Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

New Relational Processes in Social Services

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

New Relational Processes in Social Services

Article excerpt


The paper sets out to explore the concepts of social partnerships, social co-production, and governance, comparing current thinking and on-going research.

Third sector organisations give rise to or are active participants in these processes, which are becoming increasingly important in the realm of contemporary welfare arrangements thanks to their ability to address the current multiform needs seen in such relational networks among different actors and to introduce innovation in the offer of services, with the goal of providing an adequate and effective answer to ever more complex needs. In this connection, there are two emerging phenomena that will be referenced in the following pages: social partnerships and the co-production of services.

The function of governance, or co-governance, is essential in both of these processes (social partnerships and co-production) and often affects the role that third sector organisations can play in policy planning as well as the contribution they can offer to improving well-being and quality of life within the community.

2.Social partnerships, that is, multiple relational processes

The term 'partnership' refers to a structural configuration characterised by the co-presence of different social subjects - state, market, and third sector - and by reciprocal and collaborative social action that seeks to achieve project goals and is based on the implementation of mostly medium- to longterm relations (Osborne, 2000; Powell and Geoghegan, 2004; Glendinning et al., 2002; Newman, 2001; Rummery, 2002; McQuaid, 2000; Boccacin, 2005; 2008; 20141).

Social partnerships are equal collaborations between third sector organisations, local public agencies, and market enterprises, founded on reciprocal relations and voluntarily established, in which resources, capabilities, and risks are shared for the realisation of a multidimensional project not achievable by any of the individual entities (Boccacin, 2009).

A recent emerging orientation regarding some 'mature' partnership forms realised in the area of human services points to species-specific networking that connects different partnerships with one another; through shared planning, the different parties are involved in continuous processes of reciprocal learning, mediation, and innovation (Seitanidi, Crane, 2009; Archer, 2010). This method allows them to expand their know-how and improve expected performance from the perspective of a concrete assessment of shared work (Mann, 1997).

The latter tendency sheds light on some points of contact between social partnerships and service co-production practices. Both of these, as shall be shown analytically in the following section, have the goal of realising a service that neither partner is able to work toward on an individual basis (Dekker 2010).

3.What is co-production? Definitions, typologies, functions

The term 'co-production' entered the field of sociological reflection only recently, with respect to the third sector, in particular. As with many other sociological concepts, this term is characterised by a polysemy that, on the one hand, allows it to be applied to many and diverse situations while, on the other hand, it makes it difficult to establish an analytical definition that could promote a comprehensive review of the conceptual debate (Verschuere, Brandsen, Pestoff, 2012).

The concept was first used by Ostrom (1996), who defined this process as a 'mix of activities through which institutional agencies and citizens contribute to the realisation of public services. The former employ professionals who are situated within an explicit procedural and normative context (these are the so-called "rule makers") while citizens make individual voluntary contributions aimed at enhancing the quality or quantity of services that they themselves use' (Ostrom, 1996: 1073).

From a sociological standpoint, the pertinent element of this definition is its 'voluntary' aspect, which underscores the subject's intentionality in freely choosing to contribute and participate in the process of service co-production, both to benefit others through one's actions as well as to increase one's own personal benefit. …

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