Unlocking research for local government

Jason Lowther

 

This post originally appeared on the Solace website. You can find it here

Local government needs evidence, from the apparently mundane but nonetheless critical (‘What choice of cladding will minimise the risk of fire spreading?’) to extraordinary insights (‘How do people choose what to eat and whether to be active?’, ‘What skills will today’s youngsters need in the jobs market of 2050?’)

In 2014, Solace commissioned an initial Local Government Knowledge Navigator (LGKN) report, From Analysis to Action: Connecting Research and Local Government in an Age of Austerity, which demonstrated that:

1. Councils have a wide range of evidence needs;
2. There is relevant research and expertise in academia but local government doesn’t make the most of this;
3. There are some impressive examples of collaboration between academia and local authorities but engagement is inconsistent, and often depends on existing links between individual researchers and local government officers or politicians; and
4. There is a need for a change of culture in both communities, and the development of more systematic approaches to achieving connectivity between them.

The key issues identified around local authorities’ approach to successful engagement were:

– senior appreciation of and support for research evidence;
– experience of using research and data to inform decision-making;
– consortia, to spread the cost and reduce risks to reputation;
– support from brokers with the expertise and time to develop proposals;
– the ability and skills to successfully commission research (or access to them); and
– local authority research teams and service managers establishing relationships with local universities.

Following the LGKN work, Solace continued working with the ESRC and LGA through the Research Facilitator, and has established dedicated spokespeople on evidence-based policy.  Recently, it supported the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Nesta in producing the document “Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny” which launched last month, and which aims to help local government make better use of research evidence.

Recent research has highlighted that local government has particular ways of looking at research that differ from much of academia (including the traditional approaches of public health colleagues).  Local government recognises the importance of ‘place’, and the uniqueness of each area’s situation and background.  As a result, we are particularly interested in evidence, including particular expertise, which relates directly to our place, and this can come across as only being interested in evidence that is ‘home grown’.

When Gemma Phillips and Judith Green recently looked at the transition of public health from the NHS to local government, they found that this different culture reflects local government’s more holistic view of health and wellbeing (rather than healthcare services), and our focus on practicality (rather than the provenance and methodological rigour of research studies).

Austerity has meant less government spending on research and evaluation, particularly at local level, although in 2015/16 national government still invested £5.6 billion in science and research, including £178m in ESRC alone.  So if we want research that government (including local government) will practically use, we probably have to get smarter in terms of more targeted funding, and in particular presenting local government as a key solution to the ‘Impact’ agenda which is vital to universities’ research funding.

This suggests to me that local government needs to take a much more active role in influencing the research agenda locally.  It’s not enough to rely on a kind of ‘Brownian Motion’ in the hope that academics’ research interests will in some way coincide with the policy priorities of local government.  We need to let academics know what our policy priorities are, and to listen to them as they explain what is already known in the relevant fields, and how further research might help us address these priorities.

In the West Midlands, as part of a comprehensive partnership with local universities, the Combined Authority this week set out a clear agenda for research related to its policy priorities for the next three years.  Developed from its Strategic Economic Plan, this includes both economic and social (public service reform) policy priorities, and further development of information sharing and the use of evaluation.  The WMCA ‘Policy Research Plan’ has been developed with input from policy leads and academic experts identified across the local universities and agencies, who will now take forward the agreed activities in a common programme.

So, for example, around ‘connected autonomous vehicles’ we are interested in exploring how emerging technologies can be exploited to improve transport accessibility and reduce subsidy costs whilst supporting enhanced network performance.  Around ‘vulnerable offender pathways’, we need to understand areas where regional working can add most value, together with the offence profile and pathways for specific groups, such as young person and women offenders.

Developing the Plan has compelled policy leads to be much more explicit about the questions they need answering to take forward the policy priorities, and has enabled academic experts to engage in developing these into research-able questions.  As this engagement continues, we expect further synergies to develop giving us much more robust and ‘actionable’ research in future.

References

Local Government Knowledge Navigator reports

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_Analysis_to_Action.pdf

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_LA_research_collaboration.pdf

Phillips, Gemma, and Judith Green. “Working for the public health: politics, localism and epistemologies of practice”, Sociology of health & illness 37.4 (2015): 491-505.

Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny

WMCA Policy Research Plan

https://governance.wmca.org.uk/documents/s287/Appendix.pdf

 

lowther-jasonJason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he 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

Combined Authority logos – do they do it for you?

It’s 100 days since the election of our first six Combined Authority mayors – a symbolic juncture that a year ago prompted quite a debate about new London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s impressive output of announcements and initiatives and also the substance behind them.

It would be good to attempt a similar overview of the records of the new CA mayors, but, sad to admit, that’s beyond the capability of this blogger at this time. But even sadder, I felt, to ignore the date completely, and I’ve therefore pinched (sorry, was inspired by, as we say in academia) the thought behind the opening musings of Local Government Chronicle editor Nick Golding’s recent column on CAs.

By their choice of corporate logos, at least, he was unimpressed: “curiously similar symbols … series of coloured dots or slivers that come together in a wheel or a line”, and likely to leave their wider populations cold and/or bewildered. They could easily represent, he suggested, a legal partnership, or one of the management consultancies involved in their design, none being “as emotive as Warwickshire’s bear and ragged staff, Liverpool’s liver bird, or the white rose of Yorkshire.”

Overlooking that Googling ‘white rose logo’ nowadays will get you an insurance company, a shopping centre, and a facelift long before you get anywhere near a council, you can see his point. And if you don’t, see what you make of this lot:

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These certainly colourful creations include the logos of – and in five cases specifically commissioned for – our six new CAs, presumably designed to communicate at a glance to local residents something really distinctive about their identity and function. Just to remind you, and in case most seem worryingly interchangeable, we’re looking for Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Cambridge/Peterborough. Oh yes, and, assuming they’d surely be easily distinguishable, I added in a couple of popular private sector logos.

Of course, the CAs – and indeed you – could reasonably point out that these symbols are generally accompanied by the CA’s actual name. Which is true – but in turn prompts the question: so why bother with the indecipherable and hardly costless logo?

As it happens, one – the proverbial granddaddy CA,Greater Manchester – hasn’t bothered. The pile of building blocks – each representing, as generally in these logos, a constituent council – is actually the logo of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), the GMCA’s longstanding and still extant predecessor, and the CA presents itself to the world logo-free.

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There is, I think, a serious point here. I know nothing worthwhile about the advertising business, but I do know that a logo’s primary, if not sole, purpose is to identify the product or business, and establish instant brand recognition. These CA logos don’t come close to doing either. Which is why they look fundamentally so different from pretty well all really successful brand logos, which have the product name as an integral part of the logo.

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In these earliest versions of the “most iconic brand logos of all time”, before the instant recognition was almost universal, the product name is absolutely central, if not the logo itself – the one exception here being the crazy guy who thought it might be a fun idea to name his computer after part of his fruitarian diet.

Even the Nike ‘Swoosh’, the sole symbol of the company for over two decades now, was for the previous two accompanied by the Nike name. Yet we’re expected to remember whether our CA is the one represented by a pile of coloured plates, a child’s windmill, or a curly string of different-sized hexagons.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, though, comparing these admittedly quite pretty images with those designed to sell some of the most popular products on the planet. So I looked at the logos of the seven constituent councils of our WestMidlands CA. They’re collectively a bit yesterday, but most do at least attempt to integrate their name into the logo design, rather than just sticking it alongside as all the CAs except West Yorkshire do.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.10.04

West Yorkshire CA’s slightly more artistic effort, if you hadn’t already checked, is the string of hexagons, representing its five constituent authorities plus the non-constituent City of York – another possibly ‘inspired’ idea, in this case from one that Sandwell made earlier.

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You can see why Sandwell councillors were keen on a makeover. Even without the dreadful events of recent weeks, you probably don’t want tower blocks as a prominent feature in your corporate identity, especially if your housing policy claims to have knocked more of them down than anywhere else in Europe. Surely almost anything’s better than that, even a design that looks disconcertingly like a question mark: possibly ‘What are we all doing here?’ or even ‘Where on earth is Sandwell?’

It derives (of course!) from Sandwell Priory, a small Benedictine monastery near West Bromwich, which, dissolved 450 years previously, could be trusted to cause only moderate offence to councillors representing the six real towns whose civic names would disappear in the 1974 local government reorganisation.

As for Coventry, when you’ve got a genuine 11th Century Lady Godiva with even an embroidered erotic backstory, you wonder how the city’s coat of arms with, in clockwise formation, a black eagle, wild cat, mythical phoenix, and elephant (don’t ask!), lasted so long.

Which brings us to Birmingham’s logo, and what my students used to reckon is the cheekiest bit of corporate political propaganda in English local government.  Earnestly as I’d explain about it depicting the city at the heart of England, they’d see two arrows, a smaller Conservative one pointing backwards and a bigger red one pointing forwards, and speculate on how the councillors got away with it.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.10.15

 

gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Council leaders: the importance of being more than earnest

Oscar Wilde’s imperious Lady Bracknell, being both fictional and approaching her 20th decade, was rather ruled out from chairing the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, despite her familiarity with certainly the posher parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We can surmise, though, her views on being earnest as a quality in political leaders: important, yes; sufficient, no.

We can also imagine her pronouncement to Jack Worthing, discovered as a parentless infant in a handbag in a London railway station cloakroom. For K & C council to lose one leader, whose chief merits seemed to be earnestness plus length of council service, may be regarded as a misfortune; to replace him with another, with apparently even fewer compelling qualifications, looks like carelessness.

The council’s early failures even to recognise the scale and nature of the crisis it faced have been well aired, including in these columns, culminating in the peremptory, and probably costly, dismissal of the council’s Chief Executive by Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid. Almost inevitably, though, further heads seemed bound to – and continue to – roll, first being that of the Leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. 30-plus years as a K & C councillor, council leader for four, former cabinet member for leisure services, he lacked, unfortunately, first-hand familiarity with tower block building regulations, polyethylene-filled aluminium panel cladding, and all the other techie stuff on which the nation’s chat show presenters are now such aggressive authorities.

But Paget-Brown was visibly there, soon after the fire, being earnest and contrite. Unlike his deputy, who had (and, according to the council’s evidently traumatised website, still had, three weeks after his resignation) “specific responsibility for promoting better housing for residents”. Despite having overseen the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and prettification, at the crucial time he appeared to keep even his earnestness to himself.

In accordance with our rather flexible notions of electoral accountability, the resignation of both senior politicians was deemed necessary, if not in any practical way beneficial. Hence the election as new council leader of Elizabeth Campbell – from one of the more affluent areas in the south of the borough, a cabinet member at the time of the fire, and who couldn’t remember, when first asked, exactly whether or not she’d ever entered a residential tower block.

Like her predecessor, Campbell was hugely apologetic and earnest. But her media performances did seem to highlight the basic question of what we can reasonably expect of our councils’ elected representatives – as opposed to their paid, trained, specialist and supposedly expert officers – in our ever-larger scale, overstretched, underfunded, centrally dominated, under-respected system of so-called local government.

Kensington & Chelsea is, excepting the City of London, the smallest London borough by population. Yet its councillors, like Campbell and Paget-Brown – and obviously even more so those of our over 120 larger urban authorities – have somehow to attempt personally to represent and respond to the needs of between, on average, four times as many residents (Belgium, Spain) and over 20 times (France) as their counterparts in other major Western European countries.

Faced with a technical and human disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower, could any elected local political leader(s) have the combination of personal attributes, training and experience to be able to react meaningfully, and even conceivably make a substantive contribution to its prevention?

It’s largely a rhetorical question – but not entirely. For, almost by chance – well, in writing a paper for the recent IASIA-MENAPAR Conference in Ramallah – I came across one who might have fitted K & C’s recent personal and political requirements remarkably closely. I refer to the recently elected mayor of the Palestinian West Bank town of Azzun – similar in area to K & C, but with a much smaller population, and a necessarily circuitous two-hour road journey north west of Jerusalem.

The new mayor is considerably younger than K & C’s leaders, but compensates with a CV they – and possibly even some officers – would have given much for in recent days: an electrical engineering degree, work as a contracting engineer in Jericho and as a supervisory engineer for CHF (Cooperative Housing Foundation) International, interspersed with volunteer social work back in Azzun. Oh yes, and I nearly forgot, Mayor Yusra Mohammed Badwan is a woman: a 25-year old, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, whose Arabic would also have come in handy, given its reputation as Kensington’s second language.

Badwan is, of course, highly unusual, but not unique. Palestine’s conservative and patriarchal culture makes for an even more male-dominated and sexist local government environment than that in England and Wales pilloried in this month’s Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission report. Yet, against the odds, it has produced some exceptional women mayors – and certainly more than resulted from our own metro-mayoral elections (which formed half the focus of my conference paper: ‘If Palestine can elect women mayors, why do English city regions find it so hard?’).

Palestinian%20mayors.jpg

They include Janet Mikhail, a Roman Catholic, who in 2005 assembled a remarkable ‘Ramallah for All’ Christian-Islamist coalition to defeat Fatah, the dominant West Bank party, in the Palestine National Authority’s administrative capital. And, more recently, Vera Baboun, a former university professor, who was the (necessarily Christian) Mayor of Bethlehem until her also multi-faith independent alliance was defeated in this May’s elections, incidentally depriving her of the thrill of hosting President Donald Trump on his first overseas jaunt.

But back to Badwan, clearly undaunted by her new role: “mayors have many tasks – developing the town by organising housing projects, establishing public facilities such as parks and libraries, paving roads, improving services such as sanitation and water, and making sure residential neighbourhoods stay clean.”

Her biggest and permanent challenge, though, is “the Israeli occupation”. Like so much of the West Bank which under the 1993 Oslo Accords was to be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction”, Azzun has been under full Israeli military and civil control – or, as Badwan puts it, “Israeli siege” – throughout her life.

It’s a different sort of torment from Grenfell Tower, but, as was depressingly illustrated in the recent Commons debate, social media users can be careless of such subtle details. So, if your Arabic is up to it, check out Azzun municipality’s Facebook page, and you may still find: “Are there no men left in Azzun? Why did you accept a woman? The great town of Azzun has become a joke.”  And from another charmer: “A people that has allowed a woman to rule will never succeed”.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Interested in contributing to the INLOGOV Blog?

Do you have insight into the workings of local government you’d love to share? Maybe you’ve just completed some research on local government or you work for a local government and want to offer a perspective you think others might find interesting. Maybe you want to respond to something you’ve read on this blog.

We’re inviting contributions to the INLOGOV blog, so if you want to get your opinion out there just get in touch. Send a few words with your idea for a blog post to M.W.Lempriere@bham.ac.uk and we can go from there.

We accept posts on a range of things. It could be to highlight new research, express an opinion on contemporary developments or to inform emerging or existing debates. The only thing we ask is that it’s linked in some way to the workings of local government, wherever in the world that might be.
You are free to adopt any style you wish, but I can offer a number of pointers that have been shown to increase the impact of our posts:

Be concise: make a simple argument or highlight an issue of important in 400-800 words. Try and summarise your ideas in a couple of short sentences near the state of the piece and stay on point throughout.

Be relevant: Connect your blog to a current academic debate and/or recent new story. Use hyperlinks to reference articles and news items that support your line of argument.

Be impactful: Avoid jargon and write for a non-specialist audience. Use a provocative or through provoking title. Try and convey energy and enthusiasm, as if presenting your case to someone in the room. If possible, accompany your blog with a photo or image.

Be proud: Draw on your professional/academic expertise. Include a (max 50 words) biography and author photo when you send your post. Promote your post through your own professional network, including social media.

We look forward to hearing your suggestions!

Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

What’s it like studying at INLOGOV?

Drs. Max Lempriere, Abena Dadze-Arthur and Karin Bottom

It is perhaps a little cliché to say that there’s never been a better time to study public management, whether in the context of local government or otherwise. The fact that local government has undergone significant reform over the years – a process that shows little sign of abating – is well known. Indeed, the political world is shifting before our eyes into something new, some would say exciting and certainly worthy of study. Clichés abound, life as a student of public management and local governance certainly won’t be dull.

Avoiding cliché then, perhaps its more apt to say that there’s never been a better time to study at The University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV). The University’s reputation is well recognized; it was 2013-2014 University of the Year, sits 13th in the 2017 Guardian University Guide and is among the top 100 best Universities in the world. As the UK’s leading centre for the study of local government and strategic public management, INLOGOV is well placed to make sense of what looks to many to be a chaotic system. Our research directly informs contemporary debates and legislative activity and the work we do with local authorities across the world is highly respected.

What is it like to study here, though? We offer a number of courses, taught by some of the leading authorities in the field, all of which are specifically designed to further your career in public administration, wherever in the world you choose to work. Whether you’re interested in a Masters degree, Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate and can commit full time or part time, we offer courses in Public Management, Public Service Commissioning and Social Research. It doesn’t even matter if you’re unable to physically come to the Birmingham campus; whilst INLOGOV offers courses in the form of a traditional brick-and-mortar degree, whereby students attend classes on campus, it also offers an internationally acclaimed Masters of Public Administration (MPA) online degree, whereby students do all their classroom activities outside the traditional classroom, at a distance from the University of Birmingham, and supported by technology-based tools.

For those looking for a more focused, research driven learning experience you can choose instead to undertake doctoral research, whether as part of an integrated learning package with a focus on public policy or a traditional research-driven doctorate (offered both on campus and through distance learning). Have a look at our website for an outline of our research interests.

In both the on-campus and distance learning courses, our students are very mixed in terms of their age, where they come from, and their experience of the public sector.  Typically, in INLOGOV’s master courses, students with backgrounds as mid-career public servants are rubbing shoulders with course participants who just graduated from their undergraduate studies.  For example, a fifty-eight-year-old minister in Jamaica’s government took our Masters in Public Administration a 25 year old who recently completed his undergraduate studies in social care in China.  This makes for a fantastic learning community, where the pedagogical focus remains on the learners and how they connect their varied experiences of public management to the theoretical concepts explored during the course.

In both our on-campus and online courses, we use high-quality learning resources, which also feature animated videos and interactive diagrams and theoretical models.  Mindful of the international nature of the student group who register for our masters programmes, we always add new literature on international public management and governance in the reading lists; we include a variety of contemporary case studies and examples of public management from around the world; we ask students to watch a series of short, BBC-documentary-style videos featuring practitioners and researchers from across the globe who discuss their particular experiences of public management and governance in their respective home countries; and we use an array of photo images to portray global diversity in public service delivery.

Although we use the same high-quality and interactive learning resources for on-campus and distance learning courses, there are of course important differences in terms of the learning environment, which meet different student needs.  Campus-based classes require students to attend classes in person and at specific times.  Online classes are free from the constraints of space, pace and time, and give students the flexibility to do their work in their own time and at their own pace, but require students to be very self-motivated, disciplined and comfortable with working independently.

Wherever you choose to take your degree – and students take it far and wide, whether as public servants, journalists, consultants, academics and so on – a degree from INLOGOV will serve you well.

For more information on the courses we offer and to find out about upcoming open days (whether virtual or on campus) please visit http://www.inlogov.bham.ac.uk. Alternatively, to keep up to date with the latest research and discussions from the department check out our blog at www.inlogov.com or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter@INLOGOV.

 

lempriereMax is an INLOGOV Associate and has a PhD in political science from the University of Birmingham. He has taught for a number of years on many aspects of politics, public administration, research methods and academic skills. Prior to that he read political economy at the University of Birmingham and Stockholm University. His research interests include institutional theory, environmental politics, local government innovation and policy entrepreneurship.

abenaAbena has taught on a variety of INLOGOV courses on various aspects of public management and governance to a) international distance learners, who complete the programme wholly online; b) in-house local government participants, and c) ‘on-campus’ students comprising a mix of full-time and part-time-registered practitioner students Abena’s research mainly focuses on non-western and post-western public management approaches that are rooted in local subject positions, indigenous norms and values, locally embedded representational and performative practices, and mirror local history, culture, and religious or philosophical traditions, while promoting public engagement, accountability and effective public services.

bottom-karin-20151113Karin is INLOGOV’s Director of Teaching and Learning and directs INLOGOV’s MSc in Public Management and lectures on modules concerned with 1) party politics; democracy and  public management; 2) research methods.