In this second co-production blog for Scottish Co-production Week – #CoProWeekScot – Dr. Elke Loeffler reflects on the potential impact of digital technologies on co-production and new pathways to co-production in the context of COVID-19 by drawing on the German Hackathon “WirVsVirus”.

Co-production challenges in private and public services

Co-production of services with service users and communities is not a new issue. Indeed, the services literature already pointed out in the 1980s the shift from a ‘relieving to an enabling logic’ in the private sector. In the age of self-service, activities that used to be done by professionals are increasingly being transferred to service users. Many of us can remember the days when flight bookings had to be done through a travel agency and all banking business had to be done in person over the counter at the bank. Today these transactions can be done comfortably at home on the internet and often improve the quality of service. However, customers who are not digitally literate may lack access, be charged a higher price (e.g. when they access such services through other channels, such as flight bookings by phone) or be disadvantaged in other ways.

Increasingly, the public sector has also invited service users and local communities to contribute more to improving the public services they use and the outcomes they experience. Indeed, the Governance International case study hub showcases more than 70 co-production case studies in public services around the world. Co-production has become a popular term in many public sector organisations and even made its way into the strategic plans of a number of health and social care partnerships in Scotland. However, until the Covid-19 crisis it was largely considered as a ‘nice to have’, not as a ‘must have’, as Gerry Power from the ALLIANCE often complained, when characterising the implementation of co-production in public services.

Different ways of co-producing with service users and local communities – the Four Co’s

There are suggestions that one obstacle to the implementation of co-production in public services is the term itself, which has become very fuzzy. Not surprisingly, there is an intensive debate about its definition in the academic literature and a range of definitions have emerged. I suggest that in the spirit of co-production, any definition should be co-produced by the stakeholders working together, making it relevant to their own context, so that it is ‘fit for purpose’.

In practice, the definition I have used in my recent Palgrave Macmillan monograph Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes states: “Co-production of public services means public service organisations and citizens making better use of each other’s assets, resources  and contributions to achieve better outcomes or improved efficiency”. This is the definition which I have used in most of my research with public service organisations over the past few years – but, as mentioned above, I have been happy to fit in with other definitions, where the relevant stakeholders preferred them.

More specifically, I outline in my book how user and community co-production of public services and outcomes involves four ways of co-producing, including:

  • Co-commissioning of priority outcomes
  • Co-design of improved pathways to outcomes
  • Co-delivery of pathways to outcomes
  • Co-assessment of public services, public governance and quality of life outcomes

This means that co-production is about both citizen voice and citizen action. For example, in many public services, some attempt at bringing service users and community members into the commissioning process has now been institutionalised through legal and regulatory approaches. Again, in contexts of marketisation, service users can often give useful information to providers, so they are often brought into co-design and co-assessment (Loeffler and Timm-Arnold 2020,6-7). In addition, service users can often help improve the efficiency of providers, e.g. by making a bigger contribution as co-deliverers through self-service. The mix of the Four Co’s therefore varies from service to service, place to place and time to time – co-production is a fluid, emerging practice, rather than an approach to be implemented according to ‘the rulebook’.

In order to involve service users and communities in co-production, most public service organisations have pursued the ‘inside-out’ pathway – this means they have tried to attract citizens to help them improve their existing public services and outcomes. This has the advantage of making sure that the co-production is strongly relevant to the public service organisation – but not necessarily to the citizens becoming involved. However, the Covid-19 crisis has raised awareness that there is another pathway to co-production – the ‘outside-in’ pathway.

Potential impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on user and community co-production

As discussed in my chapter on co-delivery approaches in the Palgrave Handbook on Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes, the current Covid-19 crisis has raised awareness of the importance of contributions by citizens to key public outcomes. In many countries, this crisis has hugely increased community self-help, e.g. neighbours helping vulnerable people to do their shopping or simply keep in touch with them by phone. The question is how public services can tap into the resources, knowledge and creativity provided by citizens going about their daily lives in order to co-produce better public services and outcomes. This is the ‘outside-in’ pathway to co-production, where the public services find ways of complementing and adding effectiveness to things that citizens are already doing. This has the advantages of reaching far more people, and being far more relevant to the citizens involved – but, of course, it means that public service organisations have to rethink their priorities.

A comparison of responses to the Covid-19 crisis in the region of Lombardia and Veneto showed that the community-based approach in Veneto, harnessing extensive contributions from citizens, with support from public service organisations, was much more successful than the hospital- and GP-based approach in Lombardia, where infection and death rates were much higher.

The German hackathon “WirVersusVirus” as an example of collaborative innovation through co-production

As reflected by many contributions on the PrOPEL Hub, the Covid-19 crisis has increased digitalisation in many sectors – I will highlight one particularly creative co-production response in Germany.

The Federal Government in Germany joined up with seven third sector organisations specialising in digital services to organise a national hackathon from 20-22 March 2020 to explore potential solutions to the Covid-19 crisis. Over 48 hours, more than 28,000 participants contributed to the #WirVsVirus hackathon. This resulted in about 1500 ‘solutions’ developed by citizens in collaboration with representatives of public, private and non-profit sector organisations. These ranged from prototypes to improve health system challenges (such as the management of hospital resources and the digital assessment of new infections) to wider community challenges (such as effective food distribution to people in need and support for famers during harvest time).

In an iterative selection process ten projects were selected for the  “Solution Builder” phase, based on their potential and urgency. The project teams were provided with targeted support to make their approaches ready for scaling within eight weeks. Interestingly, four of the implemented projects involved strong co-production elements such as ‘Caring Stars’ (Pflegesterne) which helps to match professionals with social care experience to social care providers who are looking for volunteers and RemedyMatch (which matches donors of resources, including volunteers, such as providers of personal protection equipment, with hospitals and couriers). Another interesting project is the digital platform JOWOMO which allows companies to allocate workers temporarily more effectively in order to help employers in times of crisis and to reduce underemployment based on the motto “Working Together To Protect Jobs”.

In particular, the Hackathon case study shows that digital technologies enable co-production to be implemented at speed and scale. Moreover, some of the resulting digital solutions help to overcome the ‘matching’ challenge which has often limited the scale of co-production elsewhere.

A call for collaborative innovation through co-production

We need more learning on how co-production works in the public and private sectors, as highlighted in the recent publication “Co-Production of Public Services. Management and Evaluation”. One way forward is to involve public sector, non-profit and private sector organisations in the development of co-production approaches to respond to workplace, economic and social challenges, as suggested in the co-production blog by Prof. Colin Lindsay.

Many local authorities have already engaged in hackathons or innovation labs with partners from business, the non-profit sector and civil society-  so we would appeal to you: why don’t you also consider using the innovation potential of co-production? The PrOPEL Hub provides you with a multidisciplinary network of experts in co-production, innovation and collaboration and would be keen to help you facilitate and evaluate your co-production journey toward successful innovation.

We hope you have found this blog useful. Please send your comments and suggestions to Dr. Elke Loeffler at

The PrOPEL Hub network offers partners and employers multi-disciplinary expertise to support them using the potential of co-production for innovation. Find out more on our homepage