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SIX Global Council Ideas for the Future: People Powered Everything?

Author: Chris Vanstone
SIX Global Council
Published Date: 5 June 2015

This article was written by Chris Vanstone (Director of Co-design, TACSI) and is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. 

The commonsensical approach of doing with rather than to might just be sticking, in places. A decade and a half of work on people powered public services and a long demand for more participative democratic approaches are starting to make their mark. This article lays out 5 trends for their future growth.

Why it matters: People powered innovation is about giving citizens more influence over shaping the world around them.

Who will it influence: This has the potential to disrupt how we do democracy, commissioning, service design and service delivery.

The somewhat commonsensical approach of doing things with the public rather than to the public might just be sticking, in places. A decade and a half of serious work on co-design and co-production in public services, and even longer on participatory democratic approaches, is starting to make its mark. To say the approach was mature, or even that it has made a significant mark, would be an overstatement, but from the perspective of South Australia it does feel that things are as good as they’ve ever been. Here are four trends rooted in real life observations:

1. Integration of co-design capability within large public institutions

In Australia, we’re seeing increasing interest from state government and large NGOs in building co-design capability into their organisations. There are also some reasonably longstanding examples around the world - the Mayo Centre for Innovation in the US (10+ yrs), and Mindlab in Denmark (7yrs). We’ve recently seen the creation of Policy Lab UK and the Auckland Co-design Lab, New Zealand. In Australia, TACSI are working with a government child protection system that is embracing co-design as an approach to reform. As a senior executive says, ‘We’ve not got evidence that anything else has worked’. 

2. Increasing evidence of the value of co-produced services

As co-produced solutions mature, we’re seeing a small but increasing evidence base of the value of co-produced public services - Family by Family and Nesta’s work in people powered health are two examples. The hope here is that strong evidence will lead to wider adoption of these models and increasing interest in co-produced services themselves. What’s harder to substantiate is the value of a good co-design process over other methods of innovation or reform. 

3. Increasing demand for people powered innovation through commissioning

Certain kinds of commissioning will, in theory at least, drive the growth of co-design. In some cases, organisations are asking for it directly - we’ve seen this happen in child protection, the police, welfare and disability, with varying levels of understanding of what they actually want. Increases in ‘payments for performance’ and individual budgets/ consumer directed budgets should also create demand for higher performing services - co-designed solutions should have the edge here but we will have to wait and see. This is particularly relevant in the aged care space, where there is a strong sense from baby boomers that they do not want what’s out there. The work of RSL care and their ‘Bravo-go get tomorrow’ business model is particularly interesting here.

This might be stretching it, but from where I’m sitting we might just start to see co-produced services emerge as a distinct service type, e.g. in the early intervention for families space, taking dollars from ‘professional services’ and ‘community services’.

4. Co-decide, co-design, co-produce - the full enchilada

Alongside co-design and co-production there seems to have been a recent resurgence of interest in participatory and deliberative approaches to democracy - driven by politicians’ desire to more meaningfully connect with citizens. In Australia we’ve seen citizens’ juries across the country applied to everything including nuclear power, cats and dogs, and budget cuts. The state of South Australia in particular is seeking to widen it’s democratic toolkit - to find better ways to give everyday people greater influence over solving the problems that confront them. These democratic technologies are not new, but their use alongside tools for co-design and co-produced services might perhaps take things in another direction. What does co-design+co-design+co-production add up to? We’ll have to wait to find out.

5. People at the centre.

What modern public service isn’t busy ‘putting people at the centre of everything we do’? Deliberative processes, co-design and co-production provide practical approaches to do just that. However on the ground we’re seeing participation confused for deliberation, consultation for co-design and volunteer run services for co-production. Making people-powered decision making, people-powered design and/or people-powered delivery work means institutions adopting a very different way of working. This is hard, and uncommon, yet these approaches are attractive in name alone. The risk here is that what might look like the rise of people-power is in fact the continuation of power-as-usual but in a rather nice new dress.