“Citizen participation makes things work”

Four Finnish stakeholders in CoSIE workshop

As part of the CoSIE project’s evaluation process, consortium members held Summative Knowledge Exchanges (SKEs) within their national teams (pilot and academic partners). These provided an opportunity for each team to organise a workshop with stakeholders to discuss and document the key learning from their pilot, examine what the current state of play is, and what the future may hold. These workshops aimed to extract the key learnings and innovation opportunities from each pilot and synthesise these into overall project learning. As well as the workshops themselves, the partners also conducted reflective dialogue interviews with stakeholders to analyse the impacts the project has had on them. This article examines some of these interviews and reveals some insights on co-creation

“Young people weren’t just decorations in the workshops”: A move away from existing engagement strategies

One of the main aspects highlighted by stakeholders in the CoSIE pilot projects was the way in which co-creation had provided a frame through which citizens can be more active in the designing of services. This, it was noted, enabled moves away from existing top-down structures or, at least helped participants see that this was a possibility that could be strived for. Perhaps the most persuasive example of this working was the with the Finnish stakeholders, where the pilot aimed to improve welfare among young people who were marginalised by society, and support them in becoming more involved in the design of their welfare services. One of the stakeholders, who had been involved in less effective and inclusive co-creation activities before, said that in the CoSIE pilot the “young people weren’t just decorations in the workshops, they were equal participants,” which demonstrates the true spirit of co-creation. They noted that the workshops produced many thoughts about how to improve services and work processes and, afterwards, young people have been included more in decision-making processes. They believe attitudes towards the process of co-creation have improved as well. Another Finnish stakeholder, an experienced youth worker, had this to say:

It [the pilot process] has clearly opened up possible experiments and we gained together more understanding about our strategic point of view. For example, we have now drawn our organisation chart based on the idea that the user or young person is above all, and under him/her are the needed services. We want to show in a visual way that young people are who define what we do.

She goes on to say that they have found new ways to involve young people in the whole development process, from planning to evaluation, and they now believe that young people should be at the very centre of their strategic management. These accounts from Finland clearly demonstrate the two overarching objectives of the CoSIE project: to advance the active shaping of service priorities by end users and their informal support networks, and to engage citizens, especially groups often called ‘hard to reach’, in the collaborative design of public services. In addition to this, it also demonstrates three of the expected key impacts of the project: increasing the capacity of service beneficiaries, upskilling of public service workers, and working with and for communities.

Other stakeholders had found the pilot opened their eyes to new ways of designing services and engaging with citizens. One of the Hungarian stakeholders, for instance, spoke of how the structure of the pilot was very different to previous ways of working; “In previous projects, the resources, aims, activities of projects were given and fixed, and local communities just had to execute them.” The household economy pilot set out a different way of working. It instead handed over both resource and decision-making power to residents of rural communities and they co-determined how they were to be utilised. An Italian stakeholder, meanwhile, whose project centred on designing an app to help combat childhood obesity discussed how co-creation gave them a full view of what services were available for parents and, crucially, which services were not available:

The project was useful a lot to get a panorama of the city and the services that the city offers, not just health care, since many people also took part in other services aimed at children and their families included.

As with the Finnish stakeholder reflections and the Hungarian pilot case, this is another example of working with and for communities, thus moving away from models of service delivery that ‘do to’ people, rather than work in collaboration with.

Building on this, several partners and stakeholders took away individual tools from the process which they have or believe they will find useful elsewhere in their work. This was evident in the Swedish pilot, where the aim was for citizens of the Jönköping municipality to have a greater say in the services they use, particularly differently abled citizens. One of the Swedish stakeholders found the concept of active listening especially useful:

One of the further steps could be to look closer and train into what was brought up in the seminar – the deep listening as it is our major tool in the service work and concerns all of us.

This understanding that conversations and creating spaces for the sharing of experiences is key to creating the right conditions for co-creation was echoed by a Spanish stakeholder, who looked at co-creation from a business/entrepreneurial perspective:

Techniques such as focus groups and trends in customer development give us a way to be more aligned with consumers. We share more information and learn from others’ mistakes. We need to listen to other people. Citizen participation makes things work.

Such uses of these concrete tools and techniques further demonstrate the upskilling of public service workersand working with and for communities that occurred within the project for the public service workers directly connected to the pilots.

This impact very much comes through in the story of one of the Hungarian stakeholders. In Hungary, co-creation was applied to a household economy program to benefit low-income communities. The stakeholder suggested that this pilot could also be a model for providing social support, with the tools and techniques applied to that particular service, extending reach as outlined in the expected impacts. This extended reach is also demonstrated in the Finnish pilot, as one stakeholder explains – “we used the profiles [from the focus groups] as basic knowledge, when we were planning our new work facilities”. Additionally, the approach taken in the Finnish pilot has directly impacted on citizen engagement practices beyond the pilot:

Your (co-creation) process has been also used by two different big work groups. There has been plenty of material, that we have used from your process when I think it.

That co-creation is being adopted in other service areas within the municipality shows again how the results and learnings from the project are being exploited in new terrains.

There is also evidence within the stakeholder reflections that services have been improved for citizens and are fulfilling more of their needs than they previously were. In the Netherlands, one of the pilot projects focused on services for people seeking employment and claiming welfare benefits. Citizens in this pilot had a very negative view of the services they were offered, but from the stories gathered, that opinion seems as if it may have now changed. One woman who uses the service says:

I think it is a great help. When I come to you, [the service desk] I am not only helped with my request for help, but I also learn how to solve it myself. The fact that I also learn something when I come to you is the reason that I really like this form of assistance.

In the Italian pilot, meanwhile, they discuss the app resulting from the project and stated that “the content uploaded to the app would satisfy different audiences, with different curiosities or different levels of insight” thus extending the reach of ICT within this particular service. This result is directly related to the process of co-creation that the pilot undertook that enabled them to get the perspectives of those who would use it – both as professionals and families accessing healthcare services. The results of these two pilots demonstrate different types of innovative dynamic communication designed to mobilise new knowledge. This has occurred at both a person-to-person, individualised relationship level (i.e., innovations in the service desk delivery) and at a wider, slightly less personalised technological level (i.e., via the App). What this demonstrates is that while technology can support knowledge mobilisation and innovation, it is not always the only – or best – solution.

Despite many positive impacts coming through the reflective conversations with stakeholders, in other stories it was possible to detect some reservations around co-creation. To a Swedish stakeholder, “sustaining preconditions for co-creation with the service beneficiary is an ongoing work that is a never-ending effort to avoid huge variations in approach, regardless of what we teach,” while a Spanish stakeholder sees co-creation as “hard to achieve,” adding:

For a small number in a certain environment, it might work. We have to organise these types of meetings very well, we have tried to do this online during the pandemic, but it’s essential to know how to do those meetings, it’s not about just getting together to talk, they need to be well prepared. We need to talk and show that you are available to your public, but you need a work plan and an order with time to comment not just an opportunity to talk.

These kinds of comments suggest that the upskilling of public service workers could go further to instil more confidence in the carrying out of co-creation. Specifically, these two reflections point to how understanding that co-creation is necessarily ‘what’ you to, but more ‘how’ you do it – in essence, a practice. Supporting public sector workers to understand co-creation as an approach that is on-going and equipping them with the facilitation skills to embed it at a fundamental into their activities is where future work will lie.

“We have to grow upwards”: Resistance to evolution

While the overall view is that co-creation in this way is positive, working with and for the community, suggestions as to why this approach isn’t routinely rolled out across the board is apparent in many stories. It emerges in several of the stories that there are barriers to co-creation being adopted more widely in various organisations and municipalities. These barriers to co-creation are often attributed to management being resistant to change and the idea of relinquishing the power and control that top-down structures give them. While the bottom-up structure of co-creation does not make management obsolete, it does reduce levels of control and also unpicks a lot of long-held thinking. As a Spanish stakeholder points out, “[t]he prevalent way of thinking that what we do is best and the rest need to learn, we need to change that.” A Polish stakeholder adds, “[w]e live in a mentality where decisions are made by a narrow group of people whether the community likes it or not.” He believes that co-creation has the potential to become a common methodology in Poland, but does not believe it will happen via the municipality. He refers to an example of the Civil Budget Context, in which the authorities encourage communities to contribute their visions to projects, but then implement whatever they want regardless. This is echoed by a second Polish stakeholder. She believes that to permanently implement co-creation as a method used by public services, systemic and governmental change is needed. She too gives an example, this time of the cooperation of a housing estate association with the municipality in order to work together for the benefit of residents. The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.

Echoing the sentiments in the aforementioned experiences, a Swedish stakeholder highlighted that one of the main issues is that even when co-creation is successful, organisations still require management notice and approval for wider implementation:

[T]here is a need that managers higher up notice this [the pilot results], that there are some positive developments and outputs that we want to implement broader.

Another Spanish stakeholder who works for an International Accelerator suggests how this can be resolved, although the actual pathway remains unclear:

What we need is public service to work for others with no desire for return apart from the wellbeing of the citizens. Private bodies on their own are endogamic. We need more activities together to understand each other, not just to talk about co-creation but to really do it. We have to grow upwards.

These comments demonstrate the frustration of co-creation – where people at a project-level find it useful, and a productive way of increasing the capacity of citizens, but ultimately, the hierarchical nature of such organisations and authorities makes wider implementation a struggle unless there is buy-in at the very top. It is people at these levels who too need to work in co-creative ways, and at a fundamental level this means shifting power.

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