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The Rationale for Public Service Commonification

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
10th July 2013


A summary excerpted from Tommaso Fattori:

* No private profit from services which belong to everyone

Commonification of public services means firstly managing the resource to which the service is connected outside of market and profit logic, as a commons to which everyone must be able to have fair access. The objective of the service is not to make a profit – as is frequently the case both in privately-owned management companies and in fully-publicly-owned management companies – but to satisfy individual and collective fundamental needs and ensure the full implementation of fundamental rights of the person and of the collectivity.

* Universal access and protection or multiplication of the resource

In the case of natural commons to which one has access through services, commonification prevents any exclusive use of the resource and guarantees universal access to it, whether for example it is a question of water, healthcare or education: the objective is intra-generational social justice. In practice, it is a question of guaranteeing each person the healthcare he or she needs, or the right to access the vital quantity of water each day or the essential quantity of energy: so shared social responsibility is needed (as in the case of covering the cost of vital quantities through general taxation). Commonification also means protection of the resource, when considering natural resources: the objective is inter-generational and environmental justice. It is a question, for example, of avoiding the pollution and waste inherent in the concept of commodification: the more water or energy is consumed, the greater the profit for the management service.

If for natural resources, commonification requires awareness of their limits, as regards services related to knowledge (such as education in schools and universities), it is on the contrary a question of multiplying non-material open access resources available for present and future generations, as we will examine more in depth further on. These are resources whose growth is both possible and desirable. The logic of the commons is hence one of inclusion, both intragenerational and intergenerational. Natural resources must be handed down to our descendents with the same level of quality; infrastructures and services for everyone must be improved; non-material resources must be multiplied, starting from the baggage of knowledge which is at everyone’s disposal. The commons logic is a long-term one, not the short-term view of economic gain. The objective is not to accumulate profits in the present but the inheritance to leave to the generations following ours.

* Inalienability

The legal framework for commonified services must include: the inalienability of the good itself (when the service is connected to a specific resource such as water); the inalienability of the infrastructures; the ban on privatizing management of the service, which can under no circumstances be entrusted to private bodies or to bodies subject to private law. In the case of natural resources such as water, the citizen-commoners do not “own” them but govern them and use them collectively in a socially fair and environmentally sustainable manner. In this sense, commons can also be defined as a governance system where the commoners use the resources in trust for future generations.

* Participation and commonification

We now come to the decisive but also the most complex element, as far as the actual means of implementation are concerned. Commonification goes beyond the mere de-privatization of public services. Commonification of public services has an essential side which revolves around democracy and self-governance: it means participation of the users in the governance, management and supply of public services. Through commonification, the general public, that is, all of us, is placed centre stage in governing and running public services, in contrast not only with the private system but also with the system in which the only people responsible for the creation of public policies and the design of services are public bureaucracies which, through standard operating procedures, allocate goods and services to the citizens. The user-citizens are in this case “participants” only as a source of requests, inputs and feedback: the production of the service consists in a one-flow supply and the citizens’ participation is closed within the limits of representative and procedural democracy.

The commonification of public services, on the other hand, represents an alternative both to privatization and to the old-style public management, or rather, it represents two possible alternatives: commonification can translate both into forms of complete common self-production and self-governance of services on the users’ part, that is, without involving public structures and staff, or into a radical transformation of public bodies, where the public administration would still have a role to play. First of all, we will deal with the second interpretation of the commonification process.
[edit] The democratic commonification of public institutions which supply services

Commonification, as far as the participatory aspect is concerned, consists in this case of democratizing the public institutions which supply services, that is, introducing elements of self-governance and self-management by the users, of resources and services of general interest. The users acquire capabilities and power to make decisions, define orientation, rules and priorities, reappropriating themselves of the very possibility of governing and managing public goods and services in a participatory manner: it is this protagonism which turns citizens into commoners. The issue of commonification of public services is hence closely linked with that of experimenting new forms of participatory and deliberative democracy, because it introduces new moments of direct democracy for the management of shared resources alongside moments and forms of traditional representative democracy. The transformation of public services into “common services” means inserting elements of self-government and commoning in the various stages of orientation, planning, programming, management, supply and monitoring of the services. At the same time, it is necessary to also give the public services workers back an active and co-managing role. This means reversing the road taken when public services are privatized. The “common spere” implies a revolution in power: from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, finding forms of balance and integration with the mechanisms of representative democracy.6 In addition to the models put forward by the social movements (such as those in the citizens’ bills), there are already forms of citizen participation in the management and governance of public services in different parts of the world, won mainly thanks to the pressure of these same social movements. The best-known examples in this area are once again in the water services sector, that is, where the movements have been strongest in recent years.7 Moreover in Brazil, participatory budgets have usually allowed for debate and a participatory decision-making process concerning the investments in all fundamental services. In Europe, too, there have been some attempts to introduce participatory elements, sometimes “top-down” and in a limited and twisted form (for example the drawing of “citizens’ juries”), sometimes taking more innovative approaches, as in the management of water services in Grenoble, Cordoba and recently in Paris and Naples. The local inhabitants move from being passive objects of services to finding spaces to define priorities and shape the services themselves, through participatory democracy mechanisms. These experimental models involve at least a double level: on one hand the participation of representatives of active citizens, movements and of the service workers on the Board of Administration of the public company running the service (the BoA is responsible for all main decisions); and on the other the setting-up of organisms – preferably with the power to make proposals and not merely with an advisory role – which work alongside the company management and are made up of representatives of the inhabitants-users and the workers.

* Commonification and co-production of public services

Commonification intersects not only with the general area of participatory-deliberative democracy and participatory government/governance, but also with the more specific field of co-production in public services9. These are empirical-conceptual fields which are not always clearly defined: participatory governance remains a rather cloudy area, just as co-production is a concept used to describe very different phenomena in equally diverse terrains. In general terms, co-production can be defined as the involvement of ordinary citizens in the production of public services, particularly in the implementation stage and the output of the service. The origins are to be found once again in Elinor Ostrom and her research group, who began to use the term in the 1970s to describe the potential relationship that could exist between the “regular producers”, for example school teachers or health workers, and the user-clients who want to be transformed by the service into better-educated or healthier people.

If we look closely, the ideas on what co-production means are very different: one can first of all distinguish between a “strong” and a “weak” understanding of participation as co-production. In the weak sense, the service supplied is considered effective only on condition that there has been collaboration on the part of the beneficiary, to the point that the co-producing participation of the user is considered an ontologically necessary condition for the very production of the service. Think of services relating to the rehabilitation of the psychically ill, drug addicts and people in prison. In this “weak” sense, co-production exists in the education service when the student pays attention in class and then does his or her homework; when the citizen moves his or her car the day that street-sweeping is scheduled, or installs a smoke alarm in his or her home, in collaboration with the fire brigade. On the other hand, co-production in the “strong” sense is where our interest lies. In this understanding the concept largely overlaps what we defined as the democratic side of commonification, and is distinguished from it only by the conviction that it would not actually be feasible to introduce forms of real and deep co-productive participation within public bodies, breaking through the “glass ceiling” mentioned in Pestoff’s studies: “we find traces of a ‘glass ceiling’ for citizen participation in public services that limits citizens to playing a more passive role as service-users”, a limit found both “in public and for-profit social services”. Consequently, full participation would be possible only in co-production as a form of self-producing, outside the realm of public administration.

In any case, Pestoff notes how even in co-production – just as happens with commonification – there are two routes, two levels: “co-production can refer to direct citizen participation in the delivery of a publicly-financed service, at the site of service delivery, as well as to group provision of such services”. Another strong interpretation is that given by Bovaird, according to whom co-production is not limited to the mere supply of the service but must involve all stages: design; entrusting the service to a specific structure; management; monitoring and evaluation activities. Therefore co-production becomes a new way of producing services, which fully exists only when officers and users are co-planners e co-deliverers. Thus, co-production overlaps with the concept of commonification of services, understood precisely as a strong form of participatory government. However, Bovaird’s suggestion may appear an excessive stretching of the concept of co-production, which causes the notion to lose its original and distinguishing characteristics. For most scholars, the specificity of co-production lies in the fact that it is addressed precisely to the implementation stage of the service, moving the focus from the input side to the output side: participation usually involves only the higher stages of the policy-making cycle (identification and analysis of needs; formulating stage; participatory planning), whereas co-production concentrates on the output side and therefore on the descending phase of the life-cycle of the policy.

If, therefore, co-production in a narrow and specific sense defines a strong participatory practice which is however basically focused on output, and in particular on the implementation of the service, on the contrary, commonification is a more comprehensive concept and practice: it includes both the participation of user-citizens in managing the services (the input side and the drafting of public policies themselves), and the element which is more proper and specific to co-production, focusing on the output side. At the same time, one must not forget that commonification can be understood both as the commonification of public bodies delivering the services and as direct and collective self-production of the services, to which we shall now turn our attention.

Going beyond the commonification of the public bodies delivering services: commonification as self-production of the service by its users. In addition to the route towards commonification of the public institutions supplying services, in the forms described above, there is another way of organizing public services as commons: the route involving complete self-production and self-management of services by their users, through various forms and institutions which can be, for example, cooperative societies, consortia, foundations and trusts16 or other innovative institutions. In this case, it is not a question of structuring ways of participating in the planning activities, orientation, management, supply and control over the public service, integrating forms of representative democracy, alongside the “regular producers”, that is, the professional public administration staff: we are talking about the variously-structured communities of users taking on full responsibility and producing the service. The consumers are at the same time co-producers of the service: giving production and governance by service users themselves. Clearly, in such a framework, the general elements which we saw characterizing commonification of public organizations still stand (starting from refuting the profit-directed mind-set), but the degree of participation in the management and production of the commons is stronger and more direct. In some way it echoes the way of cooperating and taking direct action, and the levels of service attained, achieved by traditional natural commons.”

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project “Protecting Future Generations Through Commons”, organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

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