The LGC100: what it does and doesn’t measure

Chris Game

I used, years ago, to have a whole Pol Sci 1 lecture about power and influence, their similarities and differences. By one of life’s synchronicities, I’ve been reminded of it twice in the past week. Don’t go – I’m not about to disinter it, although I will share the six-word summary that I could, if really pushed, get it down to: Power’s a tool, Influence a skill.

Actually, I will elaborate a bit, at least to the 16-word précis: I is a form of P, but P can be exercised through means other than I. Power, in other words, trumps influence, as was demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s feverish purchasing of high-price London homes following George Osborne’s introduction of stamp duty bands.

To adapt my lecture illustration: estate agents spent possibly months trying to influence wavering purchasers’ views of the great bargain their £2 million Myleene Klass garage/apartment would represent; then along comes George and suddenly the hesitants are desperate to exchange contracts by midnight and save themselves (I think) £55,000. The Chancellor had the power to change the whole deal – as could the garage owners, had they decided to drop their price. The estate agent – yes, I can feel your pity – has, at most, influence.

Power is supposedly sexy – period, and certainly sexier than influence, which is why magazines with circulation-boosting ‘Top 100’ lists will generally try for ‘Most Powerful’, even if they have to resort to sophistry. Forbes, the US business magazine, does both the World’s Most Powerful People: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel; and Most Powerful Women: Merkel, Janet Yellen (Chair, Federal Reserve), Melinda Gates, Dilma Rousseff (President, Brazil).

I’ve no argument with any of these. The Putin vs. Obama thing’s interesting, but, if you annexe Crimea and do a $70 billion gas pipeline deal with China – well, for me that’s right up there with banded stamp duty. But then at 17 in the Women’s list there’s Beyoncé Knowles, personification of the power vs. influence problem.

Sure, have her No.1 in Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List. I’d even grudgingly accept her heading Time magazine’s 100 Most Influentials, or, to be accurate, being their Top Titan – Time fudging its listing by grouping its 100 into Titans, Pioneers, Artists, Leaders and Icons, presumably to avoid, say, Miley Cyrus embarrassingly outranking Pope Francis.

But, whatever Titans are/do, Beyoncé sings, and, even if she does release her songs exclusively on iTunes, that’s essentially popularity, not power. It’s the same with cats. The cat food Friskies’ Most Influential Cat on the Internet – ‘Grumpy Cat’ (aka Tardar Sauce, and apparently it’s feline dwarfism, not perpetual pet petulance) – has 250,000 followers, which is also popularity and could even be influence, but it ain’t power.

Which brings us to the LGC100, the Local Government Chronicle’s periodic listing and ranking of the most influential people in local government – and in which we at INLOGOV have the pleasant responsibility to declare an interest, in all senses.

The LGC100 obviously differs from the Friskies 50 index, but there are similarities. First big difference is the complete absence of cats from even the long list. Second, selection is by a nine-judge panel, with “vast experience across the sector” – apart, apparently, from that of being elected members. Third, it’s forward-looking: those most likely to exert influence over the sector in the next 12 months.

Yes, the big similarity with the Friskies 50 is that it’s very definitely about influence, in the sense that I’ve been trying to suggest, rather than power. Out of hopefully excusable exuberance, INLOGOV’s official announcement stated that our Director, Catherine Staite, had been ranked the 45th “most powerful” person in the world of local government, which wasn’t the actual citation and, given that world’s diverse and highly political character, risked being potentially misleading – prompting this intendedly explanatory blog.

As I see it, LGC could have taken the sophists’ soft option, have pretended theirs is a Power Index, but, like Time, with separate groupings for mayors and council leaders, chief execs, national politicians, civil servants and officials, consultants, commentators, etc. Which would have risked being little more interesting than the proverbial wet weekend in Wigan – which, I’d better emphasise, isn’t boring at all, and moreover has a still comparatively rare female CE in Donna Hall (No 55).

Instead, they’ve taken the braver and inevitably more provocative path of having a single sector-wide set of reputational rankings, and it behoves us to recognise that those rankings are assessments of likely future influence, and not of current or recent power.

If they were current power rankings, then, whatever we might think of him, Eric Pickles’ dramatic slide from 1 in 2011 to 15 would take some explaining – although it does remain noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, all previous listings have been headed by the senior local government minister: John Healey in 2007 and 2008, and Pickles in 2011. This time, the only minister in the top 10 is Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at 7 [The PM and Chancellor are excluded from consideration, as is the Leader of the Opposition].

Second, Alexander’s relatively high position suggests Pickles’ fall can’t be attributed entirely to next May’s election, as he’s also adrift of Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (11), and Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (13), who may also have lost their ministerial red boxes before the year’s half through. A comparable consideration – imminent retirement – surely does, however, largely explain DCLG Permanent Secretary Sir Bob Kerslake’s apparently lowly 85. Incidentally, the actual local government minister, Kris Hopkins, may or may not be grateful that LGC have extended their list from 50 to 100, as his perceived future influence has him down at 93 – just below Watford elected mayor, Dorothy Thornhill (92), and just ahead of Nan Sloane, Director of The Centre for Women and Democracy (95).

I’ve now mentioned four ranked women and six men, and it would be good if that 40% female representation or the 40% in the top 10 were reflections of the list overall. They aren’t. There are 11 women in the top 50 and 21 in the full 100, which proportionately is lower than in either 2011 or 2008 – and, yes, I do know Doncaster’s CE, Jo Miller (27), and Centre for Cities’ Alex Jones (83) are women, while Localis’ Alex Thomson (54) is definitely male.

If those figures are disappointing, those for ethnic diversity are worse. An important new survey was published in September into the diversity of staff working in the top 5,000 leadership roles within the public and voluntary sectors. Conducted by a team headed by Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000 survey found that ethnic diversity in local authority leadership is so low that it “almost defies analysis” – and that was before Lambeth CE Derrick Anderson announced his impending departure. Though obviously not itself a statistical exercise, the LGC100 reinforces that sad conclusion.

Important as that conclusion is, though, it would be wrong for this particular blog to end on anything but a more upbeat note. First, there’s the overall picture, with local government people not only heading the list – the Manchester City Council duo of Leader, Sir Richard Leese, and CE Sir Howard Bernstein – but comfortably outnumbering, as they jolly well should, national politicians and officials by 46 to 33. And, if you forget the messy election business and count members of the Upper House as politicians – Lords Adonis (26) and Shipley (69) – then they just pip officials by 40 to 39. No amount of fiddling, though, will prevent the biggest single group in the top 20 being, by a distance, national politicians.

Finally and closer to home, INLOGOV Director Catherine Staite’s 45th position is, by any standards, a proud achievement – for her and collectively for those academic and other Institute colleagues with whom she works (I can say that, being nowadays extremely semi-detached and, at least in that sense, no longer among that number). It doesn’t mean LGC panellists have judged her more powerful or important than, say, Birmingham City Council Leader, Sir Albert Bore (50), or London Mayor, Boris Johnson (57), or even former INLOGOV Director, Sir Michael Lyons (70), author of the recent Labour-commissioned Lyons Housing Review of the underlying causes of the housing crisis.

It does, on the other hand, seem to suggest that those panellists see INLOGOV as already, and perhaps increasingly, prominent in the local government world, and – particularly through collaborative work with other public sector and international organisations – like the recent 2020 Vision report with Grant Thornton, Exploring finance and policy futures for English local government – – an increasingly influential player.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

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The future is Intercommunality – yes, but with whom?

Chris Game

Rom com/date movies aren’t really my thing, so my excuse for watching the recent Words and Pictures was that I was a captive plane passenger – and that the ever-watchable Juliette Binoche was playing a rheumatoid arthritic abstract painter and prep school art teacher. The title refers to the silly challenge she charily accepts from alcoholic poet turned plagiarising English teacher, Clive Owen, to ‘prove’ whether Words or Pictures are more meaningful.

One of the Owen character’s numerous obnoxious ways of irritating colleagues is with his show-off polysyllable game: I’ll give you a five-syllable word, you give me one of six syllables, etc. Binoche, at least initially, won’t play, which, while entirely understandable, I personally found slightly disappointing, as I could SO have helped her.

For starters, I know that the seven-syllable word most frequently used conversationally was calculated (don’t ask!) to be, not homosexuality, which was one of the commoner guesses, but telecommunication – followed pleasingly by the one that describes INLOGOV: interdisciplinary. In the near future, though, it will surely be intercommunality – at least in local government conversations, most of which currently seem focused on Combined Authorities (CAs).

At present, we have just five: Greater Manchester, very much first off the blocks in 2010/11, followed earlier this year by West Yorkshire, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, and the North-East. But over the past fortnight alone, quite apart from the general ‘Please sir, can we have some of whatever Scotland’s getting’ pleas, we’ve had almost daily reports of CA discussions – among five Tees Valley councils, all 14 in Lancashire, some or many in Hampshire, six in West London, and four (or maybe five, six, or more) in the West Midlands, all seeking, through the formation of CAs, to grab some of the devolution goodies that Greater Manchester negotiated with George Osborne in exchange for a directly elected metro-mayor.

Of course, only in the UK could it possibly be deemed nationally newsworthy that a number of contiguous local authorities were thinking of working together in the interests of more efficient service delivery. I’m no specialist, but even I recall back in 2007 a whole book of country case studies of Inter-Municipal Co-operation in Europe (ed. by Hulst & van Montfort), demonstrating what a widespread phenomenon it had become in much, if not most, of Europe.

One reason I recall it is that it appeared around the same time as an article by Josie Kelly (Aston U) entitled ‘The Curious Absence of Inter-municipal Co-operation in England’ – a curiosity, I felt, that evaporated quite quickly, once you considered surely the single most basic explanation: namely, the structure and sheer scale of our local government.

With that in mind, let me start this brief backstory with a few figures on scale. England’s population is 54 million, and we have 326 unitary or lower-tier district authorities, with an average population of 165,000. The equivalents in France, population 66 million, are 36,700 lower-tier communes, average population 1,800.

Most communes date back to the 1789 Revolution, and the French are very attached to them – voting for their councillors and mayors in roughly twice the numbers we do. Successive Presidents tell them this ‘millefeuille’ structure of micro-communes is outdated, inefficient and must be reformed, but French citizens care more than us and they resist. No enforced mergers, humongous ‘local’ authorities, arbitrary boundary lines on maps, and meaningless council names for them.

So, French governments were forced to develop a compromise: intercommunal cooperation. By a mix of threats and incentives, communes were persuaded to group themselves into some 2,500 cooperative communities of varying shapes and sizes.

Biggest, most integrated, and with most powers and fiscal autonomy, are 16 urban communities (communautés urbaines) for the largest metropolitan areas. Smaller urban areas have communautés d’agglomération, and rural areas, without an urban core of 15,000 residents, have communautés de communes, which account for the great majority of the total.

With its ultra-local communal structure, France’s network of inter-municipal co-operation is one of Europe’s most extensive. But Spain has its mancomunidades (municipal associations), Italy its Unioni di Comuni (municipal unions), Germany Zweckverbände, and so on. As in so many things European, it is we who are the real exceptions. England’s enormous and largely self-sufficient local authorities, and their minimal responsibility for what in many countries are still public utilities, mean that our insularity has extended to a near absence of formal inter-municipal co-operation.

But the future, we’re told, will be different. The future is partnership working in general, and Combined Authority intercommunality in particular – which is fine, unless you happen to live, as I do, in Birmingham. First, you find you’ve missed out on the possibility of living in a regional Powerhouse, like a good chunk of ‘the North’ apparently will be. And second, it’s far from clear exactly who, when the music stops, we’ll be communing with.

Our problem, as ever, is Manchester. I had occasion last year to puncture its pretensions to be ‘Britain’s second city’ but now, it seems, it’s become English government’s José Mourinho, the special one. Worse, like Chelsea’s manager, it not only has a powerful and supportive backer, but is also pretty smart itself.

That smartness was seen in the city council’s being first to utilise Labour’s 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act by orchestrating the creation of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The Act’s chief purpose was to set up local authority leaders’ boards to replace the abolished Regional Chambers, but it also provided for the creation of combined authorities covering multiple, contiguous local authority areas. In fact, the GMCA recreated the Thatcher-abolished 10-borough Metropolitan Council, by pooling newly devolved powers on public transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management, carbon neutrality and planning permission.

Though conceived under Labour, the GMCA’s establishment dates from 2011 and, perhaps surprisingly for an invariably Labour-dominated body, its principal backers have been Coalition ministers and most notably northern MP and Chancellor, George Osborne. Manchester especially has consistently opposed elected mayors, the Government’s proclaimed condition for further devolution. Nevertheless, it was the GMCA’s 2012 City Deal that included a ground-breaking ‘earn back’ tax provision, enabling it to recoup annually from government up to £30 million from increased business rates for reinvestment in a revolving infrastructure fund.

None of the other seven 2012 City Deals – even Liverpool’s, announced on the very day the city council took the decision itself to have an elected mayor – were as expansive, and the reason seemed inescapable. Though called City Deals, ministers had to negotiate any regional dimension they involved, not with a statutorily based, politically led, service-delivering CA, but with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – voluntary, business-led, minimally resourced alliances of councils and businesses that help coordinate local economic development. More than talking shops, but not serious intercommunality.

You didn’t need a weatherman to know the wind direction. City-based LEPs, particularly where wholly or largely coterminous with a former metropolitan county, began negotiating for CAs, and, as noted above, there are now four more, leaving the West Midlands as the only ex-met county without one. Meanwhile, both major parties claim to see CAs, rather than ever larger merged councils, as the best vehicles to implement their vague, fluctuating, but still important devolution plans. For the present, though, the dealer’s chair is still occupied by George Osborne – yes, this is definitely Treasury, not DCLG, stuff – and first bidder for the next wave of devolution deals was once again Greater Manchester.

This time a price tag came with the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ deal – a required and reluctantly agreed directly elected metropolitan mayor. The £1 billion of devolved funding and services s/he will share with the CA, while unremarkable in many EU countries, constitutes a big deal here, and everyone else desperately wants one too. The problem is that not everyone has Greater Manchester’s nicely polycentric coherence – seven of its nine surrounding boroughs sharing borders with the core city; or its unambiguous identity, its established record of intercommunal cooperation, and, above all, its undisputed name.

Demonstrably, the West Midlands doesn’t, which is why the recent stream of feverish announcements from local council leaders has seemed half-baked, unconvincing, and – who knows? – even potentially self-defeating. First, a West Midlands CA of Birmingham and the four Black Country boroughs (Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton – all Labour), with Coventry (Labour) an unsigned probable, but Solihull (Conservative, and Coventry’s only contiguous borough) an unsigned reluctant, which raises questions at the very least about an integrated transport policy.

Then, there are the Worcestershire and Staffordshire districts in the Birmingham/Solihull LEP and those in Coventry/Warwickshire LEP – apparently, they’re maybes or haven’t-yet-been-askeds. An elected mayor, twice rejected by Birmingham, is an unmentionable, and as for the name – the obvious but toxic Greater Birmingham? West Midlands? Birmingham City Region? Mercia?? Nobody is keener than I on the devolution of significant powers and fiscal discretions to our cities and city regions, but even I would take some convincing about somewhere that couldn’t make up its collective mind on its area, composition, name or form of governance.

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.

Pickles’ Tower Hamlets takeover: a sad affair all round

Chris Game

He kept Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, waiting until almost literally the 23rd hour of the 14th day of his two-week deadline. In the end, though, Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, having last Friday lost his second, and ill-advised, application for a judicial review, was left with little choice.

With forced smile and through gritted teeth, he was willing to accept and “welcome” the minister’s ‘intervention package’ and his three commissioners, who until March 2017 will take over specified mayoral and council responsibilities. About the only proviso he could muster to cover his mayoral modesty was that the solutions they offer should be “proportionate and workable” – which is about as low as climb-downs go.

The fortnight deadline had been conceded by Pickles when he made his intervention statement to the Commons on November 4, following a critical Best Value report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) into the borough’s governance arrangements. He could afford to be briefly conciliatory, because he knew Tower Hamlets’ fate had been effectively sealed in the summer, when the mayor’s first application for a judicial review was dismissed in the first line of the judgement as “hopeless”.

By one of life’s pleasing coincidences, that judgement coincided almost precisely with PwC’s regulatory advisory services unit being fined $25 million (or roughly Tower Hamlets’ annual transport budget) and suspended from consulting work for watering down a money laundering report.

I doubt if even Pickles suspects Tower Hamlets of money laundering, but, having also received hefty fines in recent years for failing to safeguard client assets – and “failing to comply with some of the most elementary auditing standards and procedures” – PwC must have seemed the ideal choice for someone who evidently reckons, like the ancient proverb, that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper.

These PwC cases are, I suggest, more than mere debating points. The fines – and there are several easily searchable others – were for more serious and hugely more self-profiting misconduct than anything its report finds Tower Hamlets guilty of, and the company’s been violating best practice years longer than Mayor Rahman has been in office.

When the PwC report was published a fortnight ago the immediate response of the mayor and council was that it contained “no evidence of criminality or fraud”.

Unrefuted though it was, Rahman’s use of the F-for-Fraud word was (a) at least questionable, (b) a potential hostage to fortune, and (c) somewhat disingenuous. The questionability is that the report does refer (p.28) to “evidence of possible fraudulent payments” of grants to third-sector organisations (emphasis added), but, with the evidence now in the hands of the police, it is not examined further in the report.

The hostage to fortune is that many, probably most, of the fraud accusations levelled at Rahman concern the conduct not of council business but of elections – particularly his own 2014 mayoral re-election, which he won by only 4% from Labour’s John Biggs – and the investigations into these are still very much ongoing. There’s been a detailed judicial scrutiny of ballot papers, and an election fraud trial will take place in the High Court probably in January.

In relation to PwC’s Best Value Inspection report, the fraud reference is also disingenuous, because, as Rahman obviously knows, fraud is not what Best Value is primarily about.

BV was the concept introduced by New Labour in 1999 to supplant the Thatcher/Major policy of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. A council’s duty of BV is “to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness” (emphases added). The 3Es are quite carefully defined, but “arrangements” aren’t.

The point is, though, that BV is about the existence and satisfactory operation of arrangements and processes. To demonstrate failure to comply, therefore, it isn’t necessary to demonstrate that money has been spent fraudulently, or even in a manner that has failed to achieve an appropriate standard of the 3Es; merely that satisfactory arrangements either haven’t been in place or haven’t operated satisfactorily.

Eric Pickles directed the PwC inspection to focus on the arrangements in four specific areas – those about which there had been most allegations, and essentially those that the commissioners will now take over: payment of grants, transfer of property to third parties, process and practices for entering into contracts, and spending and decisions on publicity.

The PwC report is roughly 200 pages long and by no means a hatchet job. Contracts, for example, were found unproblematic, and publicity received less criticism than Pickles personally would probably have liked.

On the other hand, three of the four property disposals examined were judged BV failures, and grant allocations were found to be all over the place – or rather, the very reverse, disproportionately concentrated on Bangladeshi and Somali groups and areas.

Best Value is a statutory duty and some of PwC’s findings showed serious deficiencies in “arrangements” and processes – much more serious than the mayor at first seemed to acknowledge, as he tried to downplay them as easily remediable “regrettable flaws”.

The really sad thing about this whole affair is the message it sends about local democracy. A Conservative minister, for whom most Tower Hamlets residents would never dream of voting, commissions a report from a bunch of highly-paid professionals, which finds that locally elected politicians have had the temerity to question and even override the advice of more highly paid, unelected officials, probably living outside the borough. And finally, a third set of highly paid unelected officials is sent in to take over. At least some of those voters must surely be wondering why they bothered.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

Postcard from Tokyo: local government remorse, Japanese-style

Chris Game

I’ve had the good fortune to spend the past week in Tokyo, as Japan commemorates the 50th anniversary of arguably the most geo-politically transformative Olympic Games, in the city that underwent a scarcely credible urban transformation in order to stage them.

The figures still stagger: 10,000 new 4 to 7-storey office and residential buildings, 100 kms of new super-highways and 40 kms of subway lines, a new airport-to-city monorail, plus the instantly world-famous 210 kph shinkansen bullet train – and all in barely four years.

Then there were the Games themselves: the first live- and colour-telecast Opening Ceremony, hosted (not presided over) by the vanquished but unprosecuted Emperor Hirohito; the exclusion of South Africa; and, courtesy of Seiko, the first electronic automated timing systems giving results down to 1/100th of a second accuracy.

It was my second year away from my Essex home at the University of Manchester, and I recall these things pretty clearly. But I’d virtually forgotten a favourite bit of contemporary trivia: that the signage discouraging Japanese men’s habit of relieving themselves openly in the streets was not, as you might put it, penal, but communal – “Let’s refrain from urinating in public”.

Even if we had ‘oop north’ – as I fear my mother at least half-imagined – indulged in such practices, the Mancunian forces of law and order would surely have adopted a more individualistic and punitive approach.

I remember thinking, even with my nil first-hand knowledge of Japan, that those two short opening words surely represented something more fundamental – the distinction between what we’d label today as the Individual-Agency Culture of most western countries and the Collective-Agency Culture of those like Japan, where communities play a more central role in society.

It’s a distinction that’s perhaps most frequently noted in respect of apologising, of which the Japanese do far more than we do, partly because we largely restrict ours to actions for which we are personally to blame. The Japanese are almost compulsive apologisers – if you doubt it, check out Wikipedia’s list of their governments’ more than 50 WWII apology statements – to the extent that they differentiate, enumerate, taxonomise and behaviouralise the numerous ways in which remorse can and should be expressed.

As an ignorant gaijin (foreigner), I can mostly get by with ever-ready, spoken sumimasens – a kind of Category 1 hybrid sorry/excuse me – to cover everything from bumping into littler people on the overcrowded subway to generally behaving like a western wus. I sometimes add what I hope may resemble a Japanese-type shallow bow.

After that, though, apologising becomes more serious: the distinctions more subtle and the bows ever deeper until they become grovels or prostrations. I received, quite unnecessarily, an apparently Category 3 deep bow, head down, from the optometrist salesperson who was unable to repair the arm of my spectacles.

Basil Fawlty would probably essay an ingratiating Category 5 ‘perpetual ojigi’ – deep bow indefinitely repeated until requested to stop – to any hotel inspector he might incidentally have offended.  And, if you’re actually caught in the act of doing something seriously obscene and/or offensive, then for you it’s a Category 7 dogeza – which isn’t Japanese for doggy-style, but does entail the penitent assuming a disconcertingly similar posture of self-abasement.

And my point is?  Well, while it obviously may be a product of being here in the remorse capital of the world, to me this past week’s UK news headlines seemed to include a disproportionate quota of apology stories.

First, there was Sheffield United footballer and convicted rapist, Ched Evans, being asked to show not just shame, which he had expressed, but also ‘genuine’ contrition and remorse before being allowed to resume his career, even while pursuing an action for a miscarriage of justice.

The pseudonymous ‘Jean Hatchet’ online petition was aptly named. The 150,000+ signatories – nearly nine times United’s average home attendance – called on the club not to reinstate Evans under apparently any circumstances.

They were after lifelong vengeance, rather than apologies, but I did wonder if at least some of them might have settled, had it been available, for a Category 8 doge-fuse – the ultimate apology, with Evans prostrating himself, face down, preferably on the muddiest Bramall Lane pitch available.

Some would happily have seen TV presenter, Judy Finnigan, join him, for failing to grasp that today non-consensual sexual contact, regardless of gender or location, is sexual violence – end of.

OTT, obviously. Still, it did seem surprising that someone with her experience failed to anticipate the widespread offence her remarks would cause, and so maybe a Category 4 ‘long ojigi’ would be appropriate – a deep bow, and no rising until given permission.

I’ve no idea what planet the Russian Tennis Federation President inhabits, but, after describing Venus and Serena as “the Williams Brothers”, if he escaped with a long ojigi, he should consider himself lucky.

Which leaves the unfortunate junior welfare minister, Lord Freud. Being one of those politicians who’ve avoided the messy business of actually contesting elections, he failed to foresee the ruthlessness with which a desperate Labour leader would twist and exploit his unscripted remarks about some employers judging some learning disabled employees as incapable of doing work for which they’d deign to pay the minimum wage.

It sounds like another Judy Finnigan, but the luckless Baron was additionally required to make a Category 2 deep and public bow to David Cameron for drawing attention to the gap in his Government’s otherwise faultless integrated tax and benefits system.

Tokyo, the Olympics, Japanese apologies, Evans, Finnigan, Freud – eclectic but, I concede, not a huge amount of local government. Time, therefore, for my own apologetic explanation of my flimsy pretext. There were two quite prominent Japanese local government apology stories over the summer, both accompanied by video clips. Between them, they were, I felt, sufficiently unusual, insightful, and in one case downright bizarre, to justify sharing with any colleagues who may have missed them.

The first involved two Tokyo city assembly members and the kind of repulsive sexist behaviour which is on regular display in our own House of Commons, but which generates more outcry in the supposedly more male chauvinist culture of Japan.

Speaking in a debate on measures to support child-raising and boost fertility [at current birth and death rates, Japan’s 127 million population is projected to fall to 87 million by 2060], (unmarried) assembly member Ayaka Shiomura was interrupted and visibly upset by cries of “Hurry up and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”

A Liberal Democratic member, Akihiro Suzuki, eventually confessed to at least the first and at an ensuing press conference bowed deeply and apologized “from the bottom of my heart for inflicting heavy heartache and causing trouble to assembly member fellow lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura, the assembly and the public.”

game

By this time, any of you who recognize or recall the name Ryutaro Nonomura will know precisely what comes next. Nonomura, a Hyogo prefecture assemblyman, held a long and emotional news conference to answer questions about his alleged misuse of some of his annual ‘policy research’ allowance of ¥6 million (£36,000) – during which he broke down in tears, sobbed uncontrollably, wailed incoherently, and produced a video performance that immediately went viral. I’ve selected two of the many available clips: a longer, sadistic version showing the build-up to, from about 6:45 minutes, the full car crash; and a highlights version showing in English subtitles what he apparently meant to convey.

game

There are two overriding impressions left by the Nonomura video clips. The first is that he must have been as guilty as hell – which is only partly true. In acknowledgement that assembly members are proper policy and law makers, the political activities allowance – on top of an annual salary of ¥11.6 million (£67,000) – is deliberately broadly defined and correspondingly loosely monitored. Yes, Nonomura clearly did stretch the interpretation of the ‘other activities’ the allowance was intended to cover – more so probably than he admitted at his news conference.

But, unlike some of our local and national politicians found guilty of similar charges, all his dubious trips were undertaken, and, as the prefectural office admitted, they were not in themselves illegal. Had he collected and submitted receipts, he might well have got away with his travel excesses, if not some of the others. As has since been acknowledged, the prefecture’s sloppy bookkeeping also has much to answer for.

The second thing is that, if part of his aim in holding the news conference was to convince the public about his sincerity as a representative and legislator, then he surely succeeded. As the subtitled clip shows, Nonomura REALLY cares – about his prefecture, his people, Japan, its ageing population, and no doubt a great deal else – and I’m not sure you could say as much for some/most of our expenses cheats.

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.

Local government – more appreciated than it often thinks

Chris Game

Someone asked me recently if, in those opinion polls that regularly monitor these things, net satisfaction with the government’s record was ever positive. In other words, are there ever nowadays more of us satisfied than dissatisfied with those who govern us, or have we become, on balance, a nation of malcontents, whoever we happen to have elected?

There are in fact two very easy Yes answers, although for one it probably helps to be pushing 40 or more – old enough, anyway, to remember 1997 and those halcyon, honeymoon days of New Labour and Tony Blair. Ipsos MORI, who have been doing these monitoring polls for decades, had for the preceding three years been logging net DISsatisfaction rates for the Major Government of between 50 and 70%. Then suddenly there were more of us pleased with the Blair Government’s early performance than had voted Labour – net satisfaction rates of over 30%, and for Blair personally over 50%.

Blair’s net positive ratings lasted a remarkable three years, although the Government went into the red, as it were, several months earlier. We’re inclined, though, to allow any new Government some honeymoon period, so at the end of the first fortnight of the Coalition in June 2010 it had a net satisfaction rating of 10%, Cameron one of 31%, and Nick Clegg a never-to-be-remotely-repeated 26%. This, though, was to be little more than a honeymonth, and by September Ipsos MORI were recording a Government net dissatisfaction figure of 4% and by November 20% – as it happens, almost exactly where it is now, and considerably better than it’s managed throughout the past two years.

It was easy to understand, then, what had prompted the question.  But personally it took me back to when I used in lectures to make an admittedly cheap debating point about the respective satisfaction ratings that survey respondents give to their local councils and to the national government, regardless of its political complexion. It’s patently obvious, of course, that when people are asked about their satisfaction “with the way your council runs things” and with “the way the Government is running the country”, they are not in their own minds comparing like with like.  However, it still comes as a surprise to many just how relatively well local government invariably comes out in such comparisons, however dubious they may be.

I wrote in these columns two years ago about how, filling the gap left by the Government’s scrapping of the Comprehensive Area Assessment’s Place Survey, we now have LG Inform, the LGA’s benchmarking data service for councils and fire and rescue authorities.  Local authorities, and eventually the public, would be able to have easy access to resident satisfaction data about councils and their areas, enabling them, if they wished, to make comparisons with other councils.

It’s taken some time, not least because the LGA stipulates that the public don’t get access to the survey findings until at least a year after the end of the financial year in which they’re collected.  This means that the first summary report of results, published in the September 2014 LGA Analysis and Research Bulletin (p.9) is of surveys of various types conducted between October 2012 and March 2013.

As described in my previous blog, Ipsos MORI are responsible for the methodology involved in the collection, presentation and usage of these benchmarking resident satisfaction data and they rightly emphasise how the mode of data collection can have a marked impact on results. They insist, therefore, that any findings should be presented alongside those from other authorities only when collected by the same method – postal/online, telephone, or face-to-face – and that only like-for-like data should be compared across councils.

My own summary in the accompanying table somewhat breaches this code, but for illustrative purposes only. In addition to exemplifying the benchmarking exercise by showing some of the key findings, I wanted to see, insofar as the arbitrary selection of authorities would allow, whether the different modes of data collection did seem to influence the results.

game table

First impressions suggest they do, the more personalised or interactive modes based mostly on quota samples producing slightly friendlier responses than the postal/online surveys based on random samples. Taking account, though, of the profiles of the respective sets of authorities, the difference is not perhaps as great as might have been imagined.

As with any set of results about anything nowadays, it’s obligatory to leap in with cautions about there being absolutely no room for complacency. Still, national ratings of 59% net satisfaction with councils and 33% net agreement that they provide VFM, following two of the most savage financial settlements inflicted on local government, suggests that large numbers of them, at least, must be doing something right – just as a national government’s consistently large negative ratings might also suggest that it’s getting the odd thing wrong.

Since the main purpose of this blog is to draw colleagues’ attention to the benchmarking exercise, I should conclude by saying a bit more about it. The best things in life are said to come in threes, and that’s certainly the case here. As well as the three modes of data gathering, there are three tiers of recommended benchmarking questions. The core or priority set comprises, yes, three: the two in my table, preceded by one on satisfaction “with your local area as a place to live”.

The second tier set of another three – a likely priority for most, but not all, councils – ask how well informed you think your council keeps residents about the services and benefits it provides, how strongly you feel you belong to your local area, and how safe you feel when outside in your local area (a) after dark, and (b) during the day.

The third tier questions, likely to be of interest to some councils only, are a bit of a mix. There’s a 7-tier anti-social behaviour question, and one on whether you trust your local council, but what particularly caught my eye was one asked by Bournemouth and Darlington, asking respondents whether they spoke positively or negatively about their council (a) if asked, and (b) without being asked.  Taking both responses together, the positives again outnumbered the negatives, and, if only about one in 20 confessed to running around the streets of their respective towns spontaneously cheerleading for the council, well – to adapt the Dr Johnson quote about women preaching and dogs walking on their hind legs – it’s pleasing to learn of it being done at all.

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.

Devo max – what it is and why it won’t happen

Chris Game

Devo Max – it sounds like a 99% efficient toilet cleaner, or a dodgy West Country car dealer, but either way I visualise its initials in upper case. And that’s its problem. It’s undoubtedly the ‘must use’ expression of the month. It’s not complicated, like ‘full fiscal autonomy’ or the Barnett formula, so anyone feels able to drop it authoritatively into even casual conversation. And everyone has their own idea of what it is.

For party leaders, desperate to save the Union in the final hours of the Scottish referendum campaign, it was perfect Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty-speak: it means just what we choose it to mean.  Sign up now, check it out on Friday the 19th.

For YesScotland campaigners it was a verbal Blob, impossible to pin down and attack – and especially frustrating, as they were the ones who had no need to check it out. They knew its precise meaning because they’d invented it, and knew that it wasn’t at all what most wavering voters imagined they were being offered.

It actually originated in a 2009 Scottish Government options paper, Fiscal Autonomy in Scotland. Five distinctive options were spelt out, ranging from the SNP Government’s preferred full fiscal autonomy (FFA) in an independent Scotland to a minimally changed current fiscal framework, which gave Scotland considerable discretion over spending but little over tax revenue raising, borrowing, or broader monetary policy.

‘Devolution max’ was the SNP’s fall-back option, clearly defined as FFA within the UK. The Scottish Government would be responsible not only for most of the public spending in Scotland, but for raising, collecting and administering virtually all revenues – instead of the estimated 15% it would control even after the 2016 implementation of the 2012 Scotland Act, the famously “biggest transfer of fiscal powers in 300 years.”

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The precision of its definition, as well as its content, makes Devo max entirely different from the third option of merely ‘enhanced devolution’, which really does sound vague, manipulable Humpty Dumpty-speak, and hardly surprisingly is unacceptable to the SNP.

Devo max, though, is not just definable. It can, its advocates would claim, be viewed and studied in practice, for it broadly resembles the system in the northern Spanish autonomous communities of Navarre and the Basque Country. Part of their autonomy is that the devolved governments are responsible for raising and collecting all direct taxes, including corporation tax, although, to conform with EU legislation and retain a harmonised social security system, indirect and payroll taxes remain centralised. The two regions have used their powers to lower certain taxes below the rates elsewhere in Spain, thereby creating a relatively more competitive tax regime, which is, of course, also an SNP aspiration.

The problem, as critically noted by the 2009 Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution (ch.3), is that Scotland – constitutionally, economically, as well as meteorologically – isn’t Spain.   A tax-based FFA might be operable in Spain, and at least conceivable in an independent Scotland.  However, attempted within the UK, it would clash with the Treasury’s expenditure-based economic model and its pooling and redistribution of taxes to fund common standards of public services and welfare benefits.

Tax experts will argue that the devolution of some additional taxes – personal income tax, land and sales taxes, alcohol and tobacco duties – is perfectly feasible and even desirable. In other cases, though, for combinations of practical, legal and political reasons, it is less feasible, and heading this list in the UK are usually the highly desirable corporation tax and the highly disputed oil and gas revenues.

In the UK, then, full fiscal autonomy short of independence is unattainable, and, even if attainable, would be effectively incompatible with the redistributive policies of our existing welfare state, and also with the controversial population-based Barnett allocation formula that all three major party leaders committed themselves to retain in their extraordinary orchestrated ‘Vow’ on the front page of the Daily Record.

So, whatever additional powers Scotland eventually gets, they won’t amount to Devo max. It might, therefore, be a good idea if we stopped trying to appropriate the label rather meaninglessly for English local government (with perhaps one exception), and looked instead to the persuasive and realistic cases already being made by those with first-hand experience of running local authorities.

By all means, use Scotland as a benchmark – as in the challenge issued by Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: “I don’t see any reason why English councils are not capable of taking on the powers that go to Scotland.”  And London as another. The legislation is different, but the key recommendations of last year’s neatly titled report of Tony Travers’ London Finance Commission, Raising the Capital, are both applicable to other major authorities and possibly more straightforwardly implementable – particularly the proposed control over all property taxes: council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, capital gains property development tax, and the like.

It’s been good this past week to see the County Councils Network, with its pre-election Plan for Government, 2015-20 and the Key Cities Group of 23 mid-sized cities with its Charter for Devolution, both determined not to have their distinctive voices and proposals drowned out by the noise of the big cities.

There’s no doubt, though, that it’s in and around the big or the eight Core Cities where the main devolutionary action is, and particularly those who’ve been able create Combined Authorities. These are legal structures set by the Secretary of State following a request from two or more English authorities and a governance review. They may take on transport, economic development and potentially other functions, and they have a power of general competence.

They were a third-term New Labour idea, and the enabling legislation – the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act – was a full five years ago now. Greater Manchester CA, bringing together 10 authorities, was first in the field in 2011 and for some time out on its own, but since April we have had four more – West Yorkshire (5), Sheffield (4), Liverpool (6), and the North-East (7). There are reports too that councils in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Buckinghamshire, as well as the Welsh Local Government Association, are all at least considering combined authorities as an alternative to a possible future of enforced mergers.

If anything, though, Greater Manchester is stretching its early lead, with its reluctant agreement to a directly elected mayor in exchange for the “complete place-based settlement” proposed on its behalf by the independent think tank, Res Publica – “an incremental process leading to the full and final devolution of the entire allocation of public spending”. Even this, for the reasons given above, wouldn’t technically amount to Devo max, but since they already seem to have appropriated it in the cause of alliteration – Devo Max – Devo Manc: Place-based public services, it’s the one exception I’m prepared to concede.

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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.