Co-creation and democracy: reflections from SIX

Cartoons on the board at Felix Meritis, illustrating ideas from SIX
Great illustrations of people's ideas at SIX. Photo: Corline van Es

This post was written by Corline van Es and Anthony Zacharzewski

What’s the connexion between co-creation and democracy? Earlier this week we joined the SIX Spring School in Amsterdam to discuss “co-creating democracy”. It was two fascinating days full of interesting lectures. However, we were left with the sense that discussions on co-creating public services all too easily leave the democratic element out.

One of the sessions at Felix Meritis was an open space discussion around the question “What would you like to learn to bring co-creation a step further?”. This discussion was, a little ironically, in parallel with a Dialogue Cafe session at de Waag, which focused on how Arab countries can build a democratic structure on the foundations of failed regimes.

On the back of this question it was telling that most groups chose to talk about how to apply co-creation as a working tool for involving crowds in existing systems.

Without wishing to overextend the connexion, the Dialogue Café touched on a similar problem. Both discussions showed how people justifiably unhappy with the outcomes of today’s processes can end up by recommending “the old system done right”. Both discussions began in radicalism and ended up with more or less explicit discussion of mending systems that are no longer fit for purpose. Both, most of all, showed how difficult it is to figure out how ground-level movements, with no strong organisational or ideological ties, can be incorporated the rational and technocratic business of real structural change.

We think that this is because the term “co-creation” is technocratic and too subject to different interpretations. In practice, the “co-” seems always to be about collaboration between provider and service user – an improvement, perhaps, on a service delivered from government to voiceless subject, but too narrow a vision for the big reality of public services.

Public services on the ground are a tangled ball of different bits of string: local and national services, twisted together with the private and commercial lives of thousands of families and organisations. The “co-” of “co-creation” ought to cover all of those elements, those affected directly by the service and those less affected. The “co-” needs to be all the different roles that people have: service users, neighbours, resources, experts, problem solvers and (most of all) citizens. But in redefining “co-creation” in that way, haven’t we killed the word? Is it not just another way of saying “everyone should be involved in everything”?

This is why we always come back to democracy as the core of participative and open public services. Democracy – not just formal representation, but representation enriched and transformed by wide participation, as Roel in ‘t Veld said on the first day of the event – can provide a common terrain, based on rules and principles, where needs and action can be discussed, through which communities can take decisions that build shared responsibility for their own well-being. Building that civic approach makes co-creation or co-production first a solution that citizens devise for themselves – with the State as direct provider in some (perhaps many) cases, but also as funder, supporter, connector and guarantor of fairness in a much wider range of civic action.

In that light, it was notable that the suggestions for co-creation at the Spring School often  involved groups of interested parties (service users and others) participating around services, without addressing how co-creation might manage tensions between mutually incompatible but equally valid goals (such as higher spending on children and higher spending on old people when only one of the two can be afforded).

So we were left with some fundamental questions, for which two days wasn’t enough time (and the Spring School not the right format):

  • How do you maintain and improve democratic accountability in a networked rather than a hierarchical world?
  • How do people indirectly affected by a decision come to the table to join in with co-creation? How do they even find out that there’s a table to come to?
  • How do social innovators – a generally white, generally well-educated and generally middle-class sort of people – design and test systems that work with the different capacities and interest levels of people in communities?
  • How does co-creation handle multi-faceted problems, particularly at local level?
  • How do we get away from the temptation to rebuild a slightly different version of what has gone before?

Over the coming months we will be working on some of the answers to the questions in our work on democracy and participation. We will post our findings here and on the SIX blog – we would be very glad to pick up conversations from Amsterdam, and to hear what others are doing.

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