Oops!  We lost two Mayors – let’s overthrow a sensible system

Chris Game

I assume it was the 2021 mayoral election results that finally clinched it. With the Conservatives winning just two of that year’s 13 mayoralties to Labour’s 11, it was time to enact the party’s 2019 manifesto pledge – “to continue to support the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system of voting, as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally”.  Specifically, the Supplementary Vote (SV) system – despite also, like electoral systems generally, featuring the kicking-out of politicians – had to be replaced for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections asap.

True, the counting of electors’ supplementary – second preference – votes had just enabled West Midlands Conservative Mayor, Andy Street, to be re-elected with the useful perk of a narrow overall majority of votes cast, along with the party’s rising star, Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen, who’d swept in with nearly 73% of first preference votes.

No supplementary second round necessary there, but nor should there have been, reformers reckoned, in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, where the established Conservative Mayor, James Palmer, had been a victim of the dastardly SV ‘system’. He’d comfortably led Labour’s Nik Johnson after the count of first preference votes – by nearly 18,000 votes or 8%. Yet, by some foul trickery, or possibly because he simply wasn’t as broadly appealing his opponent, after the counting of relevant second preference votes, he’d fallen behind: 48.7% to new Mayor Johnson’s 51.3%.  Despite Government Ministers repeatedly claiming that “the candidate with the most votes” lost, he hadn’t. He’d won – he just wasn’t Conservative.

Anyway, Palmer threw what looked like a wobbly, promptly retired from politics, and SV elections for Mayors and PCCs would be retired with him, though not in time for last May’s Mayorals, which very nearly produced a Croydon re-run of that Cambs & Peterborough result. First count: Jason Perry (Con) 34.8%, Val Shawcross (Lab) 32.7%. Second count: Perry 50.4%, Shawcross 49.6% – the candidate with the leadership-resonant first name just edged it.

By then, though, the FPTP legislation was well under way. The next Mayoral elections – this May – would use FPTP, as will next May’s PCC elections. It seemed a good time for a review of the whole SV lifespan, facilitated by the invaluable statistical records of my polling specialist friend, David Cowling.

Quickish review: the Supplementary Vote is obviously not a proportional system, which would be tricky when electing single Mayors, Police & Crime Commissioners, etc.  Rather, it’s a simplified majoritarian system, enabling voters to rank their two most favoured candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference.

If no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes on the first count, just the top two candidates continue to a run-off, thereby encouraging candidates from the outset to seek support beyond their core supporter base. The winner may still get less than half the total vote, but will need significantly wider support than under FPTP, and especially under FPTP with a lowish turnout.

Both, however – ultra-topical insert – are more democratic than this past weekend’s Spanish ‘mayoral’ elections, in which Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, almost certainly the nation’s best-known mayor both at home and abroad, is seeking a third term of office … but as Leader of a two-party socialist coalition – for Spanish mayors aren’t even elected by ‘the people’, but indirectly by fellow councillors.

The name – Supplementary Vote – may have been new when it was ‘invented’ by an early 1990s Labour Working Party, but essentially similar ‘preferential’ systems had been quite widely used internationally for ages. France’s Presidential ‘double-ballot run-off’ was one example, but most obviously there was the Alternative Vote – the actual subject of Winston Churchill’s senseless but oft-recycled quote, about it rewarding “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates” – although today’s Conservative critics have no difficulty unearthing and redirecting it to SV.

I’m old enough to recall lecturing about the SV’s UK ‘invention’ by a Labour Party working party in the early 1990s and the even then revered ‘psephologist’, the late Sir David Butler, getting uncharacteristically incensed about it – calling it “silly”!  But his sphere of matchless expertise was parliamentary elections, with turnouts at the time of consistently over 70%. Even they, though, have slipped a bit since, and well over a third of today’s MPs won less than 50% of their constituency vote, and that’s an awful lot of voters left feeling unrepresented.

Local (including mayoral) election turnouts, however, are proverbially in another ballpark – and this is probably the blog’s key point. Except when they coincide with parliamentary elections, they average around 40%, and that’s on good days. PCC turnouts, unsurprisingly, are significantly lower still – not one of the 39 areas in England and Wales managing even 51% in May 2021, and Durham and Wiltshire not quite achieving 17%.  All of which, under FPTP, will mean large percentages of the votes of the most civically conscientious and politically committed citizens being ‘wasted’ and, arguably even more importantly, the mandates of the elected mayors and PCCs correspondingly diminished.

And then there’s the loss of the visual aids – for SV also produces what I only recently discovered are called ‘Sankey charts’, illustrating how the second-round count both produces a winner able to claim a statistical majority of positive votes and a dramatic reduction in the proportion of ‘wasted votes’ – on the part of voters choosing not to make use of their possible second choice. Good, isn’t it!

The Supplementary Vote, then, still favours the two main parties, but, returning to recent history and as shown in the following table, one in three of the 67 SV Mayoral elections going to second counts were won by Lib Dems, Independents and other parties. Labour won by far the most mayoral contests, but they also lost most in second counts. All of which contributes to SV hovering around mid-table in global democratic rankings of electoral systems – nothing to shout home about, except when compared with FPTP’s ranking as ‘least democratic’, apart from maybe Djibouti’s ‘Party Block Voting’.

SV’s statistical merits apply in principle to any elections, but particularly to a set in which two-thirds of turnouts were under 50% and nearly a third under 40% (see table). First, it hugely reduces the number and proportion of so-called ‘wasted votes’ – those cast for neither of the leading two candidates – and secondly it ensures that the winning candidate can claim the majority backing not necessarily of all voters, but at least of those the system counted.

My presumptuous guess would be that West Midlands PCC Simon Foster likes knowing, and possibly even mentioning now and then, that he was elected with 53.7% of the vote, rather than 45.5%. And, while I don’t know any of these people, that Surrey PCC Lisa Townsend (one of 12 women PCCs, if you were wondering) definitely prefers her 58% to 33.5%.

Time to start closing, by checking out the arguments Ministers sought to make to justify their replacement of SV with FPTP – or, rather, plundering the critique the Constitution Unit’s Alan Renwick and Alejandro Castillo-Powell made at the time.

  1. That SV increases the number of spoilt ballots – possibly, very fractionally; but, if so, why not work on improving ballot paper design?
  2. It allows ‘loser candidates’ to win – stupid argument (see above); they won the election they were required to contest.
  3. It reduces the accountability voters have in expressing a clear choice – but increases it by saving them from calculating how best to cast their single vote ‘tactically’ to elect or defeat a particular candidate.
  4. “FPTP is the world’s most widely used electoral system.”  Tricky – needs its own separate blog; also a bit silly. Depends a bit on whether you mean number of countries or number of voters. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the US give FPTP a head start. More to the point, a 650-Member legislature isn’t the same as a single elected mayor or PCC.
  5. SV is an “anomaly … out of step’ with other elections in England.” True, it was decisively rejected in the 2011 referendum for the election of MPs, but these are the country’s only public elections to executive offices. In short, they’re completely different.  

None of which, of course, stands the remotest chance of influencing, never mind changing, anything … but it was quite enjoyable to ‘research’ and write!

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.

Picture credit: Theresa Thompson at www.flickr.com/photos/theresasthompson/

Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social movements and the reinvention of democratic innovation

Sonia Bussu

Our world is experiencing multiple pressing crises; political elites’ inability or unwillingness to address them has contributed to diminishing trust in representative institutions. Democratic Innovations and participatory governance processes engaging citizens directly in politics and policymaking have been hailed as an antidote to elected representatives’ plummeting legitimacy. But they have also attracted much criticism, as they give much power to commissioning organisations, who design the process and choose who to invite, while there is limited follow-up on citizens’ recommendations.

Reclaiming Participatory Governance, a volume I co-edited with Adrian Bua for Routledge’s Democratic Innovations series, provides an analysis of how social and grassroots movements are reclaiming and reinventing democratic innovations to strengthen the impact of citizen participation for social change. The book is articulated into three main sections to provide 1) theoretical and 2) empirical analyses of these processes, and to reflect on 3) challenges to the implementation of radical projects of social transformation. Through 17 chapters covering a range of cases, the volume captures the growing synergy between social movements’ mobilisations, the commons and participatory deliberative democracy, exploring how grassroots democratic action is mobilising to foster alternative forms of participatory politics and economics.

Throughout the book we apply democracy-driven governance as an analytical framework. We initially developed this concept to describe how social movements and grassroots groups who mobilised across Spain against austerity politics in the early 2010s used the deliberative and participatory toolbox, first to build movement parties’ platforms and later, after winning elections in many major cities, to transform local state institutions. Democracy-driven governance captures these social-movements-led forms of democratic innovations that aim to widen the scope of participatory governance from political institutions to the economy and wider society.

It is a counterpoint to Mark Warren’s governance-driven democratisation which refers to democratic innovations mostly initiated by public agencies, particularly at the local level. Governance-driven democratisation responds to specific policy issues and what Warren calls “pluralised ungovernability” (2014, 49). This refers to situations of high complexity that administrators are caught in as they navigate, on the one hand, dispersion of governing capacity, and on the other hand, high interdependence. The potential of Warren’s governance-driven democratisation resides in its pragmatic, problem-solving orientation, addressing problems of political leadership and public administration. However, by decoupling politics and economics and failing to attend to socio-economic factors, the practice of governance-driven democratisation has been quite tokenistic, falling short of making substantive positive change to the lives of citizens, in a context of widening inequalities.

Both governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance exist in a dynamic relationship, which shouldn’t be understood as a mere bottom-up v. top-down heuristic. They both attempt to foster participatory governance or to include citizens in the work of public administration through “routinised participation”. They also interact with other participatory spaces, such as oppositional politics (protests) and the commons, where citizens create their everyday democracy by managing public goods through their own democratic decision-making rules and with limited interactions with state institutions.

The contributions to the volume look at how democracy-driven governance emerges across different socio-political and geographical contexts, and how it develops and navigates (or fails to) the constraints of day-to-day politics and public administration. Firstly, we wanted to test the analytical power of democracy-driven governance. By applying these concepts to a range of diverse cases, the chapters help flesh out the empirical characteristics of different forms of participatory governance. Secondly, we were interested in assessing how democracy-driven governance’s aspirations to social justice fare when applied to the real world. Can it strengthen the politics of the commons by making it visible and linking it to state institutions, as in the case of civic management and community-wealth building in Barcelona, or collective electoral mandates in Brazil? Can it facilitate processes of decommodification to help re-embed the economy in democracy and the wider society? Are these new approaches to politics and policymaking sustainable in the face of existing legal, business and public administration constraints?

The contributions trace practical challenges, from participation fatigue and activists’ disappointment with the slow pace of administrative work, to bureaucrats’ resistance or the challenges of reconciling democratic innovations, where citizens can participate as individuals, with assembly democracy, which strengthens organised civil society. One important aspect of democracy-driven governance concerns the digital commons, and the digital sphere will increasingly be the new battleground against the expansion of algorithmic capitalism.

The book provides many insights on the contested space to advance democracy, showing how social movements and citizen participation continue to play a crucial role in furthering the cause of critical theory: to challenge incumbency and demonstrate the possibility of other worlds.

The book launch is on 7th June 2023, at the University of Birmingham and on Zoom – register here.

Sonia Bussu is associate professor of Public Policy at INLOGOV. Her main research interests are participatory governance and participatory action research. Over the years, she has led research and published on participatory and deliberative processes, community engagement, coproduction of public services, and participatory research ethics.

Lessons from literature for local government

Professor Catherine Staite LLB, MBA, FRSA

No man is an island entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,

As well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

John Donne

When every week seems to bring news of yet another major failure of governance in a local authority, some members and officers in other councils will be fearful that the same fate will befall their own council before too long, while others will be confident that all will be well for them.

When we look at the notable governance failures that have occurred in recent years, we see a very complex picture. Causes of failure are many and varied, ranging from the absence of the most basic controls to ambitious but risky money-making schemes. Some patterns are visible in all the complexity, including, failure to listen to officer advice, engaging in commercial activities without the requisite skills and knowledge, weak financial controls and opaque decision-making processes.

Councils need both strong rules, about finance and behaviour and strong public service values. Constant vigilance and honest collective self-reflection are vital to ensure that decision makers are independent, transparent, accountable, behave with integrity, have a sense of shared purpose and focus on outcomes. Ask yourself – are our informal and formal governance arrangements fit-for-purpose? If not, where might the weaknesses lie? Look at your structures. Are your Constitution, Codes of Conduct and Standing Orders up-to-date? Is your organizational structure robust? Are your s151 officer and Monitoring Officer on the senior management team and do they report directly to the Chief Executive? Then look at your systems. Are decision making processes clear? Can projects be started without the right sign-off? Can officers exceed their authority without consequences? Last, but by no means least, take a long hard look at organizational behaviour. How do leading politicians and officers respond to being challenged? Is bad behaviour rife but undiscussable?

It’s important to avoid complacency. Most of the members and officers leading and managing councils that have failed to uphold the best standards of good governance either thought what they were doing was fine, or that they could get away with it. Sometimes those who are part of an organization are the last to notice how the patterns of weak governance and bad behaviour, which have become so familiar that they cease to be noticed, will eventually lead to their downfall. Even when officers can see that their council is not going to able to balance its books or manage its risks, it can be difficult to speak up if members do not want to listen and it can be career limiting when a bullying culture prevails. Although statutory officers have statutory powers and duties, they are will not be protected from retaliation if they are perceived to be raining on the parade of colleagues and members who, because of ambition or political expediency, have lost sight of what good governance looks like. The statutory protections that attach to senior roles are not proof against bullying or actions amounting to constructive dismissal. The power imbalance between members and officers remains significant because while members may lose positions of power, or even their seats, officers risk losing their livelihoods and even their careers.

Those members and officers who consider themselves safe from failure may take some guilty pleasure from the failure of another council, especially if its run by another party. Councils have been encouraged to compete with each other for funding and kudos, so perhaps it’s natural to feel that the standing of better run councils goes up when the reputations of failing councils go right down. That’s a big mistake, for two very strong reasons; failure of one local authority reduces public confidence in local government as whole and it gives central government convincing reasons for not delegating resources and power to a local level. For all that we refer to ‘sovereign’ councils, no council is ‘an island, entire of itself’ and the failure of one diminishes all. When we open the LGC or MJ, to see for ‘whom the bell tolls’ we should hear the message that ‘it tolls for thee’.

Picture credit: Maggie Meng https://www.flickr.com/photos/snowfish2014/

Catherine is a researcher, consultant and coach who specialises in strengthening leadership, improving governance and supporting senior politicians and managers.  She is an independent consultant with Darlingburn, a small consultancy practice and is working with Grant Thornton on local government audit, specializing in governance. She was the Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham from 2011 to 2017.

Local councils must work harder at enabling women to be councillors

Picture: Haringey Council’s 2022 cabinet

Jason Lowther

Local councils can and must do more to enable women to be councillors. Haringey’s new cabinet shows that this can be done, but fifty years after all government elected officials across the UK were finally elected under universal suffrage, new research shows barely a third of local councillors and MPs are women, whereas earlier research showed less than a quarter of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) candidates were women.   This matters not only in terms of democratic fairness, but because politicians’ characteristics impact on public policy.

The research published last week by the Fawcett Society and Democracy Club reflects councillor representation in August 2022 across the UK.  To collect the data, they had to scrape individual council websites since (incredibly) there is no official record of councillors’ gender (or other protected characteristics).  This is because the relevant section of the Equality Act 2010 has still not yet been enacted and in any case as drafted would apply only to candidates in national elections.  This is in contrast to council staff, where the Equality Act applies and has led most councils to capture and publish reasonably detailed assessments of workforce equality issues – as shown by the recent SOLACE / Shared Intelligence report, ‘Understanding and Improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Local Government Workforce’ which we discussed on the blog last autumn.

The Fawcett Society / Democracy Club results show no party yet has parity of representation between women and men, but some are doing much better than others.   The highest proportion of women is found in the Labour Party (47%) and the lowest in the Conservative Party (29%), the SDLP, DUP, and Ulster Unionist Parties. 

Source: Gender representation on local councils, Fawcett Society and Democracy Club (2022)

At individual council level, the highest proportions of women councillors were found in Haringey (65%), Rossendale (61%), Brighton and Hove (56%), Lewisham (56%), and Southwark (56%).  In contrast, Perth and Kinross, Pendle, Comhairle nan Eileen Siar and West Berkshire each have 15% or less of the council made up of women councillors.

One effect of having fewer women decision makers may be that issues that disproportionately affect women are given insufficient attention.  Policymakers play key roles in promoting status-based policies.

Recent research by Professor Francesca Gains (University of Manchester) and Professor Vivien Lowndes (Inlogov) published in the journal Politics & Gender in 2021 analysed the effect of Police and Crime Commissioner’s gender on policymaking around violence against women and girls (VAWG).  An earlier quantitative phase of their research found that policy prioritisation was linked to Police and Crime Commissioners’ own gender, with female PCCs twice as likely to prioritize VAWG.  Their later research analysed how this difference occurred, identifying ‘seven sets of rules that have shaped policy prioritization in favour of VAWG: the right to make key appointments; the requirement to set policy priorities; the obligation to utilize equalities duties; the power to commit resources; the expectation of partnership working with other agencies; the commitment to hold operational police officers to account; and the maintenance of diverse channels of contact with victims of crime and the wider public’ (Gains and Lowndes, 2022, p. 396).

To improve the situation, the Fawcett Society / Democracy Club report makes recommendations to government, political parties and local councils.  For councils, the key actions are:

  • implement parental leave policies, to make being a councillor more accessible to those with caring responsibilities;
  • ensure that caring and dependency allowances reflect the real cost of childcare and are accounted for separately from ‘main’ members’ allowance;
  • pilot alternative ways of working including online and hybrid engagement mechanisms to enable councillors with caring responsibilities to carry out their duties more effectively; and
  • adopt codes of conduct, based on the model developed by the LGA in 2020

Local councils can only be truly effective when they represent the communities they serve.  The Fawcett Society report is a timely reminder that we have a long way to go, but the first steps are clear and practical.

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), University of Birmingham

Reference

Gains, F. and Lowndes, V. (2022) ‘Identifying the institutional micro-foundations of gender policy change: A case study of police governance and violence against women and girls’, Politics & Gender, 18(2), pp. 394-421.

A Japanese view of Jeremy’s budget

Chris Game

I had an interesting Budget week. I was part-hosting a Japanese academic colleague – Prof Toshihiko Ishihara (Kwansei Gakuin University) and his wife, Midori – making their first overseas trip since Covid. They briefly visited Birmingham, where Toshi was an erstwhile INLOGOV Associate, but were based in London, where I’d agreed to organise a theatre visit.

I’d booked tickets for a well-reviewed modern-day play, Romeo and Julie, loosely based on one of Shakespeare’s. Single-sentence synopsis: Julie – a bright, Cambridge University-bound, aspiring astrophysicist – is emotionally torn between uni and her affection for young single dad, Romeo, effectively sole carer for his baby daughter afflicted with Poonami.  

No, the Poonami doesn’t feature in Shakespeare’s version, but, researcher that I am, I’d discovered it’s a real medical thing, meaning affected babies’ sudden, massive, uncontrollable bowel movements. Better still, that etymologically Poonami derives directly from the Japanese tsunami – a sudden, volcanic, unstoppable wave. My guests were delighted – and the play too was excellent.   

The following Wednesday, however, was Budget Day – followed by the Birmingham Post’s impassioned coverage of our region’s “Power grab”, the “seismic shift in devolution as West Midland leaders take more control from Whitehall”, etc. (pp.1,7) – guaranteeing some amused but tricky questions from someone who both lives with and studies serious mayoral governance.

It was the national news headlines, though, that I was obliged to address first, and the UK’s “unsustainable … biggest since the war … tax burden” – characterised by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt as something horrendous and to be avoided, certainly by a Conservative Government, at almost any costs.

We’re not Basil Fawltys, but my Japanese friends and I tend not to mention ‘the war’ that much. Anyway, the timescale wasn’t really the issue. It was that highest-level tax forecast of 37.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and yes, we do make life harder by colluding in almost invariably labelling it a “tax burden”, rather than, say, the “quality-of-life price” that the tax helps pay for.

What Toshi and other Japanese students of these things invariably query is: why the excitement/horror over a tax-to-GDP ratio currently almost identical to theirs? Yes, ours is indeed a higher ‘burden’ than those of, say, the US or Switzerland. But, as shown in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Chart A, both we – at roughly 34% of GDP – and Japan are currently in the bottom third of “advanced economies”, and even at a forecast 37.7% we’d still be mid-table and some way BELOW both most sizeable West European countries, plus bits of Eastern Europe too.

It’s interesting. Pollsters never ask us if we prefer NOT being an ‘advanced economy’ – you know, one with fully staffed and functioning health and social services, decently funded schools, reliable public transport, etc.?  And I’m not sure how collectively we’d answer. Clearly, these things do cost money, yet we obviously like visiting these higher-taxed places for our holidays.  Not Denmark perhaps – top, with its 47% tax ‘burden’ – but France, Austria, Italy, Scandinavia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc.

It’s presumably at least partly these countries’ ‘quality of life’ (QoL) that attracts us – which, unsurprisingly, correlates broadly with ‘tax burden’. There are several QoL indexes, one being Numbeo’s. It’s not the most methodologically sophisticated, but it does produce nice maps, collectively summarising its measures, which include purchasing power, safety, health care, cost of living, and pollution.

Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland are currently top, scoring nearly 200 QoL points. Then the usual suspects – Finland, Iceland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Japan (13th) etc. – down to No.21 – UK 166.4, just ahead of Croatia. Disappointing, but could be worse – bottom at 84th is red Nigeria, not with ‘nul points’ exactly, but only 40.

The underlying, systemic problem, obviously not mentioned by Chancellor Hunt, is precisely his Department: His Majesty’s Treasury – first time I’ve typed that! – and its overbearing central funding control, currently exercised politically and communicated by him. And formerly by, among others, one George Osborne – which is where the irony starts. When Chancellor of the Exchequer, Osborne launched, and currently chairs, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) – self-described as “the leading voice of business and civic leaders across the North”.

And currently a very shouty voice. For, within days of Hunt’s Budget pronouncements, along came Osborne with his NPP ‘wrecking ball’ – a clumsily titled but potentially headline-making report: Fiscal DevoNation – The Blueprint for How to Devolve Tax to the Regions of England. The Treasury, he and his Powerhouse chums now reckon – and as local government has complained for years – far from being the provider of solutions, is itself the problem. Its voice is the overwhelmingly dominant one in what Osborne nowadays sees as a damagingly over-centralised fiscal system. Just like when he was boss.

The NPP’s solutions involve, at least eventually, full-scale fiscal devolution. The “most unfair” council tax – with its outdated property values – stamp duty (paid on purchasing residential property), and business rates should all go, eliminating the Treasury’s all-powerful role altogether. The at least eventual replacement, following a comprehensive revaluation of all homes, would be a locally set land value tax, plus three new council tax ‘super bands’ for the most valuable properties, with revenue to be shared across the country.

Yep – that’s radical, but there’s more – like the localised hotel tax that numerous other countries already have, which NPP reckons could raise an annual £5.5 millions for the Lake District alone.

But I digress – from what my Japanese visitors really wanted to talk about: that Budget highlight of a “seismic shift” in devolution, to the West Midlands and Greater Manchester regions, and their elected Mayors, Andys Street and Burnham, who will get new multi-year devolution funding deals, and be allowed to retain business rates – to be followed by further such agreements across England.

At the time of writing, there hadn’t been a direct response from Northern Powerhouse as to how far down the ‘full-scale fiscal devolution’ road this might take us. As for a Japanese reaction, well, this blog is already overlong; but their response would probably start with the country’s written constitution, and the local government chapter guaranteeing its role and “the principle of local autonomy”. It’s an ultra-crude summary, but basically the national state does currency, diplomacy and defence, and pretty much everything else is left to the 47 prefectures and 1,700 or so municipalities. And heading those municipalities … directly elected mayors!

As the American phrase puts it: ‘Way to go’ – in both senses.  

_____________________

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in the March 23rd edition of the Birmingham Post.

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.

Mission Possible? 

Jason Lowther

With under 700 days to the next UK general election, political parties are busy developing their manifesto documents.  In February, Labour leader Keir Starmer made a major speech laying out his “five missions for a better Britain”.   How do these five missions relate to local government?  And is the turn to “mission driven” government likely to work?

The five missions vary in their level of specificity and challenge.  Securing “the highest sustained growth in the G7, with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country…” is a little vague but likely to be difficult, especially given we are currently ranked 6 out of 7 in terms of output per worker.  Mission #2, “make Britain a clean energy superpower”, accelerating the move to zero-carbon electricity from 2035 to 2030, is specific but very challenging.  Mission #3, reform of health and social care and reducing health inequalities, will require a re-focus from secondary (hospital) care to social care and addressing the social determinants of health.  Mission #4 is about community safety, and likely to involve more community policing.  Finally, mission #5 is to “break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage” through reform to the childcare and education systems.

Local government potentially has important roles in each of the five missions.  Local education, skills and economic development functions will be critical to improving productivity.  On energy, Net Zero requires at least a doubling of electricity generation by 2050, from decarbonised sources.  Decarbonisation strategies need to be place-based, taking account of the geography, building types, energy infrastructure, energy demand, resources and urban growth plans.   We’ve recently argued here for the key roles of councils in this area. 

Turning to health and care services, local government clearly has leading roles – including ensuring place-based planning to address the social and behavioural causes of health inequalities.  Analysis by the Liverpool and Lancaster Universities Collaboration for Public Health Research in 2021 concluded: “investment across the whole of local government is needed to level up health including investment in housing, children’s, leisure, cultural, environmental, and planning services”.  Similarly community safety, child care and education are areas where local government could be enabled to have much greater positive impact.

Perhaps as important as the specific “missions” is the approach to governing which the party is proposing.   Labour’s document characterises this as a move from top-down, target-led, short-term, siloed approaches, to government which is more “agile, empowering and catalytic”, working across the public and private sectors, and civil society.  This, it argues, requires organising government around a shared vision, focusing on real world outcomes, concentrating on ends with flexibility and innovation concerning means, devolving decision making from Westminster, increasing accountability including central and local data transparency, and adopting long-term preventative approaches including greater financial certainty for local areas. 

In some ways the idea of mission-driven government echoes the 1990s thinking of Ted Gaebler and David Osborne’s book “reinventing government”, which argued for a more entrepreneurial approach to the delivery of government.  Their work pointed to entrepreneurial companies setting overall missions and goals, and then leaving managers to figure out how best to deliver these – for example, by providing an overall budget for a service rather than detailed line-by-line budgets which disappear if not spent by year end.  The focus on managers rather than considering the perspective of politicians is one of the problems identified in subsequent evaluations of the reinventing government model, together with difficulties in sustaining the approach.

Mission-driven policies addressing ‘grand challenges’ of society are increasingly common, for example in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and various EU policies.  Mazzucato et al recently argued that addressing such challenges requires strategic thinking about: the desired direction of travel, the structure and capacity of public sector organisations, the way in which policy is assessed, and the incentive structure for the private, public (and I would add community) sectors. Labour’s paper makes a start (albeit at a very high level) on thinking through these areas. The litmus test, though, will be in developing the detail and how far this engages with local areas.   

Over the next few months, we will be contributing to the debate on the upcoming party manifestos with some research-informed thoughts on a variety of local government related policy areas.  If you would like to be involved in developing these, please get in touch

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: BBC