Do shared services improve resilience?  Mixed evidence from district councils during the Covid-19 pandemic

Dr Thomas Elston and Dr Germà Bel

Inter-municipal collaboration, often referred to as ‘shared services,’ has gained a significant foothold in English local government over the last 10-15 years, bringing England into line with much of mainland Europe and the USA. 

This model of jointly providing public services across two or more local jurisdictions, whether through a ‘joint committee’ or ‘lead authority’ model, or by joint commissioning of a private contractor, was primarily intended as an efficiency measure through which cash-strapped councils might attain new economies of scale during the ‘age of austerity.’  Limited evidence to date unfortunately suggests that councils’ large cost-saving aspirations have not tended to be been matched by achievements, though more research is needed.

Nonetheless, when councils and management consultants were preparing their ambitious shared service business cases, typically in the early 2010s, improved service quality and better resilience in the face of unexpected adversity were also named as advantages of the shared services approach, alongside efficiency.  Since efficiency and resilience are often regarded as mutually incompatible (e.g., slack resources are inefficient but protective against shocks), and given that there are few if any empirical tests of the relationship between shared services and business continuity in existing literature, we set out to investigate.

Taking the first Covid-19 lockdown during the spring of 2020 as the sudden and severe ‘adversity’ against which local government resilience was tested, we compared levels of service disruption in collaborating and autonomous councils compared against pre-covid performance, controlling statistically for potential alternative explanations.  Our analysis focuses on revenues and benefits departments in district councils, since a significant proportion of these (ca 30% at the onset of Covid-19) are operated collaboratively.  And we focus on the administration of Housing Benefit specifically, for which robust, high-frequency (monthly and quarterly), and multi-dimensional (speed, quality and cost) performance data is available.

Our study found that disruption of Housing Benefit application processing speeds during lockdown was unrelated to mode of service provision.  For both shared and autonomous arrangements, performance worsened slightly during lockdown, before resuming its pre-pandemic trajectory over the summer of 2020.  However, collaborating councils did show less of a decline in service accuracy objectives during lockdown, measured as both the identification of new debt owing to benefit overpayments (not shown) and, particularly, the recovery of such debt from claimants (shown in the graph below).  These mixed results – no effect on speed, partial protection for accuracy – proved robust to various different econometric specifications.

Average value of debt recovered from Housing Benefits claimants as percentage of total debt outstanding, comparing ‘stand alone’ and collaborative provision, Q4 2018–19 to Q1 2020–21

There are a variety of possible explanations for this pattern. 

First is that the apparent resilience in debt identification and recovery is simply an artifact of the performance differential between shared and autonomous revenues and benefits departments pre-pandemic.  As the graph above indicates, and contrary to business-case predictions, shared services (grey dashed line) appear to be consistently associated with less debt recovery prior to COVID, meaning that autonomous councils simply had ‘further to fall’ during the emergency, producing their appearance of reduced resilience. 

Second, and more substantively, is that high-performing organizations can fall into ‘success traps’ or ‘competency traps.’  According to existing literature on organizational resilience, the low level of challenge facing high-performing organizations during ‘normal’ times can leave them complacent and ill-equipped to deal with unexpected adversity; whereas less-successful organizations are more familiar with confronting and managing adversity in their everyday operations, and thus better rehearsed for managing crises.

Third is that there genuinely is something about the shared services model – be it the increase in operating scale, the balancing of peaks and troughs in demand and resourcing across different partners, the greater experience of remote working prior to COVID, or the lock-in effects that arise when service operations are specified in contracts or service-level agreements – that enables collaborative arrangements to better withstand the challenges of service delivery during lockdown.

Finally, it is interesting to consider why the partial resilience revealed in our data is concentrated on debt identification and recovery, rather than speed – recognizing that bureaucracies often face a trade-off between speed and accuracy of decisions.

Studies of goal conflict suggest that organizations can cope with such split objectives by prioritizing those that are most valued by their largest or loudest constituency.  Benefit claimants and their landlords favour speedy service, whereas central government (which funds Housing Benefit) advocates accuracy.  But perhaps Whitehall overseers pursued this agenda less forcefully during the pandemic, when many distractions arose and when preservation of life and livelihoods was clearly better served by providing speedy financial support to vulnerable populations than by auditing prior applications.

Alternatively, goal conflict can also be address by sequencing – addressing one goal first, and then another. Whereas poor timeliness of benefit processing cannot be subsequently rectified (once a payment is late, it is late), poor accuracy can be corrected subsequently through greater attention to and resourcing of debt collection later in the year or in future years. The debt will still be owed, albeit the risk of debt write-off will be higher. Future research will be able to test this ‘catch-up’ hypothesis once data on debt identification and recovery during subsequent quarters of the pandemic is released.

Overall, then, in contrast to the questionable financial benefits of shared service adoption in the English context, this study has indicated that possible advantages may be gained in terms of service resilience.  We have just secured a research grant to replicate and expand this research agenda into additional service areas and over a longer time frame.

This blog is based on research recently published in Public Management Review.

Dr Thomas Elston is Association Professor of Public Administration at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.  His research focuses on the organisation of public services, and particularly on questions of performance, resilience, reform and democratic control.  His work on shared services has been published in JPART, Public Administration, Public Management Review, and Public Money & Management.

Dr Germà Bel is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Barcelona.  His research deals with the reform of the public sector, with a special focus on privatization, regulation, and competition. His research pays particular attention to local public services, transportation, and infrastructure. His work on shared services has been published in JPART, Public Administration, Public Management Review, Local Government Studies and Urban Affairs Review.

Policy problems are complex. So what?

Koen Bartels, Selen Ercan and John Boswell

Image: Robert Couse-Baker

There is no denying that we live in complex times, featuring a global pandemic, climate change, and structural inequality. Complex problems are often incredibly difficult to address. Policy makers, practitioners and scholars have known this for a long time. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe problems that were so complicated and ambiguous that those involved could not even agree on what the problem exactly was, and how a good solution would look like. Twenty years later, Jan Kooiman argued that the governance systems in place to address these complex problems are equally complex.

Yes, policy problems are complex. So what?

We are not asking this question out of apathy. Instead, we want to find out what it actually means to call policy problems ‘complex’. What difference does it make to those involved to call a problem complex? How do they make sense of complexity and deal with it? In what ways can we understand and study complexity? And is it possible to somehow solve complex problems? These were the kind of questions we addressed during this year’s section ‘Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges’, which we co-convened at the annual ECPR conference 2021.

Panels explored complex problems in different policy areas and contexts including ecological sustainability, criminal justice and urban transformations. We have learnt, for example, how Roma migrant women navigate and reorganise their everyday lives when their husbands ‘disappear’ to jail, leaving them in a tremendous state of uncertainty posed by highly discriminatory criminal justice system. Another panel speaker revealed the practical consequences of the complex child protection system in Chile: this system led to tragic policy failures that destroyed or even ended children’s lives. Several presentations explained how governance systems ‘locked in’ the status quo continued to frustrate policies and efforts to promote sustainability.

This year’s section also featured a roundtable on Nicole Curato’s recent book Democracy in Times of Misery. We had the opportunity to ask Curato questions about her ethnographic work in the Philippines, and the ways she uses normative political theory to make sense of the emerging democratic practices in the aftermath of natural disasters. As we heard from Curato and other contributors of the roundtable, one key challenge for democracy we identified is to listen to the ‘unspeakable tragedies’ taking place in the world and celebrate the ‘humble victories’ through which citizens reclaim public space.

What emerges as an important avenue for better understanding complexity both from the panel discussions and the roundtable on Curato’s book is the need to focus more on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Shifting the focus from the trade-offs policy makers face when dealing with complex policy problems to the ways citizens experience complexity can offer novel ways of comprehending and addressing complexity. One of the panel speakers explored how citizens make sense of austerity and the ways this influences their political views. Another panel speaker explained how a focus on people’s experiences of the area in which they live can help understand how to best give shape to economic development policies, such as the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda.

Similarly, a focus on the everyday practices of policy makers can cast new light on how they deal with complexity. One panel speaker for instance explained why they publicly remain proponents of collaboration to deal with ‘wicked problems’, despite their privately held ‘wicked thoughts’ about the frustrations and limitations they experience in practice. If you must know, they do it to get access to other actors, build alliances, infiltrate networks, or channel conflict. So, by acknowledging the complexity of policy problems, policy makers can justify inaction or reinforce the status quo.

Methodological innovations, such as ‘Trajectory-Based Qualitative Comparative Analysis’, can help to trace the complexity of urban transformations. While action research can help to foster joint learning about how to work with, rather than control or resolve complexity. One participant wrote in her paper: “We are drowning in the ocean of theories and case studies of water governance, but why does it not match up with the successful implementation of those goals?” There is an important role here for policy analysts to foster learning and change in collaboration with stakeholders. In fact, many presentations demonstrated significant (untapped) potential for helping to harness the complex problems they identified.

We might even say that, like the weather, many participants were talking about complexity but not doing anything with it. Nearly everyone evoked the notion ‘wicked problems’ to frame their research, but relatively few actually used looked at the world in terms of complexity. Complexity theory is one of the major innovations of the past decades in the Social Sciences and has also gotten a foothold in the field of Public Policy. It views the world in terms of complexity that cannot be controlled or known objectively. Like the flight patterns of a flock of birds, the world is unpredictable and emergent. We need to accept this and make sense of the ‘complex adaptive systems’ that take shape (and are constantly changing) in interaction between webs of interdependent actors. This, again, asks for stakeholders to engage in ongoing learning and adaptation as they collaboratively confront the complex problems they face in everyday practice.

Koen Bartels is Associate Professor at INLOGOV and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

Selen Ercan is Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

John Boswell is Associate Professor at the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

Research to Help Rebuild After Covid-19

Jason Lowther

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, met (virtually) with over 100 researchers and policy officers to discuss the output of a six-month programme looking at some of the fundamental challenges to our society, economy and ways of living.  Commissioned by the Government Office for Science, the Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme aims to help government with medium- and long-term challenges relating to the challenges of Covid-19, captured under nine themes including “vulnerable communities”, “supporting services”, and “local and national growth”.


The overall programme was led by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver, two experienced social scientists whose work focusses on the use of evidence.  In their recent LSE article, they explain the background to the programme and how plans were upturned in March with the introduction of Lockdown in the UK.  

I was particularly involved in the “supporting services” theme, convening the work around local government.  It is an exciting initiative to be involved with, not just because of its scope and pace, but also because of the range of people engaged: researchers and academics, government policy and analysis officers, and funders.  What I found particularly interesting was how different Government departments and different academic disciplines were often looking at very similar issues but framing them from distinct perspectives and using diverse language to describe them.  This highlights the need to develop shared definitions of issues and ways to address these – considering “problem-based issues” in the round.

As well as summarising the existing research evidence around each of the identified themes, the work identified several “gaps” in the extant evidence base and opportunities for new research, policy/research dialogue, and knowledge exchange.

Within the Local Government theme, we recognised that LG’s role proved critical in the first stage of the pandemic, for example in supporting vulnerable and shielded people, enabling voluntary community groups, freeing up 30,000 hospital beds, housing over 5,000 homeless people, and sustaining essential services such as public health, waste collection, safeguarding and crematoria.  This role is likely to increase in future stages of the pandemic, with more responsibility for local surveillance testing and tracing, implementing local lockdowns, economic development, contributing to a sustainable social care system, and supporting further community mutual aid.

There is already a good evidence base showing how local government is playing vital roles in responding to and recovering from the pandemic.  We identified four main themes: empowering local communities, delivering and supporting services, devolution and localisation, and funding.
For each issue we considered the key policy and practice implications of existing evidence, the evidence gaps and the ways in which gaps might be filled.  

Around empowering local communities, for example, evidence showed that LAs responded quickly to the pandemic, and well-functioning local systems emerged to tackle the immediate crises in many parts of the UK.  Areas adopted a range of strategies in partnership with local communities. But informal community responses can lack coordination, resources, reach and accountability; and some groups face barriers to involvement.  Further evidence is required on what works in strengthening community support networks, empowering different types of communities, and co-producing public services.  Councils also need to understand better how staff, councillors and the institutions themselves can change to empower communities.

There has already been some important learning from this work, such as recognising the treasure trove of useful knowledge contained in existing evidence and expertise.   We need to get much better at using evidence from, for example, the evaluation of past policy initiatives.  The programme is helping to strengthen relationships across government, including some new and more diverse voices, and will be useful as government departments revisit their Areas of Research Interest post-Covid.  The thematic reports are due to be published in coming weeks.

I will be exploring the findings for other areas of interest to Local Government in future articles.

[This article also appeared in the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association December newsletter]

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Keeping the window open: the 21st Century Public Servant and Covid-19

Image by @laurabrodrick

Prof. Catherine Needham

Local authorities had experience of managing short-term local crises, but the national and long-lasting crisis created by Covid-19 has been something new outside wartime. Local authorities had to manage the local implications of the lockdown and Covid-19 preparedness in their area whilst also moving all of their own non-essential workers to a home working model.

Our 21st Century Public Servant research (first published in 2014) looked at the changing roles, skills and values of people working in local public services. Over the previous six months we have partnered with North West Employers to understand how Covid-19 is changing working practices and skills, and how it links to the 21st C Public Servant findings. Given the constraints of doing fieldwork with local authorities themselves at a time of crisis, we gathered the learning through a series of conversations with the NWE team, published in our new report Keeping the Window Open.

The strain on local authority staff has been intense, as it has on the whole population. However some of the changes in organisational practices have been seen as positive, and have flagged opportunities for long-term reconfiguration. Some of our key findings include:

The importance of Storytellers: the most effective public servants during the crisis were seen by interviewees as those who were values-based and able to tell stories that drew on those values, setting out a path for the long term. They were the energiser and cheerleader – ‘we can get through this’ – despite not knowing the length or trajectory of the story.

The need for Entrepreneurs: the pandemic context has meant that staff have had to innovate, without always waiting for permission, and in some cases bypassing the usual sign-off procedures. The speed and extent of change has been unlike anything in local government before.

A new kind of Resource weaver: A key part of the Covid response has been using internal resources differently. Redeployment has been extensive, which has helped to break down silos within organisations. Many teams changed roles completely – for example leisure services and democratic services teams took on tasks like delivering PPE and setting up community hubs. The urgency and scale of the task made possible changes that otherwise would not have happened. As one of our interviewees put it, ‘People have been more willing to cross organisational lines, looking at partners and saying we can’t afford you to fail.’

Professional skills have been vital for those working in public health, environment health, planning and emergency response. However for many others, it is their more generic skills that have come to the forefront during the Covid-19 crisis. Through skills matching processes, there has been a new understanding of which individual skills are transferable. As one interviewee put it, ‘Lifeguards and fitness instructors have been redeployed to do community support because of their personal style and approach rather than their technical skills.’

Mass working from home has required high trust relationships with and between staff: ‘I think some managers have had their eyes opened about how home working can work. One local authority had no home working at all before this, they didn’t allow it – they had to go straight to 100 percent’. This creates questions about the future beyond Covid-19: ‘Are we prepared to let go and let people continue working from home or will we go back to the long hours culture? Can we focus on outputs and outcomes rather than hours worked?’

Something we didn’t address in the original 21st Century Public Servant research was endurance. It is still unclear how long this crisis will last. In the early phases at least there was hope that the lockdown could be short. Now it is clear that home working will continue for many people: ‘we won’t have everyone back at work ever again’. However, many have found home working to be much more intense, with few opportunities for down time, such as the chats in the lift with colleagues or the daydreaming on the train: ‘There isn’t much informal in my day at the moment. The intensity of it can be quite exhausting. How do we sustain the informal interactions like we had in the office?’

The long-term organisational legacy of Covid-19 is unclear, but the months of the crisis have made much clearer what public services are for and what the people working in them can achieve. Organisations and individuals need to think about how to keep open the window of change, and what are the new working cultures, roles and skills that can be sustained for the future.

This blog was originally published on the 21st Century Public Servant website: https://21stcenturypublicservant.wordpress.com/

Catherine Needham is Professor of Public Policy and Public Management. She is based at the Health Services Management Centre, developing research around social care and new approaches to public service workforce development.

What Interpretive Policy Analysis can do for you!

Dr Koen Bartels

What do Covid-19, salmon fishing, post-earthquake resilience, the circular economy, and internet blackout have to do with each other? They were among the wide variety of issues addressed at the virtual event ‘Interpretive Approaches to Policy Studies: Developments, Challenges and Ways Forward’ that I recently co-organised with several colleagues from the Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) community.

To many people, IPA is, as one newcomer mentioned at the event, a nice beer. But to me and my colleagues, it is a well-established and compelling way of doing research. In the 1970s, a number of policy scholars began to question the dominant way of analysing policy. Inspired by recent advances in social theory, they pointed out that ‘facts’ cannot settle policy controversies, while language was not just used to represent policy issues but to shape them along the lines of particular values, interests and agendas. Since then, IPA has developed and spread so extensively that a large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits analysis of every possible policy issue. There is also a dedicated journal, several academic networks, significant conference activity across the world, and a huge collection of publications indicating that the field has come of age.

The event aimed to bring together the wide variety of interpretive approaches to policy studies to take stock of the development of the field, celebrate its achievements, examine its challenges, and propose ways of moving forward. Far from a self-congratulatory exercise, we did so to identify ways to approach the pressing policy issues of our time, such as climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, and rising global economic and health inequalities. In this context, panel discussions examined:

  • how we can better understand and address policy conflict,
  • what it means to be critical of policy,
  • how to analyse policy discourses,
  • in which ways we can approach ‘malign’ policies, and
  • how action research can make IPA more transformative. 

A common thread in these discussions was that interpretive approaches reveal the underlying problems and unintended consequences of policies and identify innovative ways of addressing these. Policies are inevitably understood in different ways, ways which are bound to conflict and come with significant differences in power, values and interests. If we are unaware of this diversity in interpretations, and its impact, we are bound to get stuck or do more damage than good. As Heidrun Åm of the Norwegian University of Science & Technology aptly put it in her paper, “we need an interpretive approach that is sensitive to meaning making …, multiplicity and struggles over ideas …, seeking to understand and explain the practical bearings of specific meanings expressed and mobilized”.

So, what can IPA do for you? Let me return to the examples I offered at the start to illustrate. By critically analysing current Covid-19 policy discourse in the UK, it can predict that health inequalities will arise from the underlying behavioural ‘nudge’ approach. By revealing how what is constituted as ‘common’ or ‘public’, it can explain why big companies have managed to prevent an ecologically sustainable system for salmon fishing in Norway from taking hold. By identifying and integrating different ‘theories of change’ together with stakeholders, it can mobilise shared reflection, responsibility and future visions for community resilience in post-earthquake areas in Italy. By problematising ‘circular economy’ policy, it can foretell that economic interests will take precedence over environmental sustainability in Victoria (Australia). And by analysing how new technologies are mobilised by those in power, it can expose how an internet blackout was used in the armed conflict in Myanmar.

There are many other examples I could give you. But I hope that I have illustrated the significant value of IPA for critically analysing the complex policy issues of our age. And I invite you to join us as we move forward with addressing these, together finding answers to some of the pressing conceptual, methodological and practical questions that we now face: How can we go beyond thinking of policy conflict as an escalation that needs to be resolved by creating consensus? How can we critically reconstruct policies to address ‘meta-changes’? And how should we conceptualise and inspire transformative policy change?

Koen Bartels is Senior Lecturer at INLOGOV and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis