Book of the Day: Towards Peer Production in Public Services

Ultimately, how do we find the right balance between the traditional forces of market, the state, and the emerging citizen-driven actions?

* Book: Towards peer production in public services: Cases from Finland. Editors: Andrea Botero, Andrew Paterson and Joanna Saad-Sulonen. Aalto University publication series Crossover 15/2012. Helsinki, Finland

A very timely and important book, paying attention to the peer production of public services!

Introduction by Andrea Botero, Andrew Paterson et al.:

”There are many challenges and opportunities in designing, developing and maintaining services for participatory modes of governance, not to mention their co-creation and peer-to-peer aspects. We ask what can be learned from current research, and what is happening already beyond academia? With the aim to increase the opportunities for dialogue between the Finnish scene and the international context, we gather this collection of articles that deal broadly with the relationships between peer-to-peer dynamics, and public services. Most of the cases presented are illustrative of recent developments and discussions in Finnish society, however, also included are broader international perspectives, giving historical reflection and future-oriented speculation on what might be the outcomes.”

Here, the editors explain the structure of the book:

“We start our journey with three contextualizing articles that discuss and envision some of these developments in broader theoretical terms. The first contribution from Victor Pestoff offers an account of co-production as an important element in the renewal of public services in Europe. In discussing this he clarifies some of the vocabulary associated with these developments. He does that in terms of co-production–to exemplify the relationships between the parties involved – and their motivations for engaging in such efforts, aswell as the political and policy implications they entail. Using empirical materials from two dfferent case studies of parent-participation in pre-school services, Pestoff argues that co-production has important implications for the development of participatory forms of governance, and the important role public policy plays in crowding in or out these developments.

The next piece from Michel Bauwens is more speculative in character. He explores some of the politics of new forms of valuecreation, refered to as commons-oriented peer-production, that have been made visible, for example, in the software industry. This is done to highlight what can be learned from them on a more general level of social organization. His proposition is to compare the role of for-benefit institutions–which take care of the infrastructure of common projects–to the role the state could play in the future, in this case, to provide protection to the common good and infrastructure, not simply of it’s projects, but those of it’s citizens. Bauwens believes that such a model for a partner state could transcend and include the best parts of the welfare model currently in crisis; provided that we are also willing to look seriously into other aspects of the model beyond infrastructure. For example, he highlights the development of new ‘economies of scope’ to contrast with the old and tired mottos of ‘economy of scale’. In elaborating his argument he provides also a historical comparison to the times when feudalism was made irrelevant in Europe, to give precendece to the ways in which contemorary developments might prefigure the irrelevance of the capitalist mode.

Meanwhile, Teemu Leinonen, in his article, inquires on the qualities of different media when it comes to providing peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and how we might conceptualize who are our peers when doing so. To ilustrate his point, three different examples are used, ranging from the assemblies devised by students occupying a high school in Santiago de Chile, the online computers used to create self organized class rooms in India, and finally the different social media services used to create complex massive open online courses. The three cases highlight important possibilitites of peer-to-peer learning and related media, to develop opportunities which challenge current assumptions of how teaching and learning should happen. At the same time, the examples also illuminate an important concern: If our peers are understood to be only those with whom we share an interest, the possibilities of transcendence seems ultimately very limited.

The next set of essays offer reflection on concrete examples located in the Finnish context. The writers have all been involved in devising, setting up, or running experimental examples, and are thus interestingly positioned to reflect on the possibilities, challenges, and limitations of a peer-to-peer related way of organizing services. In her essay Pauliina Seppälä makes a reflection on three intriguing examples of grass-roots activism in Helsinki emerging from the social-media platform Facebook. These include a network of neighbours providing social activities for the residents of a local centre for asylum seekers; a platform for creating public artworks over the temporary walls surrounding construction sites in the city; and finally a carnival-like event where anyone in Helsinki is encouraged to sell and swap stuff for a day. She discusses some of the characteristics of the collective and creative process that lead to them, the services they offer, and the tensions generated along the process. She links these development not only to the ideas of peer-production, but also to that of the emergence of everyday social movements, and how the use of online social media generates new aspects and issues to discuss. These developments, she said, also require from the public sector, not a step back or a giving up of management and authority to the peers, but an active engagement and support for grass-roots initiatives.

Pirjo Tulikukka shares the development of three cases where residents and neighborhoods associations in Helsinki are learning to develop peer-to-peer practices. The first one accounts for the experiences around a free platform for neighborhood websites that has existed since the late 1990’s. The second case reflects on the attempts to support the creation of a neighbourhood stakeholder network. The last one traces the open and collaborative strategies of a neighborhood association, which, in true “peer” fashion, has managed to establish locations for a community space in their area. Her cases shed light on the ways that the traditional organization of active citizens into registered neighborhood associations have lately shifted to include less-hierarchical and more peer-to-peer organizational structures. With this development, she elaborates how the process seems to manifest itself in small steps, and considers the types of supporting mesures that could be made in the process. The role of “caddies”, or people who support others without doing things for them, is identified as important.

She also suggest that the generational gaps and differences, in terms for example of digital literacy, as well as knowledge of the areas, need to be addressed for taking full advantage of all the possibilities with peer-to-peer strategies.

Turkka Tammi, Tiia Ruokosalo, and Henna Vuorento report two cases of publicly funded peer-based services developed by a NGO that focused on a particular set of “problematic” users: drug and gambling addicts. Both cases showcase the use of web and mobile -based tools that have enabled new types of peer-based support services for dealing with addiction. These services have proven to be successful in both cases, thus highlighting the many benefits and the reach of these approaches.

The authors warn however of the dangers of taking the peer-based approach too naively, without considerations to the particularities of situations of use, and their structural implications. There is still a need for–and also the right to–access to professional support, beyond that of the one provided by peers.

Rudy van der Wekken brings to the discussion some of the experiences and concepts that time-banking communities have experimented with, in their attempts to offer alternative ways to build exchange tools. Her thoughts are grounded in the practical work she initiated to set up the local Helsinki time-bank. ‘Banking’ time– and the associated practices of sharing and solidarity–are presented as a platform for the development of local and community services, not only to supply what is currently unavailable, but as a way to reframe economical activities and provide opportunities for influencing and engaging in new forms of organization. Her reflections propose time-banking as one activity that could–if linked to structural change–strengthens local democratic action.

Our last article also reports on a Finnish case, this time from a more academic perspective, and from a different level of abstraction. Petra Turkama and Jukka Mattila have studied the collaborative creation of a new service in the area of home care, where organizations and individuals who are clients, collaborate in order to develop and provide a service.

They argue that in the discussions of co-creation of services within this field, where oganizations have deeply rooted traditions and structures for providing them, institutional impacts play a significant role on making the change possible, and that this issue has received very little attention in research.”