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Co-Production Around the World

Partner state, not paternalistic state - co-production in Germany to deal with the fiscal crisis?


When it snows in Germany, many local councils remind citizens of their legal duty to clear the snow from the footpath in front of their house. For example, Neuhofen Council, close to the BASF headquarters (where one of the authors has lived), transferred this duty to local residents in 1979. As a result, you can see a lot of local people out in the street early in the morning before they go to work, having a quick chat with each other (complaining about how cold it is or what a bad job others in the street have done with the snow) and helping elderly neighbours to clear their stretch of footpath. 

Result: Fewer falls due to slippery pavements, no school closures, more social capital and, yes, savings to the local council.

So, it is clear that user and community co-production of public outcomes is nothing new in Germany, even though most public managers would have no idea what this means (nor would they use the term Koproduktion, which sounds even more abstract in German than in English). Indeed, there was already a lively discussion in the 1990s (well before the 'Big Society' debate started in the UK) among German think tanks and academics about the 'activating state' - the idea that government needs to mobilise citizens to become more active and take more responsibility. In fact, this was the vision behind the 1999 White Paper 'Modern State - Modern Public Administration' of the 'red-green' coalition government of the time.

The paradox is that German citizens are already quite active. As a European citizen survey on the level of co-production showed in 2008, German citizens come second after the UK in terms of the extent of their co-production in public health, community safety and the local environment. When it comes to recycling, Germany actually topped the European league table in 2010, with a recycling rate of 45% compared to 25% in the UK. 

So it's not the citizens who need to be 'activated'. We would argue that it is actually the state and local authorities who need to become more active in harnessing the resources, skills and contributions of citizens. In Länder (states) such as North-Rhine Westphalia, where more than 15  percent of local councils are bankrupt and many others face severe fiscal stress, citizens and community groups are widely engaged in co-delivery of voluntary services such as leisure, culture, music, libraries or (very typical for local areas around the Rhine) the Fasching carnival. However, as the savings plans of the most indebted local councils reveal, they are much more likely to react to financial austerity by imposing tax increases or cuts in services than to involve citizens more thoroughly in the planning and delivery of public services. 

Nevertheless, there are many successful examples where involving citizens in public services has led to better outcomes or greater efficiency. A classical case in Germany is the system of voluntary fire brigades, which have existed at local level for 200 years. Indeed, all local councils, no matter what their size, have the legal duty to maintain a voluntary fire brigade (which, in bigger local councils, works side-by-side with the professional fire brigade). 

There are also co-production champions such as Offenbach Council (close to Frankfurt), which  works with 'street champions' to improve the local environment;  Weyhe Council in Northern Germany, which works with police and voluntary 'streetwatchers' to keep young people and residents safe at night; and the rural council of Brieselang, where local people run a citizen bus, which complements public transport from and to Berlin. 


The impact of street champions in Offenbach: before and after.


Great though these examples are, there remains a reluctance by social services (provided mainly by a conglomerate of powerful voluntary organisations) and health (provided by a public health care system which is completely separate from any other public agency) to recognise the potential of assets-based approaches to public services. Other forms of co-production such as involving citizens in designing public services (co-design) or assessing service quality (co-assessment) are also quite rare.

On the other hand, in these financially hard times, more and more local councils are involving citizens in the de-commissioning of public services. So-called participatory budgeting exercises have been carried out and have received widespread public attention - in Cologne, Solingen, Essen, Stuttgart and most Berlin boroughs. They have generally involved a wide range of local public services, although they have had to exclude transfer payments and the mandatory services which local councils provide on behalf of the state government. The success of 'participatory budgeting' depends decisively on whether it helps to bring the budget into balance or not. If not, motivation for participation soon sinks - the objective has to be: budget consolidation AND co-production. 

So what are the drivers of public service co-production in Germany?

Clearly, Germany's strong local government system - based on the principle of subsidiarity, directly elected mayors and elements of direct democracy in most Länder - means that people take a real interest in their local area and identify much more with their local council than is the case in more centralised countries. Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, in particular, can build on a strong civic society with a high level of volunteering. However, the strongest driver is likely to be a factor which is very particular to Germany - the demographic change resulting from an extremely low birth rate, which means that the German population is becoming older and falling in numbers. Our European citizen survey on public service co-production in Germany, France, Czech Republic, Denmark and the UK shows that elderly people are more willing to co-produce probably because they wish to be useful but perhaps also because they know that their public agencies will soon not be able to afford to maintain the current level of public services. The second driver is probably the financial crisis, especially in North-Rhine Westphalia, as discussed above.

What is holding public agencies back from scaling up co-production?

Focus group sessions with public managers from three different public services have revealed that one factor is the strong professional culture in the German public sector, which tends to distrust citizens and does not believe that they can get it right. Indeed, in a co-production workshop a senior manager of the Interior Ministry of the State of Berlin recently insisted that there was no way a German citizen could perform the task of a 'speedwatcher', as this involved a sovereign task which could only be performed by professional police officers.  Strong trade unions, too, fear that public services could be 'privatised' into the hands of citizens, e.g. through sports clubs volunteers managing sports facilities instead of paid council workers. Most importantly, 'state-centred thinking' still influences mindsets and behaviours in the public sector, implying that 'Big Brother State' needs to look after its children and provide services FOR its citizens, not WITH them. Recent managerial reforms focussing on outputs (so-called 'product budgets') instead of outcomes have reinforced the focus on what public agencies do, while neglecting what communities actually want and what they can contribute to improve their quality of life. Last but not least: elected members of councils don't like the thought of re-delegating to citizens the decision-making powers which they believe citizens put in their hands through the election process.

The big question is whether reduced public budgets in Germany may, in time, become an eye-opener which will make public agencies more conscious, at last, of the resources available in communities? Is it possible that the German public sector today simply remains financially too well off, so that it believes it is still able to cope without using the assets, resources and contributions of citizens effectively? 

Of course, the warning signs of fiscal stress are already everywhere to be seen. Consequently, German local government associations and think tanks (such as the Bertelsmann Foundation or the Schader-Foundation in Darmstadt) have now put co-production on their agenda. For example, the Bertelsmann Foundation commissioned the authors of this blog to write a paper on co-production in German local government which was presented at a major local government conference in Berlin. The 120 participants at the workshop understood that this is nothing new as they identified co-production initiatives in all public services, starting from A like Abwasser (sewage) to Z like Zusammenhalt (social cohesion). However, the challenge in Germany is now to roll out co-production to make it more effective.  Indeed, the new strapline of Berlin, which sees itself as the 'Searching City', perhaps shows a new willingness to admit the need to open up to innovative approaches in the reform of the German welfare state.  In the German public sector of the next decade, the excellent examples of user and community co-production which already exist, including those we have cited above, may become more widely appreciated and emulated. 


This blog was co-produced by Dr Peter Timm-Arnold and Dr Elke Loeffler.

Dr Peter Timm-Arnold, Head of Task Force 'Local Government Efficiency Programmes', Local Audit Commission North-Rhine Westphalia


Dr Elke Loeffler, Chief Executive, Governance International

16. July 2012


Co-producing wellbeing: Getting ready for welfare reform

Why public service co-production is now needed on a mass scale

Elke Loeffler and Frankie Hine-Hughes outline a transformation strategy for local councils to manage demand on public services by unlocking the strengths, assets and resources of service users and communities.

In the light of current financial austerity and the long-term demographic changes we are facing in the UK, co-production is no longer just a good idea - it has become a necessity. This applies in particular to health and social care but it is also true in other local services such as community safety and environment. As the case studies in our new book with LGiU 'Making health and social care personal and local: Moving from mass production to co-production' demonstrates, co-production is already recognised as an important element in the transformation of councils. While this is most vividly being promoted by the network of Co-operative Councils and the six councils participating in the NESTA people-powered health project, there are now actually scores of councils across the UK which are embracing co-production as core to the transformation of their services.

However, the picture is still patchy. The panel debate at the recent book launch event at the LGiU in London showed that involving service users and communities in the commissioning, design and delivery of public services is still sporadic rather than normal, and piecemeal rather than systematic. Why is this? One of the key barriers to systematic co-production, as the debate highlighted, continues to be the 'we solve the problem for them' culture of service providers and commissioners. Of course, highly qualified and motivated professional staff, backed up by competent and committed managers will always remain vital to excellent local services. However, the lesson from successful co-production case studies, as showcased in the book, is that these are simply not enough in 2012. Unless service users and their communities also contribute their strengths, assets and resources to services, real excellence is not possible - and costs will higher than necessary. So, the focus in co-producing councils is now on giving guidance and support to citizens as co-producers of services, recognising that improving outcomes is a joint responsibility, not just something that councils can achieve by themselves.

Of course, not all citizens are ready to co-produce - and not all staff know how to unlock the potential in services and citizens. So what needs to be done in practice to help councils to tap into the strengths, assets and resources of service users and communities?

New ways of collaborating with users and communities in local services

Governance International, a social enterprise based in Birmingham, has been working on these issues for more than five years with councils in the UK and Europe. We have developed a practical transformation approach for public services. While many councils in the UK have involved their users in consultation exercises, co-production goes way beyond consultation. As Dave McKenna of the Better Swansea Partnership put it: Co-production leads us away from "You said, we did" to "We talked, we did together". For Governance International co-production is about 'public services and citizens making better use of each other's assets and resources to achieve better outcomes or improved efficiency'. 

Actually, there are lots of different ways of involving users and communities in public services. They include:

  • Co-commissioning public services - shifting the focus from services that councils think people need to outcomes that local people themselves believe to be priorities, e.g. through neighbourhood budgeting.
  • Co-designing public services - using the customer journey approach to look at how the service process can be improved from the user?s point of view. The outcomes and efficiency savings from the re-design of the Stockport social care website 'My Care, My Choice' show how powerful co-design can be.
  • Co-delivering public services - identifying who is willing to do what and how, e.g. through capability assessments (as we are currently piloting with Walsall Council) and community asset surveys.
  • Co-assessing public services - training citizens to carry out service inspections and scrutiny, often through the use of social media or online ratings. The case study of citizen-led inspections in West Lothian Council shows that citizens have an important role to play alongside professional inspectors.

The Co-Production Star gives a clear visual portrayal of these four Co's of co-production. Using this tool, councils and their partners can map the current level of collaboration between local councillors, managers, front-line staff and citizens. And they can spot areas where more co-production could be tried in the future.

How to manage the transformation to more co-production

The inner ring of the Governance International Co-Production Star highlights the changes that a council needs to make in order to roll out co-production in public services. It outlines a five step change management model. It recognises that co-production is nothing new - but that we need to change the culture of organisations and partnerships in order to make the most of what we are already doing. And we need to seek out change pro-actively to identify new ways of working between councils and citizens. This may already be working well in some of our services but real transformation will only come when co-production is identified, managed effectively and rolled out much more widely.  This involves the following five steps.

Step 1: 'Map it!'

We typically find in our training and briefing sessions that participants quickly recognise that co-production is already happening in every organisation - but only here and there, in pockets. This means that it's really important for councillors and staff to map the way in which they collaborate with service users and communities, so that they can build on what works to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Our Co-Production Explorer supports this self-audit - identifying clearly what is already being done, so that it can become the basis for learning and development - and what is NOT being done, so that new co-production approaches can be devised.

Step 2: 'Focus it!'

After mapping what is happening - and not happening - councils need to prioritise their efforts to take co-production further. Our Co-Production Priority Matrix is a simple technique to rate current and potential coproduction activities - distinguishing priority projects to be taken on, and those to be dropped or put on the back burner. 'Quick wins' (high impact, low effort initiatives) are self-evidently the optimal starting point - establishing success, to catalyse further co-production.

Step 3: 'People it!' 

Here we need to ask: how can we involve the right people in the community and in the agency to contribute to improved public services and outcomes. The Governance International Community Asset Survey helps identify what local communities are already doing and how they want to get involved more. The Capabilities Assessment which Governance International is currently piloting with Walsall MBC identifies service users and carers who are already doing interesting activities that could help others and who would like to widen this out, to enrich their own social lives and make the most of their own capabilities by helping others. Having identified these key people who want to help make co-production really work, it is important to bring these citizens together with key staff in 'co-production labs', so that together they can design how these activities can really succeed through citizens and staff working together.

Step 4: 'Market it!'

Having reached this stage, we have to make it simple for people who want to be involved to actually get involved and stay involved. This stage is often missing from current co-production approaches. Incentives and nudges are really crucial to encouraging the inputs of both citizens and professionals. There are lots of different kinds of incentives: psychological incentives, which reinforce an individual's 'feel good factor' with appreciation or other informal rewards; or more formal mechanisms like 'recognition awards', which could include prizes (or even monetary incentives). Another way of encouraging individuals to take part in co-production is to agree co-production charters that outline explicitly the roles, responsibilities, and conflict mechanisms for staff, citizens and service users. These can provide an effective framework to show people what responsibilities they are committing to - and what the statutory agency is committing to provide by way of support to those who work with it.

Step 5: 'Grow it!'

Once the co-production ball is rolling, the momentum needs to be kept up and even increased. Co-production can be scaled up across an organisation by showcasing 'champions' or developing a business case. It is vital that performance management and human resource management systems are aligned to co-producing - it needs to become clear that co-production is actually a central part of the job of all staff.

Next steps

Finally, it is not important what a local council calls this new way of working with users and communities. Some will be happy with the label 'co-production'. Others may want to call it 'co-operative working'. Yet others may want to label it 'partnership with users and the third sector'. Fine. What is important is that councils recognise how patchy and sporadic has been their practice up to now in promoting genuine co-production.  And then deciding that they want to start the real transformation process now.

Clearly, collaborative ways of working, based on mutual respect, power-sharing and a focus on outcomes, requires courage and risk-taking. Many councils are now at the stage where they have recognised this. But it is not enough. To make the transformation real, investment in training and change management is necessary. And an understanding that many of the steps towards culture change won't work immediately - experimentation is needed, and therefore patience and flexibility. Even more alarming - some budget will need to be spent to learn which approaches to co-production really work in your area - and which don?t. Effective co-production is not free - but the spend that's needed could be the most cost-effective investment that a council undertakes during the next decade.

In any case, what are the alternatives? If councils do not start now on the path of co-production with their users and citizens, their only alternative to deal with the current financial pressures will be significant cuts to local services.  Then they will find that service users and citizens REALLY want to get involved - but usually in a negative, destructive way. To avoid this, pro-active approaches to co-production are essential NOW.

We said we had a five step model towards co-production of public services and outcomes - but actually this was not quite the whole truth. There is a sixth step, probably most important of all -  START NOW!!!

4. July 2012

Costumer focus

A case for administrative simplification: The proliferation and complexity of ombudsman schemes in the UK

Recently, members of the Governance International team have been working with a number of EU candidate and EuroMed countries on service charters, citizens’ access to effective complaints mechanisms and independent redress. So what is happening on this front in the UK? While customer redress is not one of big governance issues currently in the headlines, the Open Public Services White Paper has pledged to establish whether all services are appropriately covered by Ombudsmen and whether Ombudsmen have the resources and powers of enforcement that they need. 

A guest blog from Peter Tyndall, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, discusses the effects of privatisation and new service delivery models on redress schemes in the UK. He proposes that access to redress should be made less complex than is currently the case.

Since 1979 many services formerly in the public sector have been privatised – power companies, water, phones and public transport amongst them, sometimes collectively referred to as the networked services.  Under successive governments we have seen a large proportion of council housing sold to its tenants or transferred to housing associations and parts of the state healthcare sector being outsourced to private companies. In England many schools are now outside of local government control.  Most residential homes for older people are now privately provided, whereas in the past many were provided by councils.

What’s this got to do with ombudsmen you might ask?  Well, while all services are provided by the state, there is little issue about access to redress.  However, when services are privatised, then access to redress can be lost.  In some ways, you can argue, that it begs a question – if the railways, for example, are run by a private company, do they stop being a public service?

The development of ombudsman services in the UK reflects the changing face of public services, and also, the devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The first ombudsman service was the UK Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman founded in 1967, followed in 1969 by the Northern Ireland Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsmen, now covering England only. 

There followed a series of ombudsman institutions covering banks, insurance and other parts of the financial sector.  These have since been consolidated into the Financial Ombudsman Service.  This has a statutory basis, its existence is established by law and providers must participate.  A key distinction is that funding for the service is provided by the industry, and not by the state.  We have also seen the development of private sector ombudsman schemes for telecommunications and for energy as these industries were privatised.  These schemes were approved under legislation.

It is evident that the boundaries of the state are becoming more porous. In health, where the state commissions private or independent sector providers, the services they deliver are within the remits of the public sector ombudsmen. This principle has been described as following the public pound. In social care, while many older people in residential homes have their care paid for by local councils, for those people who can meet the cost of their own care, there is no subsidy.  The Local Government Ombudsman service in England has had its remit extended so that people who pay for their own care can still complain to the ombudsman if they cannot resolve their concerns locally and I expect my own remit to be extended in this way soon.  This is an example where an entirely privately funded service is within the remit of a public services ombudsman. 

The net effect of all of these developments is a far more complex network of ombudsmen spanning both existing public services, and former ones, funded by a mixture of grant and levies.  Some sectors now have more than one ombudsman, while others such as transport, now have no access to an ombudsman at all.

The creation of Ombudsman Association can also be seen as a response to the complexity.  One of the key risks of diversification is the loss of a consistent approach to standards. The Ombudsman Association works hard to restrict the use of the ombudsman title to schemes which meet the key criteria - independence; fairness; effectiveness; openness and transparency, and accountability.

From the citizen’s perspective, the rapid expansion in redress schemes, described in one publication as “ombudsmania”, presents its own challenges.  When all public services are provided and delivered by the state, it’s easy to know where to complain.  However, as more and more are delivered by the private or independent sectors, finding your way through to the appropriate ombudsman scheme can be more of a challenge.  All UK public sector schemes report increasing amounts of signposting activity, where they help to direct callers to the appropriate body.  In the case of my own office, as Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, we have explicitly developed a new service – Complaints Wales.  This provides a dedicated telephone hotline and website which tells people how to complain about public services, even where they are now provided by private companies.  It helps to direct callers to either the service provider or, if they have already complained to them unsuccessfully, to the appropriate ombudsman.  

So what can we conclude about the impact of diversity in public service providers on the work of ombudsmen?  The proliferation of ombudsman schemes has made it more difficult for service users to access redress, and threatens uneven standards.  The Ombudsman Association has helped to tackle this, but in retrospect, it is worth reflecting whether the public services ombudsmen should have had their remits amended to include all public services, regardless of how they are provided.  A proliferation of schemes is not the best way to serve the public.  However, where schemes are covering privately provided public services, there is a strong case for arguing that this element of their work should be funded by a levy.

In the UK, it is also the case that in general, public services ombudsmen make recommendations and do not have binding powers, while private sector ombudsmen do.  In a hybrid model, it is likely that binding powers, at least in respect of private providers, will be necessary.  

It is not appropriate to turn back the clock in the UK.  However, we do need to work to ensure that all users of previously privatised public services have access to an independent ombudsman scheme. The same applies to new service delivery models such as mutuals and co-operatives. I would contend that this should be through one of the existing ombudsmen, and not through the creation of new schemes.

New EU proposals are likely to impact on the purely consumer schemes, and the Ombudsman Association should again work to avoid proliferation.  Competition between schemes serves to damage the interests of consumers, as companies will tend to choose the ombudsman they perceive as being least likely to uphold complaints or to insist on redress.  Once again, we need to work to extend access by broadening the reach of existing schemes.

The Executive of the Ombudsman Association has been considering these issues for some time, but often in response to issues raised by applications for membership and Government initiatives.  They are now developing a formal policy statement and plan to use it to promote rational and comprehensive coverage of ombudsman schemes in the public and private sectors in the UK and in Ireland.

It is the job of the state to ensure that citizens have access to public services.  It is also widely accepted that citizens should have access to independent redress in the shape of ombudsmen.  Complexity in service provision should be counterbalanced by simplicity in accessing redress.

5. January 2012

Good Governance

Better governance through directly elected mayors in the UK?

There has recently been a public consultation in 12 English cities about whether to introduce directly-elected mayors. The debate on this issue has been lively, with leading organisations and national and local political figures falling into the 'for' and 'against' camps. Governance International is principally based in Birmingham and, as Birmingham will be voting in May 2012 on whether to have a directly elected mayor, we thought it was worth throwing in our two penny's worth.

We think there is a lot to learn from the German experience of directly elected mayors.  While Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have long-standing experience with directly elected mayors, the rest of Germany only adopted the 'directly elected mayor' model between 1990 and 1995. In this set-up, the directly elected mayor chairs the council and prepares and implements council decisions, without a separate chief executive. All this takes place, of course, in the context of German 'local self-government', as a result of which local authorities have significant decision-making autonomy on local issues. Indeed, what the Localism Bill is trying to achieve in the UK has long been the constitutional position in Germany.

Although this the new directly elected mayors system has only recently become the  standard throughout Germany, in practice it has already become taken for granted as the obvious way to govern local councils in all the 16 German Länder (states). This means that Germany has no Whitehall department like CLG nor a Secretary of State in central government responsible for local government, no centrally defined performance indicators, no performance audits - as a matter of fact, there is no proper translation for the concept of 'public accountability' in the German language! (The audit commission of each Land merely undertakes a probity audit, checking whether local government acts in accordance with the law). Public accountability is therefore mainly exercised at local level, specifically through the mechanism of the directly elected mayor. Interestingly, the performance of the various mayoral systems has been quite different across Germany. We believe this gives valuable insights into what might happen in British cities if they move to having directly elected mayors.

The experiences of North-Rhine Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg are very instructive as these states represent two very different ways of operating an electoral model based on a 'directly elected mayor'. Whereas the Baden-Württemberg electoral system is based on a flexible list system, voters in North-Rhine Westphalia cannot change the order of the candidates on the lists nominated by local political parties for council elections. As a result, the council is strongly dominated by party politics, which makes the co-operation with the directly elected mayor difficult. In fact, there are often party coalitions for or against the mayor. Furthermore, the chairs of council committees have the power to define the agenda in agreement with the mayor. This gives council chairs a lot of visibility and makes this post very popular. As a result, the number of council committees is high. The main way for council chairs to demonstrate success is to implement new projects, which means additional expenditure. The fact is that more than one third of local authorities in NorthRhine-Westphalia have accumulated so much debt that they have now lost much of their budget autonomy and have to negotiate major investment expenditures with the audit commission of the Land, as they are at or near the limit of prudential borrowing.

The budget situation of local authorities is Baden-Württemberg is very different. According to the German local government expert and former Director of Governance International, Gerhard Banner, the superior performance of the Baden-Wuerttemberg local government system in terms of sound budget management and efficient public services is due to the strong co-operation between a strong mayor and a strong council which encourages their co-operation even on contentious issues. How can such a co-operative relationship develop?

Gerhard Banner (click here to see his website in German) suggests three key factors:

  1. The strong powers of the mayor to chair all committees and the council and to determine the agenda, which means that issues the mayor does not like (or believes cannot be financed) do not even get on the agenda. At the same time, the mayor seeks to build consensus and achieve the agreement of the local council in all important local government matters, including the local budget - indeed, it is not uncommon that local councils in Baden-Württemberg agree the budget unanimously. As we can see from the US, polarised politics is not conducive to balancing budgets!

  2. The person-oriented electoral system for mayors and councillors, which makes both mayors and councillors primarily accountable to local citizens and not to the political party which they may represent. Both the mechanism of cumulating votes (up to three votes can be given to one candidate) and mixing votes (votes can be given to from different lists) means that voters are not restricted to the lists presented by political parties or by the other associations formed by independent candidates and other interest groups. Typically, the smaller the local authority, the more use is made of this flexibility by local voters - in smaller local authorities in Germany, some candidates tend to be personally known to the voters. But even in big cities such as the Stuttgart, the capital city Baden-Wuerttemberg, with 600,000 inhabitants, there is cross-list voting in more than 50% of the voting forms. In the recent mayoral election in Nürtingen, voters even added to the voting form the name of a woman who was not standing as a candidate -  Claudia Grau's candidature was promoted by a citizens' movement in a skilful social media campaign (similar to US 'write-in' campaigns) and came very close to beating the incumbent mayor. Councillors are very well aware of the fact that they have been elected due to their personality and not simply because their name is on a party list. In fact, more than 40% of local councillors candidates in Baden-Wuerttemberg stand as Independent. The fact that the election of the mayor (who serves an 8 year term) does not coincide with the election of the local council (with a 5 year term) also helps to reduce the influence of party politics.

  3. The highly professional administrative expertise of the mayor who, in many cases, has considerable administrative experience in local government. Indeed, many mayors have occupied leading administrative positions in local government for many years and often have worked closely with other mayors, so they know the business and the legal framework inside out. Clearly, the voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg have matured over time and learnt that it is important to give a lot of weight to the professional qualifications of mayoral candidates.  It also helps that the local government constitution requires mayoral candidates to present themselves at a public hearing, which tends to be very well attended and reported, where they have to answer questions from local citizens - this makes very transparent the experience and professional qualification of the candidates.  

The German debate shows that the issue is not just whether to have directly elected mayors or not. Directly elected mayors are not a panacea for strong local leadership. As the German experience shows, the way the mayor interacts with the local council is one key success factor. Of course, another question is also which influence local people have on local budgets and local decisions. This will be discussed in our next blog.

And if you are a polyglot Gerhard's website has an online mayor check to help voters check the competence of candidates (click here - in German).

14. October 2011

Open Government

Fix my Society through Open Government

Elke Loeffler, Tony Bovaird and Frankie Hine-Hughes ran a well attended workshop at the Open Government BarCamp held by the Government 2.0 Netzwerk Deutschland in Berlin on 29th and 30th September. This blog sets out some of our thoughts and conclusions from the event and the discussions in and around the sessions.

The topic of open government has exploded since Barack Obama published an Open Government Directive for the United States Government. The directive included a commitment to unprecedented openness in Government in order to increase public trust and establish transparency, public participation, and collaboration in what the government does.  Greater openness is argued to strengthen democracy and promote the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

Following this US lead, governments across the world have followed suit in attempting to demonstrate their commitment to open government. The international scene has seen the formation of the Open Government Partnership - a multilateral government initiative seeking commitments to open government.

However, is 'open government' actually the right term? Since the concept has exploded onto the public governance scene, it has been obsessed in particular with transparency and open data, which have been treated as 'first amongst equals' in open government initiatives. The success of open government reforms is often being gauged in terms of how much transparency has increased and how many datasets have been published on-line. Much less attention has been paid to increasing citizen participation to help in  co-commissioning, co-design, co-delivery and co-assessing public services . Indeed, a recent report by America Speaks accuses the US government of failing to move towards a more participatory approach, due to focusing too much on transparency.

This obsession with getting data and information out there is misplaced. As some conference participants reminded us, an authoritarian government can publish a large number of datasets and claim to be open. So open government isn't just about information - it is also about enabling citizens to change how things are done. While transparency is important, it only enhances accountability, if it is combined with engagement mechanisms, so that they are interested.

For this reason we entitled our presentation 'Fix my society: more citizen participation through open government?'. We showcased four examples where government was made more open and participatory, particularly focusing on the most disenfranchised in society and issues that affect how we view our communities.

First, we talked about Stockport Council's adult social care website. The original website provided insufficient information, was hard to use and didn't help informed decision making - wasting everybody's time and increasing the frustration of actual and would-be service users. The council decided to co-design its new website with service users and providers. The new website, was much improved, with relevant and easy-to-find information. It has already had over 100,000 hits and provides an estimated saving of £300,000 per year. You can get more information about this by reading the case study here.

Our second example highlighted the work of Podnosh and Talk About Local. These two organisations provide training to help people get the skills and support they need to give their community a voice online. Both organisations have received funding from local authorities to provide training in deprived communities, so that local people can set up web-pages and circulate e-newsletters, at low cost  (e,g. by using free technologies such as Talk About Local has helped in setting up over 400 websites. These websites help people to engage with local authorities and service providers more effectively, using less time and energy. Moreover, they spread more information locally than can be achieved by traditional means.  For example the web site ran a campaign against Network Rail?s plans to refurbish Kings Cross station, because the plans didn't take the local community into account. The site lobbied LB of  Camden council to act, so that Network Rail was pressured into providing £1 million for community enhancements before planning permission was given.   

We then talked about FixMyStreet created by in 2007, with initial funding from the UK Government  FixMyStreet enables people to report, view or discuss common local problems (potholes in roads, graffiti, flytipping and so on) that if left unsorted can result in a 'broken window effect'. FixMyStreet is simple to use - you just enter your postcode, or street name, click on a map, input your problem (possibly with a photo), and it is documented on the site and the relevant council is informed. This enables citizens to see how many issues are reported in their areas - and also to see how responsive its council has been.  In turn, the council then has an incentive to act quickly and effectively. The site increases local authority accountability, increases local trust, strengthens citizen participation, and improves how we perceive our community.

It has been a major success: in the past week (14 October 2011) 1,034 reports have been made, 1,834 problems have been fixed in the past month, and there have been over 163,383 updates on reports since the site was created.

Our final example was Camden Council's use of social media to connect with its residents. Social media usage has exploded and Camden Council has taken a pro-active approach. Alasdair Mangham, Head of Information Systems and Development, says it has been a very cost effective way of communicating with citizens, and provides real-time feedback on how citizens view and feel about Camden?s services. Rather than simply pushing the message 'out there', the Council now engages in on-going conversations with citizens. The complaints management team uses Twitter to see what people say about them and to feedback quickly how they have responded to the complaints. One example was a complaint that a local park was closed during snow a year ago. Camden Council quickly tweeted that the park was closed because staff had not been able to get to work, and directed him to a website with details of local services disrupted by the weather. The following day the Council proactively tweeted to the man who complained that all Camden parks were now open.  This brought the enthusiastic response that he would blog about how good the Council had been (he has over 1,000 followers). This was publicity of the best kind - it stopped a complainant being sour, transformed him into an ally and resulted in the council being promoted by one of its customers as dynamic and effective.  To read more about how Camden has used social media to communicate better with its community, read this interview with Alasdair Mangham.

It became clear that Germany is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to open government - e.g. it is not amongst the participating states for the Open Government Partnership. Despite having a burgeoning data using community, there are administrative and legislative barriers to opening up data. In our view, this reinforces the value for Germany in taking the lead in emphasising the citizen engagement strand of any potential open government strategy.

In particular, local authorities in Germany should open themselves up to citizens, so that they can both make better use of each other's assets. Germany already has many good practice examples of this - the time has come for them to be scaled up and disseminated more widely.  Towns like Nürtingen in Baden-Würtemburg and Offenbach in Hessen have a huge amount to offer in terms of smart citizen engagement - but have not yet cottoned onto the potential of social media.

So we came away from the 2011 Open Government Barcamp thinking that Germany has the opportunity to develop an open government strategy that fits its own strengths rather than struggling with pursuing transparency and open data as ends themselves. We hope that at next year's Barcamp the conversation will have moved to giving as much weight to open dialogue as to open data. And we hope, too, that the potential for transfer of international best practice is given more weight in the programme. After all, if open government is to empower citizens, we want them to be able to say  'No decision about me without me!' not just 'No decision about me without me being able to read it about in the internet!'

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