Co-Production & Co-Creation Part 2: Traditional & Open Authorizing Environments

This is part two of a multi part series on co-production and co-creation.

In my previous post, I spent some time anchoring co-creation and co-production within a clear framework and defined the terms discreetly.  

In this post, I will be diving into one of the major challenges and essential questions of these concepts - who gets to be the co-creators or the co-producers?

In Denver Public Schools, I had the opportunity to work with a tremendous set of folks to “break the cycle” on turnaround.  DPS has identified previous turnaround efforts as stalled or challenged due to three factors: planning/lead time, community involvement and strong designs.

In three schools, we hired two principals.  One was the interim principal, hired to lead the school through the first year of the turnaround process.  The other leader, dubbed the “Year 0 Leader”, was to be the new permanent principal of the school. Over the course of the first year the leader was charged with building community design team for a new model, engaging families and community and hiring a new staff.  

In each of the cases, formal and informal authorizing was needed.  The school board and DPS central administration had to formally approve the process and final plans.  The Teacher’s Association had to be notified in advance.  External stakeholders with informal authority were informed through multiple meetings to explain the process.  A group of concerned community advocacy groups were brought in early and often to appraise them throughout.

How did we manage the external environment to authorize these two turnaround schools? How did we build a bigger group of co-constructors and co-creators? This post is about how to think about these concepts in the broader frame.

What is an “authorizing environment”?

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In the concept of the Strategic Triangle outlined in the previous piece, Dr. Mark Moore defines the authorizing environment as those who have the ability to approve or disapprove of a public initiative.  

This is critically important in a public endeavor vs a private one. In a private enterprise, the Board and shareholders are the critical approver (along with customers).  In a public enterprise however, taxpayers and citizens broadly alongside the community generally have enormous power over whether a program succeeds.  The “authorizing environment” includes all of these stakeholders.   

In some of the research literature, there is vibrant discussion about this and most agree that the public system itself bears the burden of leading on this issue.  To put clearly, to build an open system in education built on co-creation or co-production, the school, network and district must lead.  

On one hand, this makes sense.  The school, network or district is the actor delivering the public service and must create the conditions for families or communities (or other end-users) to participate in the system.  They have the dollars, decision-making leverage and power.  

On the other hand, this re-affies tremendous bias and affinity patterns. Our schools, networks and districts are products of institutional biases up, down and around them.  Our teachers, school leaders and system leaders are often of different backgrounds than our students and our families.  Even when they are of the same background, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee values alignment or power sharing.    

Traditional & Open Authorizing Environments

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In the traditional framework, authorizers are considered along a “formal vs informal” continuum.  Those at the top have the direct power to approve or reject your public value initiative.  In education, this is the school board or the charter school authorizing office.  

This is still a valuable effort to map and consider in the building of public value.  The reality is that in a public system like ours, there are real folks with approval and others that have other types of authorizing power.  Families can count with power as formal and informal authorizers.  

Example: In portfolio systems, families have tremendous formal power in where they choose to attend school.  They also have informal power to protest and resist certain initiatives.  Others also have informal power (non-profits, community groups) that can weigh in and push their agenda, but may not have the same levers of authority as a “formal” authorizer.  

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In the open framework, all informal and formal authorizers are potential co-creators and co-producers.  As in the previous scenario, the non-profit might not have the “power” to approve your school application or new initiative but they are ripe for co-creation in the design process.  

Further, your families may also choose to attend your school but not have “formal” power in that process. As co-producers however, their power is accelerated and increased.  The potential for a dramatically larger set of organizations and users to participate in the process of co-production and co-creation is tremendous.  Just as it is important to distinguish between informal and formal for the sake of authorization, there is a distinction between those who are best suited for co-creation and those who are suited for co-production.  

Example: A new initiative is launched by a network of schools to mobilize parents and family around the next vision of the network.  Families of various background are sought to co-create the scope of the project, the timeline and how to bring other families in.  As the project continues, families are interested in creating a steering body to assist the network and ensure family perspective. They also request that some local community groups, while not needed in the creation process, would provide oversight and additional capacity to implement the vision.

Balancing the Traditional and the Open

Like most big questions in life, the answer is to balance the tension. Formal and informal authorization is essential, as is co-creation and co-production.  

The next generation of education advocates, seeking the build the Open System, should resist the urge to do away with the traditional model of authorization completely.  There are numerous and challenging aspects to the traditional model.  As discussed earlier, bias and institutional blindspots are trip-wired through the entire formal and informal process.  However, as we will discuss in the fourth post in this series, co-creators and co-producers are just as likely to “co-contaminate” or “co-destroy” well intentioned open public endeavors with bias and -isms.

Back at my experience with turnaround schools, both co-creation and co-production were also central pillars.  Families, community leaders and staff leaders were invited to participate in the design team.  School leaders met monthly with these leaders and went through a constructive design process to build the new design of the school.  Department heads from across DPS were also invited to participate in the design planning, ensuring that various departments had a chance to inform the creation of the plan.  These design teams evolved into being essential co-production partners in the next phase.  Principals expanded the charge of the group to advise on critical school matters and also advise on the implementation of the next phase of the turnaround process.  A local education advocacy group set up more or less a permanent presence at two of the schools, another at the third.  These external groups mobilized families and were brought in by leaders to be co-producers.  

If we had just focused on the former or the latter, the process would not have been as strong or broad in terms of engagement.  In all aspects of the plans and work, both the traditional and open models generate significantly more effective results on the goals of the project.

Therefore advocates of the Open System should consciously examine traditional and open models to steer critical processes that build public value.  Building the Open System requires understanding traditional power structures to actualize public value and generate new power through open processes.

Most importantly, in my experience, open authorizing practices have the potential to dramatically shift the power dynamics and narratives around formal/informal authorizing. When co-creation/co-production is used extensively with communities and families, authorizers are loathe to disapprove.  Where co-creation/co-production is absent, formal authorizers feel there is little cost to push back or eliminating the initiative.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can only have legitimacy and support and run serious game for approval.  Authorizers still need evidence of sufficient capacity to execute on a strong value proposition. Without these elements, authorizers will be neglecting their primary obligation to taxpayers and standing laws. The cost to them is great if they neglect this responsibility.

This returns us to why both models must be balanced: in my experience, a coalition of families and communities with excellent capacity and strong public value proposition might be the most powerful thing in education.  

Using These Frameworks

In the next two pieces, I will spend time discussing the other side of this process.  In the next post, I will review the mindsets of scarcity that crept in and how it almost derailed the process.  In the fourth post, I will discuss how guardrails had to be set up to ensure that co-destruction and co-contamination did not steer the process into the ground.  Indeed in many of the times and cases, the turnaround project was touch and go and these frames were not as clear in the moment but rather guiding lights we aspired to.   

As you move forward and think through utilizing these frameworks in the pursuit of your initiative or public value work, these questions should help guide your discussion:

  • Who are the formal and informal power structures for authorization in your community?

  • What bias and structural challenges are inherent in these power structures? How can co-creation or co-production mitigate or overcome these challenges?

  • Who is best suited for co-creation?

  • Who is best suited for co-production?

  • How can you leverage these processes to accelerate formal and informal authorizing moving forward?

  • Through the process of co-creation or co-production, have you neglected operational capacity or your public value proposition?