Strip-mining communities

David Boyle
26 June 2006

Mary is 79 and lives in Catford, southeast London. She has mobility problems and survives on a small state pension. She has no immediate family and she lives alone.

From one perspective, she typifies the people that so worry policymakers when they contemplate the future and its cohorts of aging baby-boomers. She is a drain on the public purse and a complex collection of problems for health and social-care services.

But look a little closer, and the picture changes. As a member of the "time-bank" at her local health centre, Mary has been exchanging her time with John, a 40-year-old recovering alcoholic, who lives in a hostel nearby. He tends her garden – and learns about plants and planting, guided by her years of experience – and she shares her wisdom and local knowledge with him on walks through the area.

Mary sees the difference in him, but he also knows he is changing too. "I didn't realise I had it in me, to take an interest in people, to be generous with my time with people", he says. "I know this now because Mary showed me."

The value of feeling useful, when your main experience had been as a recipient of welfare service, can be transformative.

The magic in this particular match is not hard to identify: they share a common experience as former civil servants, and a local time-bank had the sense to match them up. More generally, the question is why we still need to define people in ways that can obscure the potential resources they represent for society around them.

David Boyle is an associate at the new economics foundation (nef). He is the co-author (with Sherry Clark and Sarah Burns) of Hidden work: co-production by people outside paid employment (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2006)

His website is here

Catford is only a bus-ride from the centre of government in London's Whitehall district. But the lessons of the "time-bank" initiative have not yet been registered by policymakers there. True, the home office does measure voluntary activity in an unconnected kind of way, but the department for work and pensions is pushing a "full employment" agenda that threatens to strip neighbourhoods of the very people who make the difference between success and failure in the public services – like volunteers, care workers and "co-producers".

That is one of the key warnings in a pioneering study – Hidden work: co-production by people outside paid employment – of the concept of "co-production", where service users are regarded as assets, involved in mutual support and the delivery of services. The title of the report, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and based on research led by the new economics foundation (nef), refers to that real but hard-to-define category of work that is neither voluntary nor paid, neither voluntary sector nor quite public sector either.

The term "co-production" was coined by an Indiana University team in the 1970s, after it tried to understand why crime went up in Chicago when the police got into patrol cars. The answer, discovered the researchers, was that the hidden work by the public preventing crime was ignored and overridden by the change.

Since then, the work of Edgar Cahn, co-founder of the United States national legal services programme, has refined and developed the concept. For Cahn, "co-production" means that – if professionals are going to succeed in the long-term – welfare programmes, policing or health, need to be partnerships between professionals and clients that respect what both sides need to provide.

Hidden or "co-production" work, then, is work carried out "below the radar" of government, but often alongside and supplementary to public services: checking on people when they come out of hospital, running community flats to keep down crime, adopting railway stations.

It is often carried out by people outside paid work, usually the clients of the same services being helped – broadening, deepening and injecting humanity back into the services they provide.

It is also often reciprocal. The work may not be paid, but it is recognised and rewarded by others if not by government – often through time-banks or time-centres like the ones run by research partners at the Wales Institute for Community Currencies, the Gorbals Institute in Glasgow and the South London & Maudsley NHS Trust.

Policymakers don't always see this. They discount this vital work: binding neighbourhoods together, helping local young people, caring or preventing crime and social breakdown, advising people with depression.

They ignore it because it is done by public-service patients or welfare clients, and because the work isn't paid. As a result, the authorities are unaware of how socially valuable this hidden, unrecognised and unrewarded work actually is – and when they do take notice of the people doing it, it is only to attempt to force them instead into inflexible, low-paid employment.

The research in our report suggests that this kind of "work" may have disproportionate value in terms of health-promotion and illness-prevention. It clearly has an effect on self-esteem, and – although public-service administrative systems find this kind of "co-production" difficult to deal with – it can humanise services too.

But who is going to do this work if the government believes working in a check-out is so much more useful to society than preventing crime and keeping people healthy? And how do we show on a balance-sheet the connections between hidden work that is not done, and higher government spending that results from picking up the pieces?

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