The journey to service co-design

“Inside Mum” – The journey to service co-design in parenting education with practitioners, and women who have experience of the Criminal Justice System

I first started looking at research with the Open University in Criminal Justice in the late 1990s, when I encountered a powerful reader text by Anne Worrall (1990) about the experience of women. This has stayed with me ever since, and is undoubtedly the start of this journey…

In the past in my professional life, I have spent many years working in early years education, where I had the privilege of working with families and parents. As part of this, there was what seemed like a natural progression of my practice into the delivery and development of a range of parenting support and education programmes. Everyone I worked with at the time, and across many different professional groups and agencies, had a real focus on ‘what worked for whom, and why.’

It was these experiences that truly inspired me to the journey of what could make a real lasting difference in terms of evidence, science, and innovation in this space. I was particularly focused on what would be deemed to be acceptable, and appropriate for women who maybe experiencing vulnerability in their lives.

At this time, I encountered families frequently in incredibly challenging situations that rose and thrived, whilst others were not able to (and for many, this was clearly through no fault of their own). Thankfully, there were, and still are many brilliant and inspirational people who fight every day to make a positive difference in this area, such as early years practitioners, midwives, psychologists, and family support workers. It is for them, and the women, and other female carers, that might benefit from this work, which drives me towards this research every day, and this is even so when the going on the journey gets tough and suffers a few setbacks!


“I promise that I will always find a way 

To give you strength to face the day 

Chase the monsters, make them go away 

My beautiful child do not cry 

Nothing will make me give up or say goodbye”. 


From ‘Always There’ by Jade, a Mum in Prison (in Baldwin and Raikes, 2019, p.29) 


So where does service and co-design come into the journey?

I first encountered service design as an emerging profession in the mid-1990s when I was working in central government, and this would have been not long before the early days of becoming a part time undergraduate student in criminology. I still to this day do not know why I fell into this area of study to start with, apart from that I liked the odd crime drama! Back then, designing for services was distinctly information technology based, but for me much of these ideas and methods just seemed to make sense. Service design as a process and mindset, is very much about both thinking, and doing. This area of design works a lot with prototypes and service patterns and is often referred to as a ‘pracademic’ approach.

Fast forward to 2013, and to my role in parenting education, and service design was re-emerged, at my time in an early year’s programme. I was lucky enough to be coached and mentored by some amazing people in this space, and was introduced to the most used, and internationally recognised framework for service design in the form of the Double Diamond (Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver), which was established by the Design Council in the UK (2005). In contrast to the earlier purely IT based service design, which I had experienced (such as the ITIL framework for Service Management), this version of design uses the multiple lens of people, practices, policy and partners, and processes. There are variations on these P’s – but that is for another day! Of the many things I took from this learning (every day a school day!)  was the need for an integral use of evidence and scientific methods, in terms of scaling programmes in ways which make them both engaging and impactful. In addition to this was the importance of the parent voice in designing services. This is what I later discovered as being ‘co-design,’ or deciding together what the service might look like in the future.

My first experience two years later of putting service and co-design in practice with mothers (and female carers) and their infants, proved to be both empowering and powerful. It felt like we were truly learning through designing with each other, and in including what everyone needed, in terms of the outcomes and impact from such programmes.

This certainly can make for an interesting and worthwhile challenge in terms of balancing parenting programme fidelity, personalisation, adaptability, and acceptability. Having a depth focus on quality, impact, need, and life events seemed to be a real ‘recipe’ for success. The only other challenge at the time was clearly, that timelines can be longer for you to pace your service co-design with those that will benefit. However, from what I have seen from the evidence base currently, in my initial literature search, there is a real likelihood that this when used, could lead to longer term sustainable, and positive outcomes.

I also studied a programme in leading in the early years, alongside an academic one in Forensic Psychology. This gave an interesting perspective into these two areas, and led me to undertake some research in parenting education for both fathers (literature review), and mothers (primary qualitative research) in the prison context. The focus in this case, however, was not on service design. The emerging findings and themes (Wood, 2020) from practitioners and those with an interest in the topic, led me to even more curiosity into how practitioners and mothers (and those in mother roles) could work together to create new or adapted designs.

Designing for the 4 Percent

The Criminal Justice Inspectorate (2022, p. 2) currently estimates that as of 2021, 4% (numbering 3,129) of the adult prison population are women (out of a total of 74,994). The exact number of those women who are mothers has surprisingly, until recently largely been unseen and unknown. However, this reports that just over half (52%) of these women have children under eighteen (p. 6). In 2009, it had previously been estimated that there were around 3,000 infants aged two to three years born to women in prisons in England and Wales every year (Galloway, Haynes, and Cuthbert 2014). It is also important to note, that there are many more still, who will have experienced the criminal justice system in the past.

The multi-disciplinary areas of designing for services using co-design owes its heritage to the social and behavioural sciences, business, communications, and ICT. Although maturing, to a certain extent it is still emerging, in terms of the evidence and knowledge base. This is indeed likely to be even more so with this specific group of mums (and female carers) in a criminal justice context. It is with this view, that I am currently in the initial stages of undertaking a scoping review in this area. This will lead to a broader understanding of the status of knowledge and practice, as it is now. It also explores as to whether a future systematic review, in conjunction with primary research, is viable.

The journey towards further research as they say in service design, is a continuing work in progress…


Baldwin, L. and Raikes, B., (2019), Seen and Heard: 100 poems written by children affected by imprisonment,Waterside Press

Council, D. (2005), The ‘double diamond’ design process model. Design Council, 2, p.1

Galloway, S., Haynes, A. and Cuthbert, C. (2014), An unfair sentence—All babies count: Spotlight on the criminal justice system. London: NSPCC

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2022), Focus on Women’s Prisons: A Briefing Paper from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, (downloaded 25.03.23)

Wood, R. (2020), ‘Inside Mum’ – A thematic exploration of public attitudes towards women offenders being offered parenting education, Unpublished MSc thesis, Coventry University

Worrall, A. (2002), Offending women: Female lawbreakers and the criminal justice system, Routledge






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