Digital skills can allow EU citizens to co-design public services

Digitalisation is key to letting EU citizens contribute their knowledge and expertise to services of general interest, but this process must be inclusive, reveals online seminar co‑organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

Citizens and organisations can play a major role in jointly creating services of public interest that really work, but in order to do this, one tool is essential: digital skills. At the webinar organised by the EESC and the project consortium Co-creation of Service Innovation in Europe (CoSIE) on 15 April 2021, the message was clear. Everybody must be able to take part in our society, but involving citizens and organisations in the decision-making process is no longer possible without digitalisation. This has become even more obvious over the past few months with the pandemic crisis.

Finding a way to involve citizens in the co-creation of public services is very challenging but also necessary and rewarding. Social inclusion and participation can only become a reality if the digital gap is closed. Nowadays, more than 40% of Europeans still lack even basic digital skills. We need to work to address this and pay attention to this issue at the local, national and European level, said Henna Virkkunen, Finnish Member of the European Parliament.

On the same page was Baiba Miltoviča, President of the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN), which hosted the online debate: We need a holistic approach, linking all the different digital, transport and energy matters with the social aspects. We must keep society's vulnerable groups in mind.

This point was echoed by Krzysztof Balon, President of the Thematic Study Group on Services of General Interest, who added: There is a high degree of digitalisation in the leisure area, but not as much on the administrative side and these issues were all the more visible during the current crisis. Co-creation is important for participatory democracy and the implementation of the Pillar of Social Rights, and cooperation between cities, academia and civil society organisations is crucial and must continue.

What is co-creation?

Co-creation takes place when people with lived experience are allowed to work with professionals to design and deliver services. Expertise gained through experience is considered to be as valuable as expertise acquired through professional qualifications.

This explanation was provided by Chris Fox, from Manchester Metropolitan University and representing CoSIE, who talked about the strengths-based approach in the co-creation of public services: people have assets which can make social innovation happen.

Looking to the future means looking to Europe's digital transformation by 2030 and in this respect Alma Joy Ridderhof, from the European Commission's DG CNECT, pointed out that more participatory digital services were needed, as well as a public administration that was fit for the future and was human‑centred, accessible, inclusive, transparent, open and interoperable.

Three CoSIE projects: Reducing Childhood Obesity, Household Economy in Rural Areas and Entrepreneurial Skills for Long-term Unemployed

The event focused on three examples from the Horizon2020 CoSIE projects that were all connected to specific points of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The objective was to showcase concrete examples, experiences and insights, providing food for thought for the development of a European policy that worked for people.

The first project was entitled Reducing Childhood Obesity and was based in Italy. Laura Bonvicini, from Reggio Emilia's Local Health Unit, outlined the work of a consulting committee embracing all potential stakeholders, both from the public and private sectors, a committee that had gone from being purely advisory to having real decision-making powers. Barriers between members disappeared and an active community was born, using a childcare and healthcare mobile app.

Florian Sipos, from the University of Debrecen, explained the second case which was from Hungary: Household Economy in Rural Areas. Local governments had been under pressure to organise more and more services for citizens with limited resources and they had moved from their service-oriented approach to a more entrepreneurial one. Involving citizens had proved to be effective and successful and helped modernise the administration.

The third example was entitled Entrepreneurial Skills for Long-term Unemployed, a project based in Spain. Michael Willoughby of the Universitat Poiltècnica de València had set up the Co-Crea-te space, an initiative promoting new businesses from co-creation to actual co-management, where ultimately the management of services was almost entirely handed over to the end users themselves, breaking down any hierarchy.

Towards more participatory public services

Mentioning the need for more resources for digitalisation, EESC member Dana Sakařová warned that the Czech Republic was lagging behind, the public was not very well informed and that those Europeans not able to use digital services should not be excluded.

EESC member Mateusz Szymański offered a success story of how trade unions could complement the work of the government, stressing that in Poland co-creation worked in small companies, where "social inspectors" became mediators between employers and the State.

Co-creation happens at grassroots level when citizens are empowered and speak with their own voice. Transformation to a digital society needs to be inclusive and this requires more creativity in roles, concluded Eva Hijmans, from the Hogeschool Utrecht, who also moderated the webinar.