What works in learning what works?

Jason Lowther

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

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 Academic research is too slow and therefore out of date before its results are seen.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

The other 1215 Charter: 800 years of elected mayors

Chris Game

The LGA’s Magna Carta web pages have recently featured a delightful homophone – sounds the same as another word, but different spelling and meaning.  Among this summer’s many MC commemorative events will reportedly be “a programme of inciteful lectures and talks” (my emphasis).

Excellent, I thought. Insight’s for wimps. Rousing incitement is what’s needed if, like the LGA, we’re to model today’s struggle for devolution on that of the 13th Century rebel barons with their tyrannical but cash-strapped King, and what better rouser than the Association’s aptly named Chair, David Sparks.

Given the countless products already being promoted by June’s 800th anniversary – from Jay Z’s free-to-smartphone album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to the British Library’s ginger fudge – cynics might accuse the LGA of bandwagon jumping. But they’d be unfair.

There is much more local government stuff in Magna Carta than I for one first appreciated. I knew the main local government clause (13), about the City of London and “all other cities, boroughs, vills [towns] and ports” being assured all their “ancient liberties and free customs, by both land and water”. But I’d no clear idea what the liberties and customs were, and also assumed that was about all there was.

In fact, most of clauses 23 to 31, ostensibly about such things as county farms and commandeering of timber, actually referred to malpractices of the King’s local agents – sheriffs, bailiffs, and so on – with clause 25, perhaps most relevantly to modern-day concerns, limiting the financial burdens placed by the King on the counties.

Then there’s clause 48, empowering 12 knights elected in each county to investigate and abolish those malpractices, which can be seen as part of a wider local self-government campaign around the turn of the 13th Century.

Even so, there’s a still better instance of early local self-government in a contemporaneous charter which, though less known, was important in itself and also played a key part in shaping the Runnymede agenda: the King’s Charter for London of May 9th 1215.

The London here, of course, is the famous Square Mile – today’s City of London Corporation – some of whose ‘ancient liberties’ predated the Norman Conquest. From 1067, in exchange for London’s supporting the King with cash or troops, these liberties were extended in successive royal charters, and included exemptions from certain taxes and tolls, right of trial by the City’s own courts, and the right to appoint civic officials.

Richard I (1189-99) was particularly indebted to Londoners, as funders of his crusades overseas and defenders against his baronial opponents at home, and it earned them in the early years of his reign both a recognized body of self-government, in the form of a Norman-style ‘commune’ – precursor of the City Corporation – and their own mayor, in place of the King’s Portreeve or sheriff.

Historians dispute precise dates, but the City claims 1189 as the year Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone was appointed its first Mayor – the addition of ‘Lord’ took another 200 years – and proceeded to serve a never remotely repeated 24 terms.

This circumstantial evidence alone suggests Fitzy was not only entirely acceptable to the King, but probably a financial backer and appointed by him.  And explicit reinforcement comes in the May 2015 Charter, King John’s last desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to detach London from the baronial insurgency that would culminate in the following month’s Magna Carta.

Charter for London

In a key concession and, it seems, the first documented reference in this country to a popularly elected mayor, the Charter grants “to our barons of the City of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor …”.

The full translation, from the second line of the illustrated extract, runs:

“Know ye that we have granted … to our barons of our city of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our Justice if we shall not be present… and he shall swear to be faithful to us; and that it shall be lawful to them, to amove him and substitute another, if they will, or the same to retain …”

The King’s climb down could not be clearer. The tables are turned: You now choose your own Mayor, and I get to approve his faithfulness, rather than the reverse.  It wasn’t his biggest surrender of that 1215 summer, but it was significant then and, whatever you happen to think of even the idea of directly elected mayors, it obviously still has its relevance today.

The story, and this blog, could obviously end here, but that would have involved omitting quite an interesting postscript, which links these events directly to the one Lord Mayor of London that even most non-Londoners can name: Richard Whittington.

We need to set aside much of the pantomime tale: the Gloucestershire lad, Dick, and his fictional cat who, returning home up Highgate Hill after failing to find his fortune in London, heard the distant Bow Bells preternaturally telling him to fulfil his destiny and “Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London”.

Never mind what he was doing returning to Gloucestershire via Highgate Hill, or whether he could conceivably have heard the Bow Bells chiming five miles away. The interesting bit is the ‘thrice’ – because, by the time this bit of nonsense was written, centuries later, Whittington had in fact served four mayoral terms: 1397-98, 1406 and 1419. So why the confusion?

No Lord Mayor since Whittington has served as many terms, so there can be no doubting his renown and popularity during his own lifetime. His money helped.  A successful import-export merchant, he’d have easily made the Sunday Times Rich List, and he spread it around judiciously. Plenty was ‘borrowed’ by the King of the day, but plenty also went to good causes and public works – including an unmarried mothers’ ward at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding the Guildhall, and a 128-seat public toilet.

The one big irony in all this is that the early public affection for Whittington’s mayoralty owed much to his initially NOT having been popularly elected – despite it having become the established practice by then for London citizens ‘at large’ to choose their mayor, with the King formally ratifying their choice.

However, when the incumbent mayor died in June 1397, Richard II, in one of his absolutist moods, decided he’d do the electing and simply imposed Whittington, one of his long-term creditors, on the City. The new mayor responded by negotiating a costly but popular deal, buying back for London its own usurped privileges for £10,000 (around £6 million today), and in October was triumphantly elected by a grateful citizenry – the two separate assumptions of office in the same year apparently accounting for the doggerel-writer’s ‘thrice’, unless of course it was the difficulty of scanning ‘quadruple’.

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.

A marriage made in heaven?

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

The ESRC, LGA and SOLACE have created a new role – that of Research Facilitator for local government – with the aim of supporting strong and productive relationships between researchers, policy makers and practitioners. I’m very pleased to take on that role, with the active support of the INLOGOV team of academics and expert practitioners. Over the next year we’ll be establishing a dating agency for those seeking partners to answer some essential questions and running a series of events to support creative and sustainable relationships. A GSOH will be essential.

Public services need researchers. That is because evidence is the lifeblood of efficacy. When money is so tight, the last thing we should be wasting it on is the wrong service, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.  Policy decisions and service design need timely and accessible evidence and there’s plenty out there. So why aren’t researchers, policy makers, commissioners and providers using the available evidence to do better with less? Why aren’t we getting it together?

We work in very different spatial and temporal environments (note the unnecessary use of obscure language) which means that opportunities to meet suitable partners are limited and academic time-scales militate against speedy responses. Academic language is often impenetrable: designed to impress other academics rather than to inform those who can actually use the evidence on offer.  Contestation is a vital element of academic discourse. That means – academics also like to argue among themselves and even with themselves.  After a few pages of ‘on the one hand this and on the other hand that’  … policy makers and practitioners can be forgiven for giving up and going off to make it up.

However, the fault is not all on one side. Too often research is commissioned, not to gather objective evidence or stimulate creative thinking but to justify an existing policy or priority.  The findings of research can be a major challenge to political ideologies. Those who are seeking to bolster their prejudice with an academic fig leaf are doomed to disappointment.  If you ask for independent research – that’s just what you’ll get. Don’t ask if you don’t want to know the real answers. It will lead only to mutual disappointment.

So how can we make this relationship work? Let’s spend more quality time together, getting to know each other and exploring our shared passions.  Let’s make each other some promises.  If we promise not to argue about how many angels can dance on the point of a pin, would you promise not give us six weeks to enumerate and classify the angels and calculate the likely savings from combining seraphim and cherubim? Agreed? Great – now let’s do some good work together.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Grubby-handed local politicians? It’s called local democracy and devolution, Sarah!

Chris Game

The BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme isn’t what Americans would call a Hot Talk show, and nicely spoken presenter Sarah Montague, even in her own fantasies, is no shock jock. So listeners must have been slightly surprised to hear her, while questioning the proposed devolution of NHS funding to Greater Manchester’s combined authority, talk of “local politicians sticking their grubby hands into the decision-making process” (07.50).

She tried laughing it off and rephrasing, but it was already out there – an unintended confirmation of the dismissiveness with which so much of our London-centric media treat sub-central government. For them, it’s apparently a world too complicated to try to understand and explain; one in which every small service variation is a product not of local democratic choice, or the Lyons Report’s ‘managed difference’ (p.3) – but a ‘postcode lottery’ and thus an easy cue with which to stir up listener and viewer outrage.

With Scotland and Devo Manc putting down serious markers and new combined authorities springing up seemingly every week, English devolution will be a major issue at and following the General Election, whether parties and voters want it or not.

Voters, we know, aren’t clamouring for it. A YouGov/Prospect poll just after last September’s Scottish referendum presented a large sample of English voters with a list of 18 specific things Britain’s government might do over the next few years, and asked them which four or five they felt were the most important.

Probably unsurprisingly, tightening immigration rules came first, favoured by 55%, then providing more money for the NHS and holding down gas/electricity prices. “Giving more powers to English regions and local councils” came 17th, just 12% according it any importance at all.  Unpromising, but, unlike England’s cricket World Cup campaign, there are some definite positives out there.

First, as many local authorities used to find when they could still afford to commission annual surveys of residents’ views, councils and councillors generally have a better image, not only than Westminster and Whitehall, but than they themselves sometimes realise.

The Local Government Association (LGA) still does undertake such surveys, its most recent, by Populus last October, broadly confirming previous findings. Around 70% say they’re satisfied with their own council, and, asked who they’d trust most to make decisions about how services are provided in their local area, 72% said councillors, 11% MPs, and 7% government ministers.

But that’s the easy bit. These encouraging levels of satisfaction and trust relate to councils’ currently very constrained tax powers and policy discretion. They quickly dissipate when it’s suggested those powers be extended or more strategic service decisions be made locally.

The YouGov/Prospect poll also asked its English respondents at which level – England-wide, regional, local – decisions on ten services should be made. For six services the choice was overwhelmingly national, including VAT and unemployment benefit rates, the core curriculum, and NHS drug and hospital treatments. Refuse collection frequency was the only decision even a bare majority (53%) allocated to local councils, and 38% wanted even that to be national or regional.

This English predisposition towards uniform national standards in almost everything can seem extreme, but it clearly runs deep and is well documented.  A 2012 YouGov survey for the Institute of Public Policy’s Future of England report asked a similar question: whether certain policies should be the same across the whole of England or should be matters for local authorities to decide.

Again, as shown in the chart, there wasn’t a single service – refuse collection, planning approvals, housing, museums and galleries – that a majority of respondents saw as a chiefly local government responsibility.

Game blog pic

It’s perfectly possible, even reasonable, to suggest that differently worded questions would elicit different answers; that, if you put respondents in a focus group, presented them with evidence, and let them think for more than five seconds before answering, they’d change their minds; even that, dammit, they’re just wrong. The fact remains that this is what they instinctively think and say, and it presents an unignorable hurdle for would-be devolvers, especially politicians. There are signs, though, that at least the height of the hurdle is adjustable.

Returning to the recent YouGov/Prospect survey, although, refuse collection excepted, there was no service on which respondents came near to preferring local to England-wide decision-making, the picture changed a bit when regional and local preferences were combined.

Put brutally, it’s ‘local councils’ – the label, the actuality, or both – that aren’t trusted with anything more than our rubbish. Combine them with ‘regional level’, and there are clear majorities for the sub-national determination of strategic policing priorities (64%), siting of new towns and major new housing projects (60%), and rules governing social housing rents (52%).

Interestingly, there were some arguably similar findings in the surveys of Londoners and ‘London business decision-makers’ by ComRes in January.  In both surveys there were majorities (56% and 60% respectively) in favour of “Local Government having greater control in London over tax levels and how those taxes are spent”.

It quickly turned out that the tax levels most respondents had in mind were limited to business rates and stamp duty land tax. Nor was there anything remotely approaching majority support for even business rates being set by ‘local borough councils’. But again, combine local and ‘regional’ tiers – in this case the boroughs and Greater London Authority/’City Hall’ – and majorities in both samples (58% and 73% respectively) were in favour of ‘Local Government in London’ setting business rates, with over a third in each case prepared to add stamp duty land tax as well.

All of which seems to suggest that, in a future of large, and in some cases almost regional-scale, combined authorities, committed devolvers have at least something positive to work with – provided, of course, media presenters keep their grubby centralist hands out of the debate.

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.

International Women’s Day and Britain’s gender gap of shame

Sunday sees the 107th celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), and for the 102nd year on March 8. It’s a longer history than is often supposed and, reflected in its still occasionally used Leninist title – International Working Women’s Day – a more socialist one. There were conspicuous exceptions, but the West as a whole didn’t really latch on to it until, following International Women’s Year in 1975, the UN proclaimed March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and started increasingly to badge and orchestrate it.

That’s fine for those countries where it’s a public holiday, and for those who don’t celebrate Mother’s Day until early May. We, though, link that American creation to Mothering Sunday and the traditional Christian practice of visiting one’s mother church on the fourth Sunday in Lent (March 15 this year). There’s the risk, therefore, particularly when you throw in Valentine’s Day, of IWD morphing into another of those fluffy Spring days when women get a bit of a day off, like domestic servants of yore, and maybe a meal out.

With this in mind, I thought I’d do a quick check on who was doing what in furtherance of the cause. First – partly because they’re doing it literally as I’m typing (Thursday 5th a.m.) – MPs (well, some of them) are debating IWD-related matters in the Commons Chamber, thanks to an initiative from the Backbench Business Committee. Less fleetingly, the Commons Library has produced one of its invariably informative Briefing Notes on IWD itself and women’s equality generally, with some excellent data and references, including some examined later in this blog.

I then googled ‘IWD local government’ and immediately discovered that the first week in March was ‘Women in Local Councils Week’ – which sounded really admirable, until I realised it was in Northern Ireland; oh yes, and in 2012. Not this year apparently, and nothing either on the LGA website. So it was up to individual councils, of which the most prominent (if you live in Birmingham, you’d almost guess this) was Manchester.

You have to admire them: first Combined Authority, by a distance; centre of Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’; a specially tailored, top-of-the-range Devo Manc devolution package; and only last week a ground-breaking health and social care spending deal.

For IWD, the city council’s website has a classy-looking IWD page, its own IWD theme – ‘Breaking Through’ (snappier, certainly, than the UN’s ‘Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!’), its own annual IWD awards, plus a comprehensive listing of events.

But then, in addition, it has the chutzpah to claim itself as “the birthplace of women’s suffrage in the UK” – yes, of the whole suffrage movement, rather than, presumably, of the Women’s Social and Political Union at the Pankhursts’ Manchester home as late as 1903. Even the Manchester Suffrage Committee (1867) was preceded by Sheffield’s (1851); and what about Jeremy Bentham’s persistent advocacy, the 1832 and 1835 Acts that gave at least some women the actual right to vote, etc.? So, come off it, Manchester, don’t be greedy!

There was another surprise on the IWD website itself – that, of the 1,000+ IWD ‘events’ already registered, the UK will be contributing virtually twice the number of any other single country, the US included. Not all are happening this weekend; indeed, in the date-ordered listings the first actual IWD event doesn’t appear until page 17 – “A Gathering of Goddesses, celebrating ourselves, all women and Mother Earth” at The Hurlers stone circles in Cornwall.

Sadly, one thing the Goddesses won’t be celebrating is this country’s narrowing gender gap – because it isn’t. Over the past decade, according to the best comparative data available, the UK’s overall gender gap hasn’t closed at all in absolute terms. Judged alongside some 120 other countries, the relative gap has widened, as it has on all major sub-indexes, on some of which it has widened absolutely.

The instrument that measures these things is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index, the 2014 report of which is its 9th annual edition.

Being an index, its principal interest is less in actual levels than in the gaps between men and women in four main categories (sub-indexes). Economic Participation and Opportunity records labour force participation rates, remuneration, and career advancement. Educational Attainment is about access to primary, secondary and tertiary education. Health and Survival combines sex ratios at birth – to capture internationally the phenomenon of ‘missing women’ – and healthy life expectancy. Political Empowerment compares the ratios of men and women in ministerial and parliamentary positions.

In all indexes, the highest possible score is 1 (equality) and the lowest is 0 (inequality), although in my own adaptations I prefer to lose the decimal points and percentagise the proportion of the possible 100% gender gap that’s been closed.

And the UK’s embarrassment, particularly on International Women’s Day, is that since 2006 our overall gender gap hasn’t closed by a single percentage point. In my graph, 74% of the gap was closed in 2006, and in 2014 it was still 74%, our ranking having dropped from 9th to 26th.

gender graph

Meanwhile, all sorts of countries had overtaken us – not just the US and the volatile French, but from parts of the world one wouldn’t necessarily expect: Nicaragua (6th), Rwanda (7th), the Philippines (9th), Latvia (15th), Burundi (17th), Bulgaria (22nd), Slovenia (23rd) and Moldova (25th).

As already indicated, there’s not much to celebrate in any of the indexes, but naturally some make less embarrassing reading than others. In education, for example, we have a rare sub-index measure of more than 1.00 – a 1.36 female-to-male enrolment ratio in tertiary education – although it’s more than cancelled out by a 0.94 ratio for primary education.

Two sub-indexes are particularly gloomy. On none of the five Economic Participation measures is the UK ranked even as high as 45th, with ratios for career advancement of 0.52, for estimated earned income of 0.62, and wage equality for equal work of 0.69. And a Political Empowerment graph would look very similar to the overall one, the key difference being that the UK’s purple line of shame this time would signify an actual widening of the gender gap, with our ranking plummeting from 12th in 2006 to 33rd.

As we approach the election, our ratios of women in parliament and in ministerial positions are 0.29 and 0.19 respectively – compared, for instance, to Denmark 0.64, 0.83; Finland 0.74, 1.0; South Africa 0.81, 0.59; and Rwanda 1.0, 0.65. Of which the best that can be said is that at least the bar for the next lot to try to jump is set pretty low.

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.