An historical coproduction excursus and the CITADEL Latvian Case

In the age of information technologies, electronic services and artificial intellect it appears that we still need an exchange between human beings to make a good use of existing advanced solutions. This is especially important for electronic services widely used by a large part of the population, which need to be easy, fast and friendly. In the CITADEL project we are testing coproduction or co-creation methods considering requirements and interests of society in the decision making processes of public admnistration.

How to coproduce public services?

In the age of information technologies, electronic services and artificial intellect it appears that we still need an exchange between human beings to make a good use of existing advanced solutions. This is especially important for electronic services widely used by a large part of the population, which need to be easy, fast and friendly. In the CITADEL project we are testing coproduction or co-creation methods considering requirements and interests of society in the decision making processes of public admnistration.

The concept of coproduction has been initially developed in the 1970s. The literature on coproduction has emerged as a mix result of theoretical and empirical analysis of urban service delivery (Percy, 1984). Scholars offer a conceptualization of the concept by providing a variety of definitions during this time (Ostrom et al., 1878; Whitaker, 1980; Parks et al, 1981; Rich et al, 1981), in which they acknowledged that citizens are important participants of coproduction. All suggested definitions share the central idea of public services being a joint product of activities performed by both citizens and government officials (Sharp, 1980). At the same time, attention was given in these years to empirical examination of coproduction initiatives in urban services. While examples of citizen involvement are relevant to several types of urban services (Percy, 1984), one area for which citizen involvement has been extensively documented during this period is public safety and security. For example, several empirical studies provide evidences that citizens in the US cities have been involved in anticrime efforts such as the Neighborhood Watch, that helped to increase communities safety (Percy, 1978; Rich, 1979; Rodentraub et al, 1980).

During the 1980s and 1990s, the spread of new ideas based on the marketization of public services turned the debate to whether public administrators should treat citizens as customers in the provision of public services (Thomas, 1999). The idea of involving citizens through coproduction has continued despite the fact that the attention to the concept has been sporadic (Rosentraub at al., 1987; Brudney, 1990; Ostrom, 1996), with a little focus on theoretical developments (Alford, 1998). More recently, the spread of network society (Hartley, 2005) and New Public Governance (Osborne, 2006) implies a more plural model of governance, where citizens have even a more active role in the provision of public services (Pestoff, 2012). This next wave of interest in coproduction has focused on the recognition that the provision of public services is likely to depend on the contributions of multiple stakeholders: citizens, public officials and other member of the community such as volunteers (Bovaird, 2007; 2016). This broader conceptualization identifies different relationships between these groups of stakeholders and public sector (Pestoff, 2012). For example, whilst citizens provide resources and consume the services offered, the volunteers do not participate in that consumption (Alford, 2009). Furthermore, the increasing budgetary constraints carried out by governments in the aftermath of the financial crisis led to a growing interest in coproduction theoretically (Pestoff, 2012; Bovaird et al., 2012; Osborne et al., 2013; Farr, 2016) as well as empirically (Parrado, 2013; Wiewiora 2016; Alford et al, 2016) as this is a way of reducing the costs of services (Bovaird, 2012).

Governments around the world are promoting an increased use of information and communication technologies (ICTs, henceforth) to predict and understand the complexity of public services (OECD, 2017). The integration of coproduction with information and communication technologies ICT  has been presented as a powerful tool, enabling greater public coproduction with actively engaged communities (Granier, 2016; Uppström, 2017) ICTs such as artificial intelligence, cloud-systems and social media are perceived as means of empowering citizens by offering them a possibility of having a more active role in the delivery of public services [6]. Moreover, ICTs are held to be a mean of improving the transparency and efficiency of government practices (Marres, 2012), as well as facilitating democratic practices using e-government solutions (Kavanaugh, 2014; van der Graaf et al., 2014). Nowadays the coproduction is becoming a priority of many governments in the world, is defined as a “voluntary or involuntary involvement of public service users in any of the design, management, delivery and/or evaluation of public services” (Osborne et al., 2016). Scholars in public administration see the potential of ICTs in coproduction, “as this becomes both more relevant and viable with advances in technology” (Linders, 2012). Given the governments’ interest in promoting ICTs to stimulate coproduction in public services, it is important to understand how this technological use facilitates coproduction, as well as impedes it (Meijer, 2012). For example, in Japan, citizens use their mobile phones to track litter in cities and enable local governments to design more effective solutions (OECD, 2017) [3]. However, this ICTs use may exclude some citizen groups such as the elderly or minorities to coproduce, given their less technological skills and knowledge (van der Graaff, 2014).

In the framework of CITADEL project the coproduction sessions were implemented in Latvia with an objective to improve the provision of public services by the Latvian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) on its administered portal latvija.lv . The methodology for coproduction sessions was produced by the University of Latvia (UL), which helped to implement them as well. All together 6 coproduction sessions were conducted involving 5 focus groups: NGOs; people with special needs (problems of sight); students of LU computing faculty; inhabitants – users of the latvia.lv portal; and employees of the United State and Municipal Client Service Centres. The main objective of coproduction sessions was to identify problems of the usability of the portal from a user point of view and to receive practical suggestions and possible solutions.    

The 4 priority topics chosen for analysis during the coproduction sessions were the following: 1) life situations; 2) e-services; 3) catalogue of public services; 4) client work place.

The main criteria for defining the usability of the portal in the context of client satisfaction:

  1. Convenience of portal’s design visual perception – How visually attractive is the portal’s home page? How to improve it?
  2. Structure of information, transparency of placement and convenience for use (navigation) – How easy it is to understand and what and where is located in the portal? How to improve it?
  3. Speed – How fast it is possible to make necessary actions in a current information structure? How to improve it?
  4. Clearness of the description of services – How clear is descriptions of accessible services? Is it possible to understand if there is information that one is looking for? How to improve it?
  5. Convenience of use of the search function – How convenient is the search function? Is it working precisely? How to improve it?

The chosen methods used for coproduction sessions with focus groups included the “Check-in check-out” methods (http://toolbox.hyperisland.com/check-in-check-out) to ensure precise suggestions and to be able to identify them; the “Idea Dashboard” method (https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources/idea-dashboard) and the “Brainstorm” (http://www.designkit.org/methods/28) method. The greatest challenge was to choose the right method for a particular focus group, which required a combination of abovementioned methods during the session, and a flexibility for shifting from one method to another to be able to capture the ideas and suggestions in fast and easy manner.  Moreover, the size of focus groups varied from five to more than 20 participants, which has to be considered to make sessions efficient. Larger focus groups (students, employees of the United State and Municipal Client Service Centres) were divided into smaller working groups.

The “Six Thinking Hats” coproduction method’ elements have been used to some extent (http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php) to enrich the discussion from different perspectives and get alternative opinions  – pragmatism (white hat), optimism (yellow hat), criticism and pessimistic view (black hat), emotional and visual (red hat), creativity (green hat) overlooking, but in a controlled manner (blue hat).The coproduction sessions of the six focus groups took place from the end of August until mid-October, 2018. According to the designed methodology, each focus group in a coproduction session was moderated and monitored by external observers to follow carefully the processes during the sessions. The sessions were implemented in an informal working atmosphere and in a dynamic manner by exchanging view, discussing, completing special tasks in computers and also on the paper. In difference from other sessions, during the session with students the mobile phones were used with a thought that young people mainly use electronic services on phone. In every session the CITADEL project was shortly presented and ideas of the project have been addressed.

The participants’ surveys with evaluation and comments about each of the tasks they had to fulfil has been collected; these evaluations and comments constituted a basis for drafting the results of the focus group co-creation sessions. Surveys of observers with comments on each of participant’s involvement in common activities related to work in groups and sub-groups, as well as in common discussions have been included in the assessment of the focus group co-creation sessions. In addition, all sessions were recorded; fixed comments and observations were added to the overall evaluation. The evaluation was performed in a structured way according to the five criteria for defining the usability of the portal for the four priority areas (life situations; e-services; catalogue of public services; client work place). Based on a set of the structured conclusions, detailed proposals and recommendations were provided (see Picture 1.)

Picture 1. Methodology of collection and analysis of the coproduction focus group results by Romāns Putāns, LU, 2018

Please, follow the CITADEL project and read more about the results of focus group coproduction sessions in Latvia in the next blog coming up in December, 2018.

Picture 2. Coproduction session with NGOs, 23.08.2018, University of Latvia. Photo by Zane Zeibote, LU