From Universal to Elective Models of Public Service Delivery

by Jul 1, 2013Smart Cities

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Using new digital technologies to deliver services in the public sector is complex. It raises issues of equity of access, surveillance and control that make people uncomfortable. Even though many new digital solutions are available to improve urban problems, there is a backlash to wide adoption of new technologies by municipal governments due to cost, privacy, policy and implementation issues. Part of the problem is the social translation of new technology, a lack of clear connection to the physical world and issues of adoption and learning curves.

An equally important reason why more cities are not opting into new technologies has to do with established modes of operation and their ideological underpinnings. The model of universal service delivery is a paradigm that governs much of public service. ‘Universal access’ means that a public service must be provided to everyone and all citizens must have equal access to this service. In principle this sounds great, but in practical terms it’s actually a barrier to innovation in public service delivery.

Are we saying that not everyone should have the same services? Definitely not in the exclusionary sense, but maybe that’s not the right question, maybe we should be asking – is it necessary or even possible to have universal participation in all public services? And do all people need or want the same standardized services?

Universal public service models create a closed system rather than a flexible, open system. In principle, if you can’t give it to everyone, then no one should have it, citizens must be either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of an established public service. Universalism stems from the 19th century citizen’s rights model that presumes everyone wants access to the same types of services and that those services should be standardized. But in reality few services serve all citizens in the same way (with the exception of certain emergency and infrastructural services) because most services are used by a limited amount of people.

The universal model doesn’t take into account what people need or want in a given place. In fact, it reduces and closes discussion, limiting the possibilities for the reality of that service provision in relation to contextual issues such as poverty, race, ethnicity, location, time period, etc.

Elective uses of technology for the public sector

There is widespread rhetoric about technology in the public sector that presumes that people will be forced to use certain services or that if all people don’t use a service there will be a digital divide. But internationally there have been a number of new projects that reframe technology as something that you can opt into and select to be a part of with great effect.

In 2006, in Barcelona, artist Antonio Abad of supplied 40 people in wheelchairs with cell phones and asked them to document all the impediments of getting around the city. From December 2005 to April 2006, the participants used mobile phones to photograph every obstacle they came across on the city’s streets and by means of multimedia messages they created a map of inaccessible Barcelona.

In four months, through just one project, the city had a work plan of the needs of its physically disabled citizens. Ironically, the project was independent from a similar project being conducted by the city, and marked a period of ten years of development by the municipal government to create policies for a universally accessible Barcelona. After 10 years, there were policies but still no work-plan or implementation.

The Barcelona Accessible project is a clear example of the shortcomings of the universal model: you hypothesize the services that you will deliver as universal, and then you make policies to deliver that service to citizens. You use minimal input from citizens and a lot of expert studies, but you don’t have continual and up-to-date feedback from actual citizens. The project is just one example, but it shows the benefits of the elective use of technology by citizens in which it is possible to formulate a plan of action in four months versus ten years. Impressive.

Municipalities at the forefront of innovation: Dublin

At the Institute without Boundaries (IwB) we’ve worked with industry, academic, not for profit and municipal partners on various urban innovation projects. This past year, we worked with the Dublin City Council (DCC) in Ireland, specifically with the City’s newly founded municipal innovation unit called The Studio.

In 2010, DCC established The Studio as an interdisciplinary design unit within the city government to innovate public service and deal with a host of challenges brought on by the economic crisis that began in 2009. The Studio has an impressive lineup of projects. Pertinent to this discussion is Dublinked a citywide open data resource. Over 250 datasets are available for download, including planning applications, real time traffic information, environment and emergency services. DCC participates with other local agencies to create an open data repository for the whole of the Dublin region. Needless to say, this point alone shows that DCC is progressive in its engagement with new technology and municipal policy making on technological innovation.

Dublin has many urban challenges and a poor relationship with its citizens; mistrust in the civil service is at an all time high. Municipal resources are stretched to counter the effects of the economic crisis, yet it is at the forefront of public sector innovation.

Over the last year we worked with The Studio, the result is a proposal for a pilot project called OurDublin, an elective and participatory model for municipal public service innovation. OurDublin is a system of technology-aided and on-the-ground programs to support and activate civic engagement, increase efficiency in public service delivery for the city and facilitate collaboration between DCC and residents.

OurDublin works at three scales: individual, neighborhood and city, it provides a framework to engage residents’ needs more holistically, and creates opportunities for people to come together to define and solve problems in their communities.

The three programs of OurDublin—Sense It, See It, Make It—work together by collecting and sharing valuable data about the city, visualizing that data to reveal patterns and opportunities for change, and using the insights gathered to mobilize communities to improve the city. The OurDublin programs are open and voluntary. But while participants may come and go, there is an ongoing process that taps into the flow of information throughout the city and transforms it into actionable, city-building ideas.

Sense It uses Data Missions—cooperative, city-wide ‘information scavenger hunts’ determined by DCC and aided by sensors—to collect targeted data about city environments.

OurDublin - Sense It

See It visualizes that and other data on the online Dashboard—a customizable, DCC managed website that collects and visualizes the data—to reveal valuable insights.

OurDublin - See It

Make It then uses Project Maker—an on-line kickstarter that brings together resources—to help citizens translate those insights into projects that address the specific needs of that environment.

OurDublin - Make It

As the process repeats, data collected from the original city environment will change, reflecting the impact of the Make It project and generating new needs and opportunities for community improvement. The system can be accessed at any point, without reference to the preceding or following program. Make It projects may begin without information from the online Dashboard; a great community building idea can be sourced from anywhere. Sense It feeds valuable local information into the online Dashboard but the data can also be sourced elsewhere.

The system is flexible and has the capacity to grow and evolve over time. The digital components, website, app, etc. are grounded in the physical through the OurDublin Bus, which reaches out to communities across Dublin for both brand awareness and direct engagement, connecting with people face-to-face. What remains constant is the city building potential of the OurDublin system. (For a full version of the OurDublin project proposal see:

Different is better than Perfect: Elective & customized public service delivery

Our main challenge working with municipal partners has been the municipality’s willingness to reframe its thinking into participatory and elective public service models. The city must think of itself more as a facilitator that can broker the particular needs of its citizens and provide multiple-channel access to those services; it’s about creating a balance between what people want to have and what the city can give.

Working with smaller scale interventions that can synergize, the city can build platforms where people can elect to participate and do things that improve their city not by acting as consumers of services but more as ‘prosumers.’ In an open, elective service model, the city’s collaboration with citizens can lead to enhanced service evolution.

DCC can use people’s elective use of technology to help everyone, not just the people using the technology. The data generated and collected becomes communal, but the use doesn’t have to be universal in order to use that data to create programs and policies that help the whole city.

OurDublin is a plan. As of yet we don’t know if it will work, if the public’s cynicism in the municipal government will steer citizens away from making use of OurDublin’s participatory features or draw them to it. We also don’t know if the city will opt for this service at this time, with many competing projects on the table.

There are also many questions: Who will manage the data? What is the liability of misuse of data? But to some degree these become less important if citizens are making active choices.

In the participatory, collaborative model people may want special amenities in their neighborhood park. If they can relay this information to their municipal government in a straightforward manner they may get a park with a closed off dog run, or more basketball hoops. Not every park in the neighborhood may have the same things, but more people will end up getting more of what they truly want.

Maybe different is better than perfect or universal. Maybe it’s more interesting to citizens too.


Many thanks to our project partners this year the Dublin City Council and The Studio, as well as to the IwB Dublin Project book team for supplying the OurDublin project description for this blog post.

About the Authors:
Luigi Ferrara

Luigi FerraraLuigi Ferrara is the Director of the School of Design at George Brown College in Toronto. He leads the Institute without Boundaries, the College’s interdisciplinary design institute. Luigi is a member of the Ontario Association of Architects and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he has over 30 years experience in private and public sector urban development and innovation. Email:

Magdalena Sabat

Magdalena SabatMagdalena Sabat is a doctoral candidate with the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She conducts interdisciplinary research in the fields of visual and cultural studies, and urbanism. Magdalena has published various papers on urban gentrification and development, and consults as a researcher at the Institute without Boundaries in Toronto. Email:


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