Backroom or backlit? Council meetings post-Covid

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin

This week two councillor colleagues of mine told me of meetings they’d attended, one an unusual face to face gathering, the other online. For one friend it was the first time she had been to the Town Hall in almost a year. She and her colleagues sat, each at their own table, in an echoing chamber and raised their voices in order to be heard. It was an informal meeting of councillors, officers and other public servants, called to debate sensitive issues in person so that information could be shared freely and confidentially. The issues were serious and compounded by lockdown and stretched resources, an unwelcome distraction at any time. However, this turned out to be a meeting filled with laughter, jokes and gentle teasing. There were interjections and interruptions which helped the meeting flow freely. Delight in seeing each other was tempered only by the acknowledgment of how long it had been since they had last done so.

My other friend told me of an online meeting where an argument had taken place and where one person had cried after making a very personal speech. She observed that what she called “the protection of the screen” meant others were not afraid to show their reaction to the emotions on display but equally the meeting had been stripped bare of physical comfort, an arm around a shoulder or a squeeze of the hand.

These two accounts got me thinking about what we gain and what we lose when we meet online. There’s an interesting seam of academic literature on what meetings are, their role in policy making, the artefacts they produce and of particular interest to local government practitioners, what they tell us about what councillors actually do all day (Brown, Reed & Yarrow: 2017; Freeman: 2008, 2019; Freeman & Maybin: 2011; Llewelyn: 2005). What no one has yet had the chance to explore is the terrain of the online meeting. My own research has used webcast meetings as a rich source of data. Not all UK authorities broadcast public meetings prior to the pandemic but there is now a growing nationwide archive of the formal business of local authorities open to research. What might we want to learn from a closer look? Are individual councillors more or less influenced in their decision making by what they hear from fellow politicians or officers? What of the informal behaviours in meetings – the notes passed, the interruptions, the heckling, the laughter and the eye rolls? In real life these act as lubricants to the flow of discourse and breathing space for thought and reflection. How are they replicated in an online world? If you’re busy on the WhatsApp finding out what your friends are thinking, how much attention are you giving to what is being said?

Arguably, it might not be worth the effort of exploration. The legislation that enables online meetings in English and Welsh local authorities expires in May. The roll out of the vaccine means a roadmap back to the council chamber – alongside the doorstep for local election campaigning – might just be in reach. No doubt those first few ‘real’ meetings will be different. We will have to relearn what it means to speak and listen in person, without the protection and comfort of our screens and homes. We may have gained bigger audiences. Residents, having exhausted Netflix, may be turning to council meetings for entertainment. Maybe not. Anecdotally, councils aren’t directing too much effort into collating viewing figures right now, but having turned the cameras on, it may be difficult to turn them off. We can only wait and see.

I suppose for me it’s always been what happens ‘back stage’ in politics that’s piqued my interest. Privileged access to such space has shown me there’s always so much more to meetings than first meets the eye. It might be happening online, but I’ll wager not to the extent or with the nuance of the past. Back lighting is more of an imperative than backroom dealing right now.

And so I’m reminded of another story a fellow councillor told me years ago about meetings and what goes on in them. Sadly he’s no longer around, so it’s safe to relate. He’d been sent to observe a council meeting in another authority to check on behaviour and conduct. Everything he actually saw taking place was no better or worse than in any other council, he said. The real problem was behind the scenes. The leaders of all three parties represented in that chamber actually carried out negotiations by leaving notes for each other on the top of the old Victorian cisterns in the gents toilets. They were all men. The chief executive, with whom they had disagreements was a short woman who was never going to find them there.

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

References:
Brown, H., Reed, A. & Yarrow, T., (2017), “Introduction: towards an ethnography of meeting”, Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute, 23:S1, 10-26
Freeman, R., (2019), “The role of the councillor and the work of the meeting”, Local Government Studies,
46:4, 564-582
Freeman, R. & Maybin, J., (2011), “Documents, practices and policy”, Evidence & Policy, 7:2, 155-170
Llewellyn, N., (2005), “Audience Participation in Political Discourse: A Study of Public Meetings”, Sociology,
39:4, 697-716

Research to Help Rebuild After Covid-19

Jason Lowther

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, met (virtually) with over 100 researchers and policy officers to discuss the output of a six-month programme looking at some of the fundamental challenges to our society, economy and ways of living.  Commissioned by the Government Office for Science, the Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme aims to help government with medium- and long-term challenges relating to the challenges of Covid-19, captured under nine themes including “vulnerable communities”, “supporting services”, and “local and national growth”.


The overall programme was led by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver, two experienced social scientists whose work focusses on the use of evidence.  In their recent LSE article, they explain the background to the programme and how plans were upturned in March with the introduction of Lockdown in the UK.  

I was particularly involved in the “supporting services” theme, convening the work around local government.  It is an exciting initiative to be involved with, not just because of its scope and pace, but also because of the range of people engaged: researchers and academics, government policy and analysis officers, and funders.  What I found particularly interesting was how different Government departments and different academic disciplines were often looking at very similar issues but framing them from distinct perspectives and using diverse language to describe them.  This highlights the need to develop shared definitions of issues and ways to address these – considering “problem-based issues” in the round.

As well as summarising the existing research evidence around each of the identified themes, the work identified several “gaps” in the extant evidence base and opportunities for new research, policy/research dialogue, and knowledge exchange.

Within the Local Government theme, we recognised that LG’s role proved critical in the first stage of the pandemic, for example in supporting vulnerable and shielded people, enabling voluntary community groups, freeing up 30,000 hospital beds, housing over 5,000 homeless people, and sustaining essential services such as public health, waste collection, safeguarding and crematoria.  This role is likely to increase in future stages of the pandemic, with more responsibility for local surveillance testing and tracing, implementing local lockdowns, economic development, contributing to a sustainable social care system, and supporting further community mutual aid.

There is already a good evidence base showing how local government is playing vital roles in responding to and recovering from the pandemic.  We identified four main themes: empowering local communities, delivering and supporting services, devolution and localisation, and funding.
For each issue we considered the key policy and practice implications of existing evidence, the evidence gaps and the ways in which gaps might be filled.  

Around empowering local communities, for example, evidence showed that LAs responded quickly to the pandemic, and well-functioning local systems emerged to tackle the immediate crises in many parts of the UK.  Areas adopted a range of strategies in partnership with local communities. But informal community responses can lack coordination, resources, reach and accountability; and some groups face barriers to involvement.  Further evidence is required on what works in strengthening community support networks, empowering different types of communities, and co-producing public services.  Councils also need to understand better how staff, councillors and the institutions themselves can change to empower communities.

There has already been some important learning from this work, such as recognising the treasure trove of useful knowledge contained in existing evidence and expertise.   We need to get much better at using evidence from, for example, the evaluation of past policy initiatives.  The programme is helping to strengthen relationships across government, including some new and more diverse voices, and will be useful as government departments revisit their Areas of Research Interest post-Covid.  The thematic reports are due to be published in coming weeks.

I will be exploring the findings for other areas of interest to Local Government in future articles.

[This article also appeared in the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association December newsletter]

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Local authorities and climate change: responding to the green challenge

Jon Bloomfield

What lies ahead for local government in 2021? We know the pandemic will continue to loom large. But all the signs are that with the UK hosting the crucial, international climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow next November, the issue of climate change will be high on the policy agenda.

Over the last 18 months many towns and cities have responded to the growing environmental emergency and declared their commitment to go carbon-neutral. In early December, 38 local authority leaders committed to cut their own carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. Among the leaders to sign the net zero pledge set out by the NGO UK 100 are the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, plus council leaders in Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. Together the signatories represent almost a third of the U.K. population. A  Zoom virtual conference saw more than 500 council leaders and officers participating.

The international political climate is favourable. Reversing four decades of Washington neo-liberal consensus, the International Monetary Fund has given its seal of approval to public investment strategies irrespective of the rising debt consequence. The national mood music is positive too. Boris Johnson’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution recognised that we need a low carbon transition transforming all sectors in the economy. In the lingering shadow of Trumpist climate denialism, it was reassuring. The really tough question is how to make good on these national and local targets. The words are easy: the action is harder.

What is the best pathway to follow? The green recovery should focus on the exploitation of what we already know can fulfil a low carbon, ‘levelling up’ agenda. Here there are three key policy arenas, energy, mobility and buildings and in all three,  local authorities, their staff, community groups and local neighbourhoods have key roles to play.

Take buildings. The country needs a large-scale programme of state investment in the regions to both reduce emissions and create jobs. The quickest and simplest way to do that is to focus on decarbonising our building and housing stock. Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and the investments are rooted in local supply chains.  Central to green recovery should be programmes where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs, in partnership with local stakeholders. That means looking to develop neighbourhood schemes so that entire streets are renovated together, rather than the government’s current green grants to individual householders. A community approach would bring economies of scale; permit accredited programmes with approved contractors; enable retrofit to be undertaken along with boiler replacements and renewable energy installations; introduce smart, digital appliances; and   on-street vehicle charging infrastructure. In other words, a comprehensive approach that takes citizens with you. Neighbourhood renovation and refurbishment offers lots of new jobs across the whole of the UK, with warmer homes, lower fuel bills and plenty of opportunities across the building supply chain. Plus a chance to engage local people in the revitalisation of their own streets and communities. What’s not to like?

But this all requires council officers to have the understanding and grasp of climate change transitions thinking and with the social and participatory skills to engage with neighbourhood and local groups. Climate change policies cannot be simply imposed from above. A huge social challenge won’t be addressed without some friction and tension. As we have seen with the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods policy over the last few months, if people aren’t engaged, then suddenly vocal resistance to these measures can arise.

Addressing climate change means we shall have to alter the ways that we live, move and work. The issues of climate transition are effectively an emerging policy arena. They require an understanding and marshalling of a new combination of skills amongst a wide cadre of local government officers, councillors and engaged citizens. Planners, traffic engineers, housing officers, finance and procurement staff: these and more all need additional skill-sets. Councils can set ambitious targets. But unless they have the staff within their ranks with the competence and skills to tackle them, then they will fall short.

Jon Bloomfield has been involved with the EU’s Climate KIC programme for over a decade, helping to develop educational and training programmes and experimental projects which help companies, cities and communities to make effective transitions to a low carbon economy.

Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and me

Chris Game

If only Birmingham weren’t in Tier 3 … I could prop up bars in city centre pubs, casually conversing with fascinated fellow-drinkers: “You know that Kamala Harris, the American Vice-President-elect – yeah, the one wearing the Elvis-style white trouser ‘power suit’ for her victory speech.

“Well, I was a professorial contemporary of her Dad, Donald, at California’s prestigious Stanford University, don’t you know?  Thanks, mine’s another Plum Porter.”

Sadly, with Plum Porter purveyors currently closed, I’m driven to search for alternative captive audiences.  However, in contrast to bits of the current series of The Crown, this boast, while it may not ‘ring true’, actually IS true.  Before coming to INLOGOV in 1979 my employers for the previous five years were indeed Stanford – the posh, private, but definitely prestigious university north-westish of Silicon Valley.  

At least, that was Kamala’s Dad’s main workplace – I said ‘contemporary’ not ‘colleague’!  Mine was Stanford’s British Studies Center – note the spelling – at the also posh but less sunshiny Cliveden House on a National Trust estate near Maidenhead, where some hundred or so American students would come to spend two or three semesters of their undergrad years.

And the ‘Professor’ bit?  Well, as everyone knows, almost all US university academics have that generic title. ‘Full’ Professors are the real deal, while my Cliveden colleagues and I were ‘academic personnel’ – but on envelopes from HQ ‘Assistant Professors’.

It’s been mildly disquieting to see some UK universities going down the ‘Assistant Professor’ route – Warwick, for instance – but I’m not in the least bitter. I just regret not saving at least a few of those envelopes, because in four subsequent Birmingham decades I never managed even that.

Jamaican-born former economics Professor Donald Harris is/was at the distant other end of the scale: an Emeritus Professor since retiring early from Stanford after an exceptionally distinguished career and numerous international academic awards.

Here’s the thing, though.  Harris joined Stanford in 1972, yet in my creepily retained 600-page 1974/5 Stanford University Bulletin we Clivedenites and our taught courses all get several individual mentions, yet Donald not one.  Which, for apparently “the first Black person to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department”, seemed rather odd.

Still, it provides a link to his elder daughter’s string of ‘firsts’ that actually prompted this blog: the first major personal career choice made by the first woman, first African American, and first Asian-American US Vice-President-elect.  California-born – for those, like President Trump, still questioning her Presidential eligibility; and her name, incidentally, pronounced not at all like ‘Pamela’, but ‘Comma-lah’ – from the Sanscrit for lotus flower.

Which is also relevant, because Kamala’s parents divorced when she was just seven, meaning she and her sister, Maya, were brought up largely by their Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan – a bio-medical scientist, whose career in breast cancer research was every bit as outstanding as her husband’s, but who in 2009 would die of cancer herself.

It was her mother’s acceptance of a research post at McGill University Hospital in French-speaking Montreal that chiefly determined that Kamala went first to a French-speaking elementary school.  Then her mother moved the family again, so Kamala could attend Westmount High School, Quebec’s only public school offering so-called Advanced Placement courses for potentially university/college credit.

That university/college choice in by now the early 1980s, though, was definitely Kamala’s. After several majority-white schools, and her parents working in eminent but predominantly white institutions, she sought a wholly different experience. Young, gifted and black, she would live, learn, socialise, and at times protest against South African apartheid, with black students in a black university in a black city.

She would therefore attend one of the hundred or so HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and arguably the most renowned: Howard University in Washington DC, the African American community’s ‘Chocolate City’. And a short subway ride to both her current Capitol Hill workplace in the Senate and her future one in the White House. Back then it was no part of any life plan, but it can serve as a useful putdown today to those who accuse her of being ‘not really black’ or ‘not black enough’.

In the early 1970s Stanford University – students and staff – was unmistakeably Californian and white.  But I remember quite early learning of and being fascinated by the whole HBCU concept – partly because of the then still relatively recent appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court judge.

The HBCU initialism itself – not technically an acronym – is comparatively recent, a product of the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Higher Education Acts. But the Black Colleges themselves date back in some cases 170+ years to before the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

Even following abolition, certainly in the Southern states, there was a century of institutionalised racial segregation of housing, medical care, employment, transportation and, of course, education.  And even universities and colleges that didn’t completely bar African Americans usually applied tight quotas, with all the other manifestations of discrimination.

One of those barred was future Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had applied to the University of Maryland Law School and been rejected through its segregation policy effectively banning blacks studying with whites.  He therefore attended and graduated with distinction from, yes, Howard University Law School – and later successfully sued Maryland for its discriminatory admissions policy.

Quite a role model, had Kamala been looking for one at the time – just as she surely will be to this and future generations of aspiring university students, female and male.

 

A version of this article appeared in The Birmingham Post on 26th November 2020.

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.

Meeting like this…

Bryony Rudkin

The fieldwork for my PhD has consisted in part in watching and transcribing webcasts of council meetings. This was in the ‘before times’. Councillors like me up and down the country would put on their glad rags once a week or so, tip up at town halls up and do their thing.

Some of them would be filmed doing so and webcasts of meetings put up on council websites. Some recordings would be professionally produced using external platforms with nice little extras such as the relevant papers attached and easily referenced timings making it easy to watch the part of the meeting you were interested without having to wade through matters arising from the last one. Some of them were a little more homespun, filmed on phones and iPads, as one colleague put it, “local government styled by the The Blair Witch Project”.

Audiences for these would vary. Anecdotally, I was told officers would watch meetings in their respective councils to follow how their policy ideas were translated and received by councillors. Planning Committee meetings would get more hits from residents who were unable to attend in person but nevertheless wanted to know about their neighbour’s home extensions. One Chief Executive told me her mum watched and sent notes back on how her hair looked. And then there was me, collecting data with which to test my research questions.

All well and good. Then came the pandemic and lockdown and everyone went online. Whether it’s Zoom or Teams (other providers are available…) everyone from toddlers to great grannies logged on it seems. Quizzes were ubiquitous at the start and my family played some great drawing games (none of us will trouble Hockney). It’s not all been plain sailing though and we’ve all heard tales of Zooms gone wrong. Kids, dogs, nudity and those chat messages sent to all in error. I sat through one where someone, in response to a dull peroration on cycle paths, lifted their foot up and started to scratch it.

My rather niche research field has become a daily reality for most of us. I get regular messages along the lines of ‘you won’t want to miss this one….watch from 29 minutes in!”. I’ve been asked to comment on individual performance and style – “does my bookcase look big in this one?” – and I’ve taken part in virtual peer reviews and given feedback, online of course. I’ve been a participant myself of course and not just in council meetings. I’ve presented to an academic conference, chaired a meeting with a shadow minister interrupted by an ice-cream van outside her house and next month I’m monitoring elections in Bulgaria.

What has all this brought to my research? Well, put simply, meetings held online are a different matter to those held in person and publicly broadcast meetings something else again. Being at home, being alone in a room without colleagues to encourage, moderate or provoke can lead to unguarded moments. ‘Home truths’ are just that sometimes.

The organisation and direction of online meetings is a different process and the outcomes unpredictable. I recently watched two recent meetings in one authority, one calm, the other chaotic but the former was darker in tone and raised issues of bias and the chaos of the latter simply demonstrated a community at ease with itself and its challenges.

How we move on from here is a brave new world. Viewing figures are undoubtedly up and residents are getting more engaged. Hybrid meetings are now a reality. We all have new skills to learn and mute buttons to press. Watch this space….

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

The Transformative Politics of the European Green Deal

by Jon Bloomfield

COVID 19 has highlighted our fragile relationship to the planet. But it represents a minor challenge compared to the permanent havoc that runaway climate change threatens. Politicians and governments – some at least – are beginning to recognise the scale of the danger. In this article we assess the evolution of policy thinking on how to make climate transitions happen; the potential of the European Green Deal; and how progressives need to shape it and any UK counterpart to meet the challenges of modern society.

The European Green Deal initiative launched in December 2019 arose from a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum. Yet its central thrust of active government offers the prospect of reviving a battered social democracy. Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post COVID19 offers a second chance. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis but it offers major opportunities for social democracy, if it is able to embrace a pluralist and environmentalist approach suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

So what can a ‘social democracy re-born’ offer?  The starting point has to be a recognition that the climate crisis requires a re-making of everyday politics, on the Left as well as the Right. The 19th and 20th century model of high-carbon, fossil fuel intensive economies where the core task is for ‘man to conquer nature’ has run its course. To safeguard our common future a new low carbon model of sustainable development has to become the ‘common sense ‘of the age. That’s what the policy specialists and architects of the European and the US Green Deal have formulated. Politicians and parties across the spectrum are trying to catch up. The anticipated post-Covid, green recovery programmes in the run-up to COP 26 will show which political forces are best able to translate this thinking into everyday politics and to make low or zero-carbon initiatives the golden thread that runs through their policy proposals.

The elements of active government, collective goods, and social inclusion chime with the social democratic tradition yet it needs to overcome the contradictory baggage of utopianism on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. There are four areas in particular where a shift in social democratic thinking is needed.

Firstly, it needs to adopt a 21st Century modernity. The Green Industrial Revolution should no longer be the metaphor of choice. It speaks to a technocratic, top-down model of traditional Keynesianism.  This conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals.  Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas.

Secondly, the potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions should be highlighted.

Thirdly, pluralism has to be at the heart of any effective, green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision.

Fourthly, the 21st century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, Continental and global.   The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change which is why centralised, top-down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission-driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge-led approach where national government specifies the broad direction but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level.  The classic big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle on the UK’s COVID test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.

Our article indicates the openings here for a pluralist, ecological Left. The run-up to the next global climate conference –COP26- will be a vital period which will show whether parties and governments across the world are prepared to meet the climate change challenge.

Jon Bloomfield HeadDr. 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 change.