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.

Central Government, Evidence and Short-Term Strategies in the Support to Businesses and Local Economic Recovery in the Age of Covid

Tom Collinson

If there has been one mantra by which government policy has claimed to have lived by during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that it has been led by, guided by or that it is following the science. Intended to strike a reassuring tone, the claim to evidence was routinely emphasised by the government as either the Prime Minister or a deputy was flanked by a member of SAGE. When questioned on his previous disavowal of experts by Sky News at the beginning of the crisis, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, noted that these were economists he had referenced in the past, it was not established medical facts; suggesting that this time was different and that this science was different.

One article by the New York-based magazine The Atlantic even went so far as to claim that ‘Britain Just Got Pulled Back from the Edge’ as ‘the institutions and positions of state were…clicking into gear.’ While it appeared to be a rosy picture at the start, with the government publishing the scientific advice online, with a gesture that it would continue to do so, this tone quickly unravelled as the Guardian reported that non-scientists seemed to be advising government; there was no list of who exactly was in the SAGE group and why there were no (publicly available) minutes of the meetings and government advice was no longer transparent. Some of this has now changed.

All this has provoked an interesting question of the relationship between science, evidence and data-analysis with policy-making in the UK. How does one affect the other? Is it possible for one to distinguish between various forms of evidence in the policy-making process and make a judgement on which is the most appropriate? To distinguish between mathematical modelling, so-called evidence-based policy-making (that which traditionally elevates the role of Randomised Controlled Trials) and place-and-people contextualised policy? Is it possible to have what Kant called a constitutive judgement in public-policy? (I.e. a judgement which is not based on any further assumptions, hypothetical conditions or suppositions, such as values, narratives and aesthetics). For the past decade or so, there has been a growing literature on all of these questions and the urgency of the current pandemic has enlivened them.

These questions are of increasing interest to academics, journalists and opposition parties in the Anglosphere. With regards to the United Kingdom, the establishment of an ‘Independent SAGE group’ has been indicative of some dissent from the government’s claim to scientific unity.

For local government, these issues have taken on another interesting dimension, one that examines the relationship between governance and the collection and application of evidence in policy responses. In a report on the global picture of city-governments, the OECD has distinguished between two types of evidence-led responses. The first discusses local governments as instruments or ‘implementation vehicles of national measures such as confinement’. The second acknowledges the experimentation of ‘more bottom – up, innovative responses while… building on their unique proximity to citizens.’

Building on this insight, we can begin to describe a temporal framework, which provides further detail to the OECD’s report on the times when local government have been able to articulate their own evidence-based response and when the information and decision-making lies more in the hands of central government.

While it is still unclear where we are on the timescale of the virus or the response to it – which indeed make the articles in this post preliminary – this framework can be outlined on the basis of the short, medium and long term response to the epidemic. Such an approach is based on how councils themselves are articulating a response (using similar language such as the ‘rescue’, ‘recovery’, ‘rebuild’ or, ‘hammer’, ‘dance’ and ‘reconstruction’ as distinct phases in the plans).

Categorising policy responses in this way has a lot of precedent in the field of economics. With regards to the economics of a crisis, the same typology has been outlined by Professor Andy Pike, who’s presentation to the ‘Major Economic Shocks Workshop’ at the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth addresses the types of policy responses available with regards to the local economy, businesses, supply chains and labour markets in the three different time periods. The important point here is that in the short-term responses are direct, and contingent on the problem, whereas long-term responses are open-ended and rely on change. Short-term employment issues for example are addressed through subsistence allowances, while (re)training and entrepreneurship should be leveraged in the long-term. The same applies to supply chains; the short-term goal is to secure capacity and jobs through say refinancing, while in the long-term diversification and innovation is required.

Focussing on short-term strategies during the current epidemic and lockdown, the measures taken have exhibited the direct qualities that Pike addresses. However, these have often been delivered by way of decisions and information collected in the devolved governments and Downing Street. While there have been ongoing efforts by local authorities to assess immediate likely impacts – as seen in Cardiff and the West Midlands – the role of councils has largely been to act as something of a lightning rod (or courier, depending on how you judge their efficiencies) for UK government policies. While there has been some contestation around these matters from local councils, for example in the early closure of parks, the wide picture has been one of convergence throughout the country in a number of areas of practice, including areas of communication and awareness rising, social distancing, confinement and taking targeted measures to help vulnerable groups. In many cases, this has been guided by national government regulations and the ‘dos and donts’ policy responses, financial backing of £3.2bn to be awarded to councils in England to ensure a continuation of services, as well as some financial restrictions or ring-fencing.

The reliance on central government publications and financial backing has characterised the issue of supporting businesses and economic recovery too, where councils are in the front line for conducting policies made primarily in London but also Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. While there may be some differences between the England and the devolved assemblies – for example on the differences in the administration of business support in Wales and England, or the degree of discretion councils are exhibiting when it comes to business support, the general theme of subsistence pay to employees, business relief and grant funding through councils has taken the same shape throughout the country, as we can see from the following examples:

  • In England, the business relief announced by the Chancellor is being paid for by councils through the Small Business Grants Fund and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, and reimbursed to local authorities should the guidance published by the MHCLG be followed.
  • There is £6 billion in local authority payments of the Central Share of retained business rates that were due to be made over the next three months.
  • A £500 million Hardship Fund ‘of new grant funding to support economically vulnerable people and households in their local area’ administered through existing ‘local council tax support schemes’.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Government are offering a years relief on business rates to shops, leisure and hospitality businesses, and also offering small grants. Local councils are calculated to have distributed £508m to 41,000 businesses by the end of April.
  • In Scotland, Local Authorities are administering Small Business Support Grants as well as Retail, Hospitality, Leisure Support Grants of up to £10,000 and £25,000 respectively.
  • Similarly, in Northern Ireland a grant scheme of £25,000 for Retail, Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure has been offered, should the criteria outlined by the Northern Ireland Executive be followed.

In one of the foundational texts of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the governance structure of the ancien regime, whereby all administrative corridors in French political life led back to the King. Intendants hired by a King to administer a province in-turn hired a sub-delegate to administer canons, where the happiness or misfortune of individuals depended entirely on ‘the whole operation of the central government’. The argument for arranging matters in this centralised manner was a financial one – to levy taxes in order to guarantee the State’s safety. But this ultimately led to the downfall of the regime itself. While I’m not comparing the UK Government to the House of Bourbon, modernity offers a number of examples where centralisation – justified because of finance and security – tends towards political and social disintegration. Further examination will do well to determine whether there is a different path forward in the long-run response to this crisis.

 

Tom is a postgraduate researcher with an MA in Political Thought and a BSc in Economics and Politics from the University of Exeter. His main research interests are in modern political thought, with particular expertise in the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, on whom he wrote his thesis, rethinking the concept of political participation and civic action in modernity. Tom is now researching the role of local and central government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspecting how they complement and contrast one another. He tweets at @tzcll.

The success of Police and Crime Commissioners in drug harm reduction in the West Midlands

Megan Jones

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were introduced in 2012, (2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act), representing one of the most radical changes to governance structures in England and Wales. PCCs are directly elected by the public and their statutory functions require them to (1) hold their own police force to account on behalf of the public, (2) set the policing priorities for the area through a police and crime plan and (3) appoint a Chief Constable.

They replace the former Police Authority committee style structure, which was criticised for their lack of visibility and accountability to the public and communities they were designed to serve. The emergence of PCCs was therefore a result of the failings of the previous governance mechanism and a political shift of focus from national to local governance.

In my research, I look at the impact that PCC governance has on drug policy, using the West Midlands police force area as a case study. Drugs policy, and specifically a harm reduction approach*, is just one area of policing and priorities that was used to explore the statutory role of PCC and more broadly, how the role can be interpreted or used wider than its statutory framework.

In August 2019, the latest drug-related death figures were announced by the ONS. They are now the highest on record, with 4,359 deaths in England and Wales recorded in 2018 (ONS, 2019). In the West Midlands, there is a drug-related death every 3 days (West Midlands PCC 2017a). Over 50% of serious and acquisitive crime is to fund an addiction and the cost to society is over £1.4 billion each year (West Midlands PCC 2017a). This topic often divides opinion and can be politicised. However, these debates rarely prevent the considerable damage caused by drugs to often very vulnerable people and wider society. The official national response is focused on enforcement of the law, criminalising individuals for drug possession.

By interviewing a number of key actors within the drug policy arena and as leaders in policing both within forces and PCC’s offices, I looked at how the PCC structure can enable a change in policy. This was combined with desk-based document study of public available document into the drugs policy approach taken in the West Midlands. Four key themes were explored: the statutory role of the PCC; the individual PCC; governance and public opinion; and the approach taken.

My results showed that the PCC role and this new form of civic leadership benefitted from: convening power and their ability to draw upon key partners from across the public sector, lived experience, and third sector. This is an informal mechanism of governance strengthened by public mandate. PCCs have the ability to prioritise by setting their strategic priorities in the police and crime plan. For example, in the West Midlands, the approach to drug policy has been narrowed to focus on high harm drugs (heroin and crack cocaine), thus ensuring ‘deliverability’. This means that limited resources available are more narrowly focused and can have a greater impact. The statutory role of a PCC allows work at pace and decisions to be made quickly, which means that trial and pilot new approaches and innovations.

Of course, there are limitations. PCCs vary across the country and often do not speak with one voice, particularly on drug policy. There are also huge advantages of a good working relationship between Chief Constable and PCC, demonstrated through the joint approach in the West Midlands.

Figure 1: Drivers to drug policy, derived from the findings

My research allowed me to concluded that three key drivers are optimum for delivery of a PCC-led harm reduction approach: using the levers at their disposal, such as the statutory functions, and informal governance mechanisms, such as convening power, which are able to provide the strategic and political coverage required to deliver at pace.

PCCs are unique in the landscape of UK governance and whilst weaknesses in mechanisms designed to reign in their power could be viewed as worrying, in the drug policy space this has allowed for the development of a new approach in the West Midlands, one that is evidence-based and has the ability to save lives, reduce costs and reduce crime.

The potential of PCCs is arguably still being explored, but their ability to test new approaches and work effectively with partners will be essential in other areas of policy, such as the response to serious violence and the potential for an increasing role across the criminal justice system.

PCCs have a number of levers at their disposal, and are able to use informal and formal governance mechanisms to foster real change at the local level and drive forward evidence-based policy.

Megan Jones is the Head of Policy for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and is a former INLOGOV student, studying on the MSc Public Management programme. She tweets at @MegJ4289.

 

What Do We Miss out on When Policy Evaluation Ignores Broader Social Problems?

Daniel Silver and Stephen Crossley

With local government funding being stretched to breaking point over the last decade, it is more important than ever to know whether investment into policy programmes is making a difference.

Evaluation draws on different social research methods to systematically investigate the design, implementation, and effectiveness of an intervention. Evaluation can produce evidence that can be used to improve accountability and learning within policy-making processes to inform future decision making.

But is the full potential of evaluation being realised?

We recently published an article in Critical Social Policy that demonstrated how the Troubled Families programme evaluation remained within narrow boundaries that limited what could be learnt. The evaluation followed conventional procedures by investigating exclusively whether the intervention has achieved what it set out to do. But this ‘establishment oriented’ approach assumes the policy has been designed perfectly. Many of us recognise that the Troubled Families programme was far from perfect (despite what initial assessments and central government announcements claimed).

The Troubled Families programme set out to ‘turn around’ the lives of the 120,000 most ‘troubled families’ (characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy or school exclusion and ‘worklessness’) through a ‘family intervention’ approach which advocates a ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ way of working with family members to change their behaviours but, crucially, not their material circumstances.

Austerity, mentioned in just two of the first phase evaluation reports, was not considered as an issue that might have had an impact on families. Discussions of poor and precarious labour market conditions, cuts to local authority services for children, young people and families, and inadequate housing provision are almost completely neglected in the reports. Individualised criteria such as ‘worklessness’, school exclusion and crime or anti-social behaviour were considered but structural factors such as class, gender, and racial inequalities were not; nor were other issues such as labour market conditions, housing quality and supply, household income or welfare reforms.

The first phase outcome of ‘moving off out-of-work benefits and into continuous employment’ did not take into account the type of work that was secured, or the possible impact that low-paid, poor quality or insecure work may have on family life. Similarly, the desire by the government to see school attendance improve did not necessarily seek to improve the school experience for the child, and there is no evidence of concern for any learning that did or did not take place once attendance had been registered. Such issues were outside of the frames in which the policy had been constructed and so were considered to be outside of the boundaries of investigation for the evaluation. The scope for learning was therefore restricted to within the frames that had been set by national government when the programme had been designed.

So what can be done?

While large-scale evaluations of national programmes will still take place, local councils can add to these with independent, small-scale evaluations. These can adopt a more open approach that examined what happened locally and contextualise the programme within the particular social problems that residents experience.

A more contextualised form of evaluation can broaden the scope of learning beyond the original framing of a policy intervention. Collaboration between councils and participants who have experienced an intervention through locally situated programme evaluations can explore people’s everyday problems and the tangible improvements that have been delivered by an intervention (and what caused these outcomes to happen). Such an approach with ‘troubled families’ would recognise the knowledge, expertise and capabilities of many families in dealing with the vicissitudes of everyday life, including those caused by the government claiming to be helping them via the Troubled Families programme. Analysis of the data can be used to identify shared everyday problems and narratives of impact that show improvements to people’s everyday lives. By building up a picture about what approaches have been successful, an incremental approach to improving policy and culture within local institutions can be developed – based on the ethos of learning by doing.

In addition to learning about what works, we can also develop our knowledge of what problems have been left unresolved. Of course, no single policy intervention can possibly solve every dimension of our complex social problems. This does not necessarily mean a failure of the intervention, but rather that there are broader issues that need to be addressed. Knowing about these issues can produce useful evidence to find out about social needs in the local community that are not being met, and which the Council might be able to address or use the new knowledge to inform future strategies.

Evaluation is often seen as a bolt-on to the policy-making process. But re-purposing evaluation to learn more about social problems and the effectiveness of tailored local solutions can create evidence and ideas that can be used to improve future social policy.

 

Daniel Silver is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. He previously taught politics and research methods at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on evaluation, social policy, research methods, and radical politics.

Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He com- pleted his PhD from Durham University examining the UK government’s Troubled Families Programme in August 2017. His most recent publications are Troublemakers: the construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem (Policy Press, 2018) and ‘The UK Government’s Troubled Families Programme: Delivering Social Justice?’, which appeared in the journal Social Inclusion.

England’s over-centralisation – Part 2: It IS instinctive

Chris Game

There was much in Jessica Studdert’s recent blog to agree with and applaud, but one sentence particularly struck me – the one opening her fourth paragraph: “The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive.”.

So, equally instinctively, I did what even an erstwhile academic does during a lockdown – some heavyweight research, naturally. Like re-watching and content analysing the first 69 Government Covid-19 daily press conferences – one of those crisis features that, like the Thursday evening clapping, lives on because no one knows quite how to stop it.

I exaggerated with the ‘heavyweight’ bit, but I did count – sorry, totalise – the press conferences. So, first question: Which minister, Johnson excepted, was the first to front one?

No, not Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. As First Secretary of State, he stood in while Johnson was hospitalised, but was actually eighth minister to feature. Surely, then, Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock. Nope, though he and his permanent pink tie have currently clocked up more appearances than Johnson himself.

Struggling? Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak? Hardly Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – for all the considerations touched on in Studdert’s blog. Surely not Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite being apparently the only woman minister capable of reading from a lectern.

They’ve done four, five and three respectively, but the shooting star we are looking for is Environment, FOOD and Rural Affairs Secretary, George Eustice. How short are our memories. His brief includes the so-called food supply chain, and this was late March – panic-buying, pasta-hoarding weekend.

Now the seriously tricky question. How many winning elections to serve as a plain local government councillor – not London Mayor – have all 12 featured Ministers fought between them? Maybe not a huge number? One!

One four-year term of elected local government experience between the lot of them. It was served by then 24-year old Gavin Williamson, now Education Secretary, giving English primary schools his considered judgement on when they should reopen.

It’s easy to mock – really easy – but there are archive pictures of Williamson doing his thing as North Yorkshire County Council’s ‘Champion of Youth Issues’ . Making him, I believe, alone among that TV-trusted Cabinet dozen to have even minimal first-hand insight into how local government operates in the policy field for which he is responsible.

The others can tell you lots, variously, about banking (Hancock), hedge fund management (Sunak), litigation (Raab), corporate finance (Alok Sharma), corporate law (Jenrick), public relations (Eustice, Patel), journalism (Johnson, Gove), marketing (Grant Shapps), Conservative Central Office (Patel, Oliver Dowden).

But actually experiencing what they presumably aspired to do – campaigning, meeting constituents, getting elected, representing people, learning about the provision and funding of public services, the whole government and public administration thing – for some reason never grabbed them or even struck them as career-relevant.

Which today means they know virtually nothing at first-hand about some of the vital stuff local governments do, often to the unawareness of even their own publics: emergency contingency planning, air quality monitoring, water testing, pest control, health and safety at work inspection – oh yes, and communicable disease investigation and outbreak control.

Time for a brief digression on the changing meaning of the word ‘nuisance’. It was one of my mother’s favourite words, applied frequently to my sister and myself, but to almost any usually minor upset to her daily life routine. Mask-wearing and disinfecting supermarket trolley handles would be a ‘nuisance’, not the wretched pandemic itself.

Yet the etymology of ‘nuisance’ is the Latin ‘nocere’ – to harm – and its original 15th Century meaning could quite conceivably be applied to Covid-19 and its capacity to inflict serious and even fatal harm.

The mid-19th Century predecessor of today’s Director of Public Health in Birmingham, Dr Justin Varney, would therefore have boasted the title of Nuisance Inspector – his nuisance agenda including factory air pollution, small-pox and cholera outbreaks, and sanitation, with the first generation of public urinals.

Nuisance Inspectors could not by themselves transform towns and cities, but they played a huge part. As do their modern-day successors – Public or Environmental Health Inspectors. Those successors, however – the ones that have survived the past decade of local government funding and employment cuts – could and should, as Studdert noted, have been doing even more.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health reckons there are some 5,000 Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) working in UK local councils. All have job descriptions including responsibilities like “investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases and preventing them spreading further.”

That’s what they do – test, track, trace and treat people with anything from salmonella to sexually transmitted diseases – in areas, moreover, with which they are totally familiar and have networks of contacts. ‘Shoe-leather epidemiology’ is the technical term – seriously.

So presumably, as in other countries – South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Ireland – these EHOs will have been reassigned from other work and spent their time contact tracing?

Rhetorical question – we all know the answers. From early March, contrary to World Health Organisation guidelines, our Government’s big ideas were to ‘delay’ the spread of Covid-19, then develop vital (now less vital) smartphone apps.

This enabled the consequently limited scale of contact-tracing to be undertaken centrally by staff newly recruited by Public Health England – the executive agency of Matt Hancock’s Health and Social Care Department created in the ill-conceived NHS upheaval in 2012.

Insufficient, inexperienced staff doing a job crying out for the skills, knowledge and contacts of council EHOs, who instead were monitoring social distancing rules in pubs, clubs and restaurants.

There are almost always costs in ‘keeping it central’, but, as we have seen, for so many ministers, it must be instinctive. It’s all they and most of their civil servants know at first hand. The alternative would be funding and at least sharing data with pesky local authorities, thereby losing some of their precious control.

Finally, last weekend, all other options exhausted, the Government did allocate a ring-fenced £300 million to English councils to play a leading role, starting immediately, in tracking and tracing people suspected of being at risk of Covid-19.

This time, tragically, the cost of blinkered, prejudiced, self-protective government was paid in lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published in The Municipal Journal.

 

lowther-jason

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