Citizen participation in health service co-production is increasingly enacted. A reason for engaging community members is to co-design services that are locally-appropriate and harness local assets. To date, much literature examines processes of involving participants, with little consideration of innovative services are designed, how innovations emerge, develop and whether they sustain or diffuse. This paper addresses this gap by examining co-designed initiatives through the lens of social innovation – a conceptualisation more attuned to analysing grassroots innovation than common health services research approaches considering top-down, technical innovations. This paper considers whether social innovation is a useful frame for examining co-designed services.
Eighty-eight volunteer community-based participants from six rural Australian communities were engaged using the same, tested co-design framework for a 12-month design and then 12-month implementation phase, in 24 workshops (2014–16). Mixed, qualitative data were collected and used to formulate five case studies of community co-designed innovations. A social innovation theory, derived from literature, was applied as an analytical frame to examine co-design cases at 3 stages: innovation growth, development and sustainability/diffusion.
Social innovation theory was found relevant in examining and understanding what occurred at each stage of innovation development. Innovations themselves were all adaptations of existing ideas. They emerged due to local participants combining knowledge from local context, own experiences and exemplars. External facilitation brought resources together. The project provided a protective niche in which pilot innovations developed, but they needed support from managers and/or policymakers to be implemented; and to be compatible with existing health system practices. For innovations to move to sustainability/diffusion required political relationships. Challenging existing practice without these was problematical.
Social innovation provides a useful lens to understand the grassroots innovation process implied in community participation in service co-design. It helps to show problems in co-design processes and highlights the need for strong partnerships and advocacy beyond the immediate community for new ideas to thrive. Regional commissioning organisations are intended to diffuse useful, co-designed service innovations. Efforts are required to develop an innovation system to realise the potential of community involvement in co-design.