While policymakers might not always be able to acknowledge it, previous approaches to the reform and improvement have largely run their course

However all sectors face an unprecedented set of challenges: increasing demand, rising expectations, seemingly intractable social problems and, in many cases, abridged budgets. As witnessed in many quarters, reform can’t confront these challenges effectively.

Co-design is a way of thinking about public sector which has the potential to deliver a major shift in the way we provide health, education, policing and other services, in ways that make them much more effective, more efficient, and so more sustainable.

We believe that for co- design to be successful means expanding diverse collaborative methods like workshops, cultural analyses and gender considerations, but also variety of expertise, intellectual perspective, values and interests. They are all important for improving services.

Reform in Public Sector

The public sector in an operational form which has remained largely constant and unchanged for many decades and has not managed to significantly narrow inequalities of income or health or to strengthen social solidarity.  

Neither, in general, has the welfare state successfully tackled the underlying reasons why problems emerge in the first place. Now it also has to cope with the implications of environmental degradation, an ageing society and a dysfunctional global financial system.

Something has to change. The reason our current services are so badly equipped to respond is that they have largely ignored the underlying operating system they depend on: the social economy of family and neighbourhood

We can no longer rely on continuing economic growth to provide enough finance for public services, or on pseudo-market mechanisms to make sure they are efficient. Because the financial system is unreliable and markets historically do not tackle inequalities.

If we are to avoid a massive decline in the latitude and purpose of our services, we need to reshape them.

The public sector has become constrained by a fixation with centralised targets, deliverables, raising fictitious standards which has narrowed the focus of many services and often undermined the relationships between professionals and patients, or between teachers and pupils.

Contrary to the hopes of many policymakers, artificial divisions between different categories of users, between professionals and clients, and between different service budgets, have all served to make the system more inflexible than before.

 If we are to make sure our public services are more effective, we need new ideas to reshape them.

What TLConsult and Co-Design Is

Co-design 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.

Our welfare state has improved the lives of millions of people over the past three generations. But it has not, generally speaking, made people healthier and more self-reliant; as we have seen, far from a gradual reduction in costs and demands for services, the very opposite has been happening.

The Co-design critique suggests that the conscious or unconscious maintenance of service users as passive recipients is not just waste of their skills and time; it is also the reason why systemic change doesn’t happen.

When people are never asked to give anything back, and when the assets they represent are ignored or deliberately side-lined, they deteriorate. The fact that social needs continue to rise is not due to a failure to consult or conduct opinion research, or even a failure to find enough resources. It is due to a failure to ask people for their help and to use the skills they have.

The central idea in Co-design is that people who use services are hidden resources, not drains on the system, and that no service that ignores this resource can be efficient. The people who are currently defined as users, clients or patients provide the vital ingredients which allow public service professionals to be effective. They are the basic building blocks of our missing neighbourhood-level support systems – families and communities – which underpin economic activity as well as social development.

Co-design suggests ways we can rebuild and reinvigorate this core economy and realise its potential. It suggests that public sector need to be turned inside out, so that they can rediscover the human resource sand remake the social networks that reduce demand on professionals and support public service interventions to succeed. This means that we must unleash the huge wasted resource represented by the recipients of services, and their families and neighbours.

TLConsult Co-design shifts the balance of power, responsibility and resources from professionals more to individuals, by involving people in the delivery of their own services.

Co-design is central to the process of growing the core economy.

TLConsult Co-design recognises that people are not merely repositories of need or recipients of services, but are the very resource that can turn the public sector around.

Co-design means unleashing a wave of innovation about how services are designed and delivered and how resolutions are achieved, by expecting professionals to work alongside their clients. It offers to transform the dynamic between the public and public service workers, putting an end to ‘them’ and ‘us’. Instead, people pool different types of knowledge and skills, based on lived experience and professional learning.

TLConsult Co-design makes strengthening the core economy of neighbourhood and family the central task of all public services. This means:

  • Recognising people as assets, because people themselves are the real wealth of society.
  • Valuing work differently, to recognise everything as work that people do to raise families, look after people, maintain healthy communities, social justice and good governance.
  • Promoting reciprocity, giving and receiving – because it builds trust between people and fosters mutual respect.
  • Building social networks, because people’s physical and mental well-being depends on strong, enduring relationships.

Co-design is the model by which public services can begin to prevent social problems like crime and ill-health, understanding that this is only possible by providing a catalyst for citizens to broaden the range of what they already door can do in the future. It means public services building mutual support systems that can tackle problems before they become acute.

It means encouraging behaviour that will prevent these problems happening in the first place, and building the social networks that can make this possible. It means public sector reshaping themselves to build the supportive relationships that can help people or families in crisis carry on coping when they no longer qualify for all-round professional support.

What holds these ventures together, apart from sharing the term ‘co-design’, is that they are all ways in which patients, pupils, parents or service users are being asked to do something, to give back and to help deliver the service. This generally means providing mutual support, which in turn strengthens the delivery of effective public services, but it can mean delivering other aspects of services – not those which require professional skills, but the aspects of services dependent on broader human capacities. Co-design is certainly about effectiveness, but it is also about humanising services.

TLConsult Co-design is about mobilising the huge untapped resources that people represent…

What Co-Design Isn’t

Co-design is not consultation: Co-Design depends on a fundamental shift in the balance of power between public service professionals and users. This is what makes improved effectiveness possible. It goes a long way beyond the blizzard of consultation so favoured by government over the past decade. It is the antidote to the idea that we endlessly need to ask people’s opinion, before handing the service back to the professionals to deliver, since people will be involved in delivery as well. Nor is it all about user management of organisations, important as that might be, because that can only appeal to a small proportion of those who would need to be involved.

What Co-Design Is

Co-design has the capacity to transform public services: Co-design has to be potentially transformative, not just for the individuals involved, but also for the professionals who are struggling to put it into practice and for the system as a whole. Public service workers will need to change the way they think about their role and how they operate and the people they have come to know as ‘users’, ‘patients’ or ‘clients’ who will now become their equal partners; they need to change their attitudes, priorities and training.

TLConsult Co-design has to have equality at its heart. It can only be true to its principles if it is backed by measures to make sure that everyone has the capacity to participate on equal terms…


Co-design is part of a much broader shift that is emerging across all the sectors, and most obviously in those fractures between public and private, or between public and voluntary.

Co-design requires new kinds of organisation and structure to move forward on any scale, not just to allow the experiments to grow, but to take the coproduction reform to scale. This means a new, flexible, local and personal shape to public services that are not possible using current institutions. These are emerging around existing services and beginning to change mainstream services from within.

The culture of targets, standards and best practice tends to count against innovation, and innovation which is designed to impact on more fundamental aspects of service delivery is particularly vulnerable. When there are economic difficulties, those experiments outside the core targets and standards tend to suffer first. A central weakness of targets is that they set prevailing practice in concrete and prevent services from evolving to tackle their key problems. We need to find ways to create the conditions for Co-design to succeed.