Responding to National Populism

Picture credits: https://www.spiked-online.com/ and https://unherd.com/

Jon Bloomfield

The playwright David Edgar and I have written a two-part essay for Byline Times which was published before Xmas. It focuses on the role of two distinct web-sites – ‘Unherd’ and ‘Spiked’- in shaping the debate on culture wars and promoting national populist ideas across British politics. Here is a brief summary of the essay, full links below.

So, now the dust is settling, what is the ideological future of the Conservative Party? With kamikaze supply-side Trussonomics so thoroughly discredited, will Rishi Sunak and his – relatively – big-tent Cabinet return to a 2020s version of Cameronian fiscal austerity? If so, what happens to the Johnsonian cocktail of high public spending and social conservatism which proved so palatable to the voters of the Red Wall? And what is the role of online ideologues – notably writers for the websites Spiked and Unherd – in the battle for the party’s soul?

British national populism has proved much more than just a short-term political tactic, unexpectedly successful in the Brexit referendum and re-conceived as an election-winner three years later. Like the free market ideologues of Tufton Street, national populists are organised into influential groups of intellectuals and political campaigners who have gained considerable reach into mainstream media. The role of The Spectator is well-known but this article focuses on the profound influence of two websites: Unherd and Spiked

What makes these sites so significant and successful is that many of their lead writers originate not on the right but on the mainstream and indeed the far left, and now promote ideologies that seem contradictory but – in practice – are increasingly allied.

The emergence of national populism has seen strange, paradoxical political alliances emerging within the two main political parties exemplified by the Red Tory and Blue Labour tendencies. Even stranger has been the ideological overlap between the website of a formerly Marxist, now right-libertarian think tank and the main online home of anti-liberal communitarianism. So why – on the issues that are tearing Britain apart – do Spiked and Unherd appear to be bedfellows?   

Both are prolific sites supplying a daily flow of political and cultural commentary. Spiked is an outgrowth of the  Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which developed an increasingly eccentric version of Trotskyism with its magazine Living Marxism. Launching the website Spiked in 2000, its cadres – including former RCP guru Frank Furedi, polemicist and now Brexit-supporting peer Claire Fox, and Munira Mirza, later to become Boris Johnson’s policy chief  – continued the RCP’s trajectory towards anti-statist, economic libertarianism while retaining its original Leninist discipline and capacity for harsh polemic. 

Unherd has more conventional origins within the Conservative party.  Its founder Tim Montgomerie set out its stall in Prospect arguing for a “social Thatcherism,” which would re-balance “from a conservatism of freedom to a conservatism of locality and security.” Montgomerie argued that within the Conservative Party “the magnetism of national sovereignty has finally overtaken the magnetism of free markets.” However, Unherd has also attracted former left polemicists, including ex-Labour-supporting, Prospect-editing journalist David Goodhart – now ‘Head of Demography, Immigration and Integration’ at the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange; academic turned national-populist advocate Matthew Goodwin; trade union activist and anti-woke campaigner Paul Embery; and the ex SWP-flirting, Tory-convert vicar Giles Fraser. 

The reason for this unexpected cross-fertilisation of ex-Trotskyites, traditionalist Tories and communitarian, socially-conservative Labourites is their ideological alignment on many of the key cultural controversies of the day. A fervent commitment to Brexit and belief in the unreformed UK nation-state are central, but what gives the two platforms their raison d’etre is the consistent vitriol directed at the mainstream left and the new social movements that have emerged around it over the last few decades. A bitter animosity against social liberalism and a caricatured ‘woke’ left is their most distinctive, current and common thrust. Their ideas – particularly on multiculturalism and the ‘woke agenda’ – have been eagerly lapped up by the mainstream right-wing media. 

Within the Sunak government, in their various ways Kemi Badenoch, Michael Gove and Suella Braverman are all signalling their wish to return to the national-populist ‘culture wars’ agenda. Like their counterparts in Europe and the US, the national-populists want to roll-back the advances that have been made in the past 50 years. The likes of Spiked and Unherd are crucial propagandists in this battle. In particular, these two sites have mounted a consistent assault on progressivism on the major social and cultural issues of the day: climate justice, feminism and anti-racism. On three of the great social issues of our era – climate change, women’s inequalities and structural racism and discrimination – the editorial lines of Spiked and Unherd are marching in lockstep, deploying similar arguments and even phraseology, to minimise the issues or to deny that there’s any problem.

National-populism has its own logic. Mobilising ethnic nationalism; arousing fears about race and religion; attacking social liberalism; overtly or covertly promoting the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory. All lead in just one direction.

This is a moment for liberals, progressives and the Left to wake up. 

It’s time for them to draw on their own history and re-build the alliances that have led to so much social and economic progress in the past.  In the more variegated, less homogenous world of 21st Century capitalism, finding the ways to navigate common ground between movements and build cross-class alliances is more important than ever.

The provocations of Spiked and Unherd stand in the way. At a moment when the hard-Right is showing a readiness to indulge in racist and nationalist politics reminiscent of dangerous eras of the not-too-distant past, it is time for progressives to prioritise unity, rebuild alliances which have done so much good in the past, and direct their firepower at their main opponents.

Red Tory to Blue Labour – How Spiked and Unherd are Keeping National Populism Alive – Byline Times

Fighting Back Against National-Populism – Byline Times

Jon Bloomfield has been involved with the EU’s Climate KIC programme for over a decade, helping to develop educational and training programmes and experimental projects which help companies, cities and communities to make effective transitions to a low carbon economy.

Local government should welcome Gordon Brown’s private bills proposal

Phil Swann

Streamlined access to local legislation must be available to help struggling councils to improve rather than rewarding those that have already done so, writes a PhD candidate in central-local government relations at INLOGOV and former director of Shared Intelligence.

In 1926 Winston Churchill, then chancellor of the exchequer, successfully opposed a private bill promoted by Bristol Corporation to establish a municipal bank in order to stop “all kinds of incompetent town councils”, particularly “socialistic” ones, from running banks. He did so despite the fact that the bill was supported by his Conservative colleague and former mayor of Birmingham Neville Chamberlain, who argued that Birmingham’s municipal bank had encouraged thrift and home ownership.

It is interesting to reflect on this dispute (not the last between these two political Titans!) in the context of the move by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK to promote the use of private bills by local councils. Raising the prospect of “the great cities of England” exerting similar powers to the Scottish and Welsh governments, the commission recommends a new, streamlined process enabling councils to initiate local legislation in parliament. This, the commission argues, would give councils an ability to secure the powers they need and to have a direct relationship with Parliament.

Evading centralising tendencies

It is undoubtedly the case, as the commission argues, that private legislation provided a vehicle for innovation in Victorian local government in the face of the social, economic and physical impacts of the industrial revolution. 

The genesis of public health lies in local legislation as does the creation of public utilities to provide gas, electricity and public transport. It was the ability of local corporations to promote private legislation that fuelled Joseph Chamberlain’s ambition to turn Birmingham Corporation into “a real local parliament”. Private acts were also used by enterprising councils to evade the centralising tendencies of successive governments in the second half of the 19th century.

It is also the case, however, that by the inter-war period private legislation had become a feature of the tensions in central-local government relations rather than necessarily being a solution to them. The resources and ambition required to draft and promote private legislation reinforced a growing divide between “advanced” or “progressive” councils on the one hand and “backward” or “penny-pinching” councils on the other hand. This reinforced differences between the major cities and smaller towns and rural areas. The widespread use of private legislation also contributed to the ad hoc and complex structures and powers of Victorian local government.

Significantly these trends were reflected in the justification for increasing central government intervention in local politics. In the 19th century there was a shift in ministerial focus from corruption to efficiency and action to bring “backward” councils up to the standard of the “progressive”. The first half of the 20th century saw a financially driven move to rein in the most innovative councils and drive improvement in the poorly performing ones. The dispute between Churchill and Chamberlain over the Bristol bank bill is an example of this.

Clause acts and adoptive acts

Despite these warning notes from history, the ambition of the Brown commission to enable local leaders to have access to a streamlined process to initiate local legislation should be welcomed. Many of the problems that emerged when private legislation was a common feature of local government could be overcome if it was explicitly seen as a way of testing new legislative powers prior to wider adoption – genuine pioneering.

Two other legislative devices deployed in the Victorian period could help to secure this approach if they were refreshed alongside a revival of local legislation. The first device is a clauses act, the prime example being the Town Improvement Clauses Act 1847. It brought together the provisions most commonly inserted in and effectively deployed through local legislation. Clauses acts, each of which would relate to a particular service area or initiative, would both streamline the legislative process and avoid unhelpful adhockery.

The second device, which takes this a step further, is the adoptive act. This is a piece of legislation which has been through the parliamentary process but which comes into effect only when it is adopted by individual local authorities. Acts of this type could make powers that have been successfully adopted by one authority available to be adopted by others without requiring local drafting or taking up parliamentary time.

Earned autonomy?

One other issue which requires attention is whether there should be a link between an ability to initiate local legislation and a council’s perceived performance. A sustained thread running through central-local government relations since the 1830s is the view that that councils should not benefit from new powers or responsibilities until they have met certain conditions or achieved a certain standard.

Joseph Chamberlain, who made extensive use of private legislation in Birmingham, took a different view. In 1877 he argued that “whatever the defects” of a council “I defy you to make a better one for the place except by gradually increasing its functions and responsibilities and so raising its tone.” No earned autonomy for Chamberlain!

If the increased use of local legislation is to help achieve the ambition set out by Brown and his commissioners, it is essential that streamlined access to local legislation is available to help struggling councils to improve rather than as a reward for having done so.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 13th December 2022.

Phil Swann is researching a PhD on central-local government relations at INLOGOV

Is Government Giving Value For Money?

Jason Lowther

When money is short, how we spend it becomes even more important. As central government reheats its arguments for austerity following the chaos of the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the contents of the 2021 budget (just a year ago).  The 2021 budget set out not just spending plans, but also a souped up approach to measuring outcomes and cost-effectiveness of government spending. How are these playing out, and will they survive the No 10 merry-go-round?

Rishi Sunak, then eight months into the job as Chancellor, noted that government borrowing was relatively high after the pandemic, warned of the public finances’ exposure to rises in interest rates, and outlined how spending was being linked to the delivery of outcomes alongside across the board ‘efficiency savings’:

The fiscal impact of a one percentage point rise in interest rates in the next year would be six times greater than it was just before the financial crisis, and almost twice what it was before the pandemic…

Decisions have been based on how spending will contribute to the delivery of each department’s priority outcomes, underpinned by high-quality evidence. The government has also taken further action to drive out inefficiency; SR21 confirms savings of 5% against day-to-day central departmental budgets in 2024-25. (page 2)

The “priority outcomes” are the latest in a long line of attempts to prod government spending into delivering effectively on political priorities, rather than blindly increasing/decreasing by x % compared to last year.  A 2019 report from the Institute for Government helpfully outlines many of these earlier initiatives (summary from the House of Commons Library) including:

  • “Scrutiny programmes” and the Financial Management Initiative (FMI), introduced under Thatcher.
  • The Cabinet Office and Treasury set up the Financial Management Unit (FMU) in 1982 to help with creating plans under the FMI.
  • The “Next Steps” report, published in 1988, which recommended the establishment of executive agencies to carry out the executive functions of government.
  • Tony Blair’s administration developed a greater focus on performance targets and Public Service Agreements (PSAs) which put these targets on a formal basis.
  • In 2001, Blair’s government also set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU), which was intended to coordinate PSAs and bring them under more central control.
  • Under the coalition government in 2010-15, PSAs were abolished and replaced with Departmental Business Plans (DBPs). These shifted the focus from targets to actions – in other words, they listed what each department would do and by when, rather than what they sought to achieve.
  • Under the Conservative government in 2016, DBPs were renamed to Single Departmental Plans (SDPs), which were themselves renamed to Outcome Delivery Plans (ODPs) in 2021. According to the NAO, SDPs (and by extension, ODPs) are supposed to be “comprehensive, costed business plans”.

As well as having to write down what outcomes they want to achieve, and how they will know whether that is happening, under the SDP system departments were also required “to assess progress in delivering their priority outcomes [and] … share regular performance reports with HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office”. 

In the 2021 spending review, the departmental outcomes were spruced up to reflect the (now last-but-one) PM’s five priorities of levelling up; net zero; education, jobs and skills; recovering the NHS; and reducing the volume and harm of crime.  

This blog’s audience may be interested in “Where does local government fit in this compendium of key priorities?”  The answer is a little depressing: on the last line of the last page (page 30 of 33), just before the devolved government departments. The relevant outcome is inspiring enough: “A sustainable and resilient local government sector that delivers priority services and helps build more empowered and integrated communities”, albeit with the reassuringly non-SMART measure that “the department will provide narrative reporting on progress for this outcome”.  Of course I exaggerate, because local government has critical inputs to very many of the earlier outcomes too, but it’s hard not to conclude that local services and communities were not yet at the top of the ministerial attention list.

Will the “priority outcomes” survive the whirlwind of ministerial movements and unforced economic missteps?  After the last seven weeks, I’m not going to make predictions – but we should know in the next month, and alongside the financial figures they could be our best hint yet on where a Sunak government is heading.

Picture credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du_6mRV8Hm8

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

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.