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.

Katie Tonkiss

The journey to the common: what is the role of the voluntary sector?

Anna Coleman and Julia Segar

A recent publication by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) looked at how local councils are preparing for the future and suggests depressingly that “there is simply no way that local government can reach 2018 let alone 2020 while still delivering the full range and quality of services currently on offer”(p6).

Simply put, we have an ageing population, with associated increasing demand for care services and draconian cuts in council budgets. The NLGN suggest we could be facing a future of “private affluence and public squalor”. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Perhaps austerity can be a strong stimulus for innovation? How would this work I hear you ask?

They suggest a new model being discussed around the country. The idea would be to mix technology, preventative investment, integration of council services with those of the NHS and others, alongside the creation of new partnerships between local government and local populations.

The NLGN report suggests three possible ‘landscapes’ for councils of the future. Firstly, a wasteland – a world of poorly prepared councils forced to cut services dramatically. Secondly, the wild meadow – councils provide core functions and rely on spontaneous public contributions to replace dwindling services. Finally, the common – the focus moves away from the council to places where it shares responsibility jointly with communities and businesses. This latter approach is seen as optimistic and would need to build on a strong social and voluntary economy.

This idea is timely for us as about a month ago Anna chaired, and Julia attended, a briefing event in the NW of England on Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) and how (if at all) they were engaging with local voluntary organisations and local Healthwatch. Speakers at the event came from a local Healthwatch, a local overarching voluntary organisation and someone associated with Regional Voices. Speakers described their organisations and their relationships with their HWBs. They reflected on what could be done to improve these interactions to benefit all involved. So could we tap into some of these ideas for helping to build the idea of a common?

The official vision for HWBs from the Department of Health emphasised: joint local leadership between Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities; key roles for elected councillors, clinicians, and directors of public health, adults and children’s services; the enablement of greater local democratic legitimacy of commissioning decisions, and provision for opportunities for challenge, discussion, and the involvement of local representatives. However, HWBs have no formal powers, and their ability to influence others will depend upon their success in building relationships and interacting with other organisations locally. See our previous blog (Coleman 2014) for further detail on HWBs.

On paper, then, HWBs look like ideal forums for enabling the growth of both vision and action for building local commons. Speakers at the NW event, suggested that a shift in emphasis needs to take place before such a vision can begin to be realized. They argued that a tokenistic place on a HWB is of little value either to the HWB itself or to voluntary sector organisations. The voluntary sector together with Healthwatch, can provide valuable information about needs, concerns and available assets from a range of voices within a local community, with evidence varying between robust data to insightful patient stories (National Voices 2014). In Manchester alone, there are over 3000 voluntary organisations delivering a wide range of services to diverse groups. The estimated worth of the sector in 2012 was £477 million drawing on the work of over 94,000 volunteers (Dayson et al 2013). So HWBs should consider carefully who might sit on (or with) the HWB, and at what level (Board or sub-group) to represent the views of the voluntary sector and how these individuals should be chosen.

It was suggested that HWBs are missing a trick if they don’t engage effectively with local Healthwatch (who have a seat on HWBs) and voluntary organisations (who may be invited to sit on HWBs).These organisations have valuable knowledge, local intelligence and capacity at community level. The speakers indicated that very rigid structures and ways of working do not always work and that having a seat at the table does not guarantee that organisations are heeded. In order to develop new ideas and innovative solutions for complex local health and wellbeing needs, HWBs need to devote time and attention to voluntary organisations and to Healthwatch. In the current state of austerity sharing resources, skills and information is vital and good practice both locally and nationally.

This briefing event asserted the role of the voluntary sector in improving the health and wellbeing of local populations. The contributions that they could make in helping realise the landscape of the common is also clear. Step one on this path is to see, hear and listen to these organisations on HWBs.

Now read:

Anna and Julia’s article Joining it up? Health and Wellbeing Boards in English Local Governance: Evidence from Clinical Commissioning Groups and Shadow Health and Wellbeing Boards is published in Local Government Studies.

coleman

Anna Coleman is a Research Fellow in the HIPPO team (Health policy, politics and organisation groups), part of the Institute for Population Studies at the University of Manchester. HiPPO also constitutes, jointly with researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Kent, the Department of Health Policy Research Unit in Commissioning and the Healthcare System (PRUComm). PRUComm provides evidence to the Department of Health to inform the development of policy on all aspects of health-related commissioning.

Julia Segar

Julia Segar is a qualitative researcher in the Centre for Primary Care at the University of Manchester. Her previous projects were concerned with telehealthcare and with changes in the healthcare system. Julia part of the Health, Policy, Politics and Organisation (HiPPO) research group within the Centre.

Disclaimer: The research for referenced paper is funded by the Department of Health. The views expressed are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Department of Health.

Can smart maps improve local government?

Walter T. de Vries

Local governments are increasingly making use of internet-based applications and social media to provide services and to interact with citizens. As these applications can operate on smart phones, it is possible for any citizen to upload their wishes and complaints directly. Some of these applications use digital maps, such as google maps, which makes it possible for citizens to upload a report on a specific location and to see if their contribution has been dealt with. In addition, the reports allow local governments to visualize and analyze spatial patterns of citizens’ contributions. This can be used by governments to verify where problems occur regularly, and by citizens to follow up on where a local government is actively addressing their problems.

Are these applications however really helping local governments? At first one would say: yes, they are. Ideally the uptake of mapping applications and the cheap acquisition of data would make local government more efficient in cost and time and more effective in acting on reported problems . Our recent article in Local Government studies, The Contradictory Effects in Efficiency and Citizens Participation when Employing Geo-ICT Apps within Local Government , evaluates to which extent this is true. Do citizens really voluntarily contribute to such systems, and is it really useful for local governments?

The study relies on the usage of the mobile application called the “verbeterdebuurt” (http://www.verbeterdebuurt.nl ) (a Dutch term and application which translates as “improve my neighborhood”), in Enschede (a city of nearly 160,000 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands).   The application which relies on ‘voluntary’ contributions of citizens compliments a centralized internal system used at the municipality to handle reports on public space, such as complaints about maintenance of city roads, greenery, street and traffic lights, waste and sewerage, amongst others. By law, the Enschede local government has a responsibility to act on the reported problems within a defined deadline. In order to act appropriately, it is however crucial to obtain relevant information about the type and location of the problem.

Statistics of the past year reveal that in Enschede many people discovered the website and are increasingly uploading reports through the mobile app. One could conclude that this provides clear evidence that such mapping applications can help local governments in locating and addressing problems. However, the mapping facility is not decreasing the number of problems nor is it increasing the quality of the reports. On the contrary, numbers have increased rapidly and the quality varies considerably. The key question is why. When evaluating the reports more closely, there is a greater portion of trivial complaints, such as litter which could be easily picked up by the one who reported the problem. Furthermore, the facility also created opportunities for a kind of opportunistic behavior. A number of private construction companies started to frequently report problems that only they themselves could solve. The intentions of the technical design were thus overshadowed by unexpected consequences.

In sum, there is more work to do for developers of mapping applications, before local governments can increase their efficiency and effectiveness in the management of public space. Countering unintended behavior requires further attention before achieving more transparency and accountability of local governments.

de vriesWalter Timo de Vries (w.t.devries@utwente.nl) is Assistant Professor, land information governance and organization; and course coordinator, land administration, at the Faculty of Geo-Information Science  and Earth Observation of the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands. Walter researches how, why and when agencies cooperate and coordinate to align (geo-)ICT and (geo-)information services within the public sector.

Buying local votes? Campaign spending effects in Belgian local elections

Gert-Jan Put, Bart Maddens and Jef Smulders

In democratic countries worldwide, elections are being organized on an increasingly larger scale. This makes it more challenging for political parties and candidates to communicate with voters and reach their target groups. Alternatively, they resort to mass media and costly electoral campaigns, for which parties and candidates are often prepared to spend exorbitant amounts of money.

Research on campaign spending in general elections has shown that these investments do matter, especially for political challengers: by raising personal expenses, challengers are able to close the gap with incumbent candidates. The latter group enjoys the obvious advantage of their office, which provides them with more (campaign) visibility and organizational capacity. As a result, spending is significantly less effective for them than for challengers, who need to compensate their lower visibility with more expensive campaigns. This incumbency effect is confirmed in majoritarian electoral systems such as the US, UK, Sweden and Canada, but also in some proportional systems such as Ireland and Belgium.

But local elections are of course a different story compared to general elections. In these smaller-scale electoral contests, voters are more familiar with candidates because of their closer geographical proximity. This changes the nature of the electoral competition and campaigning: voters will be more inclined to cast personal votes, candidates use different campaign techniques and the media plays a more limited role.

Does this imply that campaign spending effects will also be different in these elections? Is it worthwhile to invest a huge amount of personal resources in local campaigns? Does it increase the number of preference votes a candidate receives, and more importantly, does it raise one’s odds of getting elected? In our recent article in Local Government Studies, we address these questions and examine the effect of individual campaign spending on the results of local election candidates.

The article focuses on the case of the Belgian municipal elections of 2012, for which we collected data on 30 municipalities in the district of Leuven (in the Flemish region). We registered the declared campaign expenses for all the 172 lists and 3.632 candidates in these 30 municipalities. However, many of these candidates cannot be considered ‘serious contenders’: their candidature is merely symbolical to support the party, they are not interested in holding local office and will arguably invest little in their campaign. Therefore, we only included candidates who already held office in the municipality or at a higher political level, as well as candidates with some level of media attention during the campaign. This group of 1.006 serious contenders (28.4% of all candidates) were included in our analysis.

The results show that the personal investment in the campaign does have an effect on the electoral result. Candidates who spend more in absolute terms or outspend their rivals (at the list and the municipality level) obtain a better result, even though the effect is small. We even found some traces of an effect of personal spending on the odds of obtaining a seat in the municipal council. This finding points at an intriguing difference with national elections in Belgium, where such an effect was not found. Winning a seat is obviously what matters most to a candidate. If a candidate can increase the number of preferential votes, but not to such an extent that he or she can capture a seat, the investment is useless. In this way, investing in the campaign can be considered as more effective for local than for national elections. At the same time, this result should not be overstated. The chances of obtaining a seat in Belgian municipal elections are still overwhelmingly determined by other parameters, such as the position on the list and the incumbency status of the candidate.

Indeed, holding any type of local or higher office increases the number of preferential votes. There are also indications that spending is less effective for candidates holding an executive office in the municipality (as mayor or alderman). Interestingly, holding higher office (i.e. regional and national MP, MEP, minister) has a smaller effect than important local offices such as mayor or alderman. These findings confirm that the result of local elections (at least with regard to preferential votes) is still largely determined by local dynamics, as it should be.

This post is based on the authors’ full length article, ‘Buying local votes: the effect of individual campaign spending under a semi-open PR system in the Belgian local elections‘, published in Local Government Studies.

gert-jan

Gert-Jan Put is a researcher at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) affiliated to the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research interests include candidate selection, legislative turnover and campaign spending.

maddens

Bart Maddens is professor of political science at the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research focuses on political party finance and elections.

jef

Jef Smulders is a researcher at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) affiliated to the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research interests mainly include party and campaign finance and political party organization.

Why do some PPPs fail to meet objectives? Evidence from Ireland

Eoin Reeves

Governments around the world are seeking new ways of meeting the challenges of renewing and providing new infrastructure.  Factors such as disenchantment with traditional procurement methods and increasing pressures on public finances (intensified by the global economics crisis) have encouraged governments to look to public-private partnerships (PPP) for the purpose of meeting these challenges.  The use of PPP is however a recent phenomenon and the evidence on whether it achieves goals such as better value for money and speedy delivery of infrastructure is patchy.

My recent article in Local Government Studies, The Not So Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Over Twelve Years of PPP in Irelandseeks to add to the emerging evidence on the experience with PPP by focusing on the case of Ireland.  The Irish government initially adopted PPP in an effort to meet the demands placed by rapid economic growth in the late 1990s.  Since then it has, in relative terms, become one of the world leaders in PPP procurement.  The Irish case therefore provides a valuable country-based case study of PPP procurement.

The article adopts a framework that embraces perspectives from the literature on economics and governance.  From an economic perspective the case for adopting PPP rests on the proposition that it yields positive net social returns (in other words, the benefit-cost ratio is positive).  However, governments tend to articulate the objective of PPP in terms of faster delivery of projects and value for money compared to traditional procurement.  While satisfying these criteria is indicative of a degree of success it does not necessarily ensure a positive benefit-cost ratio.  This is attributable to the fact that these criteria are too narrow and fail to include transaction costs.

PPPs also have important governance dimensions.  A key governance issue concerns contract design and framing incentives to encourage the performance of the PPP contractor.  In a PPP context the question of incentives largely centres on the allocation of risks.  Other governance issues concern the development of mechanisms that protect accountability.  Stakeholder consultation and transparency are important in this respect and the advantages of making PPP arrangements more accessible and assessable are widely recognized.

The article adopts a case-study approach and analyses three separate PPPs at the level of local government.  Two cases are drawn from the water services sector and the third case covers the PPP adopted for the regeneration of a housing estate in Dublin’s inner city.

In the three PPP cases examined, parties to the contracts grappled with the complexity/uncertainty associated with the implementation of PPP.  In each case there was little experience on the public sector side with procurement under PPP.   Both water service cases illuminated shortcomings in the early stages of procurement especially the conduct of value for money assessments (VFM).  However, in the case where the level of stakeholder consultation extended to in-depth analysis of the initial VFM assessment there were clear benefits derived from the sharing of information between stakeholders and the adoption of a co-operative approach to preparing for PPP.

The social housing case represents one of the biggest PPP contract failures in Ireland to date.  In this case, procurement was terminated following the collapse of the Irish housing market in mid-2008.  The termination of this PPP can be mainly understood in terms of the failure to adequately transfer risk to the private sector.  The (possibly) loss-leading contractor withdrew from the contract due to inability to absorb the financial risks associated with the collapse of the Irish housing market.  The contractor also pleaded an inability to assume planning risks which materialized in some contracts.  The private contractor’s behaviour in this case exemplifies how failure to adequately transfer risk can have drastic social consequences.

These cases show how policy makers and public sector managers face difficult challenges if the PPP model is to be adopted successfully.  These include framing PPP policy, organizing competitive markets for contracts, designing contracts, enforcing risk transfer and ensuring that the thread of accountability between service providers and citizens is strong.  This may be a tall order but unless these challenges are met PPP will not improve economic efficiency or social welfare.

Eoin Reeves Profile Photo (2)

Dr. Eoin Reeves is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and Director of the Privatisation and PPP Research Group at the University of Limerick.  Eoin researches market-based reforms of the public sector and the regulation of infrastructure including privatisation, liberalisation, and different forms of private sector participation in the delivery of public services.

Partnerships and service integration – is it all just hot air?

Axel Kaehne

Since the 1990s, policy makers and academics have had a pet project in public service reform. Over time, they have called it differently but always meant essentially the same: public services collaborating with each other to improve service quality. At some point, it was called partnerships (remember the Partnership Agenda under Tony Blair’s government?), then it was service integration, a term particularly popular amongst health care professionals.

But what drives this collaborative agenda and where should it lead? Have we achieved anything over the last decades or was this all just hot air?

Academics have pointed out for a long time that there is a glaring gap in the partnership and integration project – evidence. We know from studies that working together does make a difference to professionals. This would be good if the main objective was to overcome service fragmentation per se, yet what drives much of the public policy announcements are intentions to improve service quality for users and patients.

Conceptualising service collaboration has been a well tilled field. Personalisation of services, where public services are shaped around the needs of the user is one way of thinking about improving public service delivery. Direct payments are a powerful instrument to re-orientate public services by putting the user in control. Yet, direct payments have been met with fierce resistance from some corners of the professional establishment, whilst the Welsh Government actively discouraged local authorities to use them until recently. Consequently, the take up of direct payments has been low.

In addition, producing evidence of the effects of service collaboration has proved to be the proverbial ‘holy grail’. The main stumbling block to it has been to establish a robust link between organisational changes and service improvements. As services improve their collaborative practices, the interface between users and professionals may often be largely unaffected. Organisational changes may not be noticeable for users. My paper on multi-agency protocols shows that even where the evidential link between changes and outcome is well defined, effects may be marginal and introspective at best.

Another reason is that service improvements are most urgent when users or patients draw on support from many different professionals because of the complexity of their needs. In the field of children’s services it is not uncommon to have families dealing with fifteen different professionals or more at a time.

The complexity of service delivery impacts on how organisational changes are perceived by the users and how they are affected by them. Key working may be a useful example. Potentially, key workers were supposed to reduce the number of professionals working with a service user, yet there is little evidence that they have had this desirable effect. More often than not, key workers joined the long list of professionals without reducing the need to be in contact with others. In other words, they turned into another layer of service delivery on top of the already existing ones.

So, why is it so difficult to improve service delivery in collaborative contexts? The answer lies in the discrepancy between policy objectives and the levers for change we have available. Policy makers constantly profess a desire to improve services by urging professionals to work together. Yet, there is only one player in this game who really knows what would constitute better services: the user. As long as professionals are in the driving seat, users will be a polite afterthought to their practice. Whether you call it partnership or service integration, collaborative practice grows from user demand. Better public services for users with complex needs should not be a product of professional generosity but an outcome of user demand. Until the user is in control of the service they get, service collaboration will remain little more than hot air.

Axel’s article, ‘Multi-Agency Protocols as a Mechanism to Improve Partnerships in Public Services’, is published in Local Government Studies.

axel

Dr. Axel Kaehne is currently Chair of GORWEL, the Welsh Foundation for Innovation in Public Affairs and a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty for Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University. He is also Senior Research Fellow at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital NHS Trust in Liverpool.