SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 3 – How public leaders can use co-creation to make things better

Special issue blog series on strategic management of the transition to public sector co-creation 

sorenson et alEva Sørensen, John Bryson and Barbara Crosby

Governance researchers broadly agree that co-creation can be a productive way of mobilising the resources needed to solve complex societal problems and create something that citizens accept as valuable for society. We still know little about how public leaders can employ co-creation as a means to promote public value, however. In our new article in Policy & PoliticsHow public leaders can promote public value through co-creation’, we propose that co-creation can strengthen the ability of public leaders to align the goals of diverse constituencies in a way that achieves lasting value for the public. This kind of public leadership involves a strategic effort to engage, inspire and mobilise actors with relevant governance assets – including legitimacy, authority and capabilities. We illustrate the salience of our propositions in two case studies that document how politicians and public and non-profit managers perform public leadership of co-created public value in Gentofte, Denmark and Minneapolis‒St. Paul, USA.

The first step in specifying public leadership of co-created public value entails moving beyond traditional understandings of public leadership theory that have mainly focussed on the mobilisation of public sector actors and resources in solving public challenges as defined by politicians and civil servants according to rules and regulations. By contrast, leaders who aim to employ co-creation as a tool for promoting public value seek to mobilise actors and resources across organisations and sectors. The objective is not merely to improve public service delivery. It is also to promote an array of broader public value outcomes, which are not predefined by public authorities but are shaped and reshaped as part of the co-creation process.

A productive way to start reflecting on how public leaders can benefit from using co-creation as a tool for promoting public value outcomes is to rethink the Public Value Governance Triangle developed by John Bryson and colleagues by investigating how public leaders can use co-creation as a means to secure broad authorisation and organisational capacity to promote public value. A review of several recent leadership and management theories provides valuable building blocks for specifying how to do just that, and the case studies show that it is indeed possible for politicians, public managers, and civil society leaders to do so in practice.

The key message from the theories and case studies is that leading for co-created public value involves:

  1. A strategic and targeted yet pragmatic effort to mobilise, empower and engage a wide range of actors in defining, authorising and producing public value or other outcomes through the staging and exploitation of different forms of co-creation.
  2. A purposeful investment in guiding, commissioning, and committing relevant and affected actors to contribute to the performance of specific governance tasks, as well as the framing and facilitation of open-ended co-creation of innovative solutions.
  3. A boundary-spanning attempt to promote co-creation between different organisations and sectors and among actors from different branches, levels and leadership domains within the same organisation or sector.
  4. An employment of soft leadership tools that makes it possible to lead actors within as well as beyond a single leadership domain.
  5. A purposeful and flexible formation of alliances between public sector leaders and managers, civil society leaders and business leaders.

While the leadership theories and cases we have cited move towards public leadership that supports the co-creation of public value in representative democracies, we recognise that the wider adoption of this view faces some barriers although there are also drivers for politicians, and public and private managers. Among the barriers are traditional role perceptions and the hegemony of an intra-organisational operational logic. Among the drivers are the growing interdependencies when it comes to solving governance problems that are high on the policy agenda. We hope that our article will inspire further theoretical reflection and empirical investigation into the challenges and potential of public leadership for co-created public value. Moreover, we hope that it will inspire public leaders to consider how the employment of co-creation can help them to promote public value.   

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Sørensen, Eva; Bryson, John; Crosby, Barbara (2021) ‘How public leaders can promote public value through co-creation‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16119271739728

Read the other blog pieces in the series: 

Blog 1 – Public value as the game changer for co-creation of innovative solutions in the public sector

Blog 2 – Co-creation: the new kid on the block in public governance

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