SG X: Co-production of Public Services

General information about the IIAS Study Group “SG X: Co-production of Public Services”

Aim of the study group:

The aim of the study group is to create an intellectual platform for public administration researchers and practitioners to discuss the co-production of public services and its implications for the organization and management of public services.

The last meeting was held in June 2016 in Tampere. The study group is planning a new meeting June 7-8, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (USA). You can find the call for papers here.

Research topic:

The original concept of co-production focused on user involvement in the creation and delivery of public services, and dates back to work by Elinor Ostrom (e.g., Ostrom 1972) and other political science and public administration scholars in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the concept of co-production has expanded; it now refers to public services that are delivered through the involvement of both citizens and public sector professionals (cf. Alford 2009; Pestoff et. al. 2012; Ishkanian and Szreter 2012; Brandsen et. al. 2012; Verschuere 2012; Brandsen and Honingh 2015). Examples include diverse practices such as police forces relying on information exchange with residents; users, family members or neighbours taking part in health care institutions’ client councils; citizens setting up co-operations producing green energy; parents being active in child care initiatives and schools, and government work activation programs depending on actions by the target group being regulated.

Countries differ in the extent to which citizens have a role as providers of public services. However, in the current context of governments facing financial crises and austerity in public finances, and concomitant legitimacy crises for both the public sector and the market, the issue of cooperation and involvement of civil society in the production of public services is of increasing importance. The debate about co-production is driven by ideological and normative stances towards the role of government and civil society, as well as by (empirical) analysis and understanding about how citizen involvement impacts the production of public services. This study group seeks to bring together theoretical insights and empirical data to enable a better understanding of co-production of public services. Specifically, this study group will examine:

1. The role of service users in the production of public services internationally

Approaches to co-production vary greatly both across and within nations. Can co-production be seen as an alternative in the broad repertoire of forms of government organization and production of public services? What different types of co-production exist, and what are their distinguishing features? How ?big’ is co-production in the overall delivery of public services and the creation of ?public value’ in different countries? What variations are seen in national structures of service provision and involvement of citizen-users, and what factors explain this variation? How is co-production related to international differences in ?welfare regime types’ or in concepts of ?civil society’?

2. The organization and structure of public service organizations

Literature is describing interactions in co-production processes both at the inter-organizational (e.g., Dekker 2010) or organizational (e.g., Brandsen and Van Hout, 2008; Alford 2009) level. We question whether existing structures enhance or work against co-production: Does the way public services are produced and delivered need to be reconfigured to enable co-production and motivate citizens to take part? For example, are small organizations and polycentric systems more effective than large, hierarchical structures in giving citizens a role? How is co-production being institutionalized? What formal and informal co-production structures are being developed? How can government take a supportive role for coordinating among and facilitating co-producers?

3. The interaction between professionals and people using and coproducing services

Co-production brings different challenges to the work of public service professionals, as it impacts on professionals’ control over service delivery, and the willingness of professionals to collaborate and share responsibilities with citizens (cf. Bovaird 2007; Vamstad 2012). Research on street-level bureaucrats (e.g., Lipsky 1980) or studies of public service professionalism (e.g. Sullivan 1995), for example, can provide useful insights to valorize frontline experience (cf. Needham 2008). Our research on these issues will entail the study of how professionals can find ways to meaningfully engage with users: What types of interaction exist? How important is trust, both in terms of citizens’ trust in government and government officials’ trust in citizens? What skills are needed to work effectively with citizens? What challenges does co-production bring to the way professionals work? For example, does co-production reduce professionals’ control over the service delivery processes?

4. The capacity and willingness of citizens to engage in co-production

We can learn from related literature strands, such as research on active citizenship, political participation or volunteering, to better understand the capacity and motivation of users to take part in co-production (Alford, 2002; Van Eijk and Steen, 2014). Research issues relate to questions, such as: What characteristics distinguish active users from passive service recipients? Do citizens participating in co-production hold a high level of ?public service motivation’? Are user-producers motivated to achieve common or group interests, rather than individual interests? How does co-production influence the notion of ?citizenship’ in terms of responsibility for one self, for each other, and for the community? How does the notion of the customer-producer relate to the narrow NPM orientation toward’ customer service’?

5. The potential benefits and pitfalls of directly involving citizens in the production of public services

Finally, the study group raises the question of how to evaluate co-production. Does co-production provide opportunities for improving the efficiency and outcomes of public service delivery through better use of time, efforts, and resources (knowledge, expertise, skills) of both professional providers and users? Can cooperation by ?clients’ of regulatory agencies enhance legal compliance? Does co-production enhance the democratization and responsiveness of public policy delivery? Can co-production positively impact social cohesion? Can increased interaction between officials and citizens in processes of co-production enhance the ?voice’ of service recipients and support the creation of higher levels of welfare, especially in developing countries?

Co-production, however, also holds a number of threats. Central here is the question whether user engagement and calling upon the responsibilities of citizens is a cover for minimizing the responsibilities and accountability of the state. Other issues relate to questions such as: How can supervision of and accountability for quality of services be ensured in the context of co-production? As not all stakeholders are willing and able to co-produce, how is equal treatment ensured, and how are the interests of people using services, their families, people living in the neighbourhood, and other stakeholders protected? What capacities (e.g., education, skills, knowledge, etc.) do users need to engage in co-production? Is this kind of ?professionalisation’ of capacities a threat to the democratic character of user co-production? Can institutionalizing the involvement of users paradoxically prevent them from taking a critical stance?

6. Accommodating coproduction in public and/or constitutional law.

Related to the assessment of potential benefits and pitfalls of co-production, a topic of interest is the way in which co-production of public services is accommodated in public law or more specifically constitutional law. How do various legal frameworks support (or not) coproduction? How can law be enhanced to further and sustain coproduction activities ?

7. The relationship between public spending and coproduction.

What financial models can be used to nurture coproduction? Can coproduction compensate for the withdrawal of public spending in times of financial crisis, or does collaboration with citizen-users demand additional resources?

8. The implications of a service-recipient/coproducer approach to public services.

What would be the implications for public administration if coproduction became a dominant model? What insights can be brought in from other disciplines, such as political science, law, economics, psychology, sociology and history? What insights can be gathered from complementing research on coproduction with research on active citizenship, service management and customer engagement, or citizen self-organization?

Plan of activities and outcomes:

The aims of the study group are to theoretically discuss and empirically analyze co-production, to combine academic research with the accounts of practitioners, and to address the topic in such a way that it can help improve the practice of co-production.

To achieve these aims, we plan to:

(i) Hold a yearly meeting of the study group.

(ii) Convene additional meetings of the study group, including activities such as panels on the theme of “co-production of public services” at public administration conferences and collaboration with existing panels at IIAS and other conferences.

(iii) Focus research activities on the involvement of individual citizens in service provision, and bridge the divides among distinct but related research streams (e.g., active citizenship, citizen involvement in policy formulation, cross-sectoral service provision, collaborative governance, professionalization of public services).

(iv) Establish cooperation with existing platforms that study related topics.

(v) Create a website that explains the study group, its research theme(s), and issues and interests raised, and provides a platform for discussion.

(vi) Invite young researchers to engage in debate and discuss their work in progress, and stimulate the exchange of ideas with public sector professionals.

Together, these activities aim to result in:

(i) Developing new insights about models of co-production and their implications for the structure of public sector organisations and the functioning of public sector professionals;

(ii) Developing and sharing a database of international cases on co-production and strategies to enable effective involvement of citizen-users in the production of public services;

(iii) Publications, especially through special issues in international public administration journals and a book project

Start-up 2013-2015:

A first meeting of the study group has been organized in The Hague, the Netherlands, May 2013. The second meeting took place in Bergamo, Italy, May 2014. A third meeting took place in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, June 2015.

The work group meetings typically bring together over 30 scholars investigating issues of co-produciton of public services. They combine individual paper presentations with a round table discussion about the study group’s plans for intercontinental collaboration in co-production research. These meetings have established a small-scale, active, and sustainable network of scholars studying coproduction of public services. The study group provides a forum to discuss challenging research on innovations in public service delivery that include citizen co-production.

Activities 2016-2018:

Special issues in international public administration journals are being developed. Articles from our first special issue in International Review of Administrative Sciences are now available via the journal’s online first service at: A second special issue is being prepared. In addition to these special issues, the study group is exploring the possibility of a book project. The study group aims to further enable close intercontinental collaboration among coproduction scholars, including establishing joint research programs and developing and sharing a database of international case studies and survey data on coproduction.

The IIAS Study Group on ‘Coproduction of public services’ is planning a new meeting June 13-14 2016 in Tampere (Finland). You can find the call for papers here.


  • Alford, J. (2002). Why Do Public-Sector Clients Coproduce? Toward a Contingency Theory. Administration & Society, 34 (1): 32-56.
  • Alford, J. (2009). Engaging Public Sector Clients. From Service-Delivery to Co-production. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Bovaird, T. (2007). Beyond Engagement and Participation: User and Community Co-production of Public Services. Public Administration Review, 67 (5): 846-860.
  • Brandsen, T. and M. Honingh. 2015. Distinguishing different types of co-production: a conceptual analysis based on the classical definitions, Public Administration Review (online first)
  • Brandsen, T., V. Pestoff and B. Verschuere (2012). Co-Production as a Maturing Concept. In: Pestoff, V., T. Brandsen and B. Verschuere (eds.). New Public Governance, the Third Sector and Co-Production. New York / London: Routledge, pp. 1-9.
  • Brandsen, T. and E. van Hout (2008). Co-Management in Public Service Networks. The organizational effects. In: Pestoff, V. and Brandsen, T. (eds.). Co-Production. The Third Sector and the Delivery of Public Services. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 45-58.
  • Dekker, K., R. Torenvlied, H. Lelieveldt and B. Völker (2010). Coproductie. Samenwerking van de lokale overheid met maatschappelijke organisaties in de buurt. Den Haag: Nicis Institute.
  • Ishkanian, A. and S. Szreter (eds.) (2012). The Big Society Debate. A New Agenda for Social Welfare? Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
  • Needham, C. (2008). Realising the Potential of Co-production: Negotiating Improvements in Public Services. Social Policy and Society, 7 (2): 221-231.
  • Ostrom, E. (1972). Metropolitan Reform: Propositions derived from two traditions, Social Science Quarterly, 53 (Dec), 474-493.
  • Pestoff, V., T. Brandsen and B. Verschuere (eds.) (2012). New Public Governance, the Third Sector and Co-Production. New York / London: Routledge.
  • Sullivan, W. (1995). Work and Integrity. The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America. New York: HarperBusiness.
  • Vamstad, J. (2012). Co-Production and Service Quality: A New Perspective for the Swedish Welfare State. In: Pestoff, V., T. Brandsen and B. Verschuere (eds.). New Public Governance, the Third Sector and Co-Production. New York / London: Routledge, pp. 297-316.
  • Van Eijk, C. and Steen, T. (2014) Why people co-produce: analyzing citizens’ perceptions on co-planning engagement in health care services, Public Management Review, 16(3), 358-382.


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