Towards a model of sector-led improvement in UK local government

This post is based on Iain Taylor-Allen’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Iain Taylor-Allen

New policy is emerging from a political doctrine espousing the need to re-engage society in governance through the decentralisation of power, responsibility and accountability to the lowest possible level. In addition, fiscal reality serves to accelerate the desire for change. Whilst the new order is still emerging, the extent of reform to date has brought local government organisations front and centre.

Despite an exhaustive review spanning three decades, and covering both the public and private sector improvement literature, I could find little suitably developed theory on sector-led improvement pertinent to the current (or comparable) context of the UK local government sector. In response I designed and undertook an original piece of inductive research with the purpose of establishing an understanding of local government sector-led improvement in the UK, and identifying the key components of a sustainable model of sector-led improvement.

The research revealed a dynamic understanding of local government sector-led improvement, providing a provisional, high level definition of the phenomena focused on three key themes:

  • Mutual responsibility for the local government sector to support itself to improve and to share learning and best practice
  • Securing effective and value-for-money improvements to achieve better outcomes for service users
  • Ownership for improvement with a focus on local priorities.

Following further analysis three headline themes emerged, each comprising of key components identified by interviewees as critical to establishing a sustainable model of local government sector-led improvement:

  • Leadership (engagement and ownership)
  • Credibility  (assurance and improvement
  • Environment

Taken together the themes identified comprise the key components of what is referred to here as a provisional model of sustainable local government sector owned and led improvement, set in an environment that embraces the values identified to support the sector to realise improvement from within.

The model highlights the key components required for sector-led improvement to achieve the primary aim of positive citizen and service user outcomes, and be sustainable. These core components of leadership and credibility must exist within a reciprocally supportive, transparent and action focused environment characterised by a culture of mutual respect and ‘positive’ challenge from within the sector on behalf of the sector. Expressed in terms of establishing engagement as a basis for securing ownership for improvement from within the sector, effective leadership is a pre-requisite for developing and establishing the necessary level of credibility both within and outside the sector for the approach to be sustainable. Here, credibility is understood in terms of a cycle of assurance and improvement, focussed on robust performance base lining as a basis for securing the understanding and confidence to engage in improvement activity.

The findings highlight enthusiasm from within the sector to take on the challenge and responsibility of improvement, as well as drawing attention to the raft of potential benefits of a widespread adoption of the approach. Moreover, it provides researchers and practitioners alike a glimpse of the potential of a local government sector-led approach to improvement to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of local service provision, and hopefully the much needed stimulus for consistent, applied research to develop policy and practice to realise the potential benefits.

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Iain Taylor-Allen is an Adult Social Care Performance Manager. He has a keen interest in public management – specifically focusing on leadership, organisational culture and transformation; sector-led approaches to improvement; and the use of qualitative and quantitative measures to drive service/ contract/ organisational performance.

How do undergraduates construct their view of a public service professional?

This post is based on Sarah Jeffries’ MSc dissertation, which she completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Sarah Jeffries

Working in a University Careers Service you get to hear a lot of voices, particularly those of students and employers. The students are preparing themselves to enter the workforce, develop their careers, and have an impact within their chosen sector. Whilst having a discussion with one such student, the subject of his skills and working within the public sector arose; his response was: No, I want to work somewhere professional”, which he then identified as the private sector. 

That was a powerful statement, however it was by no means unique. There are often misconceptions about the types of skills currently being sought in the public sector (and that’s not limited to students), particularly those for graduate-entry roles and graduate recruitment programmes. This is also in addition to the ‘professionalism’ of public sector workers being called in to question.

The modernisation agenda and increasing comparisons with the perceived efficiencies of the private sector have also given rise to unfavourable judgements in comparison. Conversely, how are students with ‘public sector motivation’ perceiving the skills and understandings required from a role in the public sector? Are they developing the skills required for the changing public sector landscape?

The modernisation agenda has also brought an increase in public-private partnerships, and the reality is that many public service professionals work across sector boundaries. This is reflected in the skills being sought by public sector graduate recruiters, for example: the 2012 National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) ‘Bright Future Report’ stated: “Increasingly councils need skills that have not been developed before, including commercial acumen and commissioning ability in order to deliver services through partners” (P.9). These are skills traditionally viewed as private-sector related.

Using Q-methodology, I researched how students constructed their view of a Public Service Professional to make sense of how we can best prepare students for the realities of public sector life, and the changing nature of the workforce.

Q-methodology allows the researcher to explore the concourse of debate surrounding a topic, and provides a mechanism to understand how an undergraduate student perceives representative statements, in relationship to each other. This provides an illuminating picture of how their reality is constructed.

The concourse in this area was broad with a need to capture a range of voices (media reports, social media, job descriptions, student discussion boards, literature review, and interviews with students, graduate and non-specific graduate recruiters (multiple sectors)), and it highlighted the conflicting messages being presented. These ranged from “seeking ambitious graduates” to “outdated”; from “popular graduate destination” to “huge job losses”; to “crossing sector boundaries in role” and “working in silos”.

Students completed a sorting exercise using statements that encompassed the range of debate, and participated in an accompanying interview. The results reveal seven different factors or viewpoints, reflecting the complexity of the changing working landscape.  These included polarised positive and negative perceptions of public sector professionals, in addition to idealistic and stereotyped interpretations that do not necessarily reflect reality. These findings highlight the potential difficulties in recruiting the best, and most prepared candidates for positions. The research recommended that further sector specific research be undertaken to increase the understanding for public sector recruiters. This is hopefully, where my application for a PhD comes in…

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Sarah Jeffries has just completed a part-time MSc in Public Management with INLOGOV. She works for the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham, managing the University’s optional employability programme: the Personal Skills Award. Sarah also chairs the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Skills Award Task Group. Follow her on Twitter here.

Harnessing the resources of social enterprises for local authority savings

This post is based on Sam Tappenden’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Sam Tappenden

In recent years a broad political consensus appears to have developed around the argument that social enterprises have an important role to play in the future of the United Kingdom. Yet despite the political rhetoric, the field of social enterprise research is still relatively under-developed. One major gap as perceived by the UK Social Enterprise Coalition is in understanding how social enterprises use their resources; how social enterprises mobilise resources that other organisations see as liabilities; and how social enterprises are able to integrate resources to formulate strategies and exploit opportunities. For this reason I decided to use Grant’s Resource-Based View (RBV) of strategy as a theoretical framework to explore whether HCM could develop a new strategy for achieving sustainable competitive advantages.

The apparent gap around social enterprises and resources is precisely why I decided to focus on this area for my INLOGOV MSc dissertation. Furthermore, I am currently on secondment from Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) to Hertfordshire Community Meals (HCM), a successful social enterprise which was set up and commissioned in 2007 by HCC to deliver a ‘Meals on Wheels’ (MoWs) service to disabled, elderly, and vulnerable people across Hertfordshire. The very nature of the organisation means that difficult planning, logistical, and resource issues run at the heart of the business, which provided an excellent opportunity for an in-depth case study.

Grant’s theory allowed for the ‘discovery’ of a wide range of under-utilised resources. For example, the research suggests that HCM has:

  • A broad range of transferrable ‘tacit’ and ‘non-tacit’ skills
  • A family-oriented, task-focussed, and tightly-knit organisational culture;
  • A motivated workforce which is primarily driven by ‘intangible’ benefits;
  • A range of under-utilised physical resources such as vehicles
  • A secure and stable financial position

Of particular interest were the findings into HCM’s intangible resources. For example, the culture of the organisation appears to be the source of some of its key capabilities, including its skills in caring, its reputation as a ‘likable’ organisation, and relationships with local government. As a direct result of its positive culture, HCM appears to have an inherent ability to both attract and retain a particular ‘type’ of person that is motivated to ‘make a difference’, attracted by the family-oriented environment, and inherently caring. In this sense it could be argued that the culture of HCM is self-propagating.

Yet more significant is the ‘transferability’ of HCM’s resources: Using Grant’s framework, the research suggests that HCM could achieve sustainable competitive advantages by diversifying into the community care industry through better-utilising its existing resource infrastructure. Furthermore, with HCM’s corporate status as a charitable and not-for-profit social enterprise, it is very likely that in diversifying its core business model HCM could help HCC find considerable financial savings in, for example, the council’s homecare budget. In sum, in the case of HCM, the evidence suggests that social enterprises can draw on a wide range of both tangible and intangible resources which could (and should) be utilised to help balance the budgets of local authorities.

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Sam Tappenden started his career in local government in 2010 through Hertfordshire County Council’s Graduate Training scheme. As part of the training scheme, Sam read for an MSc in Public Management at INLOGOV. Sam is now seconded to Hertfordshire Community Meals as a Business Development Manager where his role is focussed on improving the efficiency of the current business model and assessing options for business diversification. Before moving to Hertfordshire Sam read History at Cardiff University, worked as a Special Constable for South Wales Police, and taught English in rural China.

Street-level bureaucrats and the UK’s Better Regulation agenda: are the two compatible?

This post is based on Harry Barton’s MSc dissertation, which he completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Harry Barton

Since Michael Lipsky’s seminal 1980 text ‘Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of The Individual in Public Services’, which argues that public policy can only be understood in the crowded offices and daily encounters of the street-level public servant, an extensive body of work has been established on the subject.

The regulatory arena, and the important role of inspectors at the front-line of regulatory activity, is one area of study that this literature has only recently begun to capitalise on.

‘Better’, ‘responsive’, ‘risk-based’ regulation, as extolled by the twin reviews of Hampton and Macrory, has become the accepted operating model for many British regulatory bodies. This has had an impact on the organisation and operationalisation of their street-level staff, with the potential to marginalise their role, at the same time as the rise of ‘managerialism’ in public bureaucracies more generally.

However, because of their enduring relationship with ‘clients’, street-level bureaucrats continue to influence public policy. The changing face and form of front-line (or ‘near-line’) regulatory staff elucidates an increasingly more nuanced and subjective typology of street-level bureaucrat.

In order to unpick this, my research study focused on three broad themes of analysis adapted from the literature:

  1. The dynamics of the regulatory encounter (key relationship: bureaucrat-client)
  2. How regulatory standards are determined in field practice (key relationship: bureaucracy-bureaucrat)
  3. Pressures and demands on the individual inspector (key relationship: bureaucracy-bureaucrat-client)

Interviews conducted with regional regulatory staff evidenced a broad conformation with three explanatory variables found in the non-regulatory literature for the autonomy of street-level bureaucrats:

  • Professional values and ‘institutions’ and the extent to which groups lock themselves into strategies either of resistance or accommodation.
  • The rules and regulations embedded within the organisation and the degree to which decision-making responsibility is delegated along hierarchical lines.
  • The complexity of the tasks undertaken and the extent to which role clarity is present in the workplace.

A number of case-specific factors cut across the analytical themes under investigation, suggesting a compound effect on street-level bureaucrats: ‘Structural conflicts’ caused by the perseverance of the previous bureau-professional culture, at odds with the imposition of the paradigm of responsive regulation and causing confusion for regulated firms; discord with regards to certain policy positions adopted as a result of a more ‘responsive’ and streamlined approach; and an ambiguous legal framework – responsive regulation is predicated on the mutual recognition of what the law requires of regulatees.

The conflict and indeterminacy from a number of angles provokes classic ‘coping mechanisms’ due to the pressure this creates on street-level bureaucrats in fulfilling what they see as their primary regulatory role (e.g. protecting the public). Street-level bureaucratic behaviours (discretion and coping) were apparent in front-line staff as well as ‘near-line’ management, albeit on an inconsistent basis – in congruence with the inconsistency with which staff may have been managed and processes executed.

These findings lead me to make the following recommendations:

  • Staff need to be given the opportunity to deal with indeterminacy by building confidence in their own position and judgement.
  • Would-be responsive regulators need to ensure the buy-in of their people on the ground, through full involvement in change processes to give them ownership of the new responsive regime.
  • Staff need to be clear not just about the range of compliance activities and actions that may be taken (the ‘regulatory smorgasbord’), but the breadth and depth of the portions of its regulatory ‘pyramid’ (see Macrory) and the regularity with which their organisation dare venture to the summit.

Otherwise there is a risk that susceptible staff are pushed away, discretion and coping behaviours take over, and that cooperative and collaborative relationships that have been built up with clients lead to negative regulatory outcomes and/or regulatory capture.

There is seemingly a lack of consideration in both the street-level bureaucratic and the responsive regulation literature for the establishment and development of bureaucracy-bureaucrat-client relationships over time (within the regulatory environment), whereby shifting internal and external social, institutional and individual factors could, for example, subvert or short-circuit the decision making and processual elements of the traditional street-level/regulatory experience.

Just as there are peaks and troughs in the economy, natural oscillations occur over time in the regulatory spectrum from self-regulation to command regulation (as witnessed recently in financial services regulation), creeping up and down the regulatory pyramid, placing different levels and forms of indeterminacy on bureaucrats at any one time. This is a difficult journey to predict or plan for, but scenario or strategic planning could be attempted, whilst regulators need to continue managing regulatee expectations to balance ‘regulatory certainty’ with programmes of ‘developmental regulation’. If not, responsive regulation will not fulfil its promise: as regulators wait for risk analyses and assumptions to do the work for them, the industry moves on.

 In a regulatory environment, street-level bureaucrat ‘professionalism’ has traditionally been built on the ability of bureaucrats to identify and assess risk and to employ the appropriate response using judgement. The onset of the risk-based approach to regulation has merely introduced a ‘system-level’ method of considering risk which if implemented incorrectly could disempower street-level bureaucrats and trigger coping mechanisms and discretion in different ways amongst front-line staff and at management level. This could create unintended consequences, undermining the credibility and effectiveness of regulatory regimes. In the UK, recent scandals, such as horsemeat in beef products, suppression of whistleblowers and cover-ups in the NHS and CQC, as well as the introduction of a ‘judgement-led’ regulatory regime in financial services regulation, have begun to reflect poorly on risk-based regulation, while its arbiters continue to ruminate rather than regulate.

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Harry Barton has worked in local government and for different regulatory bodies. His research interests include the construction of public policy, participative democracy, project, programme and change management. The biggest motivator in choosing this topic for his research project was to understand more about how the public sector should go about developing the skills and personnel it needs to be effective in the future. Follow his Twitter feed here.

Citizen participation through the looking glass

This blog post is based on Catherine Jackson-Read’s MSc dissertation, which she completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Catherine Jackson-Read

My dissertation explores the experiences of local residents, elected representatives and local authority officers in Malvern, Worcestershire, as they negotiate the transfer of the management of a community asset from the County Council to a local community trust.

A series of themes emerge which may be symptomatic of the relationship between citizen and state today; the challenges inherent in the role of local elected members; the tension between representative democracy and citizen participation; the conflict between local needs and priorities at a district level and the broader strategic agenda; and the capacity of the state to facilitate active citizenship. These experiences suggest that new rules and norms are emerging and that citizens are creating new spaces for engagement and participation particularly in the form of alternative models of management of public services and facilities. The challenge is not so much about the willingness of the state to work collaboratively with citizens, the challenge is in their ability to do so.

Fundamental questions emerge about the efficacy of the current model of local government. There are inherent tensions and conflicts in the role of locally elected members and the challenges of acting in multiple capacities as committee members directing or contributing to strategic policy; representatives of a constituency, responding to the needs and wishes of a local community; and party activists with political values and a commitment to a party line. Elected members are caught between a rock and a hard place. Conservative District Council Members cannot both support the wishes of the local community and their party’s county-wide austerity programme. County Council Members have to juggle two potentially conflicting policies, supporting local service delivery and reducing service costs.

These tensions and conflicts are exacerbated by a diverse party political and multi-tiered local authority context that together create an adversarialism that makes meaningful and informed debate extraordinarily difficult. At the time of the study both Worcestershire County and Malvern Hills District Councils were Conservative controlled. However a Liberal Democrat councillor represented the electoral Division in which the community asset – a Youth Centre – is located. These tensions are not necessarily new. However, I would argue that the extent of the cynicism about, and mistrust between, citizens and politicians and the decision making processes are. As a candidate in the recent local elections where turn out for the Division was a paltry 26%, I felt citizen anger and frustration at first hand.

Multi tiered local authority structures and the opportunity they present for political point scoring add to the challenges of decommissioning and the tensions between localism and wider strategic priorities. Perceptions and priorities differ at a locality and county level. Services and buildings have different associations for local communities who may recognise the rationale for changing the former but are reluctant to let go of the latter. Distanced leaders of county authorities need to understand the local community story better and find ways of engaging constituents in dialogue if the decommissioning of physical assets and services is not to become a battle ground for localism versus strategic policy making or party politics.

Questions about the fit between local authority decision making processes and citizen participation in service delivery also emerge. Local community groups are expected to demonstrate behaviours and ways of working that model the local authority’s way of working and that potentially undermine the very flexible, informal and organic approach that engaged local people in the first place. The facilitative role adopted by local authority officers in this case suggests that they are adapting to this new scenario. Council processes and how elected members use them, however, still appear to be in need of reform.

The study offers some interesting insights into citizen participation and representative democracy. The community group in the study forge their own path. They utilise local government processes, but only in so far as working with the representative system of democracy will enable them to achieve their objectives. That they operate “without” rather than “within” the system suggests we are seeing the emergence (or re-emergence?) of a model of citizen participation that poses a challenge to prevailing behaviours and practices; members of a local community directly representing themselves and assuming community leadership and service delivery roles divorced from the structures and institutions of the state.

The real challenge facing the state is how to marry, and potentially harness, citizen participation which is predominantly protest based, localised and issue specific with local democratic processes which aim to balance a wider range of policy and political interests.

Jackson-Read

Cathy Jackson-Read is an experienced facilitator and organisational development consultant who has worked at strategic and operational levels with a variety of statutory service providers, regional and sub-regional agencies and voluntary and community organisations, to enable cross sector liaison and collaborative working. Cathy currently works as a senior manager with Onside Independent Advocacy, a Worcester based charity providing services and support to vulnerable and disadvantaged adults. She also recently stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the Worcestershire County Council elections and leads the local party’s Adult Health and Social Care Group.