The Co-production Opportunity
Thoughts on the Review into the Future for Local Government
The Review into the Future for Local Government has been called “a once in a generation opportunity” for Local Government reform to make it fit for the future. I was heartened to see, in the Draft Report that deliberative and participatory democracy has been highlighted as an important feature of what future local government needs to be. We need more participation in decision-making by diverse citizens in every sense of the word diverse. The voices of women and minorities are so often lost or minimised or disempowered in the current process, and combined with systemic racism that is baked into our systems in so many ways, the environment and those who have already experienced the consequences of inequity need a more pluralistic, empowering, and capability building process of decision making that deliberative and participatory democracy provides.
However, broad , real-time, and ongoing citizen participation in decision-making is only the beginning in the potential to activate citizenry in building better communities, cities, and a nation as a whole collectively and collaboratively, and so that’s what I wanted to address here. Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I’d like to illuminate the opportunity of co-production between local government and citizenry through the participatory city approach as a good example, and hopefully reveal the scale of the opportunity that presents itself.
In community development we talk about community led development a lot, as opposed, I presume, to government or expert led community development. But a third mode of development exists, a middle way, that of co-production, where local government could provide a platform which actively grows and encourages community initiative at a population level (imagine local government as the provider of the support platform in the below image).
What do we mean by “platform”? A collection of public spaces for activities to take place, materials, support with promotion and evaluation, and most importantly a team who is available to build relationships with many community members, support them to ideate and connect with like-minded peers, and collaboratively grow and evolve participation projects like shared cooking sessions, shared gardening, composting, upcycling, and so on. I described our early work testing and developing this approach in Onehunga and Oranga in Auckland here.
What does this result in? Participatory City Foundation in England has begun to create early indicative evidence that it is possible to grow co-production capacity at a population level, involving thousands of residents in hundreds of practical participation projects.
For context, all of this activity was supported, I believe, by a resource base of 25 staff which included project designers working with community, and operations and logistics to ensure smooth running and robust support for citizens engaging in co-production. This took place in Barking and Dagenham which I believe has a population of about 200,000, similar to the population of Wellington, or a bit more than the local board of Howick.
What kind of outcomes does all this activity lead to?
A wide range of outcomes emerge from this immense ecosystem of participatory community innovation and development activity which is created collaboratively by diverse citizens and the platform team working together.
A couple of key ones to note:
Social Cohesion — because the projects are based on “common denominator activities”: cooking, making, eating, sharing, and so on, they are uniquely placed to create connections between diverse community members. This leads to increased “bridging social capital” which research has shown, in turn to lead to a wide array of positive outcomes for communities.
Collective Action and Co-production: 6,000 residents being involved in 146 projects starts to create a culture and a collective capacity to create value and transform a community of place together.
And to keep in context, this was after just a couple of years of the Participatory City being built, set up and run. Covid put a huge dent in community confidence, so from what I’ve heard coming back out of lock down it’s been a bit like starting again and rebuilding people’s confidence and helping them come out of their shells. But imagine, if this kind of co-production system became embedded and well supported within local government, and participation platforms were the norm throughout New Zealand. With thousands of citizens in every community coming together, forming diverse connections with each other and creating value together. Participatory Decision making is definitely a great start, but it represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential of what Local Government can do to support citizens in transformative collective action, collaboration, and value creation.
But is this just a “UK-based approach”? What relevance does it have to New Zealand? I’ve begun to create evidence, albeit at a very small scale, very early indications that the approach can work and that it does create radically inclusive opportunities for diverse community members, especially Māori and Pasifika residents. But also, it’s worth having a look at the amazing work adapting the approach to the Halifax, Canada context, and centering truth and reconciliation for first peoples; more about this work can be found in their 2022 report. The Halifax work has also created some quite strong evidence that this is an adaptive systems approach that could be adapted to many local contexts as long as they are not radically different, rather than being a parochial “UK-based approach”.
It would be great to see a section on participation platforms and co-production included in the final report of the Review into the Future for Local Government. With the unprecedented challenges of climate emergency, rising inequality, declining trust in government, there has never been a more urgent time to find better ways to do things, I hope my humble but passionate contribution can be of some use to the review.