How engaging citizens as co-creators of services can assist the transformation of the public sector

During the Government Transformation Summit, I had the pleasure of co-hosting a discussion table on citizen engagement. It was clear, listening to public sector officials around the table, that we are all dealing with variants of the same challenge: how to better understand the complex needs of those our services are trying to help.  

There was acknowledgement that our services in the public sector are inextricably linked to one another and in order for us to provide the right resources in the right way, we need to engage more deeply with the reality of the lives that people live. 

Research from the Demos think tank suggests that citizens want a less transactional, and more relationship-based service model. With this in mind, in what way can public sector organisations create conditions and opportunities for this?  Furthermore, in what way can enabling citizens to become co-creators of public services help make the giant leap forward needed to address pressing societal challenges and rapid transformation?

Time for change

Against the current backdrop of socio-economic challenges and rapid technological development, there is an urgent need to find new ways of designing public sector services - one that is more in tune with the fast-paced world we live in.

In a fast-paced world, where complexity is in most of our societal challenges, organisations cannot bring about the transformation that is needed on their own. It will always require as many perspectives and forms of action to be included as possible. Testing on a small scale and coming up with ideas where others feel included and engaged is an important lever in making the giant leaps needed. This pushes us to find new ways of designing public sector services - where citizens are invited into processes and platforms where they not only are asked about their needs but also are invited to share their ideas and creativity.  

In order to succeed, public sector service delivery needs to be more collaborative, moving the public sector, and wider society, away from a transactional mindset to a relationship and networked mindset. This is often referred to as a ‘paradigm shift’. In a time of growing polarisation and distrust of public institutions, this shift can also help instil a sense of cohesion and a feeling of contributing to the greater good.

The art of collaboration and mobilisation

To shift the citizens' involvement in future welfare services we also need to help public sector officials think about the way they can repurpose their own role. This will require the development of new capabilities that allow them to move from being subject matter experts into using that expertise in a widened role as facilitators of societal transformation.

In our work at Förnyelselabbet (the Renewal lab), we are training public sector officials in the art of collaboration, engaging citizens and collaborative partners  as co-creators. Since time is of the essence, the public sector officials train while working on real challenges.

A shared data infrastructure

We are presently involved in facilitating eight national agencies on providing a shared data infrastructure for lifelong learning and competence supply; a mission from the Swedish government that has come to be shaped very much as an answer to the paradigm shift needed. If treated right, data can be a vessel for the paradigm shift needed. It builds on a bottom-up perspective, sharing, testing and cross disciplinary thinking. 

The eight agencies see themselves as a joint platform, enabling easy access to shared data based on needs identified from the ecosystem of stakeholders and citizens. The platform will serve as an arena for co-creating services alongside private enterprise, NGOs, and citizens themselves. This will hopefully take Sweden’s digital transformation one step further into the future. Data security and privacy is central to what we do.

It is in this space that we can transition from the old logic of the state as a service provider into something new; where enabling all in service delivery will empower the future. This is a transition needed universally and will benefit from continued learning structures internationally.

By Pia McAleenan, Head of Förnyelselabbet at the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation

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