Notwestminster: Writing the future of local democracy

Dave McKenna

Next month, Notwestminster takes place again after a year off.  

It’s an event that we love here at INLOGOV and have been delighted to support
previous events as well as go along and share some of our work such as the 21st
Century Councillor research

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s perhaps best described as a mini
festival of all things local democracy – an informal mix of workshops and
speakers that takes place in Huddersfield. This year it’s taking place in
the hallowed halls of Huddersfield University on Saturday 26th February.

What makes it really rock is the mix of people – volunteers, citizens, council
officers, councillors and yes, even academics, all mix together to discuss a
shared (and sometimes nerdy) appreciation of all things local democracy.

Here’s a section of the workshops to give a flavour:

• Pirates, Citizens and the future of local government

• Zines for democracy

• Creating 100 ideas for the North

• Dramatic Communication Strategies

• How can measuring political literacy help to improve local democracy?

• Fair and equal voting rights for young people across the UK

So, if you’re up for the challenge of renewing our democracy, please join in
for a day of workshops, quick-fire talks, conversations and inspiration in
Huddersfield. Notwestminster is a free event and everyone is welcome to
take part.

You can find out more and sign up here:

https://notinwestminster.wordpress.com/notwestminster-2022/

Hope to see you there.

 

Dave McKenna is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.

Policy problems are complex. So what?

Koen Bartels, Selen Ercan and John Boswell

Image: Robert Couse-Baker

There is no denying that we live in complex times, featuring a global pandemic, climate change, and structural inequality. Complex problems are often incredibly difficult to address. Policy makers, practitioners and scholars have known this for a long time. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe problems that were so complicated and ambiguous that those involved could not even agree on what the problem exactly was, and how a good solution would look like. Twenty years later, Jan Kooiman argued that the governance systems in place to address these complex problems are equally complex.

Yes, policy problems are complex. So what?

We are not asking this question out of apathy. Instead, we want to find out what it actually means to call policy problems ‘complex’. What difference does it make to those involved to call a problem complex? How do they make sense of complexity and deal with it? In what ways can we understand and study complexity? And is it possible to somehow solve complex problems? These were the kind of questions we addressed during this year’s section ‘Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges’, which we co-convened at the annual ECPR conference 2021.

Panels explored complex problems in different policy areas and contexts including ecological sustainability, criminal justice and urban transformations. We have learnt, for example, how Roma migrant women navigate and reorganise their everyday lives when their husbands ‘disappear’ to jail, leaving them in a tremendous state of uncertainty posed by highly discriminatory criminal justice system. Another panel speaker revealed the practical consequences of the complex child protection system in Chile: this system led to tragic policy failures that destroyed or even ended children’s lives. Several presentations explained how governance systems ‘locked in’ the status quo continued to frustrate policies and efforts to promote sustainability.

This year’s section also featured a roundtable on Nicole Curato’s recent book Democracy in Times of Misery. We had the opportunity to ask Curato questions about her ethnographic work in the Philippines, and the ways she uses normative political theory to make sense of the emerging democratic practices in the aftermath of natural disasters. As we heard from Curato and other contributors of the roundtable, one key challenge for democracy we identified is to listen to the ‘unspeakable tragedies’ taking place in the world and celebrate the ‘humble victories’ through which citizens reclaim public space.

What emerges as an important avenue for better understanding complexity both from the panel discussions and the roundtable on Curato’s book is the need to focus more on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Shifting the focus from the trade-offs policy makers face when dealing with complex policy problems to the ways citizens experience complexity can offer novel ways of comprehending and addressing complexity. One of the panel speakers explored how citizens make sense of austerity and the ways this influences their political views. Another panel speaker explained how a focus on people’s experiences of the area in which they live can help understand how to best give shape to economic development policies, such as the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda.

Similarly, a focus on the everyday practices of policy makers can cast new light on how they deal with complexity. One panel speaker for instance explained why they publicly remain proponents of collaboration to deal with ‘wicked problems’, despite their privately held ‘wicked thoughts’ about the frustrations and limitations they experience in practice. If you must know, they do it to get access to other actors, build alliances, infiltrate networks, or channel conflict. So, by acknowledging the complexity of policy problems, policy makers can justify inaction or reinforce the status quo.

Methodological innovations, such as ‘Trajectory-Based Qualitative Comparative Analysis’, can help to trace the complexity of urban transformations. While action research can help to foster joint learning about how to work with, rather than control or resolve complexity. One participant wrote in her paper: “We are drowning in the ocean of theories and case studies of water governance, but why does it not match up with the successful implementation of those goals?” There is an important role here for policy analysts to foster learning and change in collaboration with stakeholders. In fact, many presentations demonstrated significant (untapped) potential for helping to harness the complex problems they identified.

We might even say that, like the weather, many participants were talking about complexity but not doing anything with it. Nearly everyone evoked the notion ‘wicked problems’ to frame their research, but relatively few actually used looked at the world in terms of complexity. Complexity theory is one of the major innovations of the past decades in the Social Sciences and has also gotten a foothold in the field of Public Policy. It views the world in terms of complexity that cannot be controlled or known objectively. Like the flight patterns of a flock of birds, the world is unpredictable and emergent. We need to accept this and make sense of the ‘complex adaptive systems’ that take shape (and are constantly changing) in interaction between webs of interdependent actors. This, again, asks for stakeholders to engage in ongoing learning and adaptation as they collaboratively confront the complex problems they face in everyday practice.

Koen Bartels is Associate Professor at INLOGOV and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

Selen Ercan is Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

John Boswell is Associate Professor at the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

Defining ‘Levelling Up’ – best effort yet?

Chris Game

PoliticsHome, the online Parliamentary news source, recently commissioned a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll into the public’s awareness and understanding of the Government’s ‘flagship’ slogan – sorry, policy – of ‘Levelling Up’.

It wasn’t great – the awareness and understanding bit, I mean, not the poll. “Somewhat” and “moderately aware” responses formed the clear majority, with a further third of respondents shamelessly admitting “no understanding at all”.   

Which left 14% reckoning they were “well aware” – confident perhaps that they’d not be pressed for details. That’s one in seven potential voters claiming familiarity with the Government’s two-year-old core domestic policy.  Hardly impressive, but I’m sorry – I didn’t believe this particular sub-sample of the Great British Public, even when I first read it.

That is, before the week in which we learned that none of the HS2 eastern leg, the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the Government’s cap on social care costs were, as widely supposed, integral to Levelling Up

Not the least of my reasons for doubting that 14% “well aware” figure was that I’d question whether that many Conservative MPs (50+) would seriously have claimed such familiarity. Even returning from October’s annual party conference, they were openly pleading for fewer “buzzwords” and some “meat on the bones” to offer their increasingly disaffected constituents.

Hardly surprisingly, considering all they’d got from the proverbial horse’s mouth – Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien at a Policy Exchange fringe event – was that it’s a “four-fold concept”, involving empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride. Just what PoliticsHome’s 14% had in mind, no doubt!

But then O’Brien got carried away, almost parroting Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s big – You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to …” 

Adams, of course, was describing space. Compare O’Brien on Levelling Up: It’s “a huge expensive thing … and will help all people who’ve long felt neglected”.  And there’ll be even more “in the Levelling Up white paper we’ll be publishing … (pause for drumroll) … shortly”.

Or not so shortly, as we learned this past weekend from the DLUHC’s otherwise largely silent ‘big hitter’, Michael Gove – but quite possibly featuring “swathes of rural England [electing] powerful American-style governors”. Odd that O’Brien didn’t mention them!

Either way, it’s frustrating for all concerned, particularly with Ministers having been handing out – and some of their constituencies receiving – tranches of supposedly Levelling Up-type funding for over two years now. So many tranches, indeed, that it’s genuinely hard to keep up.

And that’s not the purpose of this blog, but even a highlights list would include:

* £3.6 billion Towns Fundlaunched as effectively the new PM’s first policy initiative in July 2019, this one would “unleash the full economic potential of [eventually 101] English towns … as part of the Government’s plan to level up our regions”. 

An initial 1,082 towns were narrowed down to the “most needy” 50%, then grouped regionally by “officials” into high, medium and low priority.  All 40 ‘highs’ were selected for funding of up to £25m, with ministers choosing the remainder “based on the information provided and their own judgement”.

Which enabled Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to judge his junior ministerial colleague Jake Berry’s 270th most deprived constituency as still pretty ‘needy’, in apparent exchange for Berry making a similar evaluation of Jenrick’s Newark.

* UK £220 million Community Renewal Fund awards to help 100 particularly needy places/communities across the UK prepare for next year’s launch of the (very much bigger – est. £1.5 billion) UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU structural and investment funding.                          

Bids were ranked on five ‘metrics’ – productivity, skills, unemployment rate, population density, and household income – with final funding decisions made by the Secretary of State for the (now) Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department, “after considering any comments from ministerial colleagues”. No actual mention back then of Levelling Up, and disgruntled moans this time from MPs and councils across the spectrum – but, with over £15m to Moseley Road Baths, it wasn’t all bad.

* £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – this one is definitely about Levelling Up, bringing together that department, the Treasury, and Transport to invest in “high-value local infrastructure”. Focus is on “places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”. 

Come the results, though, we were back in Towns Fund territory – Sajid Javid’s Bromsgrove constituency and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ Central Bedfordshire being levelled up still further from their positions among the least deprived fifth of authorities nationwide.

As with most of these exercises, the assessment process and criteria are explicit, but without providing the key information successful or, even more, unsuccessful bidders really want.  There are “pass/fail gateway criteria”, assessment criteria – here covering “strategic fit, deliverability, value for money, and characteristics of place” – giving GB bids a potential score of 100.  Following which, Ministers are increasingly involved, together with and guided by officials (of course), but in an essentially indeterminable way.

MPs, naturally, react at least in the first instance to whether ‘their’ patch has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in these funding contests.  Not so the Commons Public Accounts Committee – Labour-chaired, but Conservative-dominated – who, pretty well from the outset with the Towns Fund, have criticised severely the blatant Ministerial involvement in the “not impartial” selection process.

Civil servants had ranked towns into three categories by local need and growth potential, then chosen all 40 ‘High Priority’ ones. Whereupon Ministers then selected a further 60, heavily represented by Conservative MPs, from the Medium and Low priority categories. Twelve Low Priority areas won out over Medium Priority towns, including Greater Manchester’s Cheadle, ranked 535th out of 541, but with a vulnerable 2,336 Conservative majority.

“Vague and based on sweeping assumptions” was the Committee’s verdict on Ministers’ selections, which risked jeopardising the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

With something at least as sophisticated and certainly more objective evidently required, up stepped WPI (Westminster Policy Institute) with its Levelling Up Index. It attempts almost exactly what the Government claims it wants: a comprehensive socio-economic statistically based identification of those areas (though by parliamentary constituency, rather than local authority) most in need of levelling up.

WPI’s Index assigns all English and Welsh constituencies ‘Levelling Up’ rankings – from the most needy, Blackpool South (1), to the least, South Cambridgeshire (573) – then divides them into three categories: Priorities, Borderliners, Achievers.

Achievers, mainly in the South and upwardly mobile suburbs of major urban centres, perform better than Borderliners, who constitute the national average and are judged to require support in certain areas. Levelling Up Priorities, though, should be places, disproportionately in the North, Midlands, and Wales, that have historically suffered through industrial decline, and often additionally through Government spending policies.

Six indicators combine to determine a Levelling Up score: spending power; financial dependency, based on Job Seekers’ Allowance and Universal Credit claims; crime rates; deprivation scores; health measures; and empty commercial properties.

Better still, there’s an excellent interactive WPI Index Map, the enlarged West Midlands section of which shows clearly the prioritisation the six indicators suggest our region’s constituencies should be accorded in any objectively conducted Levelling Up exercise.

The map’s core message barely needs commentary, but some individual Levelling Up scores are useful. The whole metropolitan West Midlands is a Priority, with the exceptions of Borderliners Edgbaston (sounds familiar – 208) and Stourbridge (210), and Achievers Sutton Coldfield (452) and Solihull (524).

Other Birmingham scores range from Erdington, Ladywood, and Hodge Hill (9, 10 15), through Perry Barr, Hall Green, Yardley, and Northfield (43, 55, 60, 62), to Selly Oak (156).

Viewed pictorially, we look pretty determined to get our deserved recognition. To me, anyway, we resemble a rather ferocious, albeit three-legged, tail-docked Cockapoo – about to attack those South Staffs Achievers, before making mincemeat of Boris’s Peppa Pig.

 

Photo

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.

How the climate crisis is changing Europe’s economic landscape. After four decades, the pandemic and especially the climate crisis have silenced the exponents of fiscal orthodoxy. Keynes is back.

Jon Bloomfield

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmenj/

Despite the disappointments of COP26, it’s important to acknowledge the momentum the climate movement has gained. Denialists are in retreat, while all governments are under pressure to strengthen their climate targets and actions. The climate crisis, the pandemic and the outcome of the German elections are all profoundly changing the prospects for European politics. The neoliberal right doesn’t like it but, after four decades in absentia, Keynesian economics is back.

Orthodoxy shattered

The first big sign came in the summer of last year, when after several months of sharp debate the European Union agreed a €1.8 trillion budgetary and stimulus package focused strongly on ecological and digital transformation.

What is the political significance of this shift? As the economist Jeffrey Sachs crisply expressed it in the Financial Times, ‘I would say the European Commission is carrying out a social democratic programme, not in name … but in spirit.’

Growing recognition of the climate crisis, reinforced at COP26, has combined with the outcome of the German elections in late September. Leaders of the putative ‘traffic-light’ coalition parties—the social-democratic SPD, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats—have agreed to make major investments in Germany’s creaking infrastructure and to boost public spending for green and digital transition. They are coming under increasing pressure from German business too. In a major report published late last month, BDI, the German industry association, said the next government had to act quickly—triggering large-scale, low-carbon investments and setting the right framework to ensure the country would transform its economy to reach climate neutrality by 2045.

Joint borrowing

How can the coalition partners finance such ambitious plans, when they have already promised not to raise taxes or change Germany’s constitutionally-embedded ‘debt brake’ (Schuldenbremse), which severely limits new public debt? One proposal is to use the state bank, KfW, to finance investments. But more novel is a proposal for joint EU borrowing—via a European Commission bond programme, similar to that which the EU has launched for the recovery fund.

Keynesian road

The BDI director general, Joachim Lang, indicated the association was open to the idea of EU borrowing, to help fund the massive public and private investment necessary to meet German and European climate goals. ‘To meet its climate targets, Germany needs additional investment of €860 billion until 2030,’ Lang said.

The precise outcome of the negotiations on the German coalition programme remains uncertain. Recognition of the depth of the climate emergency is however driving industrialists and centrist politicians down a Keynesian road. The new government is likely to sidestep the debt brake by giving additional leeway to the KfW. But the more dramatic step would be to call for a new, EU-wide bond programme.

The size and shape of such a programme would of course be crucial issues for EU institutions to determine. But agreement on such a move would confirm that the European Green Deal was no one-off transaction—rather a first step towards Europe adopting Keynesian macroeconomic policies.

The return of social democracy

The tectonic plates are moving. The four decades hegemony of neoliberalism and the ‘Washington consensus’ are drawing to a close. As Sachs says, these moves herald a return to social democracy.

Three huge questions arise. First, will this shift be driven by social-democratic parties or, more likely, broader coalitions as in Germany?

Secondly, will the orthodox European right embrace the climate-change agenda

or will it lapse into the climate denialism of the nationalist right, as in the USA?

Thirdly, can the citizens’ and youth movements which have been so effective in foregrounding the environmental crisis find ways to intervene effectively in this battle? They will have to shed reflex, anti-politics populism and recognise the importance of maximising the potential of the European Green Deal.  COP26, for all its shortcomings, highlighted that politics is on the move. For progressives, there is all to play for.

Jon Bloomfield runs a regular blog series on the Green Deal with Professor Fred Steward

The full text of this article is available at Social Europe.

 How the climate crisis is changing Europe’s economic landscape – Jon Bloomfield (socialeurope.eu)

Dr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate

Being Young in Local Government

Councillor Christopher Burden

Image: risingthermals https://www.flickr.com/photos/risingthermals/50047900938/in/album-72157714745761933/

According to the Local Government Association, the average age of a Councillor is 59, with only 15% of Councillors being under the age of 45. Nationally, 88% of Councillors identify as straight. Being a young gay councillor brings with it a dual status. Not only are you an elected official, but you also become an item of curiosity.

Six months ago, I never laboured over my identity. I was who I was and questioning this self-perception never crossed my mind. But upon election, I found the world questioning that status. Briefly, I ceased being “Chris Burden” and became a nameless entity. “The Youngest Councillor”. “The Gay Councillor”.  Concepts which were previously unspoken facets of my personality, were now my entire self. This change began while I was on the campaign trail.

Getting selected as a candidate was my first experience of the battleground of local politics. Independents don’t need to face this process, of course, but the vast majority of Councillors in the UK are party political except for notable exceptions in places like Stoke on Trent or Middlesbrough. It was here I encountered the first resistance about being young and in politics.

“Do you think that you possibly understand politics at your age?”

“Won’t you be too busy with University?”

“Will people actually vote for a person younger than them?”

To an extent they’re simple valid questions. Equally, they have simple and valid answers. Yes. No. Yes. There is a distinct Wulfrunian brashness in my response. Although this stems from a fundamental and irrevocable simplicity. Young people, just as any other community, deserve to be represented in their local areas.

Selections are a curious process in local government and effectively form the first experience of gatekeeping in the sector. Candidates aren’t necessarily rewarded or encouraged for their dedication, skill, or contribution, but rather their popularity or experience. This will vary from party to party, but the general trends are pervasive. These aren’t job interviews, in which the best candidate gets the job, but rather the candidate who is most able to convince the panels are the ones who succeed. Those who have lived long lives, or previously held positions are naturally endowed with the advantage.

This is the void where the sector must intervene to encourage youth participation and progression within political structures. Parties and councils more broadly must increase their programmes of support for those seeking election. The “Be a Councillor” programme from the LGA is an exceptionally good start, but is implemented with vast differences around the country, and does little to tailor exposure or training to poorly represented groups. As with many industries there exists a fundamental roadblock. Those who have the knowledge to look for this support, are broadly those who are less in need of the support. Professionally, I started my career in the classroom, teaching French and German. It’s here that we need to instil democratic values, but to also promote the value of local government and representation. Local government influences every facet of young people’s lives, from schools to youth centres, yet they aren’t taught to understand it as a political element. Is it any wonder that youth participation in local democracy is weak?

For those young people who do want to seek election, it’s an immensely rewarding field, providing a whole host of new and transferable skills. Even candidates who do not succeed in election learn an enormous amount about political communication and local government operations. I’ve been elected for five months and I’ve already been able to make an impact on the lives of ordinary people. High-level impact like adjusting the council home inappropriately adapted for a disabled resident, all the way down to low-level issues like supporting local charities to engage with social media. Local government is a field in which your impact can be immense, and everybody has something to give.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there’s challenges around every corner. But that’s exactly why we need more young people in politics. The West Midlands Growth Company estimates that 32% of the population in the West Midlands is under the age of 25, yet we could not say the same thing about our Council Chambers and Civic Centres. The lack of youth representation directly translates to a lack of understand of youth issues within politics, both locally and nationally.

Why do students find themselves at the mercy of rogue landlords?

Why is the night-time economy so poorly managed? Why are youth engagement services emaciated?

The answer is simple. When the service users are not represented in power, those making the decisions fail to recognise their impact. Young people have vital positions which they should be taking up within local government. They should be taking seats in council chambers up and down this country, and they must be supported in their ambitions to do so.

Chris Burden is the youngest councillor elected to City of Wolverhampton Council, and a University of Birmingham Alumnus. He is currently completing a PhD at Aston University, where his research concerns voting intention trends within the British and European young community.
@WulfrunianChris

Decarbonising Transport: How Can we Work Together to Make an Impact?

Dr Louise Reardon

With the COP26 climate change conference only days away, the media is awash with pieces on the challenge we face and the policy options available (or not) for us to meet our net-zero commitments. One of the areas needing significant attention is transport.

Transport contributed 28% of total domestic Green House Gas emissions in 2018, making it the UK’s largest emitting sector. To date the sector is proving a tough nut to crack, with transport emissions 4% higher now than they were in 2013 and only 3% lower than in 1990. To be on track we need an annual rate of emissions reduction of at least 6%. We therefore need bold and significant action.

While electric vehicles have been the primary focus of central government attention and are an important part of the policy mix, many experts have highlighted how they alone will not be enough to achieve the sustainable transition we need. We also require significant behaviour change (shifting from car use to walking and cycling for example) and less travel full stop.

Easier said than done. Our current CREDS research is identifying the multitude of different ways organisations are (and can) work together to decarbonise transport at the city level and their views on the barriers and opportunities for affecting change. Some of the issues arising are cultural (the car as a status symbol for example), some are institutional (lack of capacity to focus on decarbonisation, for instance), and others political (will the electorate support this?).

Whatever the issues, no two towns and cities will have the same mixture of challenges, solutions and therefore pathways to a more sustainable transport system. Moreover, the reasons why we travel in the first place (and the means of doing so) are a result of complex intersections of social, economic and political factors. To change this system therefore requires a multitude of coordinated interventions, including action from individuals and a diverse range of institutions all pushing in the same direction.

With that said, it can be hard to know where to start. While the climate change challenge is global, there is real opportunity and need to act locally on transport to make significant progress. While many rightly turn to their local authority for action, it is unrealistic to think they can act alone, especially when many of the changes we need to make may be potentially controversial (at least for some).

To help identify ways forward we will be hosting a webinar (on 11 November) as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. Two inspirational panellists – Karen Creavin (CEO, The Active Wellbeing Society) and Chris Todd (Director, Transport Action Network) – will join us. Both of whom, in their different ways, have sought to transform our transport system to a more sustainable and fair one and have plenty of insights to share.

The session will be interactive, aiming to get a real conversation going about the strategies we can employ to make sustainable transport a reality. It’s free to attend and we’d love to hear your views and insights. You can register here. Do join us!

Louise Reardon is Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy at INLOGOV and currently leading the CREDS funded project Facilitating Policy Change towards Low-Carbon Mobility, in collaboration with INLOGOV Lecturer Timea Nochta and Li Wan, University of Cambridge. You can also follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseReardon1