Co-production and Web services

In Dec 2009 an interesting report was published by NESTA and NEF (UK) under the title: The Challenge of co-production, by David Boyle and Michael Harris http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/reports/assets/features/the_challenge_of_co-production.

The authors define: Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbors. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighborhoods become far more effective agents of change.

Co-production shifts the balance of power, responsibility and resources from professionals more to individuals, by involving people in the delivery of their own services. It recognizes that “people are not merely repositories of need or recipients of services”, but are the very resource that can turn public services around. Coproduction also means unleashing a wave of innovation about how services are designed and delivered and how public goods are achieved, by expecting professionals to work alongside their clients.

Co-production is central to the process of growing the core economy of neighborhood and family. It means: (1) Recognizing people as assets, (2) Valuing work differently, (3) Promoting reciprocity and (4) Building social networks.

They give interesting examples in justice and crime prevention.

Their basic arguments to propose co-production in public  service organization are:

  • services face an unprecedented set of challenges: increasing demand, rising expectations, seemingly intractable social problems and, in many cases, reduced budgets.
  • public services have become constrained by the new public management of centralized targets, deliverables, standards, customer relationship management software and efficiency  in a narrow financial sense, which has narrowed the focus of many services and often undermined the relationships between the provider and receiver of the service.
  • Control by centralized targets has overwhelmed efforts to innovate in many public services. It has also introduced highly complex and expensive compliance and auditing regimes, which often provide misleading data. “Monitoring has become almost religious in status, as has centralized control”
  • The spread of internal markets and a growing contract culture has meant that the ambitions of many public service agencies have been narrowed to specific outputs. The commissioning process has often limited the pool of potential bidders for public services, excluding small business and local organizations, and has encouraged mergers between major suppliers, undermining competition and innovation.

They conclude that the time seems to have arrived for the idea that the users of public services are an immense hidden resource which can be used to transform services – and to strengthen their neighborhoods at the same time.

I have two comments on this excellent paper form the viewpoint of somebody who has been working and thinking on trust and services on the Internet for some time.

Firstly, I would say that co-production is something that we have seen happening on the World Wide Web and its service provision infrastructure. We have seen the emergence of Wiki’s, blogs, crowd sourcing, social networking and self-help groups, mash-ups and other instruments for users to cooperate in collecting and providing data that is of value to themselves and others.

It is therefore surprising that the Internet with the Web and its combined influence on creating, as well as potential to help solving the societal challenges which the authors mention, is nowhere discussed in the paper.

Also the plea for Open Data (particularly public data) on the Web by Tim Berners-Lee (see http://www.crunchgear.com/2010/03/09/tim-berners-lee-advocates-for-open-data/ ) and which is already being taken up in the US and the UK now, are clear examples of possible forms of co-production in public services in my view.

Secondly, whilst the authors, mention the problems of centralized control and monitoring as one major reason for the problems, they do not give explicit attention to this aspect by arguing for methods of more decentralized control, which would be a logical consequence.

Our services, in particular on the Web, are more and more being build up as dynamic chains of subservices, with a serious lack of transparency and hence responsibility. The drive to efficiency has led to enormous task divisions and many levels of outsourcing of these (sub)tasks. At the same time the responsibility remains at the top, without real potential to exercise this responsibility. Hence the poor quality and narrow focus on financial consequences.

Tackling complexity in large systems will always require local feedback control. This does not mean that we should leave everybody to monitor and react in its own way. But it means that given a proper feedback and monitoring framework, feedback actions (eg. improvement of local services) can be largely left to the local environment within certain constraints, thus stimulating creativity. Creative use by citizens of new technology infrastructures could help strengthening and speeding up the so much needed move to a new public service infrastructure.

ICT (the Internet, Web and its service infrastructure) has been developing into an excellent environment to experiment and innovate public services based on co-production.

Cooperation (or co-production) of the authors of this excellent paper with experts in the field of services and social networks in the digital environment could well help this change process forward.

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About digitrusteu
Independent consultant in the area of Trust and ICT. Secretary General of Digital Enlightenment Forum VZW, Belgium Formerly Head of Unit at the European Commission, ICT Progamme, Trust and Security

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