Co-Creating with Civil Society: A Glimpse into the Process

Multi-stakeholder approaches,” “participatory development,” and “design with the user” are increasingly popular concepts in global development. As an organization founded on the belief that citizens should have a greater say in the policies that affect their lives, we at Reboot should be heartened by this momentum towards greater collaboration with “users” and “beneficiaries.”

But too often, we’ve seen co-creation done poorly. Many organizations have recognized the importance of collaborating with the diverse stakeholders who will be touched by the policies or products they develop, but rhetoric rarely matches reality. Co-creation is hard. With more voices in the room, the process is slower and more complex; it can seem impractical. And let’s be honest: co-creation decreases the influence of powerful actors in shaping outcomes. The development industry often lacks both incentives and mechanisms to co-create, and as a result, it isn’t often done well.

These concerns were at the top of our minds when we learned that USAID and Sida—the American and Swedish international development agencies—wanted to convene over 60 people from 50 organizations to “co-create” an ambitious new program to support and strengthen civil society around the world.

Supporting and Strengthening Global Civil Society

Globally, advancing social justice and human development often relies on local civil society organizations. Yet the right to meet, organize, and drive change through civic action is facing backlash. Since 2012, the International Center for Non-Profit Law has documented more than 50 countries seeking to ban or constrain civil society activity.

USAID and Sida are two of the founding partners around a new initiative—launched as part of President Obama’s global call to Stand with Civil Society—that aims to combat this growing repression, expand civic space, and strengthen civil society. They plan to do this by developing a network of regional civil society hubs, each tailored to the goals and needs of civil society communities in that region.

In a laudable demonstration of donor humility, USAID and Sida admitted at the outset of our collaboration that they didn’t know the best way to create these hubs. This honesty created the conditions for a true co-creation process. Rather than designing a program from the top down then validating it through consultation, USAID and Sida aspired to work with civil society actors as true partners.

And so they issued a global call for ideas on ways to support and strengthen civil society. Over 200 organizations shared their ideas, and over 40 were invited to a co-creation workshop in November 2014 in Istanbul to set the ethos and foundation of a new initiative. Reboot and CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations, were asked to join, both as participants and to design and facilitate the workshop.

What Makes Co-Creation So Hard?

Key Challenges in Co-Creation

  • How to get participants to let go of their standard ways of thinking and doing?

  • How to get participants to invest in addressing the challenge without being biased by their own incentives and potential individual returns?

  • How to challenge traditional power dynamics so that solutions can benefit from the wisdom and experiences of all assembled?

  • How to quickly establish a collaboration model that respects all voices and inputs, while empowering the group to take practical and timely decisions?

At its heart, co-creation is about bringing people together to develop solutions to a common challenge. While this sounds straightforward, what makes it tough is that actors almost always have different perspectives on the challenge, different levels of experience addressing it, and different interests and motivations for engaging in the work.

Power imbalances within the group make working through these differences towards constructive solutions all the more difficult. While power and politics naturally plays into any group’s dynamic, facilitators must carefully navigate these imbalances to bring forward each individual’s perspective and expertise.

Too often, exercises billed as co-creation fail to live up to their stated values of inclusivity, leaving repeat participants wary of such “consultation as insultation” processes. Understanding this, it was no surprise to hear participants at the start of the Istanbul workshop wondering aloud whether the donors had brought a plan to be rubber-stamped, and if the workshop was simply a political box to be checked.

Key Principles in Enabling Co-Creation

Crafting effective co-creation is much like designing any program, service, or product. “Just do a workshop” is a short-sighted mistake. A thorough process and strong user experience design are critical. Our team worked closely with USAID, Sida, and CIVICUS before and after the three-day Istanbul event to optimize participant experience and, in doing so, harness their expertise into productive outcomes. Recognizing the unique dynamics of this design exercise, we relied on a set of core principles to guide our work.1

  1. Break out of established roles and mindsets. As with most such gatherings, there were power imbalances within our group, which included both donors and grantees, as well as representatives from the global North and South. To break with traditional hierarchies, we had to force participants out of familiar roles and mindsets.

To do so, we first worked to understand the interests, experiences, and expectations of each co-creator. (This was especially critical given that many civil society actors, while they may be ideological allies, are commercial rivals, competing for a pool of limited resources to do their work.) What does a human trafficking activist in the Philippines and a freedom of information lawyer in Georgia have in common? On the surface, not a lot. But throughout the process, we asked participants to bring their individual experience to the fore, rather than calling on them as representatives of their organizations. By asking participants to recognize the respect for human rights that unified us all, they were able to shed their “organizational hat” (and the associated pressures) and collaborate towards a common vision.

We framed conversations to draw on the experiences of less-privileged voices, and asked the more-powerful actors to be transparent around their interests and resources. Donors, for example, had to answer sometimes uncomfortable questions about organizational politics and funding that may impact the initiative. They were also asked to be highly sensitive of their influence in group settings, and to participate by asking clarifying questions rather than offering opinions that might overly sway the conversation.

  1. Define the “what” and allow creativity around the “how.” Facilitating a co-creation process is about articulating a vision, establishing the parameters, and guiding participants to a shared definition of what success looks like. It’s never about the specifics of execution—that’s up to the co-creators. And while we designed a detailed implementation plan with multiple possible paths, these were used as flexible scaffolding rather than fixed itinerary.

Around the “what,” we recognized that USAID and Sida had given us an intentionally broad mandate. And so, to focus our thinking and encourage rigor in both thought and action, we unpacked development buzzwords and fuzzwords to understand what each of us meant by terms like “increased impact” and “inclusive participation.” This primed us to be clear about what it was that we sought to achieve.

We asked participants to draw on their own experiences to develop success criteria that were familiar and tangible, rather than based on abstract principles or case studies. The group jointly aligned on a set of key “nuts and bolts” (e.g. service offerings, business model) that designs of the hubs should include. This gave participants categories and boundaries within which to design, while also providing leeway to create locally tailored content.

And we stayed flexible and adapted schedules and exercises as we went along. Because when you give 50-odd very opinionated people a big, hairy task, you need to be ready to seize the opportunities (and address the challenges) that come out of it.

  1. Build an invested community of collaborators. Successful co-creation efforts are the work of a cohesive community, not a collection of individuals. Collaborators must build trust before tackling the technical challenge at hand.

We designed the co-creation process around anticipated human dynamics—such as past relationships or histories that may have caused reservations—seeking to first build unity, then “do the work.” Thoughtfully designed icebreakers, high-energy exercises, and social activities were critical for building community bonds. An open spaces session allowed participants to talk about whatever they wanted, even if it was outside the meeting’s scope. We monitored the human factor throughout and adjusted activities accordingly.

Some of this, understandably, worried the convenors—would the work get done in time? But by late the second day, when we had given the final co-creation assignment, participants were rearranging their evening plans and setting 7am breakfast meetings. Most of us wouldn’t do that with our colleagues or fellow workshop participants—we only invest in such a deep, personal way when we’re working alongside comrades.

Successes and Next Steps

Participants left Istanbul buzzing with levels of energy rarely seen after being crammed in a conference space with too many strangers and too little elbow room.2 Rich conversations continued online in the following months and have now led to the foundation of a truly innovative global initiative to support civil society.

At Reboot, we are proud to see our design and facilitation methods help mitigate conventional power structures, putting authority and ownership in the hands of users—in this case, activists, civil society actors, and their supporters advancing social justice around the world.

USAID, Sida, and several co-conspirators are now planning regional design processes, where this initiative will make more concrete decisions on how to support civil society innovation in each region. We look forward to updating you as it moves forward.


1:  To dive further into the process we used to create the Istanbul workshop, see our briefing note Co-Creating the Civil Society Innovation Initiative: Process Journey from Idea to Design (PDF, 518KB)

2: For more on both this workshop and the broader initiative, see blog posts from the US Institute for Peace and USAID, and the Civil Society Innovation Tumblr.

Futher reading.