September 6, 2013

Putting the public back in public services and policies: what co-production and pop-ups can teach us

Co-production for public services is the disruptive idea of blurring the boundaries between service providers and service recipients, shifting traditional models of how services are planned and delivered. For public policies, it demands an re-imagination of public engagement processes and for policymakers to cultivate a culture of cross-sector collaboration. In comparison to common perceptions of how our policymakers are distant bureaucrats, service providers such as our nurses to be more of a deliverer than our partners in bettering health in our society, and the government structure itself lacking the enabling environment to usher in innovation for the public good, co-production opens up vast opportunities of what collaboration and mutual-learning can bring to our public sector. There are many ways to approach co-production, but they all rest upon the premise that both professionals working in the public sector and those who access these services can contribute to build better public services. In a world where there is widespread demand for better public services with a decrease in public funding, governments face an imbalanced equation; one in which we must tackle by re-thinking our current systems of operation. In this article, we will explore two examples of how governments can better engage civil society and increase political participation: one, in building a strong system of communication to increase receptivity of new public infrastructure, and two, utilizing a pop-up model to co-create public policy.

When we try to visualize how public policies are planned and social services are delivered in our communities (with a special focus in Canada and the United States), we generally see three separate spheres: the government as the decision makers who are tasked to set the political agenda, which informs public servants to deliver services, and citizens receiving these services.  Albeit an over-simplified view, we can come to an understanding that communication between these three sectors is crucial in developing and delivering coherent, engaging, and worthwhile public policies and social services. As governments are increasingly burdened by more and more complex and integrated challenges, holding a dynamic systems-thinking approach has never been more important.

Social scientist Eric Trist expresses this succinctly: “We act like systems in creating large-scale problems but we act like individuals in trying to solve them.” Rethinking how social services are created and delivered is a form of social innovation. In light of this, a crucial aspect to enable the social innovation agenda for policymakers, service providers, and service recipients is a dynamic platform of engagement – balancing the power dynamics between the three spheres to co-create solutions and focus on reimagining how to engage with civil society. It is not a question of whether a top-down or bottom-up approach is better; it is a question of how we can enable all levels of society to imagine, communicate, and create together.

Governments and the creators of public policies play a fundamental role in providing either an enabling or inhibiting environment for civil society – the very creators of innovation – to thrive. For example, new forms of development indexes including the Global Innovation Indexand the Social Progress Index both incorporate a deep understanding of the significant role governments play in advancing social welfare and public and private sectors innovation. Based on a 2012 survey of 1,650 experts, the innovation firm Volans cited that the number one response (68%) for the barriers of breakthrough change is the lack of political will. Therefore, to further advance government’s capability to provide an environment that nurtures and advances social innovation, policymakers and public servants need to reframe how they view and interact with their constituents and service recipients. This is where utilizing a lens of co-production is valuable.

Co-production challenges defining citizens simply by their needs and hence, neglecting their intrinsic value in shaping policies and services. England’s New Economics Foundation delivers a succinct argument in the necessity to shift our perception of value – that non-market ‘outputs’ from networks, communities, and the family contribute tremendously in building societies. What’s more, this new focus of engaging citizens as partners can significantly benefit policymakers and governments as well. Distinctly different from corporations and businesses, governments’ stakeholders and ‘customers’ are one and the same: citizens. This organizational structure creates an environment that may discourage experimentation – a key ingredient to generate any forms of innovation. Co-production, therefore, can build channels of understanding and trust to open spaces of possibility for exploration.

In their Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Sahni, Wessel and Christensen detail policymakers’ conflict for being constantly probed on how they spend the taxpayers’ money while trying to balance the demand to provide better services. In light of this, co-production offers a much-needed perspective for policymakers to communicate to their constituents of their visions and plans, while increasing public confidence and engagement to ensure successful receptivity and implementation of new policies and services. The authors present a succinct example of this:

In 2010, the District of Columbia of Transportation (DDOT) wanted to create a technological innovation to replace the coin-collecting parking meters. This has obvious benefits: citizens would no longer need to carry change in their cars and it is less expensive for the city to operate. However, wide-spread adoption of new government innovations would not only require significant internal agreement, but also citizens’ acceptance in investment. Balancing both internal and external pressures, the DDOT designed two significant processes (arguably equally as innovative as the new parking meter itself) to secure public confidence and ensure adoption: one, to roll-out a pilot program in a single area of the city a year before to capture receptivity to advance the legitimacy of the program, and two, the creation of strong feedback loops to generate an iterative program to ensure that citizens can have direct contributions to the maintenance and advancement of the program. It should not come to a surprise, therefore, that the transactions through the new mobile-parking system increased by more than 430% in one year.

“The point [of co-production] is not to consult more, or involve people more in decisions; it is to encourage them to use the human skills and experience they have to help deliver public or voluntary services” – Co-production Manifesto (nef)

Another major benefit of co-production for the public sector is civil engagement in politics, in particular youth participation. With the generosity of receiving insights from the Australian social enterprise Policy Booth, we see that political public consultations and engagement can be tailored to better fit the target audience. As a specific example on reimagining how policymakers can engage with youth in the early stages of policy creation, Policy Booth has turned public consultations into an engaging community social.

Utilizing a pop-up model to reimagine youth engagement

The city of Yarra, Australia, partnered with Policy Booth to redesign their youth engagement process in order to develop the new Youth Policy for 2013-2016. This is the first time Yarra’s Youth Policy will be written in partnership with young people and led by Yarra’s Youth Ambassadors. Already a step forward in terms of coproducing with the target beneficiary of the policy, Policy Booth further energized this initiative by utilizing a pop-up food truck to reframe engagement.

Pop-ups are best known as the neighborhood’s newest restaurant or a travelling fashion boutique. It is named so because they are temporary, ‘popping up’ in various locations, and at times only known to those with the right connections. The model represents a new and newsworthy way of owning a temporary business, and presents entrepreneurs and passion-driven makers alike with a fascinating way to test out their ideas or gain some exposure.

So how did Policy Booth manage to fit the pop-up model in politics? For three days in May 2013, the organization set up a pop-up community consultation at three academic institutions in order to engage with students and youth. This included a complete rebrand of the traditional political survey: a food truck that popped up at the three respective locations, a group of Youth Ambassadors wearing aprons that engaged with young passers-by and students on campus, a paper survey that resembled a menu, a space design that encouraged socializing and discussion with round shared tables and fun atmosphere, and even photo ops to stimulate post-consultation social media discussion to receive wider feedback.


Not only does this shift in designing policy consultation engage youth in a much more interesting (and possibly more suitable) way, it also increases public confidence due to its focus on actively engaging its target recipients in the process.

In order to balance the equation of increasing demand for better public services with the drawback of decreasing available funding, we must move away from knowledge-silos and establish a new framework of communication to co-create solutions for higher impact. As mentioned earlier, this is not a question of whether the top-down or bottom-up approach is better; it is a question of building a different relationship between policymakers, service providers, and service recipients to increase social impact. When we usher in this new paradigm of partnership and mutual understanding for the creation and delivery of public services, we may very well witness the social fabric strengthening within communities.

Additional Resources:

MindLab on coproduction:

Marco Steinberg on Design-led policy: