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.

 

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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.

Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

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Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

Can High Speed Two Bridge the North-South Divide? Weighing the Evidence

Rebecca O’Neill

The Government recently announced its preferred route for Phase 2 of HS2 from Crewe to Manchester and the West Midlands to Leeds. This news will be welcomed by many in the North of England who believe that the new high speed rail line will bridge the ‘North-South divide’, referring to the cultural and economic differences between the South of England, in particular the South East, and the North. Currently, the gap between the two geographical areas in terms of life expectancy and economic trends has grown to the extent that they are almost separate countries.

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Do ‘sticky’ institutions always survive? The demise of the Audit Commission

Katherine Tonkiss

The Audit Commission played a central role in the audit, inspection, performance improvement and regulation of local authorities (and other public service providers) in England for over thirty years. Operating at arm’s length from government, it thrived under the efficiency and performance improvement agendas of successive Conservative and Labour governments, growing into a large and powerful public body. Yet those familiar with the history of the Audit Commission may note that antipathy towards the institution among local authorities and other stakeholders grew at the same time its powers were being expanded, and when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010 the Commission had lost considerable popular support. Yet few – and least of all the Audit Commission itself – anticipated the announcement of its abolition in August 2010.

The academic literature on the reform of arm’s length bodies doesn’t account for the relative ease with which the decision to abolish the Audit Commission was accepted and progressed. This literature tends to highlight how abolitions of large and powerful bodies which are deeply embedded in the public institutional architecture of the state (as the Audit Commission was) are very contested and difficult to implement. The literature refers to the ‘institutional stickiness’ often displayed by such bodies, denoting their capacity to survive even where there is considerable will to abolish. The Audit Commission appears to buck this trend – why?

This is the question we sought to tackle in our recent article on the abolition of the Audit Commission, published in Local Government Studies. In our article we apply a form of ‘argumentative discourse analysis’ to a large qualitative dataset which we collated on the abolition. This approach enabled us to focus on the ways in which narratives and storylines expressed by different actors framed the Audit Commission and the decision to abolish. As a result, we are able to demonstrate how discourse is an important medium through which administrative reform is negotiated.

In our analysis we identified that there was a strong pro-abolition discourse which focused on the idea that the Audit Commission had become bureaucratic, inefficient and burdensome; that it was not delivering a regulatory function in the public interest; and that change was needed to rectify these problems to deliver full accountability for public audit. This discourse was underpinned by a range of storylines which focused on areas such as accountability, localism, inefficiency and the desirability of open market competition for audit contracts. These storylines were uttered by a wide range of considerably powerful actors such as the government, conservative MPs, the right-wing press and the Local Government Association, and in a range of public settings including parliamentary debates, evidence to select committees, press briefings and ministerial statements.

By contrast the anti-abolition discourse was far weaker. It focused on the Audit Commission as providing a high quality independent audit function and sought to challenge narratives about it being inefficient and wasteful. The key storylines were uttered by the left-leaning press, the Audit Commission itself, some third sector organisations, some Labour MPs and a trade union, making use of select committees, responses to the government consultation on the decision to abolish, and open letters. Yet this discourse was not overtly anti-reform. It focused more on preserving the key functions of the Audit Commission, such as the independence of public audit, more than it did on the preservation of the Commission itself.

What our analysis shows, therefore, is that a strong ‘discourse coalition’ formed around the pro-abolition position which provided a solid basis for the newly elected government – aided by a popular mandate, legislative capacity and executive authority – to move forward with abolition. The influential actors involved were able to access various institutional settings which ensured that these storylines would be reported in the media. Timing and time were also important factors – the proposal was developed in secret, and the Audit Commission was only notified a few hours ahead of the abolition statement in the House of Commons. Such timing prevented the Audit Commission from formulating and seeking to build a strong discourse coalition around its own anti-abolition storyline.

The Audit Commission’s ability to survive was also hindered by deep institutional norms which prevented it from seeking its own preservation. This can help to explain why it refrained from launching a full defence, focusing only on the preservation of its functions rather than of the organisation. The discursive resources open to the Audit Commission were constrained by the deep norms which come with accepting appointed office, including not criticising its own abolition or political decisions concerning administrative reform. Without this defence, and without substantial stakeholder opposition to the proposals, the abolition was relatively straightforward.

Our analysis, therefore, helps to explain why, contrary to the literature on institutional stickiness and to other parallel cases of public body abolition at the time, the Audit Commission’s abolition was relatively simple and unopposed. Isolated and bound by institutional norms not to criticise its own abolition, the Audit Commission and its few supporters were placed in a weak position by a powerful pro-abolition discourse coalition.

This post is based on the following article: Tonkiss, K. and Skelcher, C. (2015) Abolishing the Audit Commission: framing, discourse coalitions and administrative reform. Local Government Studies. DOI: 10.1080/03003930.2015.1050093.

Katherine Tonkiss is a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at the School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University. Prior to this she was a Research Fellow at INLOGOV working on Shrinking the State, a project examining the abolition of public bodies under Coalition Government.

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The expansion of arms-length government is not necessarily at odds with democratic accountability

How democratic is arms-length government? Catherine Durose, Jonathan  B. Justice and Chris Skelcher argue that those who consider it to be an undemocratic phenomenon over-simplify, and make the case for assessing the question in a more citizen and community focussed manner.

It is relatively uncontroversial to assert that modern democracies should aspire not only to democracy but also to efficiency and reliance when and as appropriate on expert, evidence-based judgments in designing and implementing governing arrangements and public policies. It is also frequently accepted that these values are often at odds with one another. Can we have both democracy and efficiency in governance? The still-expanding practice of decentralization and delegation of a variety of activities from national and subnational governments to a variety of non-state organizations has been portrayed as evidence supporting both negative and affirmative answers to that question.

Is this practice of “arms-length government” – the use of organisations other than government departments or ministries to undertake public functions such as developing policies, allocating resources, delivering services, and performing a variety of regulatory and adjudicatory functions – counter-democratic? Our research suggests that the answer is something like “not necessarily,” and “it depends.” Close centralized state control is not in every case necessarily democracy-enhancing, but neither can it be dispensed with thoughtlessly.

The challenge for institutional designers and operators is to distinguish the specific combinations of objectives, contexts, and governing designs that can achieve a favourable balance of democracy, expertise, and efficiency. More controversially, we suggest that many well intentioned advocates who share those three broad goals may need to abandon their familiar state-centric perspectives on the problem if they hope to solve it.

One dominant, state-centric perspective on arms-length government sees it as delegated governance, and suggests that agency problems and conflicts of interest will tend to lead to a democratic deficit when governing tasks are delegated (by the elected representatives who lead the state, which is the seat of legitimate collective authority) to independent agencies or quasi- or non-governmental organizations.

From this perspective the use of “arms-length” or “third-party” entities may be portrayed as a way to ensure market efficiency, reliance on technical expertise, and consistent decision-making and implementation, albeit at the expense of diminishing democracy  by reducing the directness of elected representatives’ control over decisions and operations. Or, in some variants of the argument, this delegation trades “democracy” in the form of maximizing individuals’ welfare against “democracy” in the form of engaging individuals actively and expanding their capacity for collective self-determination.

An alternative, “polycentric” perspective articulated in the work of scholars including Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, Bruno Frey, and Archon Fung, views the state not as the sole seat of legitimate governing authority but rather as one locus of  democratically legitimate decision making and authority: often necessary, but not always an optimal or sufficient instrument of self-governance and collective action.

This perspective views individuals and communities rather than the state as the basic locus of legitimacy, and suggests that questions about the normative desirability of governing and service-provision arrangements should be approached empirically and on a case-specific basis. This approach complicates the task of design and evaluation by offering only “it depends” as the generic answer to the arms-length question, but compensates for the additional effort by offering a way for us to see and realise possibilities that might be missed by dismissing non-state institutions of collective action out of hand.

We recently completed a multi-year project, funded by the ESRC, that brought together scholars, practitioners and activists from several countries, sectors, and types of organisation to explore the question of “arms-length government” or “governing beyond the state” in research seminars we organised at the University of Birmingham and De Montfort University. We took away from those discussions an appreciation of the manifold ways in which the polycentric perspective offers not just a valuable theoretical framework for designing and evaluating governing arrangements but also a way to make sense of the astonishing variation in the types and quality of arrangements in use today.

One set of lessons drawn from the seminars is compiled in the pamphlet Beyond the State: Mobilizing and Co-Producing with Communities. In the first part of the pamphlet, organizers Alejandra Ibañez and Lina Jamoul and researcher Liz Richardson demonstrate how community organizing and self-organization can potentially mobilize local resources for the co-design and co-production of services and empower diverse communities through constructive advocacy and negotiation. They trace the progression from oppositional mobilization to the negotiation of arrangements that generated shared power to and within case studies from Chicago and London. In the second part, Catherine Needham, Janet Newman, Chris Sherwood, and Jess Steele note that the language of co-production encompasses both the liberation and empowerment of power to and power with, and a darker side of more coercive personalization of centrally designed and dispensed services.

In a subsequent review of academic literature on arms-length government, we built on a key insight we gained from the contributors to the pamphlet. A shift in perspective from the state-centric model of legitimate and accountable governance to a polycentric perspective facilitates the analysis of approaches to collective choice and public policies in ways that engage with the potential for undemocratic or inequitable results as one relevant design consideration, rather than as an inevitable product of “delegation” by elected officials. (The article, published in Policy & Politics, is available here.)

In short, blanket generalisations about the negative implications of arm’s-length government for the quality of democracy, based on narrowly state-centric models of democratic legitimacy and accountability, are often factually incorrect and unnecessarily limit the scope of analysis in ways that may foreclose opportunities to increase both democracy and efficiency. At the same time, in the world of political practice, the increasing frequency and diversity of applications in a variety of contexts provides an abundance of material for thoughtful empirical assessment, particularly if we approach it in a way that views strong state institutions as one part of a larger configuration of institutions, rather than as the only legitimate seat of democracy.

And in fact, it is clear that citizens, practitioners, and scholars around the world are taking up the challenges of designing, implementing, evaluating, and then redesigning configurations of institutions and practices that sometimes manage to increase community power (to and with) and democracy.

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Dr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and works with the Public Services Academy.

Jonathan B. Justice is Associate Professor, School of Public Policy & Administration, University of Delaware

Chris Skelcher is Professor of Public Governance, Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham

This blog also appeared here.