Coproducing California’s safety services

by Justine Dodgen

As municipalities struggle with the rising costs of providing public services, many are looking for new methods to relieve fiscal stress. One popular strategy has been the use of coproduction mechanisms. Coproduction describes a partnership between volunteer members of the public and public departments or agencies. These partnerships can have a wide range of formality, from neighborhood watch groups to volunteer translators to formal volunteer police reserves. The key to coproduction is that the department’s public services are delivered by both groups, the formal and the volunteer.

Last week, Bedrosian Faculty member Juliet Musso gave a presentation about her current research with Price Assistant Professor Mike Thom and Doctoral student Matthew Young on the use of coproduction strategies in California city public safety departments. Of 467 California cities, about 40% of police and 25% of fire departments coproduced services with volunteers in 2010.

Musso looked at statewide data on California cities to attempt to identify what factors or characteristics influence a city’s use of coproduction strategies within public safety. Some of the factors she tested were population size, whether the city had a charter, if the city used private contracts for police/fire, per capita taxes, certain crime rates, and the ratio of residents voting democratic or republican.

Looking at data for these factors, Musso found that the biggest factor that influenced coproduction was contracting, with cities that contracted out police and fire services less likely to have coproduction mechanisms. Cities with property crime and more residents voting were republican were also associated with voluntary policing coproduction. For fire, cities with a city charter were less likely to have coproduction, as were very small and very large cities.

Based on these finding, Musso highlighted that political ideology may be associated with the presence and reliance on public safety volunteers. This may be due to an alignment between an ideology of volunteerism in public safety and political conservatism, she noted. In addition, coproduction and contracting may be substitutes, since cities with contracts were less likely to utilize coproduction.

One obvious benefit of coproduction is the cost savings to municipalities, who can use volunteer efforts to supplement their work. Musso also noted that using coproduction mechanisms to support volunteerism is also an important way for cities to provide communities with civic education and a means to develop social capital.

In addition to its benefits, coproduction also has its challenges. Equity can be an issue, as lower-income neighborhoods may have less social capital and capacity to develop and support volunteers. Management challenges can also arise from coproduction if cities don’t have protocols in place for how to manage volunteers or don’t clearly define volunteer roles.

Musso emphasized the importance of remembering that coproduction is very context-based, and the drivers and type of coproduction can vary case by case. As each city decides how and if to use coproduction for public safety, they must remember to consider their own unique context and history.

We look forward to following Juliet’s continued research! To find out more about other faculty research updates, click here.