Here comes the citizen co-producer

The below article is based on the research of Nobel prize (2009) winners in Economics – Professors, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson.

The austere public budgets that will come out of the financial crisis offer, as a silver lining, a renaissance in cooperative citizen engagement in the supply of welfare services

Many countries in Europe are searching for new ways to involve citizens and the third sector in the provision and governance of social services. At a general level, the reasons are similar throughout Europe. They include the challenge of an aging population, the growing democracy deficit at all levels, local, regional, national and European, and the semi-permanent austerity in public finances, prior to the recent worldwide financial melt-down. While the impact of this last is yet to be seen on public services, there is a silver lining: now may be the time for expanding the role of civil society and cooperative production of welfare services.

The concept of co-production brings together studies of third sector provision of public services and citizen participation in the production process. So, research on co-production becomes increasingly intertwined with public management research, as witnessed by various publications on these topics in the relevant journals and book series. Interest in co-production was perhaps originally motivated by potential cost reduction and higher quality services, but more recently it has gained renewed attention due to growing democratic opportunities for direct citizen participation in the provision of important services for their daily life. The growing interest in this phenomenon came together in recent years under the auspices of the European Group for Public Administration (EGPA) and the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM). In 2006 the Public Management Review published a special issue on co-production, called Co-Production. The Third Sector and the Delivery of Public Services.

Individual citizen participation or collective action? Examples:

Co-production can either involve individual or collective participation in the provision of public services and it can also vary in terms of the formality of relations between different actors. Often different types of participation go hand-in-hand and usually involve the same persons. Services as different as local safety and security matters, childcare and health care help to illustrate the two diverse roles citizens can play. Starting with local safety and security matters, as individual citizens they can mark their most valuable possessions, keep a record of them at home and they can also report suspicious persons and activities to the local police. The police, in turn, can inform concerned individuals and groups of citizens about what efforts are most effective for discouraging theft and burglary. Citizens can install better safety and security devices, make sure to close and lock all their doors and windows, both at home and in their vehicles. But neighbors can also set up a neighborhood watch group, organize their schedules and routes, keep an eye on each others houses, report unknown or undesirable persons in the neighborhood to the police, etc. They can meet regularly to discuss additional steps necessary to increase their safety and security and invite the police to attend such discussions.

Turning to childcare, in many EU countries it is financed by public funds regardless of the service provider. But there is a clear difference concerning participation in municipal or private for-profit services and those run by the parents themselves. In municipal services and private firms providing childcare, individual parents can contribute used or new toys to the childcare center and their time and efforts to planning and arranging the Christmas or Spring party. They can also participate in the fall and spring cleaning and maintenance of the premises, make ad hoc suggestions about daily activities and outings, and they can even sit on a committee of parents to promote a dialogue with the staff. The staff can provide parents with individual and group information concerning activities and developments in the childcare center. Parents who want more insights and influence on their children’s daily activities can join together to form a parent co-op or parent association to run the facility. If so, they are responsible for all aspects of managing the childcare center. A work obligation is a normal part of this kind of childcare. The parents’ responsibilities include hiring the staff, managing all aspects of the center, maintaining and keeping up the premises both inside and out, all the cleaning, keeping the books, etc. They also make all the decisions concerning the running of the childcare center, so they actively participate in the decision-making. They may even be required to take an occasional day off work to be present at the childcare center when one of the staff is sick or attending a training course, etc. However, they usually don’t have responsibility for the day-to-day pedagogical activities nor the pedagogical development of the services. The core competencies for the pedagogical activities remain with the staff, even when the parents employ them. This pattern of collective responsibility for providing childcare is widespread in some EU countries, like France, Germany, Sweden, etc. But, it is financed by public funds, usually on an equal footing with public services.

Finally, turning to healthcare once again we find notable differences between individual and collective participation in the provision of such services. At the individual level citizens can be more or less health conscious, eat more or less healthy nutritional foods, exercise regularly or not, have regular check-ups or only go to the doctor when they are seriously ill, etc. Doctors and nurses can discuss these aspects of health care with their individual patients, they can give lectures on such topics, or they can write a book about such matters to reach a broader audience. On the other hand, citizens can become more active in their own healthcare together with other like-minded persons. Typically, a patient group can play an important role in organizing and motivating persons with special diseases, like diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, etc., to play a more active role in their own healthcare, they can regularly discuss these basic health facts together with other healthy citizens in relation to their nutrition, life-style and exercise patterns. Japanese healthcare co-ops actively promote these types of activities among their over two million members.

Thus, co-production is the mix of activities that both public service agents and citizens contribute to the provision of public services. In complex societies there is a division of labor and most persons are engaged in full-time production of goods and services as regular producers. However, individual consumers or groups of consumers may also contribute to the production of goods and services, as consumer-producers.

The collective participation of citizens in the provision of welfare services also has the potential to create a clear political value added not found in the passive consumption of public services or in individual co-production.

The potential political value added by co-production:

In addition to the individual and collective aspects of co-production, it also implies different types of citizen participation in service provision, e.g., economic, social, political and service specific participation.

The authorities and staff will have various economic, political and professional motives, while citizens’ motives are primarily based on economic, social, political and quality considerations. It is also important to understand these differences and try to bridge the gap between them in order for co-production to be sustainable. In particular, long-term or enduring welfare services require repeated and frequent interaction between the professional staff and user/consumers, often on a daily basis. This promotes a formal dialogue between them, something that can help both these groups to mutually adjust their expectations of each other and of the service provided in a way that is beneficial for both. Their dialogue also helps to reduces the transaction costs for providing the services compared to other ways of providing them that do not require a continuous dialogue between the providers and consumers of a welfare service.

These findings can contribute to the development of a policy of democratic governance, both at the macro and micro-levels, one that will not crowd out citizens, but rather may promote greater participatory democracy and empowered citizenship. However, it is important to emphasize the interface between the government, citizens and the third sector and to note that co-production normally takes place in a political context. An individual’s cost/benefit analysis and the decision to cooperate with voluntary efforts are conditioned by the structure of political institutions and the facilitation provided by politicians. Centralized or highly standardized service delivery tends to make articulation of demands more costly for citizens and to inhibit governmental responsiveness, while citizen participationseems to fare better in decentralized and less standardized service delivery.


Original article via Open democracy

Further viewing, Interview with Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson (52 minutes) – Nobel prize winners

and, Prize Lecture by Elinor Ostrom (28 minutes) – On trust and co-operation


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