A local councillor’s reflection on the coronavirus crisis

Cllr. Ketan Sheth – Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, Brent Council

I want to share something very important with you: for me the coronavirus crisis has been the most difficult period I have experienced as an elected member. I have lost loved ones, felt the distress in local communities and experienced the dislocation in people’s lives as children no longer attend school, workplaces shut and voluntary organisations suspend many of their vital services. So, this is a personal view and reflection on the crisis to date.

Firstly, the situation has underlined the importance of strong communities and resilient third-sector organisations. As elected councillors, we are community leaders and a bridge between the local authority and our residents. During this crisis I, like many of you, have been supporting those individuals and organisations who have been the most affected by what has not only been a health emergency but for some has meant a struggle to get the daily necessities of medicines and food.

Many of you will have been involved in mutual support organisations. In my own borough in the north-west of London there was a groundswell of local residents’ organisations, faith groups and other organisations coming together to support and assist local people. For me, the crisis has also reaffirmed the importance of the voluntary sector. While many of our local third sector organisations had to suspend some of their services or deliver them online or by phone, many have kept offering excellent support to their clients. In Brent, we have many excellent voluntary organisations working with older people, those with disabilities and the homeless; I would also pay tribute to those of our local foodbanks who have worked so hard to meet a basic need for many people in the borough.

Secondly, I would say that crisis has probably been the greatest test faced by the local authority and our local NHS. As the chair of an overview and scrutiny committee, which includes the NHS in its remit, I have built up a close relationship with our local NHS acute trust and commissioners. They have kept me informed about the challenging situation they are facing and how they have worked so tirelessly to respond to patients’ needs and increase capacity. It is clear how hard local authority officers have been working to respond to need in the community and redirect services, particularly for vulnerable adults and children. For all our residents, the council has strived to keep essential services such as rubbish collection going, and while ensuring there is appropriate social distancing in place, the borough’s parks have been invaluable spaces for people to exercise. While we have always been committed to local government and our local NHS working together to improve health, nothing has better illustrated this than people’s use of the parks.

Finally, there is no doubt this crisis has resulted in a seismic change in how local government works. The regulations in the Coronavirus Act allowing for changes in how members and the public can participate in committee meetings have come into effect. And, in an era of videoconferencing, I suspect that what are emergency measures will permanently influence how we work as members in local authority, especially in my own area of overview and scrutiny. These changes, which perhaps could have evolved in local government over years, have dramatically been brought into effect in a few weeks.

This has been a terribly difficult period. I hope that these reflections, and others many elected members will have had, will help us to rebuild for the better when this health emergency ends.

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. Ketan is a lawyer by profession and sits on a number of public bodies, including as the Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

INLOGOV and Coronavirus (updated)

Jason Lowther – Director of INLOGOV

In the light of the Covid-19 situation, INLOGOV has adopted on-line teaching, support and supervision approaches for all our courses for the time being.

The INLOGOV offices are closed until at least the 1st June and staff are now working remotely. Staff are contactable individually by email, phone, Twitter, Skype, Zoom and so on. If you do not receive a timely response, please get in touch with me, Jason Lowther, INLOGOV Director at [email protected]

The ‘Clap for Carers’ confusion (plus the badge) said it all

Chris Game

I admit it: I cheat. For years I’ve chatted and written about UK local government, for predominantly local government audiences and readerships, and I’m selective in the illustrative material I deploy. If there are numbers and examples that could present local government in a more or less favourable light, I’ll go first for the more favourable. I might mention that other researched statistics are available, but I’m not, say, a Government minister and, yes, I play to the crowd.

Which means regularly citing the now triannual random sample surveys the LGA commissions Populus Data Solutions to conduct on GB residents’ satisfaction with their local councils. Whether it’s money most productively spent is not, happily, my concern. I’m just grateful, and carry on plundering their graphs and tables.

Graphs like this one, from the most recent report, plotting the changes in residents’ reported satisfaction with various services.

Road maintenance has struggled a bit recently, but, contextualised by some of the headline figures in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recent report on English Local Government Funding, most services’ satisfaction ratings have held up perhaps surprisingly well, including the jointly ringed social services, of which more shortly.

The IFS calculated that central government funding cuts since 2009-10 have led to a 17% fall in councils’ spending on local services – equal, taking account of population change, to 23% or nearly £300 per person. In 2009-10 just over a third of councils’ revenues for services other than education came from council tax and business rates; today it’s 80%. You’d have to be a seriously unobservant resident not to have clocked something of the consequences.

The IFS also reported recently on UK Health Spending, noting that, while “the government’s recent approach to NHS capital spending has left a great deal to be desired”, current funding of health has at least been increasing annually, as opposed to the decreases faced by councils’ social services departments (my emphasis again).

Set against that fiscal and financial background, other stats from those same 2020/21 Populus local government surveys don’t seem that shameful either. Very/fairly satisfied with the way my local council runs things: 63%. Trust my local council a great deal or fair amount: 59%. Politicians most trusted to make local decisions: local councillors 71%, MPs 12%, Government Ministers 7%.

My point in raising this is that for numerous reasons relatively few people will have seen this latest LGA/Populus report since its recent publication, actually on April 1st. What the public wanted, this April especially, was something with NHS in the title and about how much we value (or undervalue) the great work it does.

Nuffield (health care) Trust and the King’s Fund (health policy think tank) can’t have anticipated this when preparing their annual round-up of health and social care findings from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey. But, publishing two days later on April 3rd, they struck lucky, getting plenty of coverage, not least in the local government media.

Let me be clear: the BSA is, as Nuffield/King’s Fund rightly note, a ‘gold standard’ survey, and I don’t blame the two distinguished health care institutions wanting to sponsor in recent years a handful of additional questions to a sub-sample of respondents into social care, as well as the range of NHS, services.

My reservation has been that, almost inevitably, these questions must appear to at least some respondents, as when reported in the illustrated table, slightly jarring add-ons, not least because they require a separate introduction explaining the switch from the NHS to “social care provided by local authorities for people who cannot look after themselves because of illness, disability or old age.”

It seems, in short, that the purpose is to compare the range of NHS services, funded largely from general taxation, with not a range of local authority services, but presumably a combination of adult and children’s care – funded by a mix of council tax revenues, steadily reducing general-purpose central government grants, and means-tested. Not exactly like with like; or, in boxing parlance, a catchweight contest.

The Nuffield/King’s Fund studies recognise this, invariably including in their reports warnings about how “public understanding of social care is relatively limited compared to people’s understanding of NHS services”, that proportions of ‘don’t know’ and ‘neither satisfied nor dissatisfied’ responses are much higher than for NHS services, and that “caution should therefore be applied when interpreting the data”. But still they ask the questions, and include responses in the same tables – in a kind of inversion of the Government’s daily reporting of Covid-19 deaths.

It always jars, but never more so than this year, when the report was published right in the middle of the unfortunate confusion about who exactly we should have in mind each week as we “Clap for our Carers”.

Actually, for Clap No.1 on March 26th there was no confusion. Check out virtually any pre- or post-Clap media report – from the BBC’s own ‘Newsround’ explanation to the appended badged circular – and “our Carers” were ‘frontline’ NHS staff.

Clap No.2 on April 2nd, when explained, was for “those working through the crisis … all key workers who are keeping things running … teachers, cleaners, supermarket workers, delivery drivers … as well as the NHS staff who are working round the clock”.

Social and residential care workers were doubtless in there somewhere, but you had to search hard for a direct reference – and the issues of the classification, counting and announcing of Covid-19 deaths in care homes were yet really to take off. Still, they did get a collective ‘thank-you for going the extra mile’ letter from Matt Hancock, who by then had presumably remembered that he was the one recent Health Secretary to have had ‘and Social Care’ included in his title from the outset.

Unfortunately, he is also the one apparently least able to resist both prevaricating and also digging himself great holes to jump into. And in the April 15th daily Covid-19 briefing he excelled himself. First, he attempted to claim, contrary to all evidence and almost everyone’s recollection, that the first Clap “was not for the NHS, but for all our carers”

He then proceeded further to patronise the latter by both wearing and attempting to launch on the public a green and white enamel, NHS-mimicking, CARE badge – “as a badge of honour in a very real sense”. Which verges on the tacky and tactless … even if it hadn’t actually been designed and launched 10 months earlier, precisely because he, Matt Hancock, was constantly seen wearing only the blue NHS lapel badge.

Almost needless to add, this latest gimmick was less than elatedly received by carers themselves. Oh yes, and the interminable wait for the Government’s review of the funding of social policy goes on.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

In light of covid-19, are school exams old news?

Shailen Popat

On 18th March,  UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that, because of the covid-19 crisis, all schools would close and that summer GCSE and A Levels would not be sat. This has caused concern and anxiety for pupils, parents and teachers. However, is it actually an opportunity to rethink how we assess at these key points? Could we use this year as a pilot on whether exams could be replaced with school internal assessments and may that lead to more valid judgements and reduced stress?

Any expectation on teachers to assess students’ work adds to their workload and so it must be worthwhile. Critics like to argue that teacher assessment is both less reliable and more unfair than standardised testing. This is largely because teachers, like all humans, are subject to biases like the halo effect, confirmation bias, the anchoring effect, overconfidence bias (Didau 2019). We also overestimate our ability to assess students’ work fairly and reliably, and we tend to look more favourably on students with good behaviour. Some studies have demonstrated that the information that a student has a learning disability led to teachers giving a lower mark than teachers who were not given that information (Didau 2019). There’s also evidence to suggest teachers are unconsciously biased against children from ethnic minorities. And utilising prior attainment such as mock exams also raises issues about validity, as these were not sat at the end of a course of learning and students should have developed over time.

Teacher assessment has been used before. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, coursework was included as a requirement in many subjects as it was felt that it may more validly assess important skills than exams. Coursework was intended to allow the assessment of the process through looking at a wider body of student work and to encourage creativity, reflective thinking and independent learning. Critics of coursework have concerns about authenticity, citing the possible unreliability of teacher marking, the potential for the assessment to be open to cheating, possible instances of students receiving excessive assistance from others and the reported risk of internet plagiarism led to concerns around whether work can be authenticated as the students’ own. Such issues led to Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) decision in 2006 to remove coursework from GCSE mathematics, and to replace coursework with controlled assessments in other GCSE subjects. From September 2015 onwards, coursework was worth just 20% in some subjects such as English and there was no coursework in sciences, economics, sociology, psychology and business studies.

Controlled assessment is the approach to internal assessment where an awarding body sets requirements or controls for the setting of tasks, undertaking tasks, and marking tasks. The levels of control are set out for each subject in the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual)’s GCSE Controlled Assessment regulations. Controlled assessments were used where they would assess different constructs to written exams, and controls were set at the most rigorous level that would still allow assessment of these constructs. Surveys suggested that teachers had a generally positive view of controlled assessments, with one study reporting that over 70% of teachers considered it “important” or “very important” to have some form of internal assessment in their subject (Crisp and Green 2013). However, other studies found that there were concerns that teachers were coaching students to get the best grades by running practice assessments that were very similar to the actual assessments, and that different interpretations of Ofqual’s controlled assessment regulations led to some variation in guidance on the controls in the same subject across different schools (Crisp and Green 2013).

The other purpose of national examinations is to hold schools accountable, but again this could be done differently. Some academics suggest intelligent sampling, wherein not all students are tested but just a nationally representative sample. As the purpose of these exams would not be to judge individual pupils, they would be low stakes and therefor place reduced pressure on the pupils who would sit them. Of course, for teachers and schools the stakes would remain high, but there is something healthy about not sharing this accountability pressure with pupils. International tests such as PISA, TIMMS and PiRLS, all undertake survey-based assessments of educational systems around the world.

Therefore, if qualification bodies and teachers can seize this opportunity to demonstrate integrity in teacher assessment, the case for keeping them will strengthen.

References

Crisp, V. and Green, S., 2013. Teacher views on the effects of the change from coursework to controlled assessment in GCSEs. Educational Research and Evaluation, 19(8), pp.680-699.

Didau, D. (2019) ‘Should we scrap SATs? Cautiously, yes’ 

Shailen Popat is a Teaching Fellow in Public Policy & Management and teaches Msc programmes and supervises dissertations at INLOGOV. He is also an interpretive policy analyst who is currently reading for a PhD in Education at the University of Oxford. His academic perspectives are informed by 20 years of professional practice with Local Authority and voluntary sector children and young people’s services where he has worked as a Senior Practitioner, Team Leader and has founded and run RealiZe Youth Services for which he was recognised at the Northamptonshire Education Awards 2015.

Weber and the Politics of the Covid-19 Crisis

Koen Bartels

Now our wonderful Polish cleaner can no longer come by, we are cleaning our house ourselves. While I was cleaning downstairs last weekend, I was listening to my favourite Dutch radio programme. The Dutch Minister of Culture, Sports and Education was being interviewed. The presenter asked her how difficult she finds it to do politics at this time of crisis. She replied that she’s doing very little politics actually because people don’t want politics, they want action and problem-solving.

‘That makes sense’, I found myself thinking while dusting my bookshelves. Doing politics is too time-consuming. Right now, we need governments to act fast. We should not distract those in charge with too much unnecessary debate.

But then I laid eyes on book by Max Weber. His over a century-old work on bureaucracy continues to shape our understanding of modern government. A key element of which is that politics and administration are fundamentally different activities and should be kept separate based on a strict division of roles and responsibilities. Politics is about thinking, debate, making decisions, the public interest, values. Administration is about doing, following rules, rational expertise, efficiency. As Woodrow Wilson on the other side of the pond declared around the same time as Weber: “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions” (Wilson, 1887, p. 210).

It was this politics-administration dichotomy that the Minister was invoking and which has resounded across the globe during the Covid-19 crisis. Political leaders shun responsibility for decisions because everything they do is informed by ‘science’. Emergency interventions and safety nets from governments are ‘the most optimal solutions in a bad situation’. Nobody can challenge their noble intentions and expertise when all they are doing is ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

Yet, the politics-administration dichotomy is a fallacy. And a dangerous one at that. Already in 1900, Frank Goodnow argued that the distinction between politics and administration was analytically possible, but non-existent in practice. One of the most widely accepted insights in our field nowadays are that public managers operate in a political environment. Another is that even bureaucrats working at the front line are significant policy-makers. Ignoring or trying to suppress the politics of administration is not just inaccurate, it is deceitful.

Weber developed the dichotomy as a heuristic. That is, a sense-making device for studying the actual behaviour and relationships of politicians and bureaucrats. Weber argued that the very core of how government works is determined by how bureaucrats balance the formal rationality of their organisation (adhering to hierarchical orders and formal procedures) and its substantive rationality (making decisions about what public values to pursue). Weber’s central purpose was to reveal how this balancing act translated into the ways in which authoritative organisations dominate society and limit individual freedom.

So let’s remain aware that all responses to the current crisis are political. Each and every decision and intervention is based on certain values and a consideration of interests. Who is considered ‘eligible’ for state support or who counts as ‘vulnerable’ are political decisions. Procedures and criteria drawn up under great pressure are bound to fail those whose needs are the largest and most complex.

In the crisis management literature, the politics of it all is a key premise. Crisis are highly complex and uncertain. The imperative to act quickly means those in charge fixate on short term interests and rely on dominant values. Structural causes of the crises and long term implications for equality and justice, not so much of a concern. The shocking disproportionate  Covid-19 related death rate of the African-American population in the USA is a case in point. Poverty, poor housing and insufficient infrastructure all serve to weaken health and increase exposure.

Politics is about who gets what, when and how, as Harold Lasswell famously declared in 1936. Also, or especially in a time of crisis. Our cleaner, for instance, gets little to none now. In Weber’s spirit, therefore, we need to put public values and power at the heart of our responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

 

Koen Bartels joined INLOGOV in October 2018 as Senior Lecturer in Public Management. He holds a BSc and MPhil in Public Administration from Leiden University (the Netherlands) and a PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on public encounters between front-line workers and citizens in an urban context. He teaches courses in leadership, performance, participation, and public management. He is also co-convener of the ECPR Standing Group on Theoretical Perspectives on Policy Analysis and editorial board member for Administrative Theory & Praxis.

 

 

Situational irony, coronavirus and the French local elections

Chris Game

One of Birmingham’s most enterprising theatres is one of its smallest, the Old Joint Stock – a studio theatre above a pub that was once the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank – which found itself an early and particularly unfortunate Covid-19 victim. For the Government’s March 16th announcement of the effective closure of all theatres came literally on the eve of the OJS’s five-day run of The White Plague, the scheduled second leg of a European tour, following a successful launch at Greenwich Theatre the previous week.

The title derives from an IRA-era sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, whose vengeful Irish molecular biologist creates a particularly discriminating (in both senses) plague, in that, while men are the carriers, it kills only women. The feature of this Ferodo Bridges theatre production, though, is that audience members are given masks or goggles that ‘white out’ their vision, thereby supposedly immersing them in the world of the blinded victims.

I was sorry to miss such a topical example of immersive theatre, but found some consolation in its ill-timed cancellation providing a rather classier example of situational irony than the standard fire station burning down, or the Facebook complaint about how useless Facebook is.

Which was neat, as the same week offered a further, and more democratically pertinent, Covid-19 example of situational irony in France’s municipal elections – partly in the results, but mainly in their happening at all.

President Macron faced a dilemma. French municipal and mayoral elections happen only every six years. This year’s, therefore, would be the first since he became President in 2017, thanks rather amazingly to his newly created LREM party, La République En Marche!, winning a substantial majority in the National Assembly elections.

This, therefore, should have been Macron’s big chance to establish a grassroots power base. In Paris City Hall, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, notwithstanding a radical manifesto – including a referendum on Airbnb, plans for a “100 percent bicycle” city centre, and a municipal police force comprising 50% women – looked vulnerable, and there were early visions of scores of LREM mayors and thousands of councillors across the country.

That’s right, thousands – this is France, with over 900,000 candidates contesting seats in over 35,000 villages, towns and cities, though excluding this time, rather sadly, the 757 British citizens currently serving as municipal councillors – which, incidentally, is nearly 300 more than in all seven West Midlands metropolitan boroughs combined.

Macron himself, however, was at less than peak popularity, following months of protests and strikes – by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement against rising fuel taxes, then by rail and health care workers, teachers and others against under-funding and pension reforms. Added to which, LREM’s Paris mayoral hopeful had had to abandon his candidacy in a sex video scandal – on Valentine’s Day!

And now France was showing the second highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Europe. Yet, having himself just shut down restaurants, museums, big sporting events, most stores, and the whole education system, Macron announced that the coming Sunday’s first round of the two-round municipal elections would go ahead – with strict sanitary conditions imposed, naturally.

The situational irony: the one man who could have saved his very personal party from a probable serious electoral thrashing, by doing the apparently responsible, expected thing and without any loss of face, chose not to.

Having merely a global citizen’s concern with French public health, I was actually quite pleased. Partly because French local elections are always fun to write about, but especially following the outcome of our own head of government’s Flip-Flop Friday.

In the morning of, yes, unlucky Friday 13th, Number 10 insisted – “driven by the experts”, of course – that May 7th’s local, mayoral, and Police & Crime Commissioner elections would go ahead, in defiance of the Electoral Commission’s postponement recommendation and Electoral Administrators’ warning of possibly insufficient polling station staff.

But then, literally within hours, all elections were off – and not, as proposed by the Electoral Commission, until the autumn, but for a year.

What makes French local elections fun? Well, not least – and making Macron’s go-ahead seem even more extraordinary than Johnson’s dithering – because there are just so many of them and they really are so genuinely local.

England’s local government currently comprises 341 principal councils, of which just Rutland, fractionally, has a population of under 40,000. By contrast, over 98% of France’s 35,000+ communes have under 20,000, and over half under 500.

Voting – in larger communes at least – is by proportional representation, potentially over two rounds, and mainly through party lists, which Parity Laws decree must comprise as many women as men, listed alternately. Mayors are indirectly elected: voters electing the council, the council then electing the mayor.

Most impressive attribute of French local elections, though, is that voters like them, and like voting in them, much more than in National Assembly elections. Evidence Exhibit 1: in reporting turnout in even local elections, the French way is to cite not the turnout percentage but ‘Abstentions’ – and then to worry when in 2014 the 36.45% abstentions (they’re also very precise) constituted “a record high” .

Exhibit 2: my favourite English language election preview, bemoaning how coronavirus was “eclipsing the elections in national conversation”, because “87% of the French people are discussing the coronavirus, while ONLY 52% are discussing the upcoming elections” (my emphasis). The last time over half an English electorate were caught discussing upcoming local elections being …?

Nevertheless, there clearly was concern that, even with voters queuing three feet apart, their own pens poised to sign the register, and voting machines wiped with hydro-alcoholic gel, polling stations were almost custom-made germ-spreading venues, particularly for older people.

Still, however, they recorded an estimated abstention rate of “up to 56%”, and a turnout therefore of around 45% – immediately seized on by the media as an “historic low”. In context, though, the last time turnout in our metropolitan district elections, for example, touched 45% in a non-General Election year was 1990 – poll tax year.  The recent average is 33%.

Macron’s decision was surprising, avoidable, predictably politically costly, and – given the second round’s almost immediate cancellation – probably wrong. It was not, though, without its integrity.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.