Time exchange and reciprocity in the co-production of public services

In today’s blog, Daniel Durrant discusses a paper based on research conducted as part of an evaluation of the Cambridgeshire Time Credits Project which the Cambridge Centre for Planning and Housing Research were commissioned to do. Time Credits are a form of community currency. The particular model discussed in the paper was promoted widely by Spice – an entrepreneurial and rapidly expanding social enterprise.

Time Credits were developed in South Wales having attracted considerable support from the Welsh Assembly and nationally from the Department of Health. The model stresses its origins in the work of Kennedy era policy adviser, Edgar Cahn on Time Banking, with volunteers able to earn a credit for an hour’s voluntary work which they can either exchange for an hour’s reciprocal work or as is more common for an hour’s worth of services from a ‘corporate spend partner’ usually a local gym or cinema.

Cambridgeshire County Council has commissioned Spice to roll out their Time Credits programme in the county with initial trials in Wisbech. A geographically isolated and relatively deprived corner of an otherwise affluent County with an economy focused on agricultural production and the low skilled, insecure and often migrant labour associated with it. The Council’s commitment to the programme and the notions of reciprocity and ‘co-production’ imbedded within the model is both ideological and explicitly financial given the 60 percent reduction in budget they face in the decade 2010-2020. It is the tensions between the rhetoric and reality of co-production identified through the ethnographic component of the evaluation that this paper explores.

Academic interest in reciprocal exchange has a long heritage in the social sciences going back to Marcel Mauss’ work of gift exchange. David Graeber (2001) contrasts this ‘open’ reciprocity, implying a relationship of permanent mutual commitment, to the ‘closed’ balancing of accounts that occurs within a money transaction. It has also been identified as one of the internal logics of co-production in its current form in UK policy making (Glynos and Speed, 2012) seen in recent Coalition policy such as the Big Society. The concept, as applied to UK policy, is a fuzzy one containing a whole range of aspirations from the ‘transformational’ alternative forms of economic activity and democratic renewal to the more prosaic service improvement through dialogue with users.

Our findings were that on a personal level, for many the experience did indeed have a transformational element with considerable success in attracting what we describe as ‘non-traditional’ volunteers. Furthermore, we found clear evidence that the physical and mental health benefits associated with volunteering were present and that the programme was giving people and crucially families on low incomes access to physical and leisure activities often denied them by a punitive welfare regime.

The concept of co-production promoted by Spice, however, had very little resonance amongst the volunteers or the community organisations administering the programme. First, for volunteers there was very little reciprocal exchange with Time Credits generally spent with the corporate spend partners and valued as such. These interactions were much closer to closed monetary exchanges. Second, in terms of shifting the balance of power between the recipients and providers of welfare services, there was some evidence that Time Credits were a useful tool for skilled community workers. Yet with austerity reducing the number of these workers and increasing the workloads of the remainder there is little evidence that volunteers, earning Time Credits, can replace this capacity.

This led us to the conclusion that the form of co-production was what Glynos and Speed describe as ‘additive’ in that the users of a service are clearly involved in the delivery of a model that supplements existing provision. In this case the addition is set against the withdrawal of services and resources. We believe this calls into question the rhetoric of reciprocity within the entrepreneurial, contract driven model of time exchange pursued by Spice. It may fit neatly with local government priorities to reduce welfare expenditure, yet we found very little evidence of the more ‘transformative’ aspects of co-production. This suggests that in the absence of wider economic shifts there are limits to the extent to which the model can fill the gap in services left by austerity policies or on its own address the deed rooted problems faced by communities in places such as Wisbech.

Daniel Durrant is now a Lecturer in Infrastructure Planning at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning where he takes (and encourages students to take) a broad view of infrastructure, that includes physical infrastructures, emerging technologies on the way to becoming infrastructures and institutional and includes ethical frameworks as infrastructures. The paper discussed in this blog draws on research into civil society and the infrastructures it produces. It was conducted whilst he was working at The Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research with former colleague Dr Gemma Burgess who is a Senior Researcher there.

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