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Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function? An Assessment of Coproduction in Atlanta

Coproduction is not a new concept, as it has been recognized in academic and practitioner circles since the 1970s. Its popularity subsided in the 1990s and 2000s, but in recent years, it has reemerged in both practice and theory. Scholars have differing opinions about what constitutes coproduction. And much of this disagreement seems to be rooted in their understandings of what coproduction represents, ranging from an attempt to address budget issues by employing volunteer citizens, to the pursuit of an enhanced democracy by empowering the citizenry, to any number of reasons within this spectrum.

Despite the lack of a consensual definition of coproduction, five attributes are acknowledged and accepted by and large as fundamental components of coproduction: (1) Coproduction must be a conjoint effort between government and a nongovernmental entity (typically citizens); (2) Coproduction actions must be at least partly voluntary; (3) Coproducers must be actively (versus passively) engaged; (4) Coproducers must be constructively (versus destructively) engaged so as to create public and private value; and (5) Coproduction can occur intentionally or unintentionally.

Beyond this general consensus about the five definitional components of coproduction, disagreement persists. Specifically, there are differences of opinion when defining the first two components, such as, the amount of coordination required between citizens and government to constitute a conjoint effort and whether or not compliance allows for voluntary participation. Thus, in the loosest interpretation of these attributes, coproduction is essentially everywhere! It occurs in activities that may not actually require any citizen-government coordination. It also occurs in activities that are government-imposed. In this loose sense of the term, coproduction occurs whenever citizens’ actions substitute or supplement government’s efforts, regardless of whether the activities are compulsory or whether they are jointly coordinated. By this definition, coproduction can take on various forms and functions.

Because of the wide range of activities that can qualify as coproduction, some have questioned whether there are any public services that are not coproduced (Alford, 2009; Bovaird & Loeffler, 2012). Thus, in stricter interpretations, coproduction occurs only when citizens are engaged in jointly coordinated activities and/or are not obligated to comply. And even stricter interpretations require that these jointly coordinated activities allow citizens to share in government’s decision-making roles. Although the five generally accepted attributes of coproduction are not necessarily concerned with power exchanges between government and citizens, this power-sharing aspect of coproduction embodies the notion of citizen power that Arnstein’s (1969) seminal piece on citizen participation considers true participation. Furthermore, power-sharing may speak to the larger issue of enhancing democracy, an underlying objective of citizen participation initiatives.

Another important aspect of coproduction is the type of value it creates. Because of the nature of public services, coproduction generates some public value, be it directly, immediately, and/or substantially or indirectly, eventually, and/or minimally. And given the voluntary nature of coproduction, citizens gain some private value as well. Notably, collectively produced services tend to generate higher levels of public value than the sum of individually produced services. In addition, privately produced services may have more isolated or targeted effects than jointly produced services and may therefore generate higher levels of private value. (Brudney & England, 1983; Percy, Kiser, & Parks, 1980)

Indeed, coproduction presents itself in a variety of forms. Hence, to help organize and discuss its fundamental (and possibly most disputed) attributes, I divide coproduction into four categories. The coproduction categories are based on two factors: (1) whether citizens are working in parallel or in conjunction with government (termed conjointness but also referred to as citizen-government coordination); and (2) whether citizens are engaged individually or collectively (termed collectiveness but also referred to as citizen-citizen collaboration). The four resulting categories are: individual parallel (termed self help), collective parallel (termed collective help), individual joint (termed individual coproduction or civic duty), and collective joint (termed collective coproduction).

Self help occurs with little or no collaboration among citizens (performed individually or per household) and with little or no citizen-government coordination (performed privately, or in parallel with government services). Civic duty also occurs with little or no collaboration among citizens, but it features more substantive citizen-government coordination (performed jointly with government). Collective help and collective coproduction have higher levels of collaboration among citizens, as these activities tend to band citizens together toward a shared goal. They differ from one another in that collective help occurs with little or no coordination with government, while collective coproduction occurs in conjunction with government. (Alford, 2009; Brudney & England, 1983; Levine, 1984; Rich, 1981; Thomas, 2012)

The various aspects of coproduction that have been discussed thus far will help identify and assess this important and growing phenomenon. Specifically, this study will assess the current levels of citizen-government coordination, citizen-citizen collaboration, voluntarism, and power-sharing in a US local government system. Herein, coproduction is therefore defined as the process by which citizens or groups of citizens substitute or supplement their local government’s efforts to deliver public services and thereby create public and private value.

Classic examples of government’s dependence on citizen coproducers can be found in public services such as education, public safety, public health, public facilities, and social services. For example, the public education system is unlikely to be effective without students’ willingness to engage in the learning process (e.g., listening, taking notes, completing assignments, etc.), parents’ cooperation with the school, or parents’ active involvement in their child’s schoolwork. Likewise, public safety services are heavily reliant on coproduction, as police officers and firefighters look to citizens to report emergencies, provide eyewitness statements, or act as auxiliary law enforcers via neighborhood watch groups. Citizen coproducers can also assist government by maintaining streets, parks, and other public areas or by helping to decide spending priorities and service preferences.

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Author: Kelechi Uzochukwu is a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Uzochukwu is also a 2013 Founders’ Forum Fellow.  

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