Creating new solutions with people, not for them, can help drive radical innovation in the public sector. By focusing on citizens’ own experiences and resources, co-creation can help identify truly valuable services. Public managers should embrace co-creation to deliver better services and outcomes at less cost.

Public servants in most modern governments, from the US and the UK to Denmark, and including ‘challenging’ cases such as Greece, Spain and Ireland, are desperate to try to make budget ends meet. Currently, the universally accepted ‘quick fix’ seems to be across-the board 5%, 10% or even 25% cuts in funding to departments, agencies and other public bodies. However, it is abundantly clear that citizens and business are unwilling to accept drastic reductions to public services, and that politicians dislike compromising key public outcomes – ‘social goods’ such as better health, education and care.

The public innovator’s dilemma

So, if ever there was an innovator’s dilemma, it is this: How can government organizations find radical new ways of delivering better services and outcomes at significantly lower cost?

Large, complex and politicized public bureaucracies are rarely high-performing innovation machines. However, creating new solutions, with people, not for them, holds significant potential to drive the kinds of radical societal change that could short-circuit the public sector’s innovation dilemma. And, given the challenges at hand, public managers have probably never been more ready to embrace a different approach to tackling the ‘wicked’ problems they are faced with daily.

Co-creation: A new innovation paradigm for government?

Adopting co-creation as an approach to innovation in government does not mean dismissing deep legal, economic and political expertise; it is about supplementing the discipline imposed by bureaucracy with the discipline of systematic innovation. At the core of this more strategic and on-going approach to innovation is a fuller appreciation of citizens and business. Without deep understanding and insight into what motivates and drives people’s behaviour in practice, public managers cannot hope to come up with solutions that work in the real world. How can they hope to identify both the barriers and the motivation and resources that will help people to do more of what government wants them to do, and less of what it does not want? And how, in this period of austerity, can public managers create more radical innovations without risking tax payers’ money?

Advantages of co-creation

Co-creating with people to find new public solutions offers advantages: it:

  • connects bureaucracies with an outside-in perspective on current practices, opens public servants’ eyes to the experience of their users, and promotes creativity. I call this ‘professional empathy’;
  • helps public servants to see how services could be made more valuable to people, while utilizing people’s own networks and resources. This can enable co-production of services with citizens and business, reducing costs;
  • builds on rapid, design-driven ideation, visualization, prototyping and testing of new solutions, essentially de-risking the innovation process.

Example: Co-creating climate strategy

Co-creation is about a fundamentally different way of conducting the business of government. For instance, when the Danish government decided to formulate a new strategy to combat climate change while driving new business growth, its delivery required close coordination among several different government departments. Under normal circumstances, this would have provoked turf wars: for example, the environment department would be unlikely to embrace the same objectives and solutions as, for instance, the business ministry. However, in this co-creation exercise, government officials worked in a different way. They cut across the organizational ‘silos’ and the new policy was crafted in the course of a series of design workshops that involved businesses and citizens as well as academics, experts and artists. The strategy is exemplified today as, amongst others, the Copenhagen Climate Consortium, a public-private partnership, one of its implementations.

Three myths about citizen involvement

Introducing co-creation as a new paradigm for innovation in government, applying citizen-centric research and design thinking, can be challenging. Three myths in particular characterize the involvement of citizens in public innovation processes:

First, fear of ‘citizen dictators’. By involving citizens or business representatives explicitly, through fieldwork or in workshops, allowing them to express their experiences and ideas, public servants might be devolving their decision-making authority. Of course, citizens are not involved formally as part of the decision-making process; their involvement is as contributors to an innovation process. Ultimately, decisions are reached through deliberative democracy, and in most innovation projects by presenting solutions and options to steering committees or political bodies. The purpose of involvement is not to ask citizens which ideas they prefer, but to explore which ideas are likely to work.

Second, citizen involvement requires too many resources – won’t it take too long, and won’t it be too expensive? It does require energy and resources to conduct citizen involvement, but consider the alternative: What does it cost to develop ‘expert’ solutions behind a desk, ‘roll them out’, and then realize based on through citizens’ complaints, rising service costs and political fall-out that the solution doesn’t work? Citizen involvement is a cost-effective means of ensuring that new solutions really do meet user’s needs, and that they hit the target in terms of service improvements and better outcomes.

Third, citizen involvement creates unrealistic expectations: now that we have generated these new ideas together, don’t citizens expect something to happen? When people allow researchers access to their homes or workplaces, or choose to spend time participating in workshops, they have legitimate expectations that this will serve a purpose. On the other hand, most citizens and business owners understand that in a political system, and especially in democracy, there is no guarantee that just because a group of civil servants think that an idea is good, it will be judged so by top management or by politicians. It is necessary to clarify expectations, which usually is not difficult to do. In mid 2009, the Danish government-run innovation unit, MindLab, facilitated a workshop for business leaders from more than 20 leading companies. We opened by saying that while we were pleased they had decided to spend the day with us, we could not promise that any of their ideas would be turned into practice. What we could promise them, however, was that we would take the process and their input seriously – and report to them what, if any, ideas we would continue to work on. They were unanimous in their agreement to this, and we went to work.

By Christian Bason

About Christian Bason

Christian Bason, 37, is Director of MindLab, a cross-ministerial innovation unit in Denmark. He is the author of numerous articles, columns and blogs, as well as four books on leadership, innovation and public management, the most recent (forthcoming October 2010) is Leading public sector innovation: co-creating for a better society (Policy Press). He has a PhD fellowship to explore what design thinking can offer public sector managers.