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3 Ways Government Can Use Citizens to Deliver Services


Citizen engagement has traditionally been viewed as citizens participating in community activities such as testifying on policy proposals, budgets, and strategic plans.  But government does more than policy and budget.  And citizens want to do more than testify or volunteer at the local food bank. 

How can governments at all levels engage their citizens in ways that are more meaningful – and fun -- to both the citizens and their community? A series of pioneering initiatives hold new promise that this can be done on a much wider scale.

A new IBM Center report, “Beyond Citizen Engagement:  Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services,” explores the growing phenomena of engaging citizens in the co-delivery of services. The authors, P.K. Kannan and Ai-Mei Chang, both with the University of Maryland, note: “The rise and increasing pervasiveness of digital social media – Facebook, Twitter – have dissolved the many technical barriers to widespread and sustained citizen involvement in actually co-producing and co-delivering public services.”

In addition, the rise of the millennial generation as it enters adulthood reinforces this new phenomenon, since they are both tech-savvy and highly service-oriented within their communities.  The private sector spotted this trend several years ago and pioneered a number of successful ways to engage their customers.  One well-known example is the LEGO Digital Designer, a place where children can design new models using a digital designer and compete with each other online. Another is Intuit’s TurboTax live community, where customers provide advice and help to each other; those who are most helpful are ranked higher on the site.

Three Co-Delivery Opportunities

The co-delivery of public services has been around a long time, before technology -- just think of volunteer fire departments, citizen juries, and neighborhood watch. But today, technology allows many new paths for engagement.  Recent e-government trends have promoted self-service, such as renewing drivers licenses online – but co-delivery is different.  The authors say there are three points in the policy cycle where citizens can now become engaged:

  • Policy or program design.  Co-design initiatives give citizens the chance to participate in the development of a new policy or service.  These types of efforts are usually time-bound – with a beginning and an end point.  These are also the closest to the traditional view of what constitutes citizen engagement.  For example, the mayor of Washington, DC, engages in periodic community summits, such as the one held last year in Ward 8, to have citizens propose and review potential economic development investments by the city in their neighborhoods.
  • Policy or service production.  A co-production initiative involves citizens – as individuals or groups – in creating a service to be used by others.  For example, the Patent and Trademark Office has piloted an effort, Peer-to-Patent, where citizen-experts can help review pending patent applications and help reduce the backlog. In another example, the Library of Congress is piloting several crowd-sourcing projects where citizens can help classify and categorize content the Library’s holdings such as vintage photos and hand-written Civil War diaries, for use by researchers and others.
  • Final service or information delivery.   A co-delivered service involves citizens, either individually or jointly, to deliver services for both themselves and others.  They can be short-term transactions, such as the IRS’s annual tax assistance program staffed by volunteers who help the elderly or low income complete their tax returns. Or they can be long-term relationships, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone initiative, which involves professionals, volunteers from the community, and public servants rebuilding the community’s social, health, economic, and educational environment so children develop into productive citizens.  According to Kannan and Chang: “Technological innovations and the role of third-party intermediaries have both been important catalysts for co-delivery initiatives.”

Is Co-Delivery Right for Your Program or Service?

Kannan and Chang note “Co-delivery is not right for every program or service.”  But by examining a range of pioneering initiatives underway, they were able to develop a checklist to conduct a cost/benefit/risk analysis as to whether a pilot would be warranted.  For example:

  • Can you define an acceptable risk for a co-delivery initiative?  For example, would crowdsourcing the transcriptions of Civil War diaries for the Library of Congress result in lesser quality than if done by professionals?  Is there a way to reduce that risk?
  • Can you clearly define and focus on program outcomes?  A clear “product” or service needs to be defined so participants can see themselves making meaningful contributions.
  • What is the underlying motivation for attempting a co-delivery initiative?  Kannan and Chang say: “The primary motivation for a government agency should be improvement in service outcome, not cost-cutting.”

If your responses to these and other questions in the checklist are reasonably positive, then it might be worth considering!

Image via art4all/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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