The democratisation of public services: an explainer

The democratisation (or, ‘co-production’) of public services is the process of developing and delivering public services and policies in partnership with citizens.

It is, effectively, a more democratic way of designing services within the public sector and civil service. Through co-production and participatory policy-making, citizens can help shape the services they use and that affect their lives, rather than simply being passive beneficiaries of schemes and programmes. Citizens work with public sector professionals, often from a variety of civil services and policy areas, to help create these enhanced services.

Public involvement can occur, partially or completely, in virtually all stages of the collaborative, democratic public service process, including during:

  • commissioning
  • design
  • delivery
  • service implementation, including governance and public management
  • assessment and improvement

What are the benefits of democratisation of public services?

There are a number of positive potential outcomes when democratising public services and service delivery. For example, it can:

  • reinforce the idea that every individual can have an impact within a civil society, and can help reduce citizen apathy
  • shine a brighter light on large-scale issues such as inequalities, human rights, sustainability, and other topics that are better understood through the lived experience of individuals
  • reduce corruption in public services, according to the World Bank.

Other benefits can include the following.

Better relationships

Co-production can strengthen the relationships between frontline public service providers, such as the police, educators, and healthcare professionals, with the public and local communities that they serve. This can help reignite public servants’ passion for their jobs, and can also help humanise them for the everyday people who might otherwise see civil servants as simply their impersonal job descriptions or yet another cog in the machine of central government. 

Better programmes

The democratisation of public services can help iron out any potential wrinkles in public policies and services before they’re implemented. This is because public servants who aren’t on the receiving end of the services they provide can, at times, have trouble spotting issues that might be quickly apparent to service users with an experienced point-of-view. 

Better processes

Breathing new life into existing services through the input, experiences, and ideas of new voices is a huge benefit to the process of developing new public services and policies. The National Organisation for Local Economics (CLES), for example, argues that organisations, individuals, trade unions, and so on, don’t have to be part of the government to be passionate about public services – and they can offer new and different methods for realising social, economic and environmental value within new programmes and policies.

Better value

According to the Civil Service College, co-production can be more cost-effective than conventional methods of service design and delivery. This is because money is less likely to be wasted on ineffective services that fail to meet people’s needs. The college  also argues that by ensuring all services offered are effective and genuinely helpful, this has a knock-on, preventative benefit that further reduces costs. This is particularly noticeable in the health sector. As an example, it points to effective addiction services. If these services are readily available and effective, over time this will decrease the demand – and cost – for overdose treatments.

What role does the government play in the democratisation of public services?

Governments at all levels – from local government to the national level – can harness the power of citizen participation in their service provision.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), for instance, worked with local authorities to develop a model for co-production, with the aim of supporting the design and delivery of social services that:

  • focus on commissioning for long-term outcomes that make a real, positive impact on people’s lives
  • promote co-production by working in partnership with service users to bring in new resources and create more effective services
  • promote social value, with the triple bottom line – social, environmental, and economic outcomes – placed at the heart of service commissioning.

NEF also provides detailed guidance to governments on its approach to co-production. This includes support with:

    1. Insight. Developing outcomes that are important and helpful to people can be supported by identifying people’s needs and aspirations, as well as the assets and resources that are required.  
    2. Planning. Creating support and activities that meet people’s needs requires an appropriate framework and process. 
    3. Delivery. This includes monitoring and evaluating the value of public services, creating service assessments with the people who use services, and gathering insight and data to improve – and adapt – public services. This can happen through coaching, peer assessment, mystery shopping, customised self-reflection tools, and so on.

What is the difference between democratisation and privatisation?

Democratisation is an increasingly attractive option for governments in recent years. It safeguards the public interest and offers a more democratic alternative to the privatisation of public services.

When privatising public services or other assets of public ownership, governments have a number of options. For example, they might sell public assets to private owners outright, or decide that outsourcing the development and management of public services to a contracted, private third party – rather than managing the service publicly in-house – is preferable.

Privatisation is often the option of choice for governments looking to save – or make – money, but it also creates a gap between the democratic government, the public service, and the service users. 

Democratisation, on the other hand, puts people at the heart of the public service process. While privatised public services might be required to consult the public on new or amended services through forums, social media, or other methods of generating respondents, democratised public services understand their public value, and have the public embedded within the process every step of the way.

What is the difference between the public and private sector?

The public sector consists of all of the organisations that are managed by the government. In the UK, this includes institutions such as the NHS, the police and armed forces.

The private sector consists of organisations that are owned and managed by businesses or individuals. Everything from Amazon to local pubs are private sector organisations.

While co-production is more relevant to the public sector, it’s worth noting that third sector organisations – such as charities and community associations – can also democratise their services, and even private sector organisations can apply the principles and interventions of co-production within their processes and practices.

Help democratise public services

Explore the different facets of public service democratisation, including its benefits, obstacles, and problems, with the 100% online Master of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of York.

One of the core modules on this flexible master’s degree is about the co-production and democratisation of public services, so you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about how citizens can be enabled to influence public policy decision-making around public services, and how to ensure that the delivery of services meets the demands of users – both critical objectives in a democratic society.

You’ll also learn about public-private partnerships in public services, and how the delivery of public services involves a partnership between the public and the private sector, which creates both opportunities and challenges.