Sharing knowledge, sharing hope: a new approach to social service delivery

It’s a paradox of social work that services aimed at helping people get back on their feet and living independent lives have traditionally been “delivered” to them. Their needs are assessed by others, what’s best for them is determined by policies decided far from their day-to-day reality and individual circumstances.

However, that’s starting to change, with a new approach known as “co-production” a social innovation where the service provider becomes a catalyst and facilitator rather than the key provider of services. The need for services is not determined by a provider, rather, professionals, and the people and families being served work together in an equal and reciprocal manner to decide what’s best. Co-production recognizes knowledge gained from personal experience as equally as important as professional expertise in understanding what an individual or family requires.

It’s no small thing to shift from the traditional model to co-production; however, such a profound change in the delivery model requires careful research and planning. For that reason, the Region of Durham Social Services Department staff and Durham College’s faculty and students in the Social Service Worker program did a literature review and environmental scan, interviewing community leaders for insights and perspectives on how co-production has been used to facilitate the delivery of social programs.

Their report explored how co-production is defined, its history, and the benefits. It also reviewed challenges and barriers experienced where co-production is already in use.

The project found that while there are professional, organizational, and evaluation challenges to implementing co-production, outcomes improve for social programs, and services become more cost-effective. It also found individuals feel empowered and experience a greater sense of ownership when they are part of the service delivery process.

Four leaders whose organizations have adopted co-production were interviewed as well. They agreed there is neither a single definition of co-production nor a one-size-fits-all model. They described it as a continuum of practices and a range of activities that share key features, including recognizing the knowledge, skills and expertise of those who use services, and including service users in all aspects of service delivery.

As co-production continues to be applied to a range of public services, there will be a need for more research to understand the model and the circumstances that increase the likelihood of its success. The Region of Durham Social Services Department is an ideal site for a future pilot project focused on co-production.

Funded by: Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund

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