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What could co-production mean for social housing?

What is the high-level promise of co-production for social housing?


Co-production presents an opportunity for significant reform and improvement of the design, delivery and monitoring of services within social housing.


If social housing communities are to genuinely thrive, and housing professionals are charged with being the catalysts to transform those communities, then neither “side” can do it alone. Within a context of fewer resources, the only spare capacity within a social housing community is the untapped asset of its residents.


At present, many social housing providers use language that betrays a paternalistic approach to their service provision. Whether housing providers refer to tenants, residents or even customers, the underlying philosophy is that one side provides while the other receives.


Since its inception, but perhaps more so since the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, social housing has been defined by a model of housing the poor and needy. Potential social housing residents are assessed, banded and nominated according to their level of need. By framing residents in this manner, it is perhaps not surprising that they can be seen as passive, “needy” recipients of services rather than assets.


The co-production movement can be the catalyst through which social housing communities can take control of the services they “receive”, and transform themselves into conduits for local employment, empowerment and inclusion.


The professionalisation of the social housing offer over the last thirty years has helped to drive up standards, produce cleaner and safer estates, and better defined what services residents can expect to receive. However, the opportunity cost of this improvement has been, in many instances, a greater distance between social landlords and their residents, both physically and psychologically.


Co-production cannot challenge housing legislation (for the time being), and cannot change the allocations system that perpetuates the need for needs. Co-production can, however, challenge the perception that because of their needs, social housing residents should have services delivered to them.


What would it look like?


For residents


Putting co-production at the centre of the housing model would mean radical change for the social housing model as it stands today.


Residents would be at the heart of the model. This rhetoric has been used for many years in numerous community and housing publications. However, if co-production is to work, and to be truly transformative, residents must be decision-makers, designers, developers, builders, caretakers, fixers, counsellors, advocates and more; assets - not customers, clients or service-users.


Frontline staff


Frontline staff in social housing are dedicated, hard-working, caring and compassionate. For the majority of frontline staff, each working day is varied and full of different challenges which are approached in a reactive, micro-level problem-solving manner.


For co-production to work in social housing, frontline staff must change their approach by seeing themselves not as helpers, givers or empathisers, but as facilitators and enablers. The scale of this challenge is immense, not because frontline staff are not able to make the transition, but because the housing system, at present, is built around delivering services to residents, rather than residents co-producing services with their landlords.


For managers


In turn, managers must create the space for frontline staff to become enablers and community facilitators.


This means taking a deep, hard look at how housing organisations are structured, how they measure success, and whether management targets can be altered to encourage co-production, rather than entrench service delivery.


What might its impact be?


Improved outcomes for residents in: health; confidence; skills, employment, sense of belonging; sense of purpose.


Social housing has already transformed the lives of millions of people by providing high-quality secure homes to replace overcrowded, disease-ridden slum lodgings. However, housing associations now seek to provide far more than just bricks and mortar; creating places where people want to live, building a sense of belonging, and providing a safe and secure environment are all essential elements of the vision of most housing providers.


Within this context, co-production is an opportunity for social housing to transform itself from, in many instances, a deficit-model provider of services into a launch pad for community empowerment and control.

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