How Private Members’ legislation institutionalised ‘the free stuff’

Chris Game

One incidental phenomenon of this extraordinary period in our lives is all the free stuff around, and not just for NHS hero(in)es or frontline workers. For us septuagenarian social distancers there are almost limitless free games, films, ebooks, magazines, video stuff, educational goodies, hot drinks, pizzas – and rhubarb complex. No, me neither.

It took me back a few years – memory-jogged by a recent report from the ‘neo-localist’ think tank, Localis, of which more shortly – to the heyday of ‘free stuff’ in the local government world. Which in turn took me back, coinciding with MPs’ so-called return to work, to Parliament and a sometimes overlooked sphere of that work that every so often genuinely enhances public life – considerably more than most Question Times, in-person or virtual.

I’m talking Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) – the means by which non-ministerial MPs and Peers can attempt to get their names into the statute books. Or – much more usually – a one-line Hansard mention. I jest not – of the 386 PMBs introduced in the extended 2017-19 Parliamentary session, just 15 received Royal Assent.

Like everything else about our Parliament – fabric, functioning, and obviously electoral system – the whole PMB thing is decades overdue for overhaul and reform. Yet, almost despite itself, it regularly does produce seriously worthwhile law.

And there was one decade in which it excelled, creating a shelf of legislation that remains today hugely worthwhile – abolition of capital punishment, reform of law on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, theatre censorship, Sunday entertainment – and that was just the headline stuff.

The 1960s, of course – as I was discovering a genuine interest in politics, had university essays to write, and became fascinated by this way of handling ‘conscience legislation’ – which is probably why I still pay sporadic attention to what goes on.

I admit, though, I had little idea of how the show-off Presentation Bill procedure had mushroomed of late. The Hansard Society counted 147 of them in that extended last session – except that there weren’t, in any physical sense. For all you need do is, well, present your proposed Bill’s title – handfuls at a time, if you feel really shouty – to a sparsely occupied Friday Commons.

This still infant session is already set to leave that 147 total standing. Imagine that Thursday a fortnight ago, first day back at school, as the shoutiest boys (you can’t imagine women MPs bothering with this stuff, can you?) presented their holiday homework. Arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone managed 15 Bills, but his supposed mate, Sir Christopher Chope, left him almost wimpering with his (I think) 41.

Thankfully, you don’t even get to air what’s bothering you, because there’s no speech, no debate, and the things are frequently not even printed. Yes, there are occasional, vital exceptions – like the recent EU (Withdrawal) Bills sponsored by Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn that sought to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the absence of the Withdrawal Bill’s ratification.

But exceptions they were. If you have a serious cause, a genuine knowledge of the subject and the deficiencies of the present legislation, plus ideally access to ‘expert’ advice and parliamentary drafting skills, then you don’t shout, but try a Ten-Minute Rule Bill and/or chance your luck in the Private Members’ Bill ballot.

It’s a big parliamentary happening, at the start of each session. Most eligible MPs enter, their anonymised numbers inscribed on ping-pongy balls and pulled out of, obviously, a goldfish bowl for total transparency. The first 20 names then get, in reverse order, a guaranteed Friday slot in the parliamentary timetable to introduce and hopefully progress their chosen Bill.

Of the 15 PMBs passed in the last session nine were these Ballot Bills. Most focus on a specific need, injustice or population group, like the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, introduced by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who came 8th in the 2017 ballot, and which has finally came into operation last month.

Labelled ‘Jack’s Law’, after Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy led the campaign for the Bill, it authorises a minimum of two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for the several thousand employed parents each year who lose a child under the age of 18 or have a stillbirth from the 24th week of pregnancy.

The difficulty in taking on an obdurate Government on a politically big issue is sadly illustrated by SNP MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, 7th in the 2016 ballot. She tried embarrassing the Government, already five years after signing the Council of Europe’s wide-ranging Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women, into actually ratifying it into UK law, instead of merely agreeing how jolly important it was and blocking it in the EU Council.

Three years later: surprise! Shamefully, still unratified. However, with the Counting Dead Women project estimating at least 16 domestic abuse killings during the first three weeks of lockdown, Home Secretary Priti Patel is reportedly considering setting up a new cross-government taskforce on domestic abuse. So that’s sorted, then.

Apologies for the extended diversion. I do realise that at least the climax to an INLOGOV blog should ideally be both local governmenty and positive – and this one is, courtesy of Chris White, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington from 2010 to 2017.

With beginner’s luck, White came third in the 2010 Private Members’ Ballot, and used it outstandingly, to introduce the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. Working ‘with the grain’ of both central and local government progressive thinking, it required councils and other public bodies to pay regard to ‘social impact’ – social, economic and environmental well-being – when making procurement decisions.

Some councils needed no convincing, but others did. Yet, really quite rapidly, social value advanced – from campaign slogan, through the development of Social Value Strategies, to statutory requirement, to an almost universally recognised consideration in dealing with both public and frequently private sectors.

The Localis think tank argues – not for the first time, but in greater depth – that the Government should now go further. Councils should be required to produce publicly available Community Value Charters defining where social value offers would be best targeted, thereby aiding both commissioners and potentially bidding contractors.

Thanks significantly to Chris White, as the publication reminds us, we’ve come a long way from councillors and officers on the procurement side of a negotiating table asking, slightly self-consciously: “What about all the free stuff – sorry, the additional economic, environmental and social value?” – and bidders frantically guessing what might be required to seal the deal.

 

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.

Strategic planning that works—evidence from the European public sector

Paul Joyce

Just over twenty years ago when I was observing experiments in the use of strategic planning and community planning in English local government I often wondered if it would prove to be a temporary management fad. There were at the time efforts by councils like Bradford Council to carry out planning with partners from all sectors. I saw councils like Ipswich Council trying to do community strategic planning and trying to engage and involve local people. There was leadership from councillors and officers at the tops of councils. I was really impressed at the time with their drive to innovate and serve the public better and often to use strategic planning as a tool to do this. But would enthusiasm for it last ten years?

Not only do local councils still use strategic thinking and planning but it has also been picked up at national level of government, with long-term strategic visions and strategies, all put to the service of reformed and improved public governance (which has been abundantly reported on by the OECD).

One of the most important things that academic researchers can do is to ensure that empirical research is carried out which really investigates what is actually happening in the public sector – what choices are made, and what actions are carried out – and what the consequences of them are. When this type of study is done it may be possible to have a serious examination of the usefulness of strategic planning for the public sector. It is therefore good that the journal Public Money & Management has just (in early 2020) published an issue that includes a series of empirical studies investigating the effectiveness of strategic planning in various European countries and in various parts of the public sector.

The editorial is by the four co-chairs of the Permanent Study Group on Strategic Management in Government, which was set up by the European Group for Public Administration (EGPA) in 2009. This study group has fostered research and discussion of the realities of public sector strategic planning with the intention of contributing towards a better understanding of how strategic planning works in practice and the causes of variations in its effectiveness.

In the editorial, I, along with my co-editors, drew attention to previously published research studies indicating individual public sector practitioners typically feel strategic planning has provided them with a range of benefits and studies assessing the contribution of strategic planning to public service performance. We also noted a recent meta-analysis by Bert George (Ghent University) that supported the value of strategic planning being formal as well as comprehensive.

It should not be assumed that we were arguing that strategic planning always succeeds and is always a perfect tool for public governance and for steering public service delivery. We do contend that, although strategic planning may rarely (if ever) be successful in respect of all the goals set, we do think there is evidence that it is quite successful. We also underline a view that Ewan Ferlie and Edoardo Ongaro, two UK based academics specialising in management in the public sector, have championed. This is the view that context matters. We say, “So strategic planning exists in many different shapes and forms—some effective and some less so, and one needs to think strategically about how strategic planning can be made most adequate for the context and issue at hand.”

In introducing the various studies in the issue, we were struck by a theme running through them. This was the theme of “alignment”. One that you would probably think of immediately is the alignment between strategic plans and the long-term visions and priorities set by elected politicians in the authorising structure. But we concluded the editorial by noting a set of alignments that we think are a good idea: “So, strategic planning needs to be aligned with its public governance context (i.e. strategic public governance alignment) and its networks (i.e. strategic network governance alignment), as well as being aligned with departmental plans (i.e. strategic vertical alignment), organisational structures (i.e. strategic horizontal alignment), and strategy implementation activities (i.e. strategic implementation alignment).” All this takes a lot of work to create and sustain. The big issue is, perhaps, how these alignments come into being – does strategic planning coordinate other things or adapt itself or both?

 

Paul Joyce is an Associate at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. He is also a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently writing a book on the execution of strategy in the public sector. His recent books include Strategic Management for Public Governance in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, with Anne Drumaux); Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2017, 2nd edition); and Strategic Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2015). In 2019 he became the Publications Director of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, IIAS, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.)

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.