Local Government Studies – virtual special issue on budgeting

Peter Matthews

This February to April local councils across the UK will be setting their budgets for 2016/17 in unprecedented times. The Comprehensive Spending Review has set local government in England on a new course where it will be expected to raise far more of its own income through Council Tax and Non-Domestic Rates. Revenue Support Grant, which transfers money between local authorities, is essentially being abolished by 2020 – to be discussed in greater length in a paper to be published in Local Government Studies soon.

Local government in the UK has to continue providing a range of statutory services. The budgetary pressures upon them are leading to strategic choices to remodel services through outsourcing and co-producing services with local communities. The editorial team of Local Government Studies has put together a virtual special issue gathering together recent publications to inform this debate. The papers present academic research and commentary on the situation UK local government finds itself in now: with review articles by Peter John, Vivien Lowndes and Laurence Pratchett, and John Stewart, along with a review of the extent of the cuts and how local councils are coping from Bailey et al.

We then turn to specific contributions as to how local government is responding, or might respond, to the austerity it faces: through case studies of the devolution of risk to local communities and individuals in Bristol and Liverpool; a discussion of resilience; place-based leadership and innovation and finally strategic commissioning of outcome-focused services. We close the special issue by drawing on international evidence to ask how we might understand the financial risks local authorities face, but also the difficult link between public attitudes and fiscal challenges and choices.

The following articles are free to read through this link only until 31 December 2016.


Peter matthews small

Peter Matthews is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Stirling. He is a member of the editorial team of Local Government Studies published in association with INLOGOV.

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.

The role of social value outcomes in commissioning services

William Jabang

A contract culture has become widespread in public services, but the question often asked is: is ‘price’ alone a satisfactory mechanism for deciding what is done and by whom? The very meaning of ‘value’ has been dominated by the notion of price. In many organisational settings, price is seen as the most obvious way of gauging contract performance, as well as the means by which to judge efficiency.

However, many have questioned this approach and successive governments have sought to widen the debate by bringing forward policies that go beyond price as a mechanism for deciding what has to be done and how. This could be best illustrated by the ‘Best Value’ regime that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century and still places a duty upon public services to seek best value – where price alone is seen as restrictive in ensuring that services match with what the public actually wants and needs.

This has brought with it certain difficulties and challenges that many public sector managers and elected members have experienced. However, the search goes on for policies and legislative instruments that help bring the public’s needs and requirements closer to an institutional decision-making mechanism that looks beyond price to ensure that what the public value is in line with what they get. Few citizens take the time to investigate the actual cost (in price terms alone) of contracts that are led by public bodies. Eric Pickles took the lead in expressing his desire to have an ‘army of armchair auditors’ scrutinising the books of public bodies after the 2010 General Election, though little evidence beyond the activity of the Tax Payers’ Alliance exists to support this desire.

Many public service managers will have been exposed to the debate introduced by Mark Moore some years ago on the concept of ‘Public Value’ – an interesting line of thinking that has occupied academics for some years now. The next step in this journey has now been taken. On 31st January 2013, the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force in Engaldn and Wales (although its application to Wales is limited). The Act provides a new statutory requirement for public authorities to consider the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the local area when commissioning or procuring services.

Consideration of social value is generally not promoted in the existing design, process and delivery of procurement. A recent survey carried out by Guardian Professional indicates that many procurement and commissioning staff feel they don’t even have the skills and training needed to carry out social value commissioning and procurement effectively.

Given the relatively short time for which the Act has been in place, it could be argued that it is too early to assess its full impact on procurement design, process and delivery. However, an appraisal of the level of awareness and degree of implementation of the Act by the public and voluntary/community sector could be important, providing a useful pointer to the potential effectiveness of the Act and the outcomes it could deliver.

In view of this, INLOGOV is working together with the Society of Procurement Officers (SOPO), the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) to carry out a survey. The survey aims to:

  1. Examine the awareness and perception of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012
  2. Identify changes (if any) which organisations are making as a result of the Act
  3. Establish whether or not the Act has opened up (or is likely to open up) more contract opportunities for voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations (VCSEs)
  4. Establish whether cost is a deterrent to pursuing social value outcomes.

We would appreciate it if you could provide us with your views by completing one of our survey questionnaires. The survey findings will be published jointly by the four organisations named above. It is the aim of the researching organisations that the information from this survey will help to improve existing practice and will enhance the sharing of knowledge between organisations.

The survey is likely to take approximately 15-20 minutes and all information provided will be held in strict confidence – and will be recorded and stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Please click to complete either the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations questionnaire; or the Public Sector/NHS organisations questionnaire.

Thank you for taking part.

William Jabang is a Doctoral Researcher at INLOGOV. His PhD research is focused on commissioning and procuring social value.

Homo subjectivo: Do western public management ideas work for people in the Middle East?

Abena Dadze-Arthur

It is that time of the year again: Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has descended upon the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.  Despite being a Christian, I always thought I knew what Ramadan was about.  I could readily recount that Ramadan constituted Sawm, the fourth pillar of Islam, where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking between dawn and dusk for a whole lunar month. I even fancied myself culturally astute enough to appreciate Ramadan as a time for spiritual cleansing, in which Muslims reflect on their behaviour towards others more closely in order to promote compassion, harmony and peace in society.

But as I was to realize, understanding the concept of Ramadan is not the same as understanding the meaning it has for those whose lives are shaped by it, and who shape their lives around it.  The subjective significance of Ramadan only became clear to me when I spent three years living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and worked for the government on implementing western public management practices to improve public services.

I learnt that Ramadan comes with a wonderfully festive spirit, which captured even us non-Muslims in inexplicable ways.  I also found out that the pace of life changes dramatically, and, especially in the first weeks of Ramadan, my bosses and colleagues were too hungry, tired and short-tempered to work productively or make important decisions.

Most surprisingly, I realized that Ramadan rescued from its imminent demise our very first public consultation project.  For months, we had been unable to get local people to share their personal experiences of public services.  Ramadan, however, made it culturally appropriate to have these conversations with service users because traditionally, it is a time when the Sheikhs have always sat down and listened to the woes of their people.

Harnessing the power of the public for service improvement became only one example in a series of western public management concepts that hinged on mobilizing the opportunities and constraints offered by the local culture.  But what exactly is culture, other than an umbrella term to describe everything in general, yet denote nothing in particular?

If we accept, as the sociologist Max Weber put it so eloquently, that human beings are creatures suspended in a web of meaning that they themselves have spun, then culture is this subjective web of meaning.  We speak of a ‘culture’ when people assign similar meaning to an object or event as a result of their shared, similar life experiences.  A group of people can have shared life experiences across time and place: they might belong to the same nationality, or work in the same project team, have similar social standing, believe in the same religion, be alumni of the same college, or have migrated along the same routes…the list goes on.  This makes any one person share webs of meaning with different groups of people, and therefore belong to a variety of cultures ranging from a particular local culture to a global generational culture.

Of course, people’s interpretation of an event, such as a western public management reform initiative, and their motivation to respond to it, are arguably momentary states.  However, these momentary states are the result of the interaction of two types of relatively stable structures: the mental structures, or understandings, people hold internally, and the world structures that are external to people.  The relative stability of the world and personal understanding means that in a group of people who share similar life experiences, the same meanings arise time and time again.

Scholars and practitioners of public management agree increasingly that we are all homo subjectivo (I discuss this in more detail in my conference paper).

Accordingly, cultural construction matters in transferring policy concepts and adapting public management reform successfully and durably.  The neglect of existing organizational, professional, social, economic, political and traditional cultures have already ended in disappointing results for reform-eager governments despite following best practice.  Evaluations have pointed to cultural barriers to explain ineffective government reform initiatives in Switzerland, South-Africa, Korea or Brazil, to name just a few.

Therefore, western public management ideas will only work for Middle Eastern governments, and for any other government for that matter, if policy-makers can access, and manipulate, the subjective world of public administrators and service users.  Doubtlessly, this is no easy feat for two reasons:  Firstly, cultures come in plurals and potpourris, which means that looking at only the organizational culture or only the social culture will not suffice.  Secondly, operationalizing the analysis and effective manipulation of cultures to implement reform is an area that is, as of now, still developing.


Abena Dadze-Arthur is a researcher and public policy adviser with ten years experience of developing user-centric public policy for Western and non-Western governments across a wide range of public service areas.  Abena is currently pursuing her doctoral research on social practices and cultural schemas that shape public management reform in Abu Dhabi Government.

The role of the third sector in delivering public services: what we know and what we’d like to know

James Rees

Inlogov and TSRC recently held a stimulating and well attended seminar involving guests from University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a great opportunity to share knowledge on the role of third sector organisations in public services, and to compare the ways in which there are similarities facing TSOs in both the US and UK.

But as so often it begged many questions as well and I want to reflect a bit on both the state of what we know and what we ought to know about the third sector’s role in delivering public services (in the UK!).

When I talk to people about the research that I do, the usual response is “what on earth is the third sector?” followed by “do they really deliver public services?” I’ll come back to the first question but the second is certainly very interesting.

There is a very long history to the involvement of what we now call the third sector in meeting welfare needs and providing services. Many are aware of early charitable and philanthropic action in the 19th century (Barnardo’s, RNIB and RSPCA for example); there was an explosion of mutual, co-operative and associations in the early industrial period; and before the dawn of the welfare state many health services were provided in voluntary hospitals that worked in partnership with local government.

Pete Alcock pointed out how these forms of the third sector had waxed and waned in response to political and economic change, leading right up to the 1980s Conservative interest in the third sector as alternative providers, the influence of New Public Management, and New Labour’s commitment to ‘partnership’ with the sector, written into a Compact.

In my discussion I suggested that it was useful to look at different levels or ‘strata’ of the third sector in relation to service delivery.

There are the big national charities (for example Barnardo’s, NSPCC, RNIB and the Salvation Army). It’s probably fair to say that the public perceive that these organisations rely on donations and fundraising, but they also hold very significant contracts to deliver services. For example Barnardo’s and Family Action run ‘Sure Start’ Childrens Centres. Action for Blind People, part of the RNIB Group, deliver a number of publically funded services to people with sight loss including schools, supported housing, and tailored health services within the NHS. This of course is only a tiny snapshot of what is by far the most visible part of the sector.

All of the mentioned organisations, and many more of varying sizes, large, medium and tiny, are involved in the Government’s controversial Work Programme, which aims to help benefit recipients into sustained employment. Our recent research drew attention to the difficulties charities were facing in terms of the strictures of the payments system, the lack of resources, and the prevalence of perverse ‘creaming and parking’ behaviour.

The work programme experience shows how public service delivery can be controversial and risky for charities, both financially and reputationally. But the costs are balanced by the opportunities contracts provide for charities to lobby government (where involvement can equal ‘insider status’ and credibility); and many charities argue it is consistent with their mission to bring their expertise to bear to improve services for their own client groups.

In my view there is a ‘missing middle’ as far the third sector and its role in public services is concerned. Missing only in the sense that we know less about it and there is a huge variety of experience so it is difficult to make generalisations about what is happening at this level.

Many organisations are much smaller than the ones mentioned above and tend to operate at the level of a region like the north-west, across a small number of local authorities, or even within a neighbourhood. They might have contracts with a local authority or a PCT (soon to be a CCG), and this part of the sector delivers a bewildering range of services.

We have been studying just these sorts of organisations as part of current research into public sector commissioning of the third sector. I have been struck firstly by the immense variety exhibited by organisations at this level, in terms of the types of services that they provide, their size and scope of operation, and seeming difference in their ethos, culture and degree of professionalism.

Secondly I have been struck by how vulnerable some seem to apparent threats in the current environment, most obviously loss of existing contracts and grants as a result of (mainly local authority) cuts, but also the possibility of competition from other TSOs and private sector organisations, and a wider sense of uncertainty, verging on fear.

Perhaps in some sense this is par for the course for the sector, and no organisation has a special right to exist. But I do wonder if we fully understand and value what might be lost if we start to lose these organisations in any great number, as they undoubtedly play an important role for many communities and individuals.

Finally, TSRC has done a great deal of research on organisations ‘below the radar’. Arguably again little is really known about how grassroots groups might interact with public services, enhance them, or what impact austerity might have on this vast ‘ecosystem’ of organisations. Much the same can be said about the important role of volunteers in public services. At the same time there is growing interest in how small community groups can be part of the co-production of public services.

Back to that first question: what on earth is the third sector? As soon as we start talking about different levels of the third sector, the huge diversity it contains, and the porous boundaries between in this case the grassroots and community sector, it begs the question of why we use the label ‘the third sector’. Are we dealing with a sector at all?

In an esoteric but influential paper in 1997, Perri 6 and Diana Leat argued forcefully that the sector had been ‘invented by committee’, in other words it was a social construction that suited the interests of some key political interests and society might have been better off without this invented sector and an obsession with the ‘politics of organizational form’. Pete Alcock takes a softer line, suggesting that the sector is held together in a ‘strategic unity’ in which tensions and disparities are sometimes played down in order strengthen the sector’s hand in negotiations with the state. These might seem like questions designed to keep academics in jobs, but it is interesting that people in the sector seem to keep asking similar ones as well: what makes our sector distinctive? What are our unique values and ways of working?

The seminar was interesting because even in the short amount of time we had available participants began to pose some really hard questions for academic research. I hope we can return to many of these:

  • What is the ‘right’ role for the state in providing public services?
  • Is the third sector just a foil for ongoing privatisation of the public sector and wider public realm?
  • Is the third sector doomed to be under-resourced, vulnerable and ‘under-professionalised’? Or can innovations like social finance and social impact bonds make a revolutionary difference?


James Rees is a Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham. His recent research concentrates on transformations in UK public services including the role of the third sector, but his longer term interests have been in the governance of urban and regional governance, with a particular focus on the politics of city-regionalism; critical perspectives on urban housing market restructuring and housing policy; and more broadly on issues in urban regeneration, neighbourhoods and community. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesrees_tsrc.

A relational revolution in local public services

Chris Lawrence-Pietroni

On June 13 2013 BBC News broadcast CCTV footage of 83 year old Muriel Price suffering in her own home. Like so many elderly people receiving local authority care, Muriel relied on a private provider to send care staff to look after her basic needs. Taken over the course of one month, the footage revealed a pattern of neglect: carers turning up late or not at all; Muriel suffering the indignity of having her incontinence pads changed in full view of her neighbours; her food being prodded by a carer to test its temperature.

Yet despite her treatment Muriel still found a reason to be grateful: ‘It’s terrible the way they treat old people. I’m lucky I’ve got a family to look after me. Those that haven’t got a family – God help them, poor Devils’.

Public concern over the treatment of vulnerable people supposedly being cared for by public services has increased as a number of scandals have hit the headlines with Winterbourne View and the Mids-Staff Inquiries being only the most high-profile. Shocking as these cases are, anyone working in health and social care knows that it’s casual neglect like Muriel’s that is far more common. And with the ageing population and financial constraint that is the backdrop to any contemporary discussion of local public services, the likelihood of others facing similar experiences is growing.

When confronted with these tragedies the question that lingers is: how could anyone treat another human being in this way? How is it possible to knowingly leave an elderly person alone for 13 hours? How could you expose an adult to the shame of having their incontinence pads changed in public when all that is required is that you draw the curtains? Why stick your fingers into someone else’s food? Would you treat a member of your own family like that?

The answer to this last question is (one hopes) “no” – and that of course is the point. As Muriel so rightly points out, she is lucky to have family that care for her and look out for her welfare. It is these relationships that not only give her life meaning (the regular visits of her grandson and trips out in her wheelchair) they also keep her safe (it was her grandson who installed the CCTV). These relationships, built up over years of mutual exchanges of love and practical support, mean that Muriel and her grandson see each other not as ‘clients’ or ‘tasks’ but as human beings to be valued.

The challenge of enabling genuinely relational services is not new, but it is growing and becoming more urgent. It is a simple fact of demography that personal social care is going to become an even greater part of public service and (for the foreseeable future at least) a political reality that the financial resources available to support it are going to be even fewer. Working out how to meet the needs of vulnerable older people with humanity is one of the most pressing issues facing local public services. The relational challenge, however, goes much further.

Firstly, enabling relationships to flourish between public service providers and those they serve – individually and collectively – is an absolute necessity if our aspirations for co-production and behaviour change are to be realised. It is increasingly understood that achieving significant change in so many of the challenges facing society – obesity, living well into old age, educational attainment, training and employment in an uncertain job market (to which you can add the pressing issue of your choice) – requires the active engagement of all of us as citizens. It is therefore at this point of interaction between citizens and the public services they use that we should focus our attention. As the new model of public services presented in Chapter 1 suggests, effective relationships, building trust and behaviour change are intimately connected.

Secondly, we know that the quality of the relationship between citizen and service provider can be a key determinant in the quality of the outcome of the service: evidence from fields as diverse as education, employment services and healthcare all suggest this.

Finally, we are slowly coming to understand that the complexity of organisations like those delivering local public services and the rapidity of change that they face mean that only those that are flexible and adaptive will excel. The process of constant learning needed to enable success itself requires a fundamental shift of attitude towards the nature of work – a shift of attitude that takes seriously the need to create meaning for staff within our organisations such that they carry with them the motivation, courage and adaptability needed to face the challenges of their daily tasks.

In this context enabling genuine relationships – relationships that carry with them more than a transactional or instrumental benefit – are not a soft option ‘nice to have’ but a hardnosed prerequisite for effectiveness. What we need is a relational revolution in our local public services.

This blog draws on ideas in Chapter 2 of a new book ‘Making Sense of the Future’


Chris Lawrence Pietroni joined INLOGOV as an Associate in September 2012. His work focuses on achieving sustainable systems change cross public services in the UK and the US. Building on over 15 years’ experience in local government working with senior leaders on the design of innovative service improvement and community engagement strategies, his work now focuses on the intersection between service design, leadership development and community empowerment. Much of Chris’ current work provides accessible ways for leaders to draw on systems thinking to enhance their collective effectiveness. Together with Mari Davis, Chris is pioneering the application of insights drawn from social movements and community organizing to achieve sustainable systemic change.