Digital service teams in government: An international comparison of new IT governance structures

By Ines Mergel

About the author

Ines Mergel is Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, Germany. She is a member of the National Academy of Public Administration (Washington, D.C., United States). Her research focuses on e-government and related topics such as digital transformation, agile government and user-oriented design.

Reforms to build the digital state have steadily risen to the top of the agenda in the past decade – especially in Europe, where digital service teams, reporting to the highest levels of government, have been created to spearhead digital transformation initiatives. Although these services are often federal, national or central government bodies, the work they do affects every layer of government, right down to the municipal or local level. This article compares approaches across several European countries, drawing insights into how these digital service teams are co-creating public value for internal and external users.

Digital service teams – IT units outside the centralized CIO's office – are set up to respond to complex governmental and societal challenges in a responsive and agile manner. DSTs emerge as a third space between centralized and decentralized IT departments that are triggered by large-scale IT failures and the need to abandon black swan IT projects - tasks that traditional CIO offices were not able to handle so far.

For this article, I analyzed the context factors in which digital transformation activities occur include organizational embeddedness at the top of federal, national or central government organizations, reasons for their creation due to long-term investment gap, IT expenditure failures, modernization backlogs, and the necessity to bring broad ranging change to simplify the implementation of digital transformation efforts and build central standards for their realization. The co-creation activities include co-initiation/commissioning, co-design, co-implementation/-management, and co-assessment phases and their related challenges for digital service teams. Finally, I will discuss how digital service teams create public value, such as economic, administrative, democratic, and citizen values.

What is unclear from current practices and not well covered in the existing IT governance literature is how these digital service teams operate in order to co-create public value. As a result, we aim to answer the following research question: How do digital service teams co-create value for internal and external users?

In order to understand how public administrations are co-creating public value, I haven chosen a qualitative approach and conducted case studies in several countries. The chosen cases were derived from initial expert interviews and a policy tracing. The cases focus on high-level digital service teams in charge of initiating and implementing digital transformation in their countries. While the teams are generally located on the federal, national, or central government level, their processes include state and especially municipal or local government public administrations.

The selected cases depict digital service teams in the UK (Governmennt Digital Service), Italy (Team Digitale), Belgium (BOSA’s DG Digital Transformation), France (DINSIC - Inter-ministerial Directorate for Digital and Information and Communication System), Spain (Secretary General for Digital Transformation) and Denmark (Danish Business Authority).

Founding and context of digital service teams

Most digital service teams were founded during the last decade and emerged out of existing digitization efforts. Most notably, the UK’s government digital service team was not built on existing infrastructure, but on purpose set up outside the existing context and even physically moved into a geographic location in London where usually start-up businesses are housed. Other digital service teams emerged out of existing units, such as Belgium’s BOSA, which was originally founded in 2001, but then renewed in 2017. In Spain, the origin was a 2013 report by the Public Administration Reform Committee (CORA) identifying the need of the CIO to act on the leadership of policy action and coordination leading the creation of the current digital team in 2016.

All units are organizationally embedded at the highest level of government as part of the national, federal or central government efforts to digitally transform its operations. As an example, Spain’s General Secretariat of Digital Administration is part of the Secretary State for Public Function (Ministry of Territorial Policy and Public Function), UK’s GDS is part of the Home Office, Denmark’s Danish Business Authority is part of the Ministry of Business and Finance, Italy’s Team Digitale is Presidency of the Council of Ministers and France’s DINSIC is embedded in the Prime Minister’s office. The high-level prominence of the location hints at the central authority digital service teams are given. The funding varies across countries –depending on the size of the country, emphasis on digitalization efforts and digital teams’ attributions and lies between €10 mio. and €80 mio. per year.

Digital service teams were founded for a variety of reasons, that are either of policy or technological nature – usually however, both are highly intertwined. Some teams noted that large-scale IT failures, “exploding” IT expenditures, modernization backlogs, and frustration among civil servants using outdated technology and services have led to low citizen satisfaction with off- and online services. Others understood that technological capacity and capability needed to be reintegrated into public administrations, which had been for years outsourced to external IT service providers or consultants. A centralized IT governance structure was therefore necessary to coordinate efforts, work toward simplification and standardization in order to digitally transform the public sector. Leadership of policy action, coordination, interoperability, efficiency and efficacy were reasons often mentioned as drivers for the creation of digital teams, especially in big and complex countries where coordination failures often hamper modernization processes.

Co-value creation activities in digital service teams

In order to extract the co-creation activities, I reviewed the existing literature and noticed a lot of overlap in definitions and applications. Some authors focus specifically on the relationship between individual citizens and a government service provider, while others are using much broader conceptualizations and summarize a large number of activities and interactions between public administrations and its many stakeholders.

As an example, in an early definition, Brandsen and Pestoff (2006:592 f.) propose a relatively narrow definition as they state: “Co-production, in our more restricted use of the term, refers to an arrangement where citizens produce their own services at least in part. The latter could also refer to autonomous service delivery by citizens without direct state involvement, but with public financing and regulation”. They later (2016:431) define co-production as “a relationship between a paid employee of an organization and (groups of) individual citizens that requires a direct and active contribution from these citizens to the work of the organization”. Bovaird and Loeffler (2016, p. 1006) also provide a broad definition of the concept by stating: “user and community co-production is defined as: public services, service users and communities making better use of each other’s assets and resources to achieve better outcomes or improved efficiency.“ With this definition they emphasize the relationship between the different actors.

Nabatchi et al. (2017:769) describe co-production more broadly: “Specifically, we define coproduction as an umbrella concept that captures a wide variety of activities that can occur in any phase of the public service cycle and in which state actors and lay actors work together to produce benefits.“ Finally, Voorberg et al. (2015:1347) also confirm in their systematic literature review, that co-production and co-creation are used interchangeably in research and practice, and, in order to achieve conceptual clarity they define these concepts as: “Some clarity can be provided by making a difference between three types of co-creation (in terms of degree of citizen involvement) in social innovation: (a) citizens as co-implementer: involvement in services which refer to the transfer of implementing activities in favour of citizens that in the past have been carried out by government, (b) citizens as co-designer: involvement regarding the content and process of service delivery and (c) citizens as initiator: citizens that take up the initiative to formulate specific services. Furthermore, based on this distinction, we would like to reserve the term ‘co-creation’ for involvement of citizens in the (co)-initiator or co-design level. Co-production is being considered as the involvement of citizens in the (co-) implementation of public services.“    

In the following, I divide the co-production tasks of digital service teams into five subphases: co-initiation/co-commissioninng, co-design, co-implemention and co-management, as well as co-assessment.

a) Co-initiation/co-commissioning

Sorensen and Torfing (2018) define co-initiation as processes where citizens collaborate with public employees to identify social problems and needs, and set the agenda for developing an innovative solution. Similarly, this initial phase is sometimes defined as co-commissioning. It refers to activities aimed at strategically identifying and prioritizing needed public services, outcomes, and users. Although the term commissioning is beset with some contention, we use it here to mean “what needs to be delivered, to whom, and to achieve what outcomes” (Bovaird & Loeffler, 2012:6; Loeffler & Bovaird, 2019). Traditionally, commissioning is seen as a “core public sector task [to be] undertaken by politicians and top managers” (Bovaird & Loeffler, 2012:6).

However, in coproduction, the commissioning of services is done by state and lay actors working together. Co-commissioning is generally prospective in nature—it is oriented toward the future and concerned with activities that may take place at a later date (Nabatchi et al., 2017:771).

Following Bovaird (2012:5) co-commissioning consists of the following activities:

  • co-planning of policy –e.g., deliberative participation, planning for real, open space;   
  • co-prioritization of services –e.g., individual budgets, participatory budgeting; 
  • co-financing of services –e.g., fundraising, charges, agreement to tax increases.

Furthermore, in an article by Loeffler and Bovaird (2019:244) an additional distinction of co-commissioning activities is provided:   

  • Service users and community representatives on commissioning boards and procurement panels
  • Participatory budgeting to prioritize public policies or budgets
  • Personalization—micro-commissioning
  • Crowdfunding

Nabatchi et al. (2017:771) add the following co-commissioning activities:

  • Public officials and citizens work together to set budget priorities for a community […]
  • Police departments work with residents to identify priority or target areas for community safety efforts and police patrols […]
  • School officials work with parent groups to determine educational priorities […]

In the case of digital service teams, the phase of co-commissioning of digital transformation activities is either (a) driven by the countries’ digital government strategies which lay out the future directions of the digital service teams we analyzed, or (b) initiation activities are deliberately designed to include multiple stakeholders in government.

As examples for (a), the Government Digital Service in the UK’s “Digital by Default” strategy provides departments with the direction to redesign services using agile software development approaches so that digital services can from now on be accessed online by default, instead of an add-on service in parallel to the existing offline or analog service. Other drivers of co-commissioning include collaborative agreements with departments. This is the case for example, in Belgium, where BOSA negotiates what was called “politically loaded contracts, where they discuss and decide what the transformation office will be building for the upcoming three years.”

The other digital service teams in Italy, Spain, France, and Denmark deliberately include stakeholders in early scoping activities to strategically define user needs as the basis for any kind of future co-creation activities. These include, for example, hackathons, workshops, and fora to understand what each user group might expect, as in the case of the Spanish Central Administration, using these ways to complement mandatory public consultations at the initial stages of co-creation (e.g., performed when designing the 2017 “Digital Strategy for an Intelligent Spain”). Before the administration starts writing a new law, the opinions of citizens and other stakeholders must be collected.

b) Co-design

The next phase is the co-design phase. Co-design aims at improving the processes to achieve outcomes (Loeffler and Bovaird 2019). Or, as Nabatchi et al. (2017: 772) define: “Co-design refers to activities that incorporate “the experience of users and their communities” into the creation, planning, or arrangements of public services. This “outside-in” perspective enables state actors to better understand how public services could be designed to be of greatest use and benefit for individuals and communities. In many ways, this approach mirrors traditional notions of direct citizen participation […] Co-design may be prospective (i.e., future-oriented) or concurrent (i.e., concerned with what presently exists or is occurring)“. Among those activities, state and lay actors work together to redesign the application process for public benefits, redesign a website for adult care services, or social workers work directly with the elderly to create opportunities for interdependent living (Nabatchi et al., 2017:771).    

Bovaird and Loeffler (2012:5) and Loeffler and Bovaird (2019:244) describe the following co-design activities:

  • user consultation;
  • service design labs;
  • customer journey mapping;
  • website redesign with specific target groups;
  • neighborhood and community regeneration forums.

In digital service teams, co-design activities focus on the inclusion of user needs in the actual design process of new or revised digital services. Digital services teams are applying different methods to extract these insights from their future users. For example, they apply ethnographic approaches to study how users (internal or external) might search for information in order to access a service. At GDS in the UK, participatory research, process owner interviews, user journeys are used to gain a holistic picture. Users are both citizens (= external users) as well as civil servants (= internal users). Similarly, the Danish Business Authority is deriving user profiles and personas in workshops, builds customer journeys as the basis for future digital services. At BOSA in Belgium, similar techniques are applied: BOSA uses what are called “ambassador meetings”, interactive word clouds, feedback on mock-ups and conceptual screens in order to make the platform as close to the citizens’ needs as possible. These techniques help digital service teams to build mock-ups or early prototypes on which they receive feedback for the development phase. The General Secretariat of Digital Administration in Spain involves partnering governance bodies, civil servants and citizens (but not direct users that much, mostly represented by associations, representatives and intermediaries) in the service design stage. Specific fora are of particular importance for co-design as well as the participation of ICT and legal experts.

c) Co-implementation and co-management

In the literature, co-management refers to an arrangement, in which, for example, third-sector organizations produce services in collaboration with the state (Brandsen & Honingh, 2016; Brandsen & Pestoff, 2006). Brandsen and Honingh establish that the implementation of a service is initiated here. They differentiate between core and complementary services in which citizens can participate (Brandsen & Honingh, 2016:432).

In digital service teams, co-implementation oftentimes includes external IT service providers who build services on the basis of the mock-ups and prototypes provided in the previous co-design steps. We, however, label this as outsourcing activities. Users are included in this phase by providing input on through user tests or usability tests, as is the case at GDS (UK). In addition, Belgium’s BOSA is outsourcing its development activities to the private sector.

Spain and Italy include IT units in these co-implementation activities. In Spain, ICT units involve civil servants that generally are exclusively ICT experts with basic knowledge of laws or administrative issues; nonetheless, some ICT units from the state administration started projects whose objective is to align ICTs with user from the administration and other stakeholders. The Team Digitale in Italy has a large developer community (Developers Italia) that creates new software, but also allows developers on other levels of government to reuse once developed tools: any stakeholder – developers, suppliers, civil servants, citizens – can collaborate to improve a common code base and customize the needed service using open source architecture. Similarly, to the Italian approach, France established the «démarches simplifiées» platform to allow any public administration to reuse already existing forms and adapt them to their own purposes.

d) Co-delivery

Co-delivery is defined by (Brandsen & Pestoff, 2006:592f) as: “Co-production, in our more restricted use of the term, refers to an arrangement where citizens produce their own services at least in part. The latter could also refer to autonomous service delivery by citizens without direct state involvement, but with public financing and regulation.” Nabatchi et al. (2017:772) define co-delivery as: “joint activities between state and lay actors that are used to directly provide public services and/or to improve the provision of public services […]. Co-delivery, which is most in line with the traditional view of coproduction, is sometimes considered intrinsic to the provision of certain services (such as health care and education) and often centers on quality and efficiency improvements […]”. Here, the authors highlight that citizens or users of a public service need to be involved, otherwise they can’t consume the service. Nabatchi et al. (2017:771) describe the following co-design activities:

  • Parents work with teachers and schools to provide in-class or extra-curricular activities for students (e.g., Pestoff 2006);
  • Students assist the university in organizing welcome days;
  • A youth council trains young people as peer educators who then provide sex education sessions in schools.

Bovaird and Loeffler (Bovaird & Loeffler, 2012:5; Loeffler & Bovaird, 2019) add the following examples of co-management or co-delivery activities:

  • Co-management of services – e.g.: leisure center trusts, community management of public assets, school governors;
  • Co-performing of services –e.g.: peer support groups (such as expert patients), nurse-family partnerships, meals-on-wheels, neighborhood watch.

In digital transformation units, activities in the co-delivery phase focus mainly on the transition from analog to digital services, highlight that users accept a newly available channel and are willing to switch from one mode of delivery to another, as was confirmed by the UK’s GDS and Spain’s General Secretariat of Digital Administration.

For most digital services the acceptance through use is seen as the main indicator for measuring the effectiveness of digital transformation is the use of the e-service. The rate of use is key focus in the interactions with stakeholders.    

Similarly, the Team Digitale uses citizens’ active engagement is essential for the successful implementation of the service. As an example, SPID is a tool to access health care services, such as medical reports or the Electronic Health Record which can improve the quality of services delivered.

e) Co-assessment

According to Nabatchi et al. (2017:772), co-assessment “focuses on monitoring and evaluating public services. Traditionally, performance-related activities are undertaken by public officials or external consultants; however, in coproduction, state and lay actors work together to assess service quality, problems, and/or areas for improvement […]. Co-assessment is generally retrospective in nature—it is oriented toward the past and concerned with activities that have already taken place. However, the results of co-assessment exercises can be used prospectively to rethink or improve services.” The following co-assessment activities were so far identified in the literature:

  • Residents of social housing complexes work for the Audit Commission as “tenant inspection advisors”;
  • State actors and residents with dementia walk through neighborhoods to assess the ease of navigation;
  • Parents work with special education auditors to assess services provided to their autistic children.

Bovaird and Loeffler add the following activities (2019:244):

  • Service-user inspectors and tenant inspectors;
  • Web-based user rating of public services;
  • Action-oriented complaints system;
  • Peer review of services with users.

In digital transformation teams, co-assessment activities are included in an agile manner in each of the co-creation activities: continuous inclusion of users in each phase of the co-production cycle allows for fast readjustment and intervention to increase the service quality to work toward user satisfaction. Consequently, for some of the digital service teams, such as the Team Digitale, we were not able to identify a dedicated co-assessment phase – instead it is a fluid function embedded in all previous phases of the co-production cycle.

However, some of our cases highlight how digital transformation co-assessment activities are specifically designed after the implementation and during the current use of digitally transformed public services. Traditionally, citizen surveys are conducted to get feedback. In France, DINSIC includes the «MonAvis» (“I give my opinion”) button on public websites to test the satisfaction of citizens on about 250 administrative processes. In Spain, co-assessment ex-ante and ex-post evaluation happen for digital public services and stakeholders are essential to measure the economic and social impact (internal and external evaluation: A success case of co-assessment in Spain is in the selection of the non-working days for notifications in the Tax Agency based on a massive evaluation feedback from all stakeholders.

Other more specific digital transformation activities include: continuous feedback and user statistics which result in adjustment of existing services or even the addition of new parts of existing services when requested (GDS, UK). In Belgium, BOSA has set up the reporting website ( managed by the Administrative Simplification Agency, where citizens can report feedback on administrative experiences they had, to signal when there is an issue, where something can be improved. At the French DINSIC, co-assessment of public services is conducted via the «dashboard of quality of public services dematerialization». In addition, the Danish Business Authority conducts four yearly meeting with authorities (Cooperation Forum) to collect direct feedback.

Implementation challenges of co-production activities

From the case studies several implementation challenges for digital transformation co-production activities can be identified.

An advanced and specifically planned model of co-creation of digital public services is a requirement of highly ambitious undertaking and differs from the previous – rather passive – service delivery in the public sector. Moving toward including users in all stages of the co-production process increases interactions of both internal and external users. Civil servants are no longer passive providers of requirement lists for a new or to-be redesigned public service. Instead, as DINSIC demonstrates in France: it is a challenge to move from service offering models to on-demand models. Civil servants and elected officials need to be convinced and citizens need to be willing to get involved in the creation of digital public services. In the UK, it was mentioned several times that the move toward a digital mindset beyond the one-time interactions with GDS are a challenge. This will then potentially lead to organizational resistance.

Lack of funds to modernize digital service delivery and the sheer scale of the task at hand was mentioned as another important challenge (BOSA, DBA). This issue is directly tied to the apparent gap and the lack of digital competences and project management skillsets among civil servants. Lack of funding or - related – time is problematic, given that new forms of interactions are then sidetracked and are not made a priority.

Other important issues include the necessity to comply with existing regulations and the inertia to adapt regulations that might not fit a digital transformation paradigm. In Spain, this resulted in the notion that participation of stakeholders does not require one-fits-all strategies: not all digital transformation projects require the same level and mode of stakeholder engagement; adaptations are needed depending on the project, but also on the sector and on the administrative level (local, regional, national). Further, collaboration across organizational boundaries and with outside stakeholders seem to create barriers that are especially difficult to address.

Value creation through digital service teams

In order to understand what the values are that digital transformation projects initiate, I identified four different types of public value from the literature (Alford & O’Flynn, 2009).

From an instrumental perspective, I use the notion of economic value to highlight the performance measurement side of the public value discussion. Economic value focus on the indicators that show how efficient and effectively public administrations deliver public services (Alford & O’Flynn, 2009) and whether they were achieved. In digital transformation projects, economic value is directly tied to the overall goal of increasing efficiency and effectiveness in public service delivery. At the UK’s GDS, cost savings were generated at the beginning when GDS detected fraud by external contractors who charged the government multiple times by selling government-wide licenses on every level of government several times. Other digital service teams aim for costs savings based on their simplification strategies (BOSA, DBA, General Secretariat of Digital Administration, Team Digitale).

Simplifications and automation expectations are leading to paper reduction as well as to lower numbers of direct and personal interactions between stakeholders and government by lowering the number of human resources necessary for standard tasks. In addition, staff can be reassigned to other tasks that might be more complex to solve, need cross-agency interaction, or direct interventions with the stakeholders. At DINSIC in France, La Bonne Boîte reported that 24,000 months of unemployment were avoided in 2016 through simplifications of processes. reports 50% reduction in administrative processing time. Similarly, Belgium’s BOSA reports through its Digital Dashboard an annual cumulative cost reduction of €32,5 million.

Costs savings for stakeholders using the newly developed tools are expected in form of time savings through the reduction of the number of interactions with government (DBA, Team Digitale). An increased number of beneficiaries can be served and the amount of transactions accomplished through digital services can be increased through digital services, such as electronic ID card and digital identities. What is necessary is to develop support tools for public servants in the development of customized services; as well as training and courses for public servants. However, at this stage of the digital transformation of public administrations, most cost savings are expected in form of future savings. As a matter of fact, at this point millions of Euros still need to be invested and expectations are high to realize the expected value.

I include the creation of administrative values as part of the procedural perspective. These values refer to the actions and procedures of the public administration itself. They include values such as responsiveness in service delivery, responsibility, and accountability (Bannister & Connolly, 2014).

Administrative values occur through the redesign of internal administrative service which are directly tied to external service provision, for example, through automation. By not only simplifying the external access to public services, but directly simplifying internal processing, administrative burden on civil servants is lowered. They might need to correct data received from citizens less frequently, lower the number of missing data, or the number of interactions with other agencies due to inconsistencies in the service delivery process (UK GDS, General Secretariat of Digital Administration, Spain).

Examples of lower administrative burden include for example Spain’s Integrated one-stop shops, Belgium’s eID used for matching pictures to reduce identity fraud, its g-cloud to share digital infrastructure according to the needs of each administration, or France’s as an example to improve the quality and efficiency of administrations.

From a societal perspective democratic and societal values can be identified that focus for example on the rule of law, justice, free speech, freedom of religion, or issues surrounding equality (Bozeman, 2009, 2019).

The main democratic value is access to public services through the work that digital service teams engage in. By simplifying access to digital services, they are increasing access also to those who usually are excluded from gaining access to government services. The access component has several implications: On the one hand, people with disabilities who are not able to physically access government agencies – either at certain times or never – are able to access the services now online. On the other hand, by simplifying online access and increasing administrative literacy by providing simplified forms, access is increased for all citizens – independent of their prior knowledge or digital competences (GDS, DINSIC).

In Belgium, value is created by simply providing access to information that citizens did not have access to before. As one interview partner highlights: “We want to give citizens more possibilities to play with their life choices and events. And yes, this freedom, these new opportunities can be seen as a value we are creating: lots of people are happy to go on pension, they want to know if it will be in 5 or 3 years and it gives them relief if they have an idea of what the future will be - either in terms of time left to work, on in the amount they will get from the system, so that they can better plan.” Digitally transforming public services oftentimes also increases transparency and accountability in service delivery and is seen as a democratizing element (Spain and Italy).

Lastly, from an individual perspective, I include citizen values which focus on how digital transformation of public services benefits citizens. These types of values include transparency, privacy, securing citizen rights, but also satisfaction through participation in deliberation and dialogue in service deliver when citizens are seen as part of the public service delivery (Bryson, Crosby, & Bloomberg, 2014). Through the ease of use digital services are adjusted to a plain level of use. This lowers the barrier for citizens to get in touch with the government (GDS, BOSA, DBA) and thus increases transparency. Most digital services allow for new opportunities for participation which increase the user experience and as a result trust and satisfaction with government.


Overall, digital service teams can be seen as a new form of IT governance, that is added between the central CIO office and decentralized IT implementation in public administrations. They have become necessary to work on digital transformation issues at a much larger scale than the traditional IT departments. They are tasked with new forms of project management and co-creation activities to ensure inclusion of internal and external users. In the future, we will need to focus on the assessment of their activities in order to better understand whether these digital service teams are able to scale up their activities beyond individual projects and make their impact sustainable.




This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 770356.  This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Agency cannot be held responsible for any use, which may be made of the information contained therein.

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