Co-Creation & Co-Production Part 1: Defining Terms

Part one of a multi-part series on co-creation & co-production

An emergent and trendy term in education discourse, especially in family engagement spaces, are the ideas of “co-creation” and “co-production.” Some have even intoned that this work is the next generation of education work.  It is the work “to do with” rather than “to do for” or “to do to", and integral to the Open System.

It’s a big idea, fraught with challenges yet called for in our current education history and moment.  For too much of the past century of education improvement initiatives (catalogued by Jal Mehta in his book, The Allure of Order) the work of reform has been too often top-down or driven by technocrats inspired to impose a system upon others.  While there are genuine exceptions to this rule (and sometimes examples folks claim lack of input are actually embedded deeply in community participation) co-production and co-creation of education systems has not been a priority over the past century.

The Open System rejects this course of action entirely. It values open public processes, democratic governance and the merging of perspectives and power as the way to guide the system toward a better end. Built into the Guiding Principles (indeed, it is listed as Principal 1!) of the Open System site is the idea “Co-Creation & Co-Production In All Things.” I’ve been encouraged as other education advocates have begun to speak about co-creation and co-production more often. This piece attempts to lay the theoretical and practical groundwork for the ideas and connect them directly to the work of education explicitly. And as always, I realize others have come before me in this work (including some exceptional and thought provoking research here, here and here).  Shoulders of giants and all that.  Each week I'll publish a new article on the concept, exploring a different avenue for discussion. 

Co-Creation Overview

In the private sector, Forbes magazine published an article recently that discussed co-creation as

...not a customer advisory board on steroids or a clever sales and marketing tactic. It’s about jointly creating value, for the vendor as well as customers. To most managers, the thought of openly and transparently engaging customers, sharing detailed data is downright scary. The rewards, however, should cause CEOs to pause and reconsider.

As discussed earlier, various start-ups and private organizations are taking on the idea of the Open System or Open Organization.  It matters to realize that powerful concepts such as co-creation and co-production have currency in other fields.  Private sector endeavors have also been long shielded from direct engagement with critical stakeholders. However, this blog and work is directly focused on public education, so we must consider how this is defined and considered within the public sector and education broadly.  

In their research piece, A Systematic Review of Co-Creation and Co-Production: Embarking on the social innovation journey, the authors conclude with a striking thought on the relevance of these ideas in the public space:

Policy makers and politicians consider co-creation/co-production with citizens as a necessary condition to create innovative public services that actually meet the needs of citizens, given a number of societal challenges, like ageing and urban regeneration, and all of this within the context of austerity. Hence, co-creation/co-production seems to be considered as a cornerstone for social innovation in the public sector. (emphasis mine)

In the post Now: The Open Moment, I make the case for why this work critically matters at our present moment in time.  Across the country, more and more education system leaders are rightly attempting to lead from a space of co-creation/co-production.  But if we intend to build or redesign systems that seeks to lay this “cornerstone” of social impact work, we must understand how it specifically is grounded within public sector initiatives broadly.  

The Strategic Triangle

In graduate school, I had the unbelievable pleasure to learn from and teach for Dr. Mark Moore.  Dr. Moore pioneered the idea of the Strategic Triangle, a concept fundamental to the understanding of public institutions and organizations.

The Strategic Triangle consists of three fundamental components:

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  • Public Value. The articulated rationale and benefits to the community of the initiative, department or, in our cases, a school or school district. Example: A charter school’s public value proposition is that it guarantees all students attend college.

  • Organizational Capacity. The systems, structures and components of the organization that realize the public value proposition.  Example: A charter network has a CEO, a Chief of Schools, and a significant human resources department investment to ensure it can recruit the talent and leadership to achieve its public value.

  • Legitimacy & Support. Exceptionally important in the public sphere and divergent from the private sector, public organizations and enterprises must constantly be building credibility and authorization from their community broadly. These could be those with the formal power to approve or pushback against the endeavor or those informal power who can reduce the credibility of the effort. This is truly the work of aligning values and actions with broad stakeholders, whether they are named or not. Example: A charter network has a Board of Directors, which received authorization from the local school district, which also has a Board. This charter network also must undergo an authorization process through a charter schools office inside the school district. Additionally, families must sign up to send their children to the school.

    • Authorizing Environment. An essential element to the work of building legitimacy and support is understanding “who” is in your authorizing environment.  Building legitimacy and support from broad stakeholders is good, but unless you build legitimacy and support from those most critically invested in your work (see example above) than your project will likely fail. Critiquing the traditional sense of power here will be essential and the subject of the next piece.

These three components represent the fundamentals of public sector work.  Every public endeavor must “round the bases” at all times, in all of the work. Deep alignment between all three ensure the success and impact of any social initiative. Many public endeavors fail because they fail to hold all three of these critical functions together at all times.  

Anchoring the Triangle: Co-Creation, Co-Production

In this class, I once asked a question of Professor Moore about the authorizing environment. This is the universe of folks in public work that you must build legitimacy and support from, seek approval and continually engage.  I asked him what happens when you merge the authorizing environment with other parts of the triangle? With either the public value creation or the on-going work? What if the legitimacy & support for your public value was not a separate component, but rather a fundamental force in the other components?

He smiled and with a twinkle in his eye spoke clearly: “That’s called co-production...or co-creation”

I remember that moment because I looked around at many of the other folks in my class.  I caught few of their glances with my wide eyes.  Professor Moore had put into one term something I had been struggling with for years.  

My whole career in education had made this point so clear, yet so obscure from simple terms and a clear understanding of why the failure existed.  Indeed, I remember in that moment realizing that co-production and co-creation were where I was proud of my work and the places where I hadn’t I was ashamed of my leadership.

At a more global level, I began to understand this is where the failures of education “reform” had landed on its 30k foot descent into our communities from the top-down towers of technocrats.  It had touched down in the deep structural divide between “organizational capacity” and “legitimacy & support.”  Reformers had articulated a public value, found others who’d agreed with them, built capacity and THEN, only then, asked for support and legitimacy. However, too often they had sought a narrow vision for what broad-based legitimacy and support looks like, usually from those who both agreed and looked like them.  Teachers and grassroots groups across the country rebelled as they saw top-down implementation wrapped in a thin veneer of authorization (usually from people from the same affinity group).

These public values might be well-intentioned policies, great schools or amazing initiatives but because they lacked co-creation and co-production, they were not only hindered from the start but lacked on-going sustainability. Sometimes miracles could happen: they could press “restart” on the idea or build a new coalition to support the work. But too often, the lack of co-creation/co-production led to a long slog of reduced legitimacy and support, and sometimes failure of the policy overall.  In some cases, it led to the splintering of the coalitions advancing public education. In other states and communities, wisdom prevailed. There was a realization that co-production and co-creation were essential elements, indeed necessary for the work. These charter networks, districts and national initiatives have thrived because they realized that co-production/co-creation were essential. 

Defining Our Terms

Now that we understand the strategic triangle, the basic concept and how it connects back to education, let’s get a little clearer on these terms.  Co-production and co-creation are often used interchangeably, so this is an opportunity to be more discrete and sharp with language. In fact, in their survey of hundreds of articles, the authors of this piece of research came to the conclusion that the terms were used too interchangeably.  They conclude the following definitions ought to be used, for the sake of clarity and consistency:  

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  • Co-Creation. In the genesis of assembling a public value proposition, members of the authorizing environment are given the ability to shape the design and final product to what they believe is needed.

Example: A community design team is formed to guide a turnaround process.  This design team gets to name the school, the type of program involved and builds the blueprint with the school leader.

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  • Co-Production. In the ongoing work of producing public value, members of the authorizing environment help and are involved in the organization directly.  This can range across from deeply involved in running the operation directly, or to more lightly in having a deep oversight and steering responsibilities.  

    Example: The school district appoints a citizen oversight council which helps place new schools, guide the chartering of new options and advises the Board and Superintendent on critical issues. 

Big Questions Moving Forward

Now that terms are defined and hopefully, more clarity emerges, the next three pieces will dive into essential questions for these ideas:

  • Part 2: Who is in the authorizing environment? If building legitimacy and support is based on building value alongside those with the “power” - who is defining “power”? How is the system constructed to ignore a broader definition of an authorizing environment? If we need to create an open authorizing environment, what would be our big questions?

  • Part 3: Scarcity or Abundance? A common challenge to those who would lead with co-creation or co-production is a mindset of scarcity.  The very nature of the system is laced with scarcity cues and traps, ranging from money and time to the very belief itself. A major question of building co-creation or co-production schools or systems will be to shift towards an abundance mentality.  

  • Part 4: Dangers of Co-Production and Co-Creation.  In education work, sometimes the devil is in the ongoing work, not the exciting start.  Co-designing a school with families and community could easily cause problems or challenges if the strong work of co-production do not continue. Included with in this is the concepts of “co-contamination” or “co-destruction” - the ideas that by working with the system community members themselves can lose credibility or reduce the effort itself to the dustbin of well meaning ideas.