Frontline attitudes towards emotional closeness in co-produced public service

Catherine Needham , Nanna Møller Mortensen

Publikation: Konferencebidrag uden forlag/tidsskriftPaper uden forlag/tidsskriftForskning


Governments have introduced co-production worldwide to modernize and improve public service delivery (Osborne et al., 2016). Co-production leads to a ‘radical reinterpretation’ of the transactional user-staff relationship, which shifts emphasis from a top-down, one-directional relationship to a more collaborative relationship based on empowerment and shared decision-making (Steen & Tuurnas 2018). However, some aspects of the transformed professional practice and user-staff relationships necessitated by co-production are underdeveloped, both normatively and empirically (Park 2019). This paper focuses on relationality at the frontline by exploring this question: if co-production prescribes new relationships between frontline staff and service users, how does this interact with the existing norms of emotional display which professions and bureaucracies have developed? Based on the literature on emotional boundary work, we set out a continuum of emotional closeness, which distinguishes between at one end authentic/naturalistic relationships with informal and personalised display rules, and at the other end distant/professional relationships with formal and depersonalised display rules. The continuum is used to investigate norms of emotional display by frontline staff in two Danish care services. The two services gravitate towards different ends of the continuum, enabling us to explore how these differences in emotional display rules affect co-production processes and the desired goal of user independence. Our findings indicate that it is likely that services which establish display rules linked to emotional warmth and closeness will be more successful at co-design than services based on norms of emotional distance. However, too much emotional closeness can become a barrier for co-delivery due to encouragement of dependence and over-attachment. Given that co-production has often been hard to implement and sustain, this study helps draw out different reasons why co-production can be abandoned by frontline staff. It contributes to a wider understanding of relationships and interactions between frontline staff and service users in coproduced public services, and how staff adhere to or deviate from expected norms (Gofen, 2013). The study brings insights into how emotional closeness/distance within these relationships can contribute to or decrease the effectiveness and sustainability of co-production.


KonferenceInternational Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) Conference 2021


  • social care
  • emotional labour
  • professionalism
  • boundaries


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