Community advocates and scholars have long challenged Sherry Arnstein’s conception of citizen control. The idea may leave untouched the political and economic structures that prevent marginalized communities from a substantive engagement in decision-making processes to shape their environments.
It is this criticism that authors Jovonna Rosen and Gary Painter confront in their article "From Citizen Control to Co-Production" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3). The authors contend that without changing the relationship between communities and power, Arnstein’s citizen control limits itself to one-time gestures rather than a partnership sustainable over time, responsive to community needs.
To achieve citizen control’s underlying goal, Rosen and Painter demonstrate the need for a co-production model.
In the co-production model, both powerful institutions and communities are recognized as possessing the knowledge necessary to create the spaces they share.
Neither cedes authority in the planning process, but instead they engage in a “power-sharing framework in which citizens become equal partners in wide-ranging community visioning and production activities.”
From identifying community priorities to designing interventions to creating systems change, both institutional powers and communities work together, perhaps achieving a future more just than possible by either alone.
Rosen and Painter put the co-production model into practice through a case study of the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Despite a 51.7 percent Latinx population in the Coachella Valley and median household income of $27,000, valley social service organizations were led disproportionately by white and middle-income individuals. Consequently, the Latinx community remained unengaged — isolated from the power-sharing necessary for co-production.
The authors present a clear case for the necessity of the co-production model to achieve meaningful community participation.
In 2014, in partnership with a regional collective impact organization, the authors began a movement for change through a community needs assessment and focus groups.
Their work illuminated the injustices faced by the Latinx community, particularly growing vulnerability to food and housing insecurity.
Learning this, the organization committed itself to improving the health and quality of life for all families in Coachella Valley. However, it became immediately clear that a focus on the experiences of the Latinx community was essential to achieving community goals. The organization first ensured that more Latinx voices were represented in the organization’s leadership and staff.
However, greater representation assists only as much as it leads to systems change. Therefore, participants in the collective impact work recognized the need to “to address structural failures, rather than solely building programs and interventions that remedy symptoms.”
The transition to co-production in the Coachella Valley makes it apparent: co-production requires time and investment.
In the case of the Coachella Valley, I was struck by the amount of philanthropic support needed for the initiative to make this transition. So I wonder, is it possible for communities in which financial support is limited to achieve similar goals of co-production? And to what extent is this funding necessary to ensure power-sharing remains sustainable and responsive to community needs?
Coachella Valley also challenges the role of the public sector in a co-production model. Rather than playing a directive role as in many cross-sectoral governance relationships, public sector actors were treated as partners in the same way that other nonprofit organizations.
To successfully diffuse some of the necessary changes moving forward, it is likely that the public sector will have to play a great role. As we seek to improve community participation at all scales, philanthropy, nonprofit, and private sector support will usually require public support to alter the systems that are being challenged. Without it, co-production has the potential to fall into the same neoliberal framework it seeks to avoid.
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Top image: Thinkstock photo.
About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.