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Co-production around the world

Co-production in Australia

Co-production of public services is firmly on the agenda of government at state and national level in Australia. As in other countries, this has partly been a matter of imitating developments elsewhere. But the distinctive characteristics of Australian society and geography have also shaped the nature and extent of co-production, prompting original initiatives in many cases, while limiting the possibilities in others.

First, its relatively small population spread over a very large area – 6th in land area, but only 52nd in population – combined with its remoteness from other developed countries, mean the ‘tyranny of distance’ looms large.

Secondly, its relatively small population is concentrated mainly in capital cities (64%), with 89% of its total population living in urban areas. Drought plays a large part in the lives of many rural Australians, as roughly 75% of the country is classified as arid or semi-arid. Much of Australia’s Indigenous population also inhabits remote or very remote areas, meaning some of its most socioeconomically disadvantaged people live the furthest from public service hubs.

These characteristics call for innovative policies, to address not only the problems of high-density urban living, but also the difficulties of delivering effective services to the relative minority living in remote and very remote areas. Community organisations play a particularly important role in remote Australia.

Co-production by another name?

The factors above have historically prompted major developments which can clearly be seen as co-production, but have not been labelled explicitly as such. A classic example is the Victorian Country Fire Authority, where a corps of ~58,000 volunteers, of whom 35,000 are trained as fire-fighters, works with a small core group of paid 1,400 paid fire service employees. This is the only practical way to economically provide fire services to Victoria’s vast outback. Similar arrangements exist in the other states, and there are many examples in other services, such as hospital services, court administration, or aged care.

Growing interest in co-production

Now, co-production is more explicitly on the Australian political agenda. Citizen engagement, consultation, co-design and co-delivery are terms to be found in many high-level strategy documents, and are championed by senior public servants such as two (former) Secretaries of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – Terry Moran and Peter Shergold – and head of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles.

The 2007 Australian Public Service Blueprint, championed by Moran, recommended “enable[ing] citizens to collaborate with government in policy and service design”. There was a much publicised 2020 Summit in 2008 to draw citizens into a consultative and advisory process to assist the government to identify priorities and shape policies. Then in 2010 the Australian Government made a Declaration of Open Government, stating that “Citizen collaboration in policy and service delivery design will enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought. Collaboration with citizens is to be enabled and encouraged”.

However, rhetoric is not always reality, and some commentators have noted a cultural adherence to the notion of the state as provider; the instrumentalism of government providing services to grateful citizens. Shergold notes that the NGO sector is “a raucous cacophony of organisational innovation”, and while community organisations are more crucial than ever to the delivery of human services for governments, the relationship between the public and community sectors is “mired” in the rhetoric of outsourcing.

Co-design and co-delivery in Australia

Other Australian agencies also have long-standing traditions of engaging their clients to carry out parts of their production processes – for example, the Australian Taxation Office introduced client self-assessment in the early 1990s, freeing up a large part of its resources for auditing and assistance purposes. Around the same time, many agencies began revising their service processes to make it easier for their clients to contribute information or effort to delivering the service, for example, by pre-printing renewal forms for vehicle registration.

More recently, there has been increased emphasis on co-design and consultation. The Family by Family program in South Australia is a strong example of both co-design and co-delivery. Developed by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation in conjunction with the SA Government, it is a mentoring program in which a network of families helps other families to grow and change together. It began as a collaborative project, asking the question “how can we enable more families to thrive, and fewer families to come into contact with crisis services?”

The shape of the program was strongly influenced by the consulted families, who gravitated toward the idea that struggling families would benefit immensely from support and mentoring from other families. The team realised that some families could be described as ‘positive deviants’ – they thrive despite socio-economic and other disadvantages. These ‘sharing families’ are trained and supported to link up with families who want things to improve (‘seeking families’), and through behavioural modelling, seeking families can make fundamental changes in the way they ‘do family’.


Other family-oriented initiatives include Tasmania’s co-designed Child and Family Centres, and the NSW Government’s Family Partnership Model, where families with young children attend a residential care unit and are supported to proactively make changes in their childcare practices.

At the federal level, the Department of Human Services, which inter alia is responsible for the entire gamut of benefits payments as well as providing numerous other services, has explicitly involved its clients in co-design as it seeks to reconfigure and fine-tune its services.

Online co-production

Web 2.0 has, not surprisingly, opened up new opportunities for co-design and co-delivery. At the planning and design level, South Australia has used web 2.0 capabilities to involve thousands of citizens in its Strategic Plan. But the possibilities reach well beyond citizen engagement: citizens experiencing similar problems can easily be connected to one another to provide support and advice; and governments can tailor information in ways that are designed to assist publicly valuable outcomes, or ease strain on public services.

Problem gamblers and their friends and families support each other through the Problem Gambling Victoria website. Another user-driven service, the ‘Your Stories’ section of the PGV site arose because the website feedback commentary feature was instead used by visitors to tell their stories, and provide tips and strategies for other users. The PGV team realised that these peer-to-peer interactions were often as helpful as counselling or advice from professionals.

The Victorian Government’s veteran health information website the Better Health Channel has in recent years released a mobile app to encourage users to take charge of their own health, while New South Wales’ mobile-friendly Emergency Department Waiting Times website helps to spread the load among the state’s hospital network. Users can access information including where their nearest hospitals are, how many patients are waiting at each, and plot the quickest route. In each case, these services enlist users to take on some of the work – taking steps to improve their own health, or choosing less crowded emergency rooms.

Looking to the future

The inevitable advances in technology and citizen-government connectivity bode well for co-production. Through the medium of technology, we can move beyond the idea of a ‘vending machine government’, where we pay our taxes and expect services in return. Perhaps the role of government in the future will be more like the manager of the marketplace, or the bazaar (O’Reilly 2010), where the community exchanges goods and services and actively participates in all aspects of commissioning, design, delivery and assessment. Web-facilitated ‘social machines’ are certainly one way to help conquer the tyranny of distance, and bring Australian citizens together.


John Alford
Professor of Public Sector Management
Australia and New Zealand School of Government 

Sophie Yates
Research Officer
Australia and New Zealand School of Government

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