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Co-Production 2.0: Retrofitting Human Service Programs to Tap the Renewable Energy of Community

Edgar Cahn

During the 1980’s recession, Monsignor Charles Fahey who then headed Catholic Charities declared: “I have good news and bad news that can all be summed up in a single statement: We have no money; all we have is each other.”

We know from the last election that a radical breakthrough becomes possible when a new way is found to enlist the community as active partners in getting voter turn-out. But it is one thing to mobilize short term support around an election or an issue. It is much tougher to secure sustained engagement as part of an ongoing system to meet civic needs or address critical social problems.

Co-Production 1.0 During the recession of the 1980’s, one form of citizen engagement emerged that purported to do this. It was called co-production. The initial version, Co-Production 1.0, was formulated based on case studies where residents of the favelas in Brazil had enabled the government to save money and install a superior waste management system using smaller pipes that snaked more efficiently through and around the hilly terrain of the slums. The second site was  Nigeria where parental involvement had enhanced their children’s schooling until the national government’s centralized authority put an abrupt end to local engagement.

For a brief period during the recession of the 1980’s, Co-Production 1.0 became fashionable promoted by scholarly articles analyzing the role of citizens as co-producers. Political scientists documented how neighborhood watches enhanced crime control; curbside trash pick-up made waste management more efficient; parent campaigns enhanced public education systems; and consumer groups promoting wellness effected changes in health care.

Three major shortcomings emerged that ultimately inhibited the expansion of Co-Production 1.0: free riders, burn-out and bureaucratic resistance. When citizen labor produces a public good, those who do the real work resent free riders who benefit from their labor without contributing. Yet, a true public good is supposed to be available to all, regardless of who has contributed. Second came burn-out. Neighborhood watches, sustained parental participation, health promotion all require more than short term, one time investments. For the individual co-producer, there is often no direct return, no clear improvement based on their personal contribution. Attrition takes a toll. Finally, short-sighted bureaucratic self-interest militates against co-production. Citizen engagement could be invoked as a rationale for cuts in budget and staff. Co-Production 1.0 faded from public view.

The Evolution of Co-Production 2.0
In rough times when people have no money, barter always stages a comeback. The 1980’s were no exception. Barter  clubs proliferated and used barter credits as a currency like money –until the IRS cracked down collecting taxes based on the market value of the credits. There was one exception: Time Banking. Originally called service credits, they simply recorded the hours a person volunteered to help someone else. One person earned; the other person was debited. The IRS scrutinized them, then ruled that they were not “commercial exchanges” for three reasons. The purpose was charitable; all hours were valued equally, regardless of market value. And the exchanges did not create a legally enforceable right to any service in return. The balance in one’s Time Bank account only reflected a moral obligation, a personal expectation that a prior contribution would be honored. Since the IRS’ books did not record or acknowledge the existence of moral obligation, it could not tax something that did not exist.

Over a two decade period, TimeBanking has spread to 37 countries. At latest count, in the United States, there are now TimeBanks in forty states. Initially, Time Banking was funded as a way to provide informal support to older adults who otherwise were at risk of needing institutional care in a nursing home. What the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded as a service delivery program quickly confused observers because it looked more and more like a new kind of extended family. Professional evaluators found that Time Banking was more than a bundle of exchange transactions; the reports end up talking about social networks that have a life of their own. Non-profit organizations sometimes think of TimeBanking as one more volunteer program but participant thinks of themselves differently, as members with a real relation both to mission and to each other. They want their capacities to be used and they know they have something to offer. The accountants aren’t sure what to do because they don’t know if the books will ever be balanced. Often, the Time Dollar deposits don’t get spent; yet they seem to create a loyalty that rivals Frequent Flyer miles.

Change agents in different fields and agencies began to experiment with Time Banking. Consistently, there was a realization that each could use Time Banking to realize their organization’s mission more effectively if it enabled  them to secure genuine participation from their clients and communities. TimeBanking popped up in efforts to improve child care, education, mental health, juvenile delinquency, prisoner reentry, de facto segregation, community alienation, social isolation, and the dissolution of neighborhoods. Gradually, it became clear that those seemingly disparate initiatives shared certain core values and operating principles. Two kinds of energy converged: a hunger to rebuild community and a drive to redress injustice that stemmed from intolerable disparities.

Co-Production 2.0 was born with the articulation of those Core Principles:
An Asset Perspective: Every human being had capacity to help in ways that others needed.
Honoring Real Work: Work that the market did not value – caring, mentoring, civic participation, cultural celebration, social justice campaigns, environmental prservation – done by people not in the labor force was still real work that needed to be recorded, valued and rewarded.

Reciprocity: One way helping transactions disempower and devalue people who receive help. Giving back empowers those who receive help. Pay-it-forward needed to be part of helping.

Community: No Man is an island. We are social beings. The privilege and confidentiality of professional services can perpetuate isolation and vulnerability. Collective events and projects can empower.

Respect: Those with power and wealth need to be held accountable by those in community who may be silent and who feel powerless. We need to create ways to amplify their voices

Together these add up to a new version of Co-Production, one that remedied the earlier version’s shortcomings. Time Banking had provided a way to reward co-production needed to prevent burn-out. One hour of contribution earns one time credit. But the currency did more than just supply an incentive. The bookkeeping system generated a database that mapped previously unknown capacity. That in turn could be used to address  unmet need. The credits earned confer a form of purchasing power that translates into what economists call effective demand. Since all could contribute so all could partake. That solved the free rider dilemma. It also generated a reliable, continuously renewed labor pool. Equally important, it produced a constituency that could be mobilized to speak to funders.

Even in its early stages, Time Banking supplied a form of empowerment. It changed citizens from passive consumer to active co-producers who have earned the status of stakeholder. In sum, TimeBanking’s tax-exempt currency supplied the missing elements needed for Co-Production 2.0 to evolve.

Monsignor Father Fahey’s words still ring true: “All we have is each other.” But Co-Production 2.0 transforms the “each other” into a potentially vast economic resource. It provides a social technology that has proven able to surmount the shortcomings of the earlier version. Remarkable applications have demonstrated this in the United States, England, Scotland and Wales.

In Chicago, Albany and Lynn, disadvantaged youth have earned Time Dollars tutoring younger students; They have cashed the Time Dollars in for recycled computers – but the real breakthroughs have been in test scores, attendance, morale and violence reduction.

In Washington DC, a Time Dollar Youth Court handles over 65% of non-violentjuvenile crime. Recidivism has gone down by more than 50%. But perhaps the most significant accomplishment was captured by one former offender serving as a juror when she  told an official Juvenile Justice Board: “I learned my acts had consequences.”

In Oakland California, the Department of Public Health confronting violence between long time Black residents and newly arrived Hispanic neighbors realized after shootings that it needed to confront the latest form of lead poisoning: bullets. A previously all-Black church became the home of the TimeBank program with both an Hispanic and African American matchmaker. A rigorous evaluation designed to measure changes in the “collective efficacy” of that community found a significant decrease in violence coupled with an increase in trust and sense of control. Jointly, African Americans and Hispanics were reclaiming habitat -and in doing so, they were welcoming back persons returning from prison who would otherwise have been treated as social lepers. Instead they were enlisted in the TimeBank as homecomers and co-workers.

In New York City, local newspapers have been describing the TimeBank groups set up by the Visiting Nurse Service as mini-United Nations gatherings where exchanges are continually bridging traditional divides of nationality, language, ethnicity, gender, age and class.

In Rhode Island, an organization led by families whose children have been diagnosed with serious emotional disturbance now utilizes Time Banking to provide support to other families throughout the state for children who may be bipolar, autistic or schizophrenic but who with mutual support are able to function, learn, develop and contribute. The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families now contracts with this family-centered organization to assist in the redesign of the entire state system for children at risk of institutionalization.

In Phillippi, West Virginia, euphemistically designated a “distressed county,” seniors in wheel chairs describe ways they earn Time Dollars. One on oxygen says: “I stuff envelops to get my grass mowed.” Another points to a young man, a veteran from Iraq who says he still can’t be around large groups of people. She says: “He’s asked me to help him with his job. He trains seeing-eye dogs. And he needs me because those dogs have to learn to be around people in wheel chairs.” Everyone is needed; everyone is valued.

Both in the United Kingdom and the United States, the rate of new start-ups has doubled. Major faith-based organizations are now exploring parnterships: Lutheran Services and World Vision in the States; Jewish Care in the United Kingdom. Political parties gearing up for the next election in the UK are including TimeBanking in their platforms. The volunteer movement in the UK is now embracing Time Banking; Time Centers in Scotland are all adopting Time Banking. Similar developments are emerging in Wales and England. The growth of TimeBanking in Great Britain has been spurred by major awards: Castlemilk, an impoverished community of relocated families in Scotland won the Queens Award for Volunteering. Clapham Park TimeBank addressing major mental health problems in a low income community in London won the Residents Involvement award from Metropolitan Housing Group. The Rushey Green Time Banks operating out of a medical center where patients are referred to the Time Bank won the Sustainable City Award from the City of London.  A major housing developer operating vast housing complexes includes Time Banking as part of its core infrastructure for tenants.

The case is easily overstated. It has been an uphill slog for two decades. Elevating clients and communities that were previously defined as “problems” to the status of co-producers requires system change. Organizations earn their money by paying staff to manage caseload. Status comes from one’s role in parsing out limited supply of time and resources. Funders do not pay service providers to generate co-production – at least not yet. The TimeBank infrastructure has costs; some staff, a computer, refreshments, space, phones, brochures, and space produce an awesome multiplier effect but an initial investment is needed – at a time when money is scarce and competition is brutal. Nothing short of retrofitting will enable highly professional agencies to tap the vast renewable energy of community.  To take Co-Production 2.0 to scale will take an investment that involves retrofitting  human services agencies that are already overburdened and in crisis. That will not be easy.

Co-Production 2.0 is a young social technology. It cannot be forced down people’s throat. And it competes with urgent demands just to maintain the status quo. Retrofitting means “furnishing new or modified parts not available or considred necessary at the time of manufacture.” When manufacturing companies undertake to “retrofit” their plants to become more energy efficient, they start with an energy audit that looks at present energy costs, at inputs and outputs – and then analyzes what changes are possible, what the costs are, what the savings will result from different modifications. Typically, the company undertaking the retrofit projects the savings and takes its compensation in the form of a percentage of what will be saved over a period of several years. We can do the same with a retrofit of Co-production 2.0. We know the present costs of systems that are failing – and the social costs that come from the inability of  present systems to address unmet need. A co-production audit instrument has already been developed that analyzes the extent to which some elements of co-production are already in place. We have enough experience to know that retrofitting to generate Co-Production works. The pay-off could be major – but it would be foolhardy to underestimate the risk and the potential resistance.

Initiating Co-Production 2.0  – A Phased Process
Multiple steps are involved beginning with a Co-Production Audit that documents the costs of present systems and the gains that “retrofitting” could generate. What is needed first and foremost is genuine organizational commitment and more than lip-service support from leadership. Then comes the process of building a shared vision in the community for the new possibilities that Co-Production 2.0 offers. Outsiders cannot do that. A core team must be built that takes ownership of the vision. Then comes the design process because Time Banking can be adapted and used in a variety of ways. Steps toward implementation need to be mapped. After that comes the ongoing process of securing multi-level buy-in while engaging in staged implementation. The plan can target some quick, visible gains but any effort will encounter set-backs and disappointments.

We are fortunate to live at a moment of opportunity when there is an expanded sense of possibility. As President Obama said: “We are the change that we have been waiting for.” If we seize the moment, we will realize the full import of Monsignor Fahey’s good news: “All we have is each other.” And that is all we need.

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