Professor John Stewart: the nation’s teacher of local democracy

Jason Lowther

Everyone in or with links to the Institute of Local Government Studies was saddened this week to learn of the death of Professor John Stewart, who from 1966 developed Inlogov to focus on UK local government and made an enormous and lasting contribution to the development of local government, local governance and public administration scholarship over several decades.

I had the good fortune to meet John last year when, following the death of his wife, Councillor Theresa Stewart, he kindly offered his research library to the department.  We had a lovely afternoon recalling the earlier days of Inlogov, developing the first courses, contributing to the insightful Layfield Commission on Financing Local Government, travelling all over the country to review training and development needs in hundreds of councils, and leading thinking on the sector through articles in both the scholarly and professional journals. 

John was a strong advocate of local government as community leadership at the heart of a vibrant democracy – rather than a mindless channel of central government’s directives or a mere provider of various local public services.  He and his co-authors often led the thinking in key areas.  In the 1970s, he promoted the development of corporate planning and management in local authorities bringing synergy to the various service areas.  In the 1980s, he asserted the value of the public good in the face of New Public Management’s push to convert public service into private consumption.   He argued that developing Quangos for specific services was creating a late twentieth-century version of the fragmented local public service world of the Victorian era.  In the 1990s, he challenged the narrow consumerist Citizen’s Charter approach and instead asserted the importance of citizens’ rights, participation and accountability.

In 2014, John published his reflections on the past four decades in local government.  He argued that the problems facing the economy, society and the environment need effective local responses:

Local government can draw on its own and its citizens’ ideas and aspirations, but this genuine localist approach cannot be achieved in fragmented and imperfectly accountable structures over-controlled by central government. The lesson of the last 40 years is the need for a learning government that welcomes diversity. All can learn from the relative successes and failures of diversity, whereas too often centralism builds uniformity from which all that may be learnt is general failure.

As well as research, John developed a strong teaching capacity in Inlogov.  He created residential courses, held at Wast Hills House outside Birmingham, which had been given to the University by the Cadbury family.  It was adapted as a residential facility with 25 bedrooms and a range of teaching rooms.  These courses became the essential preparation for local government officers with ambitions to become chief executives.  Much of the work on the courses was in small groups, which led to many lasting friendships between future senior local government officers and chief executives across the country – providing an essential support network for those in these tough roles.  The Local Government Training / Management Board later commissioned John to visit almost all English local authorities and many in Scotland and Wales, assessing their capacity and recommending approaches to develop this further.

In addition to his remarkable 36-year writing partnership with LSE’s late Professor George Jones, John nurtured and collaborated with successive generations of scholars including Bob Hinings, Royston Greenwood, Stewart Ranson, Rod Rhodes, Kieron Walsh, Chris Skelcher, Steve Leach and many more.  A few weeks ago, I invited some of his former colleagues to contribute some reflections for a potential collection of some of John’s works.  I was delighted by the speed and warmth of the responses, typical examples including:

John was the nation’s teacher of local democracy. He was a remarkable man, a gifted and inspiring leader at the Institute and across local government

John Stewart was the most significant British thinker on local government in the last half of the twentieth century. He was the key influence on several generations of local government workers

He argued that the narrative that users of public services should be treated as self-interested customers ignored their role as citizens with a wider interest in the welfare of their community

His wonderful insight helped so many people to be massively more effective than many of us thought possible

The most negative thing I ever heard him say about an idea was ‘I don’t think we can make that a priority’”

I’ve not known such intellect, such tolerance, generosity and encouragement from a mentor. This must have been the same for many who have come under his giant but gentle wings

John and George [Jones] formed a partnership whose writings proclaimed the case for local government for almost forty years. They were doomed, like Cassandra, to have their warnings ignored. But John’s influence on the management of local authorities endures.

Outside his professional life, John was a loving husband, father and grand-father.  Following his death this week, his grandson Henry published a lovely thread on Twitter outlining some of John’s achievements and recollections from friends and colleagues. 

It is immensely humbling to inherit the guardianship of one of John’s creations, Inlogov.  I will close with another quotation, from my colleague Emeritus Professor John Raine this week:

His legacy in shaping the policy and practice agenda of local government in the UK, as well as on the development and sustainment of INLOGOV as the premier research and teaching centre for local governance, will surely endure.

Jason Lowther, Director – Inlogov

25th November 2022

Voter ID – in theory, practice and mirrors

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Chris Game

“ID cards for polls are nothing more than suppression of voters” – D Butler. I’d forgotten precisely when and where I first read this pronouncement – May 2021 in The Times, as it turned out – shortly after the Government’s Elections Bill, now Act, was published. But I certainly remembered it.

Partly the phrasing, as personally I’d have gone for “nothing less than”, if I was hoping to galvanise readers into outraged protest. The seriously striking bit, though, was obviously the author.

Since first becoming fascinated by elections and electoral studies – thanks initially to Prof Richard Rose at the Univ of Manchester, then the late Prof Tony King at Essex – there has only ever been one D Butler in that file of my academic consciousness. Populariser of the Greekish word ‘psephology’ for the study of elections, and original authority figure in the BBC’s General Elections coverage: Nuffield College, Oxford’s Sir David Butler, who died earlier this month, aged 98.    

I knew him – distantly, but sufficiently to know he’d never have uttered anything resembling that strongly opinionated opening sentence – and, of course, ’twas not he. Rather, as I almost immediately realised, it was Dawn Butler: recent candidate for Deputy Labour Party Leader and, it so happens, MP for the London Brent constituency in which I first voted – shortly before she was born.

All of which might have excused a quickish blog return to the contentious Voter ID issue – within weeks of its last coverage – even if it hadn’t once more been prominently in the news this past fortnight, with Parliament finally getting its first full sight of the Government’s Voter Identification Regulations and the Electoral Reform Society leading the call for a parliamentary inquiry into its implementation.

The Elections Act requires voters, from next May, to produce photo ID at UK Parliamentary and most English local elections. And now, a mere six months or so later, we – and the local election officials required to implement them – finally have the Government’s list of acceptable forms of ID and proposed guidelines governing initially next May’s council elections: Coronation permitting, in most English councils – though not Birmingham, to save you checking.

The guidelines run to just the 344 pages, taking effect probably in January. Leaving already pressured election officials with minimal time (and as yet undetailed costs, beyond a ‘ballpark’ £180 million per decade) to process and issue electoral identity documents for those who gradually discover they don’t have acceptable forms of photo ID. Plus the near certainty that at least some would-be, and quite likely upset, voters will be turned away at their polling stations – which could add to the fun for the small army of volunteer poll workers.

At which point I should indicate my personal viewpoint. Instinctively – and certainly predating Birmingham’s own 2004 embarrassment of six Labour councillors getting elected through what was judicially described as a “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud campaign – I’ve long broadly supported, in principle, stronger election integrity rules in general and photo voter ID specifically.

And I have recounted in these columns the reactions of some of my overseas students to the frankly casual ID confirmation procedures they’ve observed when accompanying me to the polling station. Their surprise at the staff’s indifference to whether I’ve brought my poll card identification; and almost shock as I ‘helpfully’ point on the register to what I claim is my name and address.

So why my support in principle for photographic ID – as well as nowadays that of a substantial majority of voters themselves and the conditional backing of the independent Electoral Commission?  Simples!  Elections are the engines of our democratic system. They should be seen by all as important, and that perceived importance is diminished by not having visibly more robust voter identification procedures – like virtually all other ‘democratic’ nations.

On the Crime Prevention Research Center’s database of Europe’s nearly 50 such countries, “only the United Kingdom” does not require government-issued photo voter ID to vote in national elections.

Correction!  Not the UK, just GB. Northern Ireland introduced voter ID nearly 20 years ago, and now has numerous forms of acceptable photographic ID – including, as well as passports and driving licences, a free Electoral Identity Card, plus senior, disabled and blind persons’ ‘SmartPasses’.

Since when, the Electoral Commission has found that, far from prompting polling day protest riots, voters’ confidence that elections are well-run has steadily increased to at least match the levels in other UK regions[1]. The demonstrable message has been not that we elsewhere in the UK are uniquely virtuous and trustworthy – though even Ministers concede that fraud levels are minimal, if not invariably seen as such. Rather, it’s that for us – and successive Governments – voting has been seen as less big a deal than, say, collecting a parcel at a post office.

Until now, that is, following a decade of quite dramatic change in the voting behaviour of particularly our 18 to 24-year-olds. Their turnouts are invariably lower than the average, but still high enough to hurt. In the 2010 General Election these mostly fledgling voters split equally across the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, roughly 30% for each. By 2019, almost overlooked in the Conservatives’ overwhelming win, it was Labour 52%, Conservatives 28%, Lib Dems 11%.

That’s what evidently prompted the rush – not ‘personation’ or fraud, which for polling station voting are acknowledged as negligible. Rather, a possible early General Election campaign in which the Conservatives don’t start way ahead of the field. It also explains why the apparently generous range of 21 acceptable forms of ID is clearly weighted towards the better paid and over-60s. Older Person’s Bus Pass, Oyster 60+ card, Freedom Pass (66+), Scottish National Entitlement Card (60+), etc. – all welcome. Those particularly applicable to younger people, like Student ID cards or Railcards, remain “unacceptable”, as in the original legislation.

Yes, as in Northern Ireland, free ‘Voter Authority Certificates’ will be available – including online – and a public awareness campaign will remind you and your selfie to apply in time.  And no, none of this remotely approaches the legalised voter suppression we saw in some of this November’s American state elections. But – to coin a dreadful cliché – it’s from the same partisan playbook.

As are the £1.3 million-worth of 40,000 mirrors and privacy screens – one of each per polling station – that desperately cash-strapped councils must provide to check on would-be voters with religious face coverings. But they may well prove worth a blog of their own sometime before next May.

_______________________

A slightly publisher-edited version of this blog appeared in The Birmingham Post, 17th November – https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20221117/textview


[1] Examples from the Electoral Commission’s ‘Winter Tracker’, Jan/Feb 2022:

   “Elections are affected by fraud/corruption?”  Total agree: 37%; W Midlands 37%; NI 30%.

Those “not confident that elections are well run: Some people have difficulties registering to vote”:                                          
Total agree: 20%; W Midlands 18%; NI 10%.

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.

Integrated Care Boards – a new frontline in localism?

Jason Lowther

As the government once again kicks down the road decisions on vital reforms and funding for social care, local areas are establishing the Integrated Care Boards which will lead the new Integrated Care Systems (ICS), bringing together the NHS, local government and partners to plan and deliver integrated services to improve the health of the local population.  Building on the progress made since many public health responsibilities transferred back to local government in 2013, this is a great opportunity to address the determinants of health and issues around health inequality.  Might ICSs at last lead to an effective local voice in our over-centralised, top-down healthcare system?

Each ICS is supposed to plan at three levels: the neighbourhood (an area of around 40,000 people), the ‘place’ (often a LA area), and the (ICS) system (covering around 2 million people).  Working at the neighbourhood level is likely to be somewhat informal, often using a social prescribing approach and developing multi-disciplinary teams including third sector partners.  The approach to ‘place’ looks set to vary between areas, with some ICSs devolving significant responsibility (and funding) whilst others centralise these at ‘system’ level.  Meanwhile at ‘ICS system’ level, Integrated Care Partnerships (joint LA and health committees) will develop an Integrated Care Strategy to meet the assessed health and social care needs of their population identified in the Joint Strategic Needs Assessments and Wellbeing Strategies prepared by local Health and Wellbeing Boards.

Beyond the formal planning process, the success of local ICSs will partly depend on the quality of local collaborative (managerial and political) leadership – across statutory partners and with the third sector.  It will be a tough job to balance the priorities of the national health service and issues of local places, but many local authorities will be able to offer helpful experience , for example from moves to more networked governance approaches.

The National Audit Office recognises the potential but appears dubious on current prospects.  Last month it published a review, Introducing Integrated Care Systems: joining up local services to improve health outcomes, finding:

NHSE has a detailed regime to monitor performance against core NHS objectives but … it is less clear who will monitor the overall performance of local systems, and particularly how well partners are working together and what difference this new model makes…

The report notes that, whilst government is asking ICSs to set out local priorities and make progress against them, there is no protected funding and few mechanisms to ensure this happens.  This leads, as the NAO politely puts it, to “a risk that national priorities, and the rigorous oversight mechanisms in place to ensure they are delivered, crowd out attempts at progress on local issues”.  The report also identifies five “high risk” elements of effective integration: clarity of objectives, resourcing, governance and accountability (such as how ICSs will function alongside existing local government Health and Wellbeing Boards and how accountability differences between NHS and local authority bodies will be resolved), and the capacity to balance priorities other than national NHS targets. These urgently need to be addressed if ICSs are to begin to meet their potential.

At one of Inlogov’s “Brown Bag Lunch” discussions earlier this month we agreed on the importance of issues around how ICSs develop, particularly in terms of developing effective system leadership and planning, collaborating with community organisations, and links to wider devolution processes. I’d be interested to hear about experiences in local areas as these develop. 

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, 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

Picture credit: National Audit Office

What are the career backgrounds of city managers in the United States?

Wesley Meares, Beth M. Rauhaus and William Hatcher

In our recent Local Government Studies article, we report the career paths of city managers from a nationwide survey of 345 chief administrative officers leading cities throughout the United States (U.S.). We sought to understand who the chief administrative officers are, how they arrived in their current position, and the significant challenges they face. Exploring these topics helps us describe the composition of local government managers, and knowing the career paths of these public administrators helps our field in preparing future managers for their service. While these topics have been researched in the past, for example, by Watson and Hassett (2004) and Folz and French (2005), an updated view of chief administrative officers of U.S. cities was needed. To explore these questions, a survey was sent to chief administrative officers of small, medium, and large cities throughout the U.S. From our survey, we learned three key takeaways.

Who: The Make-Up

Local government management in the U.S. needs to diversify. Most survey respondents reported being white males, with nearly half being 55 or older and only slightly over 18% reporting as female. Public administrators must reflect and mirror the communities they serve, and local government management in the U.S. does not represent the nation’s diverse population. Thus, diversity needs to be a focus of the field in the future. There will soon be an opportunity with the impending retirements of many in local government management – what the ICMA has labeled a “silver tsunami.” This oncoming wave shows up in our survey’s findings. Over 50% of those surveyed indicated they intended to retire in the next ten years, and 30% said they would retire within five years. The need to hire the next generation of local government managers is an excellent opportunity to increase gender and racial diversity in local government.

How: Career Pathways

Local government management is more stable than in the past. Of those surveyed, the average tenure in their current positions was a little over seven years. One career pathway to local government management is having prior work experience in the area. Most of those surveyed were hired into their current positions as external candidates, often making lateral moves in their careers. Another career pathway to local government is having experience in budgeting and planning. City managers identified developing negotiation skills, having a mentor, and earning an MPA as other critical pathways to local government management.  

What: Major Challenges

Local government management is more concerned with technical aspects of the job (time management, leading teams, human resource actions, etc.) than political conflict and relations with the public. This is a surprising finding. On the one hand, it is positive that city managers are concerned with the nuts and bolts of their jobs. However, on the other hand, many of the challenges they face will surround issues of politics. For our field of public administration to advance democratic governance, we need public administrators to be concerned about politics and community outreach.

With the fast-approaching retirement of many within local government, there is an opportunity for U.S. cities to diversify their workforce, particularly those leading cities. Our study’s data on career pathways provide a roadmap to help public administration scholars and instructors help achieve effective, efficient, and equity in local government management.

Wesley L. Meares is an Associate Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University, where he serves as the graduate program director for the Master of Public Administration program. His research focuses on housing policy, community development, sustainability, and local government administration.

Beth M. Rauhaus is an Associate Professor of Public Administration and the MPA Program Coordinator in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. Her research explores issues of gender and diversity in the public sector.

William Hatcher, Ph.D. is a professor of public administration and chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University. His research explores the intersections of public administration and healthy policy, public administration education, and public budgeting.

References:

Folz, D. H., & French, P. E. (2005). Managing America’s small communities: People, politics, and performance. Rowman & Littlefield.

Watson, D. J., & Hassett, W. L. (2004). Career Paths of City Managers in America’s Largest Council‐Manager Cities. Public Administration Review, 64(2), 192-199.

Picture credit:Luis Marina

“The Greatest Political Party on Earth” – Prime Ministerial hyperbole

Chris Game

Reader alert!  This blog’s sole excuse is its loose topicality. Its connection with local government, certainly, is tenuous in the extreme, and needs rationalising right away.

My chief role in INLOGOV, throughout most of my time as a full-time employee, was as Convenor of its undergraduate degree, latterly entitled the BSc in Public Policy, Government & Management. When we launched its predecessor in the early 1980s, ICT was in its youth, if not infancy. PowerPoint presentations, when they arrived, were seriously challenging, and one was constantly looking out for new IT developments that might illustrate current events and generally enhance the student learning experience.

The technology left me behind years ago, but the fascination with entertaining visual aids remained. Meanwhile, we quickly learnt that casually deployed, but now much more easily checkable, references and assertions, particularly superlatives, were a gift to the evolving technology. I was naturally aroused, therefore, by our new PM’s extraordinary phraseology in acknowledging her leadership victory: “Thank you for putting your faith in me to lead our great Conservative Party, the greatest political party on Earth.”

Never mind that she hadn’t had the faith of even half of that party’s modest-sized 170,437-member electorate.  Why the senseless GPPoE bit?  ‘Oldest PPoE’ might just have worked – by treating the C17th Tory Party’s demise in the 1830s and 1840s as an evolution, rather than dissolution, into the Conservative Party.

‘Great’, though – definitionally, etymologically – is chiefly and initially about large size. But accuracy, etymology, or even common sense clearly aren’t what Liz Truss is about, and I half-thought, therefore, of trying to make a blog out of it.

At that point, though, I hadn’t fully grasped, in addition, the extreme limitation of the Truss vocabulary, and there was suddenly more material to work with: the PM’s apparently considered evaluation, to her fellow MPs, of the late Queen as “one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known”.

Apart from the “one of”, no qualification or explication in sight. No “constitutional”, or “peacetime”, or even “modern-day”. Not “one of the world’s most recognisable faces”, possibly after Hitler. Or one of the most photographed. Not even one of the greatest women leaders, which would get rid of all those tricky men – Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi, Einstein, Mandela and the rest of the usual crew.

Actually, “one of the greatest women leaders” might at least have generated some informative debate. Elizabeth II’s chief competition would then have been merely Elizabeth I (obviously), Russia’s Catherine the Great, Austria’s Maria Theresa, and, with perhaps 30 seconds Googling, probably Ancient Egypt’s Pharoah Hatshepsut, and China’s C19th Empress Dowager Cixi.

If there really has to be a QEII superlative, there’s possibly “the most recognisable face in the world”. “Head of the world’s most effective democratic monarchy” could have done – interesting, and still a pretty big deal – but might have required a few seconds’ thought. And, pleasingly, that’s just what it got – even including a superlative. Not from Truss, but from local government, or, more specifically, LGIU Chief Executive, Jonathan Carr: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – our country’s greatest public servant”.

Sadly, though, it seems we’re simply going to have to get used to these ludicrous hyperboles as a Truss ‘thing’, though hopefully, PLEASE, not on a twice weekly basis. Meanwhile, back to her “greatest political party on Earth”, and, while there’s no knowing what, if anything much, she may have had in mind, it almost certainly wasn’t anything measurable or internationally comparable.

‘Great’, though, remains in the first instance a size adjective; so, as they say, needs must. Membership size of national parties is one of the many countable phenomena nowadays measured and compared – skilfully, entertainingly, and literally movingly by YouTube Ranking Charts. Other providers are available, but in my limited, amateurish judgement, these are the most comprehensive, user-friendly, and have the better background music tracks.

I’m a fan, and, were I still lecturing, the charts would be an early student recommendation. Not, sadly, in most cases for any immediate relevance to the world of local government, but for their sheer fun – and, by my reckoning, the products of often quite impressive research. 

The above link will get you to a whole catalogue of charts, usually headed by the ever popular ‘Top 10 Largest Armies in the World, 1816-2021’, which will serve as a brief illustration – yes, that’s 205 years of annual rankings, Napoleon to Putin.  Actually, Putin would be dead envious. In 1816 Russia’s 800,000 ‘Active Military Personnel’ easily outnumbered the world’s next four largest armies – the UK (255,000), Austrian Empire, France and Prussia – combined.

A century later in WWI we had 4.4 million troops, behind only the German Empire, Russia and France, and in WWII that increased to over 5 million – modest compared to the US and the Soviet Union (10 million+), but comparable to Nazi Germany and Japan, and, unsurprisingly, way ahead of France.

We finally dropped off the Top 10 chart altogether in 1963, as eventually did France in 1991. And today, if you were wondering … Russia’s I million+ troops rank them in a rather modest 5th place, behind China 2.1 mill., India 1.5 mill., the US 1.4 mill., and North Korea 1.3 mill.

Apologies for that even further digression. Back to “the greatest political party on Earth” – by registered party membership. The principle is the same as for ‘Largest Armies’ – annually reported, with the totals, bar lengths and positions constantly changing, starting here in 1950, rather than 1816; checked and validated as much as possible, which explains the present-day absence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Missing too is the UK Conservative Party – because, well, you can guess from all the other figures running into the several millions how far down the list its 172,437 would be.

To summarise: largest parties in 1950 were the US Democrats and Republicans (7.2 and 6.5 million members respectively), followed by the Communist Party of China (CCP) (6.5m) and the Indian National Congress. Not making the chart, but impressive in their way, the Conservatives’ membership would have been in the high 2 millions (including at least my father, not sure about mother) with Labour, excluding affiliated TU members, around 1 million.

Within two years the CCP had overtaken both US parties individually, and by the mid-1970s both combined. By 2019 it had 90,000 members, the two US parties 77,000 between them.  All three combined, however, had long since been massively overtaken by India’s Baratiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

Founded in a 1970s multi-party merger, the BJP had grown gradually, topping 5 million members for the first time in 1993, compared to the Indian National Congress Party’s 13 million. By 2002, however, its then 15 million members had overtaken the Congress Party, following which it grew fast and steadily, reaching 38 million in 2006, overtaking the Chinese Communist Party’s 78 million in 2010, and in 2014, with 129 million members sweeping to national power under Modi, who remains PM today.  

And that, Prime Minister, is what the currently “Greatest Political Party on Earth” looks like.

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.

Voter ID gets Code Red

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Jason Lowther & Chris Game

‘Code Red’, for anyone even approaching the generation of this blog’s more senescent author, has to cue the memorable final Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson courtroom scene in Aaron Sorkin’s film, A Few Good Men. Indeed, said author has actually adapted and used it previously in these very columns:

Lieut. Kaffee (Cruise): “Did you order the Code Red?”  Col. Jessup (Nicholson): “YOU’RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!!!”

In the film, ‘Code Red’ is a term used for any extra-judicial punishment or action taken against US marines for the purposes of humiliation or worse. Its function is, essentially, to deal with issues that can’t be solved using the normal legal framework.

In substantial contrast, the UK Government’s Code Red, though hardly a regular feature of our media’s political reporting, is at the very core of our modern-day governmental system. It is a (arguably the) key instrument of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), the Government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects, reporting to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.

Formed in 2016, the IPA’s intended function is to increase government efficiency and save public money by monitoring and ‘scoring’ the viability of its literally hundreds of infrastructure and major projects … and does so with an effectiveness that has some Ministers in the present Government viewing it as more of a PI(the)A.  

This already substantial introduction does have a local government-relevant point – promise!  And it is no blog’s function to deliver lecturettes, which in this instance are both available and well illustrated, from the Institute for Government and the IPA itself in its very recent 2022 Annual Report.

What follow, therefore, are a few shortish paragraphs outlining the IPA’s work, and two graphics from that 2022 Report worth, if not the proverbial thousand words, certainly a good many. We then focus on the issue of voter ID in England, reporting the government’s own assessment on the risks involved, and conclude that Government has still not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.

The focus of the IPA’s work is the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), comprising this year 235 projects with a total Whole Life Cost of £678bn and estimated “monetised benefits” of £726bn, delivered by 18 departments and their arm’s-length bodies.

The projects are divided functionally into four categories, biggest-spending being Infrastructure & Construction (70 projects: £339 bill. whole life cost; £356 bill. “monetised benefits”) – high investment projects, including improving the UK’s energy, environment, transport, telecoms, sewage and water systems, and constructing new public buildings. Dominated financially, and in the IPA’s ‘unfeasible’ delivery confidence rankings, by the Dept for Transport’s HS2 (£72 – 98 billion) and Crossrail (£19 billion+) projects.

Transformation and service delivery covers projects changing ways of working to improve the relationship between government and the UK people, and harnessing new technology. Example: Vaccines Task Force.

Military Capability ispretty self-explanatory. Example: the Future Combat Air System – clever, mid-2030s stuff like uncrewed aircraft and advanced data systems.

ICT projects enable the “transition from old legacy systems to new digital solutions” to equip government departments for the future. Example: Emergency Services Mobile Communications.

Now to the interesting bit: the actual ‘confidence rankings’, or in the above cases of HS2 and Crossrail ‘no confidence rankings’. The official term is Delivery Confidence Assessments (DCAs): judgements of the likelihood of a project delivering its objectives to time and cost.

In essence, it’s a basic traffic light system. Green represents high likelihood of successful delivery of the project on time, budget and quality; amber: successful delivery feasible, but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention; and ‘Code Red’: unachievable, not a cat in hell’s chance; major issues everywhere, with project definition, schedule, budget, benefits – all at this stage apparently irresolvable.

Given the variables involved, it sounds more than a touch crude, and two additional ratings were added: amber/green – successful delivery probable, if given constant attention; and amber/red – successful delivery doubtful, major risks apparent in numerous key areas, urgent action needed.

Usefully added, it seemed, as unqualified amber regularly took between 40% and 50% of ratings (see Fig.7 below). But no, looked at another way, the “average project rating worsened from Amber/Green in 2013 to Amber in 2020” (p.16). It obviously couldn’t possibly be the quality of the proposed projects, so it had to be the assessment system, which accordingly for the 2022 assessments was changed.

But oops! The number of red assessments nearly quadrupled, almost equalling the previous four years’ red totals between them – but that’s OK, because the average project rating, we are assured, “has improved over the past two years”, though it’s not entirely transparent in the second flow chart.

Which brings us back to Code Reds.  Unlock Democracy, the democratic reform campaign group – and also the Daily Mirror – reported last week that “the Government’s own rating system has given the Elections Bill implementation a code red, which is defined as successful delivery of the project appear[ing] to be unachievable.”  Followed by the Association of Electoral Administrators announcing that it “no longer believes it is possible to successfully introduce Voter ID in May 2023.”

The Government’s “Electoral Integrity Programme (EIP)” has been red rated in the IPA’s annual report (see page 58).  The report summarises the Programme as ‘implementing changes arising from the Elections Bill. The Elections Bill makes provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process. Reforms will cover: overseas electors; voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens; the designation of a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission; the membership of the Speaker’s Committee; the Electoral Commission’s functions in relation to criminal proceedings; financial information to be provided by a political party on applying for registration; preventing a person being registered as a political party and being a recognised non-party campaigner at the same time; regulation of expenditure for political purposes; disqualification of offenders for holding elective offices; information to be included in electronic campaigning material’.

DLUHC’s commentary on this result noted the deteriorating assessment and added: ‘The IPA Gate 0 Review of February 2022 concluded that the programme Delivery Confidence Assessment is rated Red and that the programme needs to address key risks related to the suitability of the structure, approach and governance given its complexity and delivery focus, suitability of its minimum viable and digital products, and its lack of contingency to deliver against immovable deadlines’.

Reassuringly, the department felt that ‘the programme is addressing these points’.   Meanwhile, the estimated ‘whole life costs’ of the programme jumped from just under £120m to over £145m.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake has reportedly written to Levelling Up SoS Greg Clark saying ‘It would be highly risky to attempt the first roll out of photo voter ID for the largest election in the UK, without having tested it on lower turnout elections beforehand’.  This echoes Jason Lowther’s comment on this blog almost a year ago that ‘The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution’.

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.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, 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