The Global City: Lessons from Combined Authorities

Marc Vilalta Reixach

Over the last decades, we have been witness to a global phenomenon of increasing urbanisation of the territory. In many countries around Europe – among them, Spain – we can easily identify the trend towards the creation of large urban areas, which concentrate a large percentage of the population and plays an essential role in economic activity. Although, without a doubt, these new metropolitan spaces offer multiple opportunities for their inhabitants, they also pose important challenges, not only in the social, environmental or economic context but also in terms of their legal organization.

Indeed, the fact that the dimension of the great conurbations exceeds the administrative limits of a single municipality forces the different public authorities to seek legal instruments that allow them to face the common challenges posed by the administration of these spaces. For example, in Spain, although our legal system provide for the possibility to create real metropolitan governments, our public authorities have mainly opted to respond to this phenomenon through the use vertical collaboration or by creating specific metropolitan agencies. In fact, in Spain, only Barcelona has created a comprehensive level of metropolitan governance to organise this space (with the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona).

This failure is often explained in the Spanish literature by the configuration of the metropolitan areas as a formula not always desired by the municipalities (as it is imposed by law) or by those charged with creating them (the regions, Comunidades Autónomas), who have generally viewed them as a strong local counter-power.

This is why we decided to put on our attention to other comparative legal experiences. Although we are not trying to import techniques from other legal systems, we believe that the study of comparative law could help us to better understand and manage our own reality.

And, from this perspective, the English legal system provides a very interesting point of comparison, because, after numerous regulatory changes, a novel organizational solution has recently been established for large urban areas in England: combined authorities.

After analysing the legal regime of the English combined authorities, what insights can be gleaned from the study of combined authorities? In my opinion, the English combined authority model allows us to draw at least two main ideas that could be useful for the Spanish authorities in addressing the metropolitanization of our territory.

  1. Diversity and flexibility. One of the main characteristics of the English model is that combined authorities are configured – at least theoretically – in a variable, flexible way, both in terms of territorial boundaries and functions. This allows large urban areas to adapt their institutional organization to the specific requirements for each territory. In this sense, unlike Spanish metropolitan areas, the creation of the combined authorities has been seen as a bottom-up process, in which all the levels of government have played an active role (even when the political-partisan dynamics was not coincidental), promoting an attempt to decentralize England territorially.
  2. Democratic governance. The evolution of the combined authorities in England has allowed them to assume a notable variety of powers (in transport, housing,…), thus meaning that they play a more active role in the implementation of public policies at the metropolitan scale. Thus, this evolution has imposed on them a model of democratic governance, through the direct election of the metropolitan mayor. The metro mayor can contribute not only to strengthened leadership and external projection of combined authorities, but also to their democratic representativeness and to the creation of a metropolitan identity shared by the citizens of these territories. In my view, this is also an interesting idea, because even the metropolitan area of Barcelona (which is the metropolitan government with a greater degree of institutionalization) is indirectly elected and without a metro mayor.

Marc Vilalta Reixach is lecturer of Administrative Law at the University of Barcelona (Spain). His research focus on local government law, inter-administrative relations and public procurement law. During the last term he has been visiting researcher at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) of the University of Birmingham.


What works in learning what works?

Jason Lowther

I have been grumping for at least the last 25 years about how little of the evidence that is developed by academic researchers, practitioner-researchers, consultants and others is effectively deployed in developing public policy and practice. We intuitively know, and politicians regularly proclaim, that evidence should inform policy. So why did it take over a decade to move from Dr. Barry Marshall vomiting in his lab having taken the extreme measure of drinking a H. Pylori bacteria cocktail to prove that this bug causes stomach ulcers (which can then be cured by antibiotics) to these antibiotics being routinely used in medical practice? And why is the Troubled Families Programme so unusual in the plethora of government mega-initiatives, simply by having a robust evaluation published showing where it works (and where not)?

A lot of the academic research in this area points to deficiencies in what you might call the “supply side” of evidence. Academic research is too slow and therefore out of date before its results are seen. Journal articles are hidden behind expensive firewalls, written in an opaque language, packed with caveats and conclude mainly that we need more research. Academics sometimes don’t know how to talk with policy makers, or even who they are.

There is truth in most of these points, and there has been some useful progress in addressing many of them in recent years, for example the very readable summaries of available evidence published by some What Works Centres on topics such a local economic growth and children’s social care. And it’s an immense privilege to have recently joined INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham, a department with a vast network of alumni across local government, and academics who are well used to speaking the sector’s language.

But I’m increasingly feeling that the real issue is on the “demand” side. Do we as practitioners and politicians really want to know what the evidence is telling us? What if the evidence highlights issues we’d rather not know? How do we know evidence when we see it and what if it is contradictory? Furthermore, how do we find this “evidence” anyway, and how can we know what’s reliable and what’s fake news? With American oil companies allegedly giving millions to fund research questioning climate change, who can we trust? Finally, how can we conduct small scale local research – so important when trying to understand local difference – that provides geographically relevant evidence without being accused of providing limited and unreliable findings?
I’ve been involved as LARIA, the LGA, SOLACE and others have run some excellent programmes to support practitioners and policy makers in making use of evidence.

One of my favourites was the excellent “Evidence Masterclass” organised by SOLACE which provided a one-day familiarisation courses for chief executives. At the other extreme, universities provide extensive MSc courses on research methods for a variety of public health and social scientists. But not many of us can devote years to understanding how research works and can be used, and there’s a limit to what anyone can learn in a single day.

So in my new role as director of the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham I’ve been excited to help deliver our new “Public Policy and Evidence” module within our Public Management and Leadership MSc and Degree Apprenticeship programmes. This is a six-week module, involving around five hours distance learning a week followed by a two-day on-campus session, currently being taken by forty senior local public service managers from a number of English local authorities and the LGA.

It’s been fascinating to see these managers think through how evidence relates to their work areas, explore how rigorous research works and the different ways it can inform policy making and service design, and get to grips with the detail of the various techniques social science researchers use. We’re now moving to the on-campus days, where we’ll be looking at several live examples from local public services in Birmingham, Coventry and Manchester, and keying up a significant practical supervised research project they will each undertake in their home organization over the next several months.

It’s exciting to see the improvements in the “demand” and “supply” sides of evidence informed policy making that are being delivered through this course and initiatives such as the What Works Centres and local Offices for Data Analytics. Who knows, in the decade or so before I retire, I may even be able to stop grumping about evidence-based policy?

This article was originally published in the newsletter of the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association (LARIA).


Jason Lowther is the Director of 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

Impact Measurement Practices of Human Rights Organisations

Sahar Khalil

In this post, a recent graduate of INLOGOV’s Master’s of Public Administration degree programme presents findings from their dissertation research. 

The world of impact measurement has expanded greatly over the past 10 years, with many leading NGOs putting in place rigorous impact measurement tools for their organisations. However, these NGOs have mainly been service provision NGOs, many of whom are funded by government grants. Government granting bodies have mandated impact measurement into their grant mechanism, and thus NGOs which receive this funding have to legally report back on the impact that the funding is having. The same cannot be said for human rights organisations, who do not receive any government funding (in order to preserve their independence in investigating all governmental human rights violations). As an operations manager at a leading human rights organisation in the UK, I have seen at first-hand how my organisation and many others in the field have been grappling with the quest of measuring the impact of their work. In this post, I present the findings from my master’s dissertation, conducted at INLOGOV, which looked in more detail at this issue.

Impact Measurement and Human Rights Research

Human rights work stems from the fundamental principle that all humans should have access to basic rights and focuses on protecting and promoting those rights. These principles, which are set out in the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, are backed by numerous international human rights conventions, declaration and resolutions. Human rights projects can create three types of intended positive changes: firstly, policy and legal reforms; secondly, social changes conducive to human rights norms; and lastly, strengthening civil society work. Impact measurement is about assessing the changes introduced by a intervention on policies, communities and the lives of individuals.

Difficulty measuring impact of human rights work

The difficulty with measuring impact of HROs work stems from the complexity of bringing about social or political change. Despite this complexity of change, most monitoring and evaluation toolkits currently used in the NGO sector follow the Linear Theory of Change. This model looks at change as a logical sequence of events, where inputs (funding and resources) lead to specific outputs and outcomes, which ultimately leads to change. This model follows that outcomes can be predicted on the basis of inputs. But change in human rights conditions rarely follow such logical paths. Project implementation teams face limitations in the influence they can exert over the social change process. They can have near total control over project inputs (staffing, funds raised, resources used, and so on) and activities and outputs, but virtually no control over outcomes and impact. No matter how clearly an organisation articulates a pathway to a desired long-term policy goal, it would be virtually impossible to name, predict or explain all the variables that might be at play within that change process. In addition to this, change could be slow and stagnant, while at other times it occurs in sudden leaps and in unpredictable ways.

For these reasons, along with other limitations HROs face, development of impact measurement tools in the sector has been lagging.

Findings from my research

Impact measurement of HROs is under researched, and what little research has been written on this topic is now outdated. I wanted to assess the current practices of human rights organisations in the UK. I spoke to 4 leading experts from major HROs in the UK of varying sizes and funding. The findings are summarised below:

  1. Not all organisations are systematically measuring impact. Some have a clearly developed strategy towards measuring impact; others don’t measure impact in a systematic way but have some limited practices in place. One organisation interviewed still relies on anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of its work;
  2. Organisations who had systemic impact measurement practices in place stated that having a clear definition of impact that was understood by all employees was a vital and core component of their impact measurement strategy;
  3. Of the organisations that had a systemic impact measurement strategy in place, some are carrying out measurements using in-house staff, whereas others are outsourcing the work to independent private contractors;
  4. Some of these organisations found the Linear Theory of Change useful in helping them confine the scope of impact measurement work, which would otherwise be too broad to assess;
  5. Lastly, while the practices varied, all respondents agreed that there are several benefits to implementing impact measurement practices. Impact measurement has helped them improve the quality and effectiveness of their work, raise more funds, and has improved the transparency and accountability of the organisation in the eyes of the public and stakeholders.

Sahar Khalil is an operations manager at Human Rights Watch and graduate of INLOGOV’s  Masters of Public Administration distance learning degree programme. 

Service over systems – freeing the bureaucracy in public service

Dr Philip Whiteman, Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration, University of Birmingham, explains what it takes to become a public servant today, in an environment free from rigid bureaucracy.

From civil servants and contractors to private-sector suppliers and NGO providers, anyone working in public service will know that it takes a different kind of mindset to keep services up and running.

 “Gone is the traditional view of the public servant as a bureaucrat, with a tightly defined job description and policy objectives. With organisations being far more organic now, public servants need to be more flexible to deal with the demands of difficult policy and public spending situations.”

Not only do public servants need to be able to adapt and negotiate their responsibilities, they also need to be entrepreneurial in their approach in order to respond to current external challenges.

As well as flexibility, today’s public servants also have to work co-productively with users and the community. The emphasis now is more on customer service and social justice than systems and processes. However, there’s a fine line between this reputable work ethic and the demands of the employer.

“There’s often a difficult balance to strike between serving the community and the demands of the direct employer, particularly if they’re under contract to government.”

Though public services will need to diversify to meet user expectations for more rapidly delivered, open-access services, the job will remain as crucial as ever. The demands of the state are likely to continue to be the same, but for public servants, there is a growing demand for varied skillsets and new ways of thinking.

To keep pace with this changing landscape, while simultaneously improving efficiency, digital tools, such as AI, will be essential components of the public servants’ arsenal.

“As the role of the state increases, spending doesn’t, so the state has to find solutions to meet the growing demand. So, I don’t see a shrinkage of the state, I see a rapid evolution in the way public servants operate within that environment.”

Despite the positive outlook for public servants, the transition to more sophisticated, yet more economical, services presents a number of issues. In environments where policies change rapidly, there’s little time for policy to be embedded in the organisation. Similarly, where leadership and teams constantly change, due to government instability or political interference, public services become more challenging to manage.

This issue can often become compounded through entrenched, inflexible systems and processes, as well as a reliance on consultancies with opaque motives. However, with the right management, these issues can be reversed. For example, bringing in ideas from other areas of public service, other sectors or other countries can often inspire new resolutions.

“Agile and resilient types of organisations are more able to adapt to current and future challenges, especially with the right leadership, culture and entrepreneurial vigour.”

To head off these challenges, tools and strategies are useful, but fundamentally, to succeed, public servants need a sense of responsibility to the community – in other words, a ‘public service ethos’. Other fundamental markers for successful public service include agility, integrity, accountability and a willingness to accept new ideas.

“It’s not just about the tools and techniques, it’s about the cognitive understanding and the culture of the organisation, and the public service community involved. It has to be a feature of people’s thinking, a view that it’s a positive set of themes for the future.”

For public servants keen to break free of bureaucracy and embrace new ideas, further study is essential. Backed by a postgraduate programme in public administration, public servants can begin to think more critically and autonomously about public services, helping them expand their remit beyond their current practices.

“Our Online Masters of Public Administration is geared towards helping the student become more a reflective practitioner, to improve their current practice as well as their career. Because by default, if they become better public servants in their existing career, they will become more attractive to employers in their future career.”

As well as unlocking highly transferable skills, the process of researching and examining new ideas and evidence can help public servants build the flexible, open-minded mindset they need to elevate their careers and make a genuine difference to the populations they promise to serve.

To find out more about the University of Birmingham’s Online Masters of Public Administration, click here. The next student intake: March 2020.



Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments.

Planning and Politics: Opposite Political parties, same local economic development agenda?

Milagros Gimenez

If you read Argentine newspapers or watch national TV news you might think that the political polarisation (left-right) in Argentina is extreme. Consequently, it is expected that this political polarisation translates to action, and that different types of public policy are designed that are strongly influenced by the ideology of the political party in charge. However, my experience working as a consultant in strategic planning in local governments in the North of Argentina suggests there are more similarities in the type of public policies than the literature suggests. To understand this seeming contradiction, I addressed this relationship in my master dissertation, submitted as part of the MSc Public Management at INLOGOV.

Argentina is a federal country divided into 24 provinces and more than 1300 local governments, and is one of the most decentralised countries in Latin America. After the last constitutional amendment in 1994, local governments have, by law, (defined in each of the provincial constitutions) a wide range of competences regarding not only the usual issues tasked at the local level (such as public street lighting and waste treatment), but also the promotion of the local economic development. Unfortunately, there is an incredible gap in the literature about the role of local governments in Argentina and an even bigger gap in our understanding of the role of local government in promoting local economic development.

My research explores what types of initiatives influence the extent to which local governments in Argentina promote local economic development and if, when an opposing political party is in charge at the local level, similar strategies will be carried out (shaped by the party ideology).

Interestingly, even though local governments have the competence to decide which initiatives they design, local governments are leading the local economic development (LED) area with similar strategic plans and almost identical initiatives. Local governments under comparison in this research have introduced initiatives to improve the employability of the population (labour supply) and for increasing labour demand using the municipal competencies, such as the use of land and creating new local sales channels. Moreover, the LED initiatives are, noticeably, identical; the Mayors‘ speeches communicate using a vocabulary similar to that of the political party to which they belong. These findings challenge the conventional idea that opposing political parties prioritise different public policies, an idea that is particularly prevalent in a country with strong party polarisation like Argentina.

Nevertheless, the next question is why how we can interpret these outcomes.

My research suggests four possible explanations, which can be the basis for future research. First, it could be that there is no political polarisation. Second, the cases may be outliers. Third, this may be a technical agenda rather than a political one. Fourth, and the most likely based on the evidence that I already have, is that local governments do not have `real` autonomy to decide LED strategy. That means LGs in Argentina in LED are not autonomous when it comes to the ‘real‘ distribution of power/competences/budget. With this in mind, LGs have two alternatives. First, they accept the LED initiatives promoted by other levels of governments or other actors. For example, public employment service was promoted at the national level and covers funding for the PES programme. The benefit of this is that these options are comparatively cheaper, as they involve investing only in human management resources. The downside is that local government does not have much influence on the initiative´s design and fewer opportunities to contextualise the programme to local needs (as the local economic development approach suggests). The second alternative is to develop and fund their initiatives. These initiatives are in general based on local strengths, for example close relationships with the local entrepreneurs.

In summary, this research provides evidence and valuable clues for further research about local governments’ room for manoeuvre in designing LED policies in a decentralised country such as Argentina and the relationships between politics and planning in a seeming polarised world.

Milagros Gimenez  is  an Argentinian economist, Chevening scholar and studying on INLOGOV’s MSc in Public Management. 

The national political tremors have settled. Let’s re-focus on local health scrutiny

Cllr. Ketan Sheth

There was a lot of national media commentary and coverage about the role of the NHS at the recent General Election, which was unsurprising given all the commitments major political parties were making: boosting NHS funding, more doctors and extra GP appointments, rebuilding hospitals, and so on.

However, I think that members of overview and scrutiny committees – of all political parties – know that the NHS in particular and health in general are always a major issue in their areas regardless, not just because of the casework we receive from constituents or because health and the NHS tend to fill up a lot of the space on the work plans of our scrutiny committees.

Firstly, local government is part and parcel of the structure of the NHS in many localities, with Directors of Public Health and Directors of Adult Social Care sitting on the executives of Clinical Commissioning Groups. And, let’s not forget that many elected councillors are involved outside the local authority in the governance structures at a Board level of many of their local NHS providers (I will declare an interest as I am a Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust). In local government, we have a view of the NHS from the root up and dare I say probably a more detailed picture than those operating at a national level or, to use today’s jargon, a ‘granular’ picture, which shows that every area has its own strengths and weaknesses that may or may not align to the national picture.

So, now we are settling back into the business of ordinary scrutiny committees there are three areas which, drawing on my own experiences, I think many healthy overview and scrutiny committees will be focusing on in 2020. They look a little different to the recent national debate.

Firstly, the quality of services, particularly of primary care, is a growing area of importance alongside access to services. The Care Quality Commission publishes ratings for each of the primary care providers in each area; it’s always worth keeping up to date with the local picture, in particular how ratings change. What you will want to see is an improvement in these ratings, and fewer GP providers being placed in special measures as a result of an inadequate CQC rating. If it’s heading in the opposite direction in your area, it might be time to ask why.

Secondly, working at scale is increasingly the big challenge for the NHS. On the commissioning side in north-west London there are plans to merge eight separate CCGs into one body by April 2021. That will mean a single operating model, and I assume some commissioning arrangements, operating at scale, commissioning services across many different boroughs. That’s something we will be tracking with care.

Finally, workforce is an issue which is frequently raised at health overview and scrutiny meetings. We’ve heard a lot about problems nationally of recruiting to specialist posts, as well as vacancy rates for nurses. But is it time to ask about the local pressures on recruitment and retention in the hospitals for the big provider trusts in your area?

So, now the national political tremors have settled let’s re-focus on local health scrutiny issues for 2020. Who knows, they may be very different to the national picture.


Cllr. Ketan Sheth is a Councillor for Tokyngton, Wembley in the London Borough of Brent. Ketan has been a councillor since 2010 and was appointed as Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in May 2016. Before his current appointment in 2016, he was the Chair of Planning, of Standards, and of the Licensing Committees.