That co-creation buzzword: reflections from the open government for public service delivery workshop in Manila

This blog is part of a series on public service delivery for open government.

A friend of mine hates development buzzwords. Ever since Andrea Cornwall and her colleagues published “ Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords” in 2010, said friend has always been conscious about her work language not containing “terms that combine general agreement on the abstract notion that they represent with endless disagreement about what they might mean in practice” – such as empowerment, collaboration, rights-based, and poverty reduction. The most recent word she started hating was co-creation.

Co-creation, a term long used in the private sector, has been increasingly appropriated in the public sector in recent years. It supposedly means that “ government and citizens initiate, design, or implement programs, projects, or activities together”. While the term is akin to the concept of citizen participation, its main difference, one author argues, is that “it does not stop at actionable knowledge” but proceeds in ensuring that “practical outcomes” are reached. It presumes that both government and citizens have relatively the same power and capacity to define an agenda, implement and monitor it, and achieve its intended results.

Open Government Partnership (OGP)’s very model is premised on the value of such co-creation. In member countries, national action plans are meant to be co-created; government and civil society sit together at the same table, define commitments and particularize measurable results.

The recently held OGP event on Open Government for Public Service Delivery in Asia jointly hosted by the Asian Development Bank, the United National Development Program, and the OGP Support Unit gathered  close to 80 participants from government and civil society in 9 countries from the region with the intent to “catalyze ambitious public service delivery reforms, foster learning between government agencies, civil society organizations and development partners working on improving public services, and exploring how the OGP platform can be used to “co-create, evaluate and showcase impactful reforms”.

A range of initiatives were discussed. Among these were Indonesia’s LAPOR!, a public complaint mechanism to make public service delivery responsive, Philippine’s Governance Hubs that promote collaboration between government and civil society in monitoring government programs, Mongolia’s MASAM project on social accountability, and Pakistan’s Citizen Satisfaction Index (CSI). From these discussions, it was quite apparent that the manner by which co-creation happened is differentiated, and the role of civil society in the co-creation process has not been the same in each case. LAPOR!, for example, is a government-led initiative with civil society participation while Pakistan’s CSI was a product of a collaborative process between the government and the United Nations Development Programme.

It was interesting to reflect on the experiences of the other participants at the forum and how it relates to the types of initiatives that we at the Jakarta Lab have implemented or are currently implementing.  My three key take-aways are as follows:

  1. Genuine openness is fundamental to co-creation , and by this I mean the openness of both parties, be it government or civil society to acknowledge the presence, role, contribution and value of the other. The city government of Naga, one of the areas where a local governance hub operates, has systematised citizen involvement in its governance processes, that co-creation activities have become the norm rather than the exception. Civil society organisations in the city engage in proactive but critical collaborations with the city government towards achieving common development agenda.  Without this atmosphere of openness, co-creation cannot possibly occur. In our work at the city government of Banda Aceh in Indonesia, several of our initiatives in open data succeeded because of the willingness of the city government to sit together with different organisations and citizens, including an anti-corruption group, to define priorities in proactive disclosure of data.

  2. Power relations affect co-creation outcomes . Co-created initiatives express both the intent of government and civil society when each has the capacity to influence the development agenda, in equal terms. In one of the sessions, Undral Gombodorj of Democracy Education Center reminded one of the government officials that the strengthening of Mongolia’s public complaint mechanism is part of Mongolia’s commitment in the national action plan – a must do. Her capacity to remind a government official even in a public forum shows her capacity to discuss Mongolia’s issues on the same level as her government counterparts.

    In our work in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, our partner Perkumpulan IDEA Yogyakarta is treated by the city government officials as an equal in the pursuit of budget transparency and accountability. The organisation’s contribution to the public discussions on transparency were well acknowledged by the city government officials.

  3. Trust sustains co-creation processes.   As co-creation is both a process and an outcome in which relations are created, the trust of different stakeholders in the commitment and integrity of the others is crucial. In Indonesia’s LAPOR!, trust is a key element that ensured the continuous use of the citizens of the public complaints mechanism, the cooperation of civil society organisations in ensuring that unconnected citizens are able to use LAPOR!, and that satisfaction of citizens that their complaints are responded to within acceptable time frames.  In this case, it is critical for the Indonesian government to ensure responsiveness, lest citizens no longer find the usefulness of the system. If civil society organizations and government lose trust of each other, collaborative work will surely fail.  

    In our work in Banyuwangi regency in Indonesia, one of the challenges we have to face was to build a platform of trust between government and civil society that used to be hostile to each other.  Using data-based discussions on key social problems, they were able to work together to co-create solutions while at the same time improve the working relationships with each other. Focusing on data and hard facts that capture the magnitude and breadth of the health problem that both civil society groups  and government agencies are passionate in solving, both were able to collaboratively identify solutions to respond to the challenges identified.

Co-creation can be a useless buzzword—if we cannot see its physical manifestations in the lives of people, in the functioning of government, and in the processes that we hope will lead us to real development outcomes.  As the foregoing suggests, it does manifest itself in the different processes of collaborative work between government and citizens and has found concrete application in different countries across the region.  Maybe, just maybe, I can convince my friend that while buzzwords may have the tendency to restrict our understanding of things and label human processes with a fancy name, it can be also used to interrogate whether or not current practices that are used to justify their existence live up to our expectations.   

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