Covid-19: Is Government Really “Led By The Science”?

Jason Lowther, Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham (not representing the views of the university)

In the midst of the EU Referendum campaign, Michael Gove famously commented that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. No longer. Fast forward four years, Gove (and every other minister) is sharing press conferences with professors and claiming to be “led by the science”. But with the UK topping the European tables of Covid-19 deaths, what does that actually mean? And is “science” the only type of knowledge we need to make life-saving policy in the Covid crisis?

Making policy is difficult and complex – particularly in a crisis, and especially one caused by a virus that didn’t exist in humans six months ago but has the potential to kill millions. The information we have is incomplete, inaccurate and difficult to interpret. Politicians (and experts) are under huge pressure, recognising that their inevitable mistakes may well cost lives. My research has shown that even in more modestly stressful and novel contexts, policy makers don’t just use experts to answer questions, but also their public claims to be listening to experts are useful politically. Christina Boswell identified the ‘legitimising’ and ‘substantiating’ functions of experts. Listening (or at least appearing to be listening) to experts can give the public confidence that politicians’ decisions are well founded, and lend authority to their policy positions (such as when to re-open golf courses).

Covid-19 is a global issue requiring local responses, so the spatial aspects of using experts and evidence are particularly important. Governments need to learn quickly from experiences in countries at later stages in the epidemic, including countries where historic relations may be difficult. Central governments also have to learn quickly what is practical and working (or not) on the ground in the specific contexts of local areas, avoiding the vain attempt to manage every aspect from Whitehall. My research shows that the careful use of evidence can help here, developing shared understandings which can overcome historic blocks and enable effective collaboration. But in Covid-19 it seems central government too often is opting out of building these shared understandings. Experience in other countries has sometimes been ignored. Vital knowledge from local areas has not been sought or used. Instead of transparently sharing the evidence as decisions are developed, evidence has been hidden or heavily redacted, breaking a basic principle of good science and sacrificing the opportunity to build shared understandings open to critical challenge.

What counts as “evidence” anyway? Different professional and organisational cultures value different kinds of knowledge as important and reliable. In my work with combined authorities, I found that bringing mental health practitioners into policy discussions had opened up a wide range of new sources of knowledge, such as the voices of people with lived experience. And, carefully managed, this wider range of types of knowledge can lead to better decisions. The Government’s network of scientific advisory committees, once we finally were told who was involved, seems to have missed some important voices. The editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, argued that expertise around public health and intensive medical care should have been in the room. I would also argue that having practical knowledge from local councils and emergency planners could help avoid recommendations that prove impossible to implement effectively. As Kieron Flanagan has noted recently, we learned in the inquiry into the BSE crisis that esteemed experts can still make recommendations which are impossible to implement in practice.

Making a successful recovery will require government quickly to learn lessons from (their own and others’) mistakes so far. Expert advice and relevant data should be published, quickly and in full – treating the public and partners as adults. Key experts for this phase (including knowledge of local public health, economic development, schools, city centres and transport) should be brought into the discussions as equal partners – not simply the “hired help” to do a list of tasks ministers have dreamt up in a Whitehall basement. Then we can have plans that are well founded, widely supported, and have the best chance of practical success. Our future, in fact our very lives, depend on it.

This post was originally published in The Municipal Journal.

 

lowther-jason

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

England’s over-centralisation isn’t just a governance issue now – it’s a public health emergency

Jessica Studdert

The concentration of power at Westminster and Whitehall has long frustrated those of us who engage closely with the structures of governance and compare it to decentralised norms across much of Europe. Now, as with so many facets of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has exposed national vulnerabilities and left us grappling with the consequences. The grip on initiative that rests in SW1 is one such weakness, which is impacting how our system is responding to the virus, in turn perpetuating the public health emergency we find ourselves in.

A degree of national direction is clearly needed in the midst of a serious pandemic. People look to the Government for leadership and reassurance. Those in positions of power certainly feel personal responsibility for leading the response. Measures to implement service strategy nationally, such as through the NHS, or to use national heft for international procurement buying power, are certainly necessary. But time after time during the unfolding crisis, the centralised instinct has clouded decision-making, with terrible results.

The structures for the top-down approach to the pandemic were set early on, when the Government chose not to deploy the existing Civil Contingencies Act which set out clear roles, responsibilities and resources for all local and national public bodies. They instead rushed the Coronavirus Act through Parliament, which gave the Executive a greater level of unchecked power and no defined local role. This has had ongoing consequences for the coordination of an effective response. Leaked findings from an internal Whitehall review found that local emergency planning teams believe their abilities have been compromised by a controlling and uncommunicative approach from the central government machine, which persistently withholds data and intelligence.

The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive. There has been a repeated preference for big, bold flashy schemes over smaller, sustained but potentially more impactful measures. In the early weeks of the crisis much media attention focussed on the new Nightingale hospitals, yet we are now seeing tragically how that time and resource could have been better invested in the more targeted shielding of hundreds of care homes. When faced with the need to quickly implement testing for Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Health reached for a high-profile 100,000 target and set up new large processing sites. This triumph of tactics over strategy directed the systemic response to focus on numbers over priority need and overlooked existing networks of local lab capacity. Even as attempts are made to set up contact tracing at scale to support the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Government seems to have more confidence in a new mobile app than it does existing local public health teams. This is despite the latter’s expertise in tracing the contacts of people who have highly infectious diseases and clear evidence from countries who have successfully managed their lockdown transition.

The formal power exercised at the centre is in direct contrast to the informal role for local authorities, which is having devastating consequences for their very viability. Because councils’ response has no statutory footing in the context of an emergency, they are left exposed to the whims of a few individuals making decisions in Westminster. At the start of the crisis, the Secretary of State for Local Government told local authorities to spend “whatever it takes” to protect their residents. Councils had immediately set about providing relief to shielded groups, protecting wider vulnerable groups and implementing public safety measures, all while ensuring essential services continued as usual. Rather than support these efforts, Government then rescinded this early clear backing, querying councils’ honesty over their cost assessments and leaving many facing a financial black hole.

The double standards central government imposes on its local counterparts is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to local government finance. An emergency on the scale of a global pandemic has required state-led responses on a scale inconceivable only months ago, and with widespread public approval. Central government spending has snowballed to accommodate unprecedented employee furlough schemes, emergency business support measures, not to mention the enormous costs to the NHS. The Chancellor has the leeway to respond to this through a number of different measures – incurring public debt, raising taxes, freezing public sector wages and reducing public spending, a combination of which he is reportedly considering.

Local government has no such room for fiscal manoeuvre. Councils are legally required to balance annual budgets and have only narrow revenue-raising powers through council tax and business rates which are themselves subject to centrally imposed controls. With a shock to their budgets of this scale they are at the mercy of decisions made by a few in Westminster. These have so far resulted in a couple of ad hoc cash injections of £1.6bn each, and a bit extra cobbled together earmarked for social care and rough sleepers – so far massively short of the estimated £10-13 billon shortfall councils collectively face.

It is no way to run a country. It never was, but in the context of the crisis the contradictions of our top-heavy system of governance are laid bare. The rumblings of discontent from Mayors in the north of England at their regions being side-lined, and from councils over plans to fully reopen schools in the absence of clear local test, track and trace infrastructure, suggest the popular tide is beginning to turn against blanket centrally-imposed measures. As local government is increasingly being seen as better placed to protect their residents, particularly in the context of a Government that is increasingly mis-stepping, there may now be an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how our country should be run in the interests of everyone.

Jessica Studdert is deputy director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a Londonbased think-tank. She leads NLGN’s thought leadership and research, and contributes strategic oversight of the organisation. Prior to joining NLGN, Jessica was political adviser to the Labour Group at the LGA. She led policy there, working closely on public service reform and devolution. Previously she worked in policy roles in the voluntary sector for a street homelessness and a childcare charity, and she began her career at the Fabian Society.

The disparities in housing and public health within the BAME community and the pandemic crisis

Cllr. Ketan Sheth

Public Health is important: it prolongs life. A fundamental quality of Public Health is its preventative nature; prevention is far more effective and far less expensive than cure. Public Health is important because we are constantly striving to close the inequality gap between people and encourage equal opportunities for children, all ethnicities and genders. Health is a human right and we should be ensuring no one is disadvantaged, regardless of their background, their ethnicity or where they live. Becoming the voice for people who have no voice is our collective duty. Simply put, our influence on the improvement of someone’s health is a fundamental act of kindness.

Poor housing and living environments cause or contribute to many preventable diseases, such as respiratory, nervous system and cardiovascular diseases and cancer. An unsatisfactory home environment, with air and noise pollution, lack of green spaces, lack of personal space, poor ventilation and mobility options, all pose health risks, and in part have contributed to the spread of Covid-19. The disparities in housing and public health within the BAME community have persisted for decades cannot be doubted, and is underscored by a raft of research over the past six decades as well as highlighted by the recent analysis of the impact of Covid -19. The death rate among British black Africans and British Pakistanis from coronavirus in English hospitals is more than 2.5 times that of the white population.

What are the possible reasons? A third of all working-age Black Africans are employed in key worker roles, much more than the share of the White British population. Additionally Pakistani, Indian and Black African men are respectively 90%, 150% and 310% more likely to work in healthcare than white British men. While cultural practices and genetics have been mooted as possible explanations for the disparities, higher levels of social deprivation, particularly poor housing may be part of the cause, and that some ethnic groups look more likely than others to suffer economically from the lockdown.

Homelessness has grown in BAME communities, from 18% to 36% over the last two decades – double the presence of ethnic minorities in the population. BAME households are also far more likely to live in overcrowded, inadequate or fuel poor housing. What’s more, around a quarter of BAME households live in the oldest pre-1919 built homes. And their homes less often include safety features such as fire alarms, which is striking given the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy. Over-concentration of BAME households in the

neighbourhoods in London, linked to poor housing conditions and lower economic status all ensure negative impacts on health, all of which means lower life expectancy. The roll-out of Universal Credit is having greater effects on the living standards of BAME people since a larger percentage experience poverty, receive benefits and tax credits, and live in large families.
Larger household size also means that ethnic minorities are far more vulnerable to housing displacement because of the Bedroom Tax or subject to financial penalties if they do not move to a smaller home.
These stark facts, sharply bring to our attention the health, social and economic inequalities among our minority ethnic community, all of which are critical to understanding why some ethnic minority groups are bearing the brunt of Covid-19. In this time of reflection, it is not enough to observe; we must think about what more we can do, right now, to reduce the health, housing and economic vulnerabilities that our BAME communities are much more exposed to in these fragile times. Let’s act and prolong life together, as a flourishing community.

Cllr. Ketan Sheth is a Councillor for Tokyngton, Wembley in the London Borough of Brent. Ketan has been a councillor since 2010 and was appointed as Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in May 2016. Before his current appointment in 2016, he was the Chair of Planning, of Standards, and of the Licensing Committees. Ketan is a lawyer by profession and sits on a number of public bodies, including as the Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

Councils Can…

Victoria Ashcroft

In this post a local government professional reflects on their experience of working in local government during the covid-19 crisis. 

Working in a partnership role in a District Council has its challenges at the best of times, but working in a partnership role, from home, with kids and studying, in the midst of a crisis makes it all the more challenging. The work/life balance that we strive for is now melded together for the foreseeable future.

Since the start of COVID-19 things have moved rapidly (unusual in this line of work). We’ve been told by the Government we need to set up a Community Hub, we’ve been asked by the County Council for support, we know we need to support the voluntary sector, we know the community have mobilised in ways not seen before. These truly are unprecedented times.

Technology has never been so important; it’s no mean feat setting up an entire organisation to work remotely. The behind the scenes effort is huge. So far we’ve set up helplines, email addresses, a communications plan and produced numerous press releases. We’ve placed rough sleepers in as many available accommodation spaces as we can, we’ve set up a food bank, we’ve set up a scheme with the local supermarket to order food for isolators, this food is being delivered by our Elected Members, Solicitors and Environmental Health Officers to name a few – it’s all hands to the deck. The list goes on. We’ve closed the crematoriums and burial grounds and then opened them again. We’ve supported businesses too.

The next task is to call thousands of residents we’ve identified to see how they’re doing, if they have support in place, and if they need help or assistance or just a friendly chat. Quite reassuringly in the main they have good support networks in place but there’s a handful who need further assistance, signposting or a referral onto support agencies. Everyone is really appreciative of the call and thankful to the team of volunteers (diverted in from all departments across the organisation). They are so pleased to have not been forgotten.

Everyone is working hard, and all are doing something new and learning new things.   Such a mammoth task has been undertaken and it feels like there has been little recognition for the very important work being done in this sector, not that we need or want recognition, we are just doing our job contributing to the national effort. We’re not just bins and council tax.

Unprecedented seems to be the word of the moment, and it sums it all up perfectly.

But what comes next…we know domestic abuse will rise, we anticipate a rise in crime and anti-social behaviour, there are worries for the economy, we might lose friends or loved ones, our children will have lived through a crisis we could never have imagined. What we do know is that local government will not be the same again but how we fare in the long term remains to be seen…..

 

Victoria Ashcroft is a local government professional with almost 20 years’ experience in the sector. Currently her role is supporting business planning for the authority and she responsibility for a number of statutory duties and responsibilities. She gained her undergraduate degree in Social Science and Politics through The Open University and is now a student on INLOGOV’s Masters in Public Administration programme.

How Private Members’ legislation institutionalised ‘the free stuff’

Chris Game

One incidental phenomenon of this extraordinary period in our lives is all the free stuff around, and not just for NHS hero(in)es or frontline workers. For us septuagenarian social distancers there are almost limitless free games, films, ebooks, magazines, video stuff, educational goodies, hot drinks, pizzas – and rhubarb complex. No, me neither.

It took me back a few years – memory-jogged by a recent report from the ‘neo-localist’ think tank, Localis, of which more shortly – to the heyday of ‘free stuff’ in the local government world. Which in turn took me back, coinciding with MPs’ so-called return to work, to Parliament and a sometimes overlooked sphere of that work that every so often genuinely enhances public life – considerably more than most Question Times, in-person or virtual.

I’m talking Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) – the means by which non-ministerial MPs and Peers can attempt to get their names into the statute books. Or – much more usually – a one-line Hansard mention. I jest not – of the 386 PMBs introduced in the extended 2017-19 Parliamentary session, just 15 received Royal Assent.

Like everything else about our Parliament – fabric, functioning, and obviously electoral system – the whole PMB thing is decades overdue for overhaul and reform. Yet, almost despite itself, it regularly does produce seriously worthwhile law.

And there was one decade in which it excelled, creating a shelf of legislation that remains today hugely worthwhile – abolition of capital punishment, reform of law on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, theatre censorship, Sunday entertainment – and that was just the headline stuff.

The 1960s, of course – as I was discovering a genuine interest in politics, had university essays to write, and became fascinated by this way of handling ‘conscience legislation’ – which is probably why I still pay sporadic attention to what goes on.

I admit, though, I had little idea of how the show-off Presentation Bill procedure had mushroomed of late. The Hansard Society counted 147 of them in that extended last session – except that there weren’t, in any physical sense. For all you need do is, well, present your proposed Bill’s title – handfuls at a time, if you feel really shouty – to a sparsely occupied Friday Commons.

This still infant session is already set to leave that 147 total standing. Imagine that Thursday a fortnight ago, first day back at school, as the shoutiest boys (you can’t imagine women MPs bothering with this stuff, can you?) presented their holiday homework. Arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone managed 15 Bills, but his supposed mate, Sir Christopher Chope, left him almost wimpering with his (I think) 41.

Thankfully, you don’t even get to air what’s bothering you, because there’s no speech, no debate, and the things are frequently not even printed. Yes, there are occasional, vital exceptions – like the recent EU (Withdrawal) Bills sponsored by Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn that sought to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the absence of the Withdrawal Bill’s ratification.

But exceptions they were. If you have a serious cause, a genuine knowledge of the subject and the deficiencies of the present legislation, plus ideally access to ‘expert’ advice and parliamentary drafting skills, then you don’t shout, but try a Ten-Minute Rule Bill and/or chance your luck in the Private Members’ Bill ballot.

It’s a big parliamentary happening, at the start of each session. Most eligible MPs enter, their anonymised numbers inscribed on ping-pongy balls and pulled out of, obviously, a goldfish bowl for total transparency. The first 20 names then get, in reverse order, a guaranteed Friday slot in the parliamentary timetable to introduce and hopefully progress their chosen Bill.

Of the 15 PMBs passed in the last session nine were these Ballot Bills. Most focus on a specific need, injustice or population group, like the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, introduced by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who came 8th in the 2017 ballot, and which has finally came into operation last month.

Labelled ‘Jack’s Law’, after Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy led the campaign for the Bill, it authorises a minimum of two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for the several thousand employed parents each year who lose a child under the age of 18 or have a stillbirth from the 24th week of pregnancy.

The difficulty in taking on an obdurate Government on a politically big issue is sadly illustrated by SNP MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, 7th in the 2016 ballot. She tried embarrassing the Government, already five years after signing the Council of Europe’s wide-ranging Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women, into actually ratifying it into UK law, instead of merely agreeing how jolly important it was and blocking it in the EU Council.

Three years later: surprise! Shamefully, still unratified. However, with the Counting Dead Women project estimating at least 16 domestic abuse killings during the first three weeks of lockdown, Home Secretary Priti Patel is reportedly considering setting up a new cross-government taskforce on domestic abuse. So that’s sorted, then.

Apologies for the extended diversion. I do realise that at least the climax to an INLOGOV blog should ideally be both local governmenty and positive – and this one is, courtesy of Chris White, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington from 2010 to 2017.

With beginner’s luck, White came third in the 2010 Private Members’ Ballot, and used it outstandingly, to introduce the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. Working ‘with the grain’ of both central and local government progressive thinking, it required councils and other public bodies to pay regard to ‘social impact’ – social, economic and environmental well-being – when making procurement decisions.

Some councils needed no convincing, but others did. Yet, really quite rapidly, social value advanced – from campaign slogan, through the development of Social Value Strategies, to statutory requirement, to an almost universally recognised consideration in dealing with both public and frequently private sectors.

The Localis think tank argues – not for the first time, but in greater depth – that the Government should now go further. Councils should be required to produce publicly available Community Value Charters defining where social value offers would be best targeted, thereby aiding both commissioners and potentially bidding contractors.

Thanks significantly to Chris White, as the publication reminds us, we’ve come a long way from councillors and officers on the procurement side of a negotiating table asking, slightly self-consciously: “What about all the free stuff – sorry, the additional economic, environmental and social value?” – and bidders frantically guessing what might be required to seal the deal.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Strategic planning that works—evidence from the European public sector

Paul Joyce

Just over twenty years ago when I was observing experiments in the use of strategic planning and community planning in English local government I often wondered if it would prove to be a temporary management fad. There were at the time efforts by councils like Bradford Council to carry out planning with partners from all sectors. I saw councils like Ipswich Council trying to do community strategic planning and trying to engage and involve local people. There was leadership from councillors and officers at the tops of councils. I was really impressed at the time with their drive to innovate and serve the public better and often to use strategic planning as a tool to do this. But would enthusiasm for it last ten years?

Not only do local councils still use strategic thinking and planning but it has also been picked up at national level of government, with long-term strategic visions and strategies, all put to the service of reformed and improved public governance (which has been abundantly reported on by the OECD).

One of the most important things that academic researchers can do is to ensure that empirical research is carried out which really investigates what is actually happening in the public sector – what choices are made, and what actions are carried out – and what the consequences of them are. When this type of study is done it may be possible to have a serious examination of the usefulness of strategic planning for the public sector. It is therefore good that the journal Public Money & Management has just (in early 2020) published an issue that includes a series of empirical studies investigating the effectiveness of strategic planning in various European countries and in various parts of the public sector.

The editorial is by the four co-chairs of the Permanent Study Group on Strategic Management in Government, which was set up by the European Group for Public Administration (EGPA) in 2009. This study group has fostered research and discussion of the realities of public sector strategic planning with the intention of contributing towards a better understanding of how strategic planning works in practice and the causes of variations in its effectiveness.

In the editorial, I, along with my co-editors, drew attention to previously published research studies indicating individual public sector practitioners typically feel strategic planning has provided them with a range of benefits and studies assessing the contribution of strategic planning to public service performance. We also noted a recent meta-analysis by Bert George (Ghent University) that supported the value of strategic planning being formal as well as comprehensive.

It should not be assumed that we were arguing that strategic planning always succeeds and is always a perfect tool for public governance and for steering public service delivery. We do contend that, although strategic planning may rarely (if ever) be successful in respect of all the goals set, we do think there is evidence that it is quite successful. We also underline a view that Ewan Ferlie and Edoardo Ongaro, two UK based academics specialising in management in the public sector, have championed. This is the view that context matters. We say, “So strategic planning exists in many different shapes and forms—some effective and some less so, and one needs to think strategically about how strategic planning can be made most adequate for the context and issue at hand.”

In introducing the various studies in the issue, we were struck by a theme running through them. This was the theme of “alignment”. One that you would probably think of immediately is the alignment between strategic plans and the long-term visions and priorities set by elected politicians in the authorising structure. But we concluded the editorial by noting a set of alignments that we think are a good idea: “So, strategic planning needs to be aligned with its public governance context (i.e. strategic public governance alignment) and its networks (i.e. strategic network governance alignment), as well as being aligned with departmental plans (i.e. strategic vertical alignment), organisational structures (i.e. strategic horizontal alignment), and strategy implementation activities (i.e. strategic implementation alignment).” All this takes a lot of work to create and sustain. The big issue is, perhaps, how these alignments come into being – does strategic planning coordinate other things or adapt itself or both?

 

Paul Joyce is an Associate at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. He is also a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently writing a book on the execution of strategy in the public sector. His recent books include Strategic Management for Public Governance in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, with Anne Drumaux); Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2017, 2nd edition); and Strategic Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2015). In 2019 he became the Publications Director of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, IIAS, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.)