Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Accountability System Statements: To Whom, About What and Why?

The increasingly convoluted attempts to reconcile Ministerial accountability to Parliament for spending public money and greater devolution of decision making about the use of such funds can sometimes appear designed solely to avoid the blindingly obvious conclusion that more local decision making requires more local accountability. 

It would, however, also help if there were a clearer distinction between the things for which Government Ministers should properly be held to account by Parliament  and the current focus on ensuring that other decision making bodies are up to the job and can, if something goes wrong, 'expect to be held to account ….. by Ministers and the Accounting Officer'. But not, note, by Parliament.

We can illustrate some of this by reference to major local transport schemes since yesterday saw publication of the latest of the accountability system statements that the Government sees as providing reassurance to the PAC that Ministers retain the necessary level of control and influence:

These system statements contain a lot of perfectly sensible elements and this one in itself largely repeats stock approaches. It does, however, follow hot on the heels of announcements by Transport Ministers on devolving major local transport schemes to local decision making which raise significant issues in the context of accountability.

First, there is the ‘key role’ for Local Enterprise Partnerships which will work with local transport authorities (LTAs) in new Local Transport Boards (LTBs). LEPs have the most extraordinarily confused accountability both locally and nationally given their wide range of governance and other structures, highly variable membership, frequent lack of corporate personality and private rather than public sector leadership. Had funds been devolved to the LTA the whole apparatus of propriety, audit and value for money that applies to local authorities would have been engaged immediately.

As it is, we now have a whole new set of arrangements to ensure that LTBs are operating properly in their role to agree, manage and oversee the delivery of a programme of transport schemes. Whilst the Government clearly want to emphasise LEP leadership, the bottom line is that locally elected politicians from the LTA (or LTAs) will have the majority vote. There is a legitimate issue about scale in some areas but there are Combined Authority and Integrated Transport Authority structures which can be used where LTAs wish to work together.

Secondly, whilst there is a 'key objective of removing Whitehall from the process of making decisions on which local schemes should or should not go ahead’ Ministers retain a responsibility ‘to ensure that the new local decision makers have arrangements in place to achieve the value for money … and we will shortly publish detailed guidance on [local assurance frameworks]'

These frameworks will cover governance, financial management, accountability, meeting value for money and environmental considerations and will need to be approved by the Department. These are also said to go beyond the general local authority accountability statements because they include elements that are specific to the approval and funding of major transport schemes.

There are indeed specific approaches to appraisal of transport schemes but these can, and indeed probably will be, a continuation of those already used. Beyond that the likelihood is that the statements will form a set of detailed accountability documents with each LTB which will tell us precious little that we didn't already know.

The further irony is that whilst an LTB might do quite a lot, one thing it won’t do is the actual delivery of the transport schemes. That is devolved to a body such as, well, a local authority. And the accountable body for holding the transport scheme funds will also be …. the local authority.

Thirdly, the original consultation document on the new devolved approach says:

‘This is not about passing the buck of responsibility from the centre, but enabling decision-making to be genuinely local whilst ensuring continued accountability for public funds to the national taxpayer.’

In fact, shouldn't it be precisely about passing the buck. Or perhaps less pejoratively about handing on the baton and expecting those making the decisions about priorities and about value for money to be held directly to account.

This is fundamentally about putting responsibility where it lies.

In fact with a system of delegated funding of the kind envisaged, one could argue that regularity is unlikely to be a problem and propriety should be assured by the accountable body doing its normal job. Value for money is likely to be determined by whether the scheme did what it should have done and was well managed. On that score, local responsibility seems the right answer, and if necessary the relevant LTB should answer to Parliament directly.

The other side of the coin, however, is about the use of the envelope of resources as a whole and whether in overall terms the approach that is being pursued secures value for money.

These are the issues on which Minsters should be called into the frame and on which there are some meaty questions including:

-the decision to allocate resources across the country on the basis of population with no account taken of transport need or other considerations or indeed wider priorities between areas and (whisper it) regions
- the whole notion of entrusting LTBs with responsibility for making decisions without any regard to wider outcomes from the programme as a whole.

Rather than the minutiae of individual schemes, the question of whether the programme should be more than just the sum of its locally agreed and perfectly accountable parts then starts to come into view.

Instead we seem to be ploughing straight on with a new and detailed apparatus which incorporates many things that are already requirements or expectations (and others which might have been unnecessary had the Audit Commission not been removed) but which focus on Ministers and Accounting Officers answering to Parliament for local failures rather than on the decisions that they actually made which determine the overall value for money from the majors programme. That does seem a touch odd.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The most transparent truth about transparency

Having been away for a week I spent some of today catching up with reports that have been published whilst the Olympics have dominated the headlines. I was particularly seized by the Public Accounts Committee's treatment of transparency which amounted to a severe mauling. A well deserved one in my view. As the PAC press release says:
It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda.
Amongst the further criticisms made by the PAC is the lack of any coherent account of the perceived benefits of transparency. In this regard, the Government has identified three main objectives for it's approach:

- to strengthen public accountability
- to support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice
- to stimulate economic growth by helping third parties to develop products and services based on public information.

At the moment, in my view, it fails on all three. But just to take the first two objectives:

- it beggars belief that public accountability is strengthened more effectively by putting raw data in inconsistent formats and with no standards about accuracy into the public domain as opposed to more carefully selected, directly comparable and contextualised information. As ever, rubbish in, rubbish out

- the fundamental distinctions between data, information and knowledge have been wilfully ignored.The former is of interest and use to a small number of people but it constitutes basic building blocks which must then be subject to interpretation in order to derive meaning. So it is information - or even better the kind of practical information that constitutes knowledge - that is potentially of interest to all. An approach that was truly interested in accountability would put information at it's heart not just data since it would be focused on  'giving an account'. But an approach that even the least cynical amongst us might see as being driven in part by a desire to govern by anecdote would of course embrace a focus on data: as many commentators have pointed out, one anecdote trumps any amount of hard information

- the silo nature of the approach. As with so many other elements of the approach to localism espoused by the Government each local body deals with it's own information. What hope for the idea that there could be merit in putting some of this together across different bodies in the locality and with some proper context in the way that had started to happen under the auspices of the now derided CAA? The increasingly fractured nature of the local public service environment exacerbates this with academies, work programme providers and other private firms delivering public services not currently subject to the full rigour of the transparency requirements

- the failure to put benefits alongside costs. The focus of transparency is always on what something costs not what has been achieved. I've blogged before about the way that local spending reports have been completely lost from view but the fundamental point is that when the focus, particularly from a local government perspective, is on any item of expenditure above £500 identified separately it is hard to see any interest in also giving an account of what that money buys as opposed to the mere fact that some cash has gone out of the door.

The most obvious conclusion to draw from all of this is that the approach is not just flawed but falling between two stools. At the risk of being highly schematic one can discern three sets of motivations for a greater emphasis on transparency.

One which owes much to those who see tax and spend as being the hallmark of any government whether local or national have found transparency in the form of large amounts of data about small items of expenditure (but only expenditure) a very good way of being able to find and then deploy specific examples of purported waste in order to damn entire organisations and policies. A related element within this kind of underpinning is the argument that making raw data available can remove the requirement for other kinds of regulation (and to some extent information in other forms).

A second is among those with a genuine interest in being able to play around with and mash up data and some people are making good use of information (although the libertarian wing among the geek community often consider that everything should just be available as a matter of course). Quite what the appetite is for this kind of activity and the real costs and benefits of it remain moot.

The third is among those who are more genuinely interested in the performance of organisations and a more developed form of accountability to citizens. In this guise transparency could be a powerful way of helping organisations improve by understanding how they compare to others (which hopefully the LG Inform project will be able to demonstrate although the struggle to really understand unit costs across many services remains a major problem) and providing citizens with a better understanding of the way that things work in their locality and what is being achieved with public resources.

Under such a dispensation transparency would be driven by:

- comparable standards which allowed consistent interpretation and as a result genuine information and knowledge to be generated

- a focus on outcomes reflecting some greater sense of multi-organisational responsibilities all of which are subject to the same standards and requirements

- an emphasis on benefits not just spending.

Currently, however, the fundamental truth about transparency in a local government context is that the abiding focus on penny packets of expenditure means that transparency is falling well short of what it could achieve and is still largely focused on the kind of approaches advocated in small state, possessive individualists play book.

[This is a revised version of the piece originally uploaded on 6 August]

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Municipal Philosopher graduates to the Guardian

The recent piece on the municipal philosopher was picked up by Guardian Society daily: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jul/23/society-daily-email?CMP=EMCSOCEML657

Brancusi and leadership (revisited)

A piece from a little while back originally written for a book idea by a friend and colleague Jon Harvey which he has now turned into a website which is well worth a look: http://inspirationleadership.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/simplicity-is-resolved-complexity.html

Jon wants the website to grow and to gain contributions from others and I know would very much welcome hearing from anyone with an interest.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Values for money: the municipal philosopher

I was very taken with the news this week that a tiny town council in Italy has appointed a municipal philosopher to help individual citizens to think clearly, listen to each other and question themselves and others. So, big kudos to Corigliano d'Otranto. 

One can well imagine the fulminations of the Taxpayers Alliance were such a position to be advertised by an English local authority. Indeed a state of zen would probably be required to deal with the outrage, scorn and ridicule that would pour down on anyone with the temerity to suggest such an appointment.

In fact, the need for municipal philosophers is perhaps about as great at the moment as it has ever been. Michael Sandel's wonderfully lucid book 'Justice' contains any number of observations which would be relevant but here's just one:

'A just society can't be achieved simply by maximising utility or be securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise'.

In the debased political culture that we often see around us there is little encouragement to engage in reasoned argument. Many of our politicians seem happy to pass over responsibility to individuals or to communities as if somehow all preferences can be accommodated. They can't.  

We may be approaching the point at which the idea that freedom of choice expressed predominantly through market mechanisms has gone beyond all acceptable limits. But what will be put in its place?

At root this concerns values. Lack of money means that choices have serious distributional consequences. Some councils have taken a values based approach whether fairness or equality as a means of informing the choices that are being made. 

A municipal philosopher would be well placed to aid that process; asking politicians hard questions about their roles and the basis for their decisions; helping citizens to take on more of the attributes of being good citizens and being challenged about their assumptions and preferences; asking some tough questions of both businesses and third sector organisations about their motivations and contributions.

Commercial firms have on occasion hired corporate 'jesters' giving them some of the freedom that went with the role played by the equivalents in a medieval court to challenge assumptions and put noses out of joint without being subject to the usual penalties. Someone in fact to point out that the emperor might really have no clothes. G4S might have well have benefited from one.

Hospitals have employed ethicists to help doctors to make appallingly difficulty judgements about whether or not to treat patients and the best course of action when all choices seem unpalatable.

So whilst I don't for a moment expect anyone to follow the exact example of Corigliano, it would be heartening to think that the underpinning reason for the appointment - to help people to be better citizens - might have some traction. The thought processes associated with being a citizen are very different to those of being a consumer; paying taxes is about more than shopping; and participating in decision making is different to being a supporter at a football match (whatever one might think from PMQs).

However, in the current economic climate, I suspect that any hard pressed English council would be most likely to welcome applications from that largely forgotten philosophical discipline of alchemy. Preferably from someone with a proven track record.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Should Parliament play a bigger part in central local relations?

Is Parliament thinking more strategically about the role and purpose of local government than the Government? Looks at some of the work that is under way.

The Public Accounts Committee has been examining in some detail the way that accountability for public expenditure will be secured in a more localised future and has found, perhaps not too surprisingly, that the overall approach to accountability for localised services lacks coherence and clarity.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been examining the case for codification of the relationship between national and local government.

The Communities and Local Government Committee has been examining community budgets and suggesting that more profound changes will be needed in terms of accountability for public funds, both nationally and locally, if these are to come close to fulfilling their potential. Through the Councillors and the Community inquiry, the committee is also examining the role of local politicians as leaders of communities and neighbourhoods and the associated questions of accountability.

The Public Administration Select Committee has (as I have commented before on this blog http://mountgroveassociates.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/strategic-thinking-and-local-state.htmlbeen considering strategic thinking in Government and raising some questions which go to the heart of the unresolved issues about central-local relationships.

Also rumbling away in the background is the Alignment project which will bring a much clearer line of sight between the Estimates being voted by Parliament and the resource accounts which are produced by Departments. This could result in changes to the way that spending plans are put to Parliament, and significantly expand the scope to make input prior to the approval of final spending plans.

Some of these Committees are even talking to each other!

From these various pieces of work could come something quite profound in terms of the role that Parliament (not just the Executive) might play in central - local relations:

- an embedded set of expectations about the role of local government and how to facilitate more collaborative working arrangements between services at local level

- a joint committee of other form of Parliamentary apparatus to oversee how that is implemented in practice; and

- a greater opportunity for Parliament to consider the implications of the spending plans being put forward by the Executive which would give greater emphasis to what happens before money is distributed alongside the impressive interrogation of what happens once it has gone out of the door.

The last of these points is significantly underplayed in current discussions.  The reality is that the detail of public expenditure allocations is rarely the subject of detailed scrutiny in Parliament. Even more pertinently, the combined effect of the different allocation in terms of the total amount of resources being made available for a given locality is never considered.

Parliament, in voting through the Estimates and the annual settlements that cover local services and local government, may engage with some of the bigger distributional questions but each is looked at in isolation.  Parliament does not consider any changes that would reflect the different local circumstances across the country and which might improve value for money. 

Some steps are being taken through City Deals, but to make much more of a reality of the rhetoric about more genuinely devolved arrangements would mean changes within the Executive in the way in which money is allocated and presented to Parliament and some changes in the Legislature in terms of how it scrutinises the proposals of the Executive. It would be even better if there were some choreography between changes in each.

At the moment there is probably greater likelihood that much of the work being undertaken in Parliament will grind into the sand. But there is the opportunity to build on some of the questions already being asked and to push forward on significant changes which would make the rhetoric about greater devolution turn into something which is a product of the way that Government and Parliament work together rather than something which is currently largely frustrated by those very arrangements.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Sunny June Morning Manifesto

It's a sunny morning and I have a day of admin ahead including the joys of tax returns. So, instead, here is an off the cuff, undigested and unrefined list of ten things that would make the sun shine more frequently for me. Yes, it’s political (it could hardly be anything else) but these are frustrations with the current state of the public policy debate across the piece:
1. Fair, living wages: a low wage economy treats working people as units of production not humans and has immense impacts on our economy and our society; not least it cost shunts from employers to taxpayers through benefits and tax credits
2. Fair rents: high rents subsidised by the benefit system is yet more cost shunting onto the public purse and leads to misery for many
3. On social issues, morality after the fact is at best unhelpful and in some cases positively disastrous. Everyone makes duff choices in their lives; some of us are in the fortunate position to be able to pick up the pieces ourselves. We should not be damning people who are not in that position and compounding their problems - whether through withdrawal of benefits or services
4. On economics, in contrast, morality needs to play a bigger part. In particular, paying taxes is an entry pass to being a member of society: thin lines between evasion and avoidance should cut no mustard
5. Collective insurance is almost always a better bet in terms of efficiency than individual arrangements: from the licence fee in broadcasting to tax and national insurance for health and social care
6. Choice should be about much more fine grained issues of how things are done not about who does them. Obsessive discussion about choice of provider has occupied us far too much for far too long
7. Dodgy financial arrangements are generally just that: dodgy. PFI has now been shown to be what most of us always thought: a very expensive way of paying for things with complete capture by the provider but precious little by way of real transfer of risk. Don't repeat the same kind of problems with some of the new wheezes being dreamed up and in particular recognise that payment by results means lots of different things to different people. It is no more a panacea than PFI
8. Innovation is frequently not innovative. That doesn't matter particularly but the clamour for bright shiny and new can be distracting: for the most part we have been there in some form before and frankly that's fine
9. Co-production has a major role but it should not be oversold. People, residents, users (whatever name we use) do have a genuine interest in being involved with some design and with some delivery but imagining that this translates into a whole new way of business across swathes of services is fanciful
10. Anti-politics must be fought. Politicians in modern democracies have a dreadfully hard job but a vital one. Whether it is businesses who prefer to avoid the messy stuff of deliberation in favour of nice clean 'deals' or that 'plague on all their houses' feeling we need elected and accountable political leaders and decision makers. In the current climate, politicians need to matter more in stark contrast to big finance and big business. But they also need to do the very hard job of saying things to us that we don't want to hear:  such as 'the local district hospital really does need to close if we are really going to be able to shift money to more effective primary care'.

The sun has now gone behind a cloud. So I’ll stop.

Friday, 4 May 2012

If it’s not Mayors … why not put form after function?

Whilst there may be one or two new city mayors widespread enthusiasm for the model remains stubbornly elusive. We will surely see much discussion about exactly why over the coming days.

This piece is instead about what could happen next; what is a possible new dispensation for a period in which directly elected Mayors have been largely given the thumbs-down but in which there remains untapped enthusiasm for more devolution and on-going need for more integration?

The arguments for greater devolution and greater integration at both local and conurbation scale are entirely separable from those about specific types of governance. Indeed, it makes considerably more sense to match the form of governance to the functional roles and responsibilities being sought than to make an ex ante decision about the types of governance options that are available.

In responding to the mayoral referendum results, Ministers have been saying that it should be for local areas to decide how they want to be governed.

Yet at the moment, in line with guided localism, people can only respond to questions set by the Government.

The rejection of mayors in many parts of the country leaves some big questions:

-         How will the city deals offering at least some additional devolution of responsibilities (however unclear) now be taken forward and will the Government move from the presumption of going further with places which have a mayor or take their ball away?

-          How could the greater integration in decision making that Mayors were intended to achieve now happen?

-          In the largest metropolitan areas the need for further development at conurbation level seems clear and the problems with mayors for only small parts of these areas has always been apparent but how is that to be achieved?

And as part of the answers to these questions will the Government now facilitate the development of other options apart from mayors as new forms of decision making?

It is not that the hands of the Government are tied.

The Localism Act allows the Secretary of State to establish other types of governance arrangement beyond the existing models for the executive (mayors or leaders with cabinets) or committee structures.

The largely unremarked section 9BA which the Localism Act inserted into the Local Government Act 2000 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the arrangements that local authorities may operate for and in connection with the discharge of their functions.

Councils may ask the Government to make such regulations if in their opinion the new arrangements would improve the discharge of their functions.

There are many unanswered questions about these provisions including the focus on the council alone rather than on a broader set of functions at local level but they open up the possibility of a wider range of new local governance arrangements.

A good move now would be for Ministers to signal that they are prepared to make use of them to give impetus for some more experimentation that might better respond to needs at local level.

That is not to overlook the uphill struggle to make the arguments for change when people have generally turned their backs on mayors. But it would be possible to make the whole mayoral saga have some positive outcomes if there were now clear commitment to:

-              the need for more devolution from central to local and for more integration at local level both in terms of principle and in terms of practice, particularly given the very severe public expenditure climate

-              a positive response from Ministers to proposals for new governance models that would be used to give them effect.

That’s where some effort could now fruitfully be focused.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Strategic thinking and the local state

Today's Public Administration Select Committee report on 'Strategic Thinking in Government' has received considerable coverage precisely because its critique is that Government in the UK lacks such thinking in any properly developed sense. The Committee has over a number of reports argued the case for 'national strategy' which it distinguishes from policy and from operational strategy and which is characterised as being about the long term and by definition bigger than any single Department. 

Intriguingly the Committee have also fastened on to the idea of 'emergent strategy' which requires a 'directing mind' to steer a process which means that the emergence of strategy moves from being chaotic (its description) to being positive generating effective policies and positive outcomes which reflect the public values that in turn informed and inspired that leadership.

Whilst there is passing reference to issues such as child poverty as being ones that exemplify failings arising from a lack of coherent and relevant strategic aims, the focus is very much on what might broadly be seen as national level questions. 

It is striking that there is no discussion (aside from a general point about national strategy needing to reflect 'all parts of the UK and the devolved policy agendas') about the impact of the lack of strategic thinking on the way that Government deals with what might be described as the local state - the set of organisations including local government that make things happen in places up and down the country. Yet arguably the lack of strategic thinking when it comes to the local state is actually a massive failing on the part of Government. 

The report identifies some of the long standing problems of dealing with issues coherently:

- Departmental silos which place the primary accountability on Secretaries of State to Parliament and which lock Departments in as the 'key unit'

- the commensurate lack of strength at the centre of Government with the means and the influence to act as an effective centre of gravity for national strategy

- the lack of alignment of financial resources with strategic thinking and the lack of longer term thinking about  budgeting linked to where society is going

- the opportunities for a change in the role of Parliament in helping to promote and challenge national strategy (the contrast is drawn with the approach in Canada which includes a review of financial commitments, pressures, priorities etc at the start of the spending round).

All of these issues figure prominently when one analyses the systemic problems that hamper the development of a more coherent approach to the local state. Indeed, work that I have been doing with a colleague suggests that without some rethinking of Parliamentary and local accountability arrangements current Government moves to decentralise and devolve powers to communities are doomed to fail, the Coalition’s objective of promoting ‘localism’ will continue to be more rhetoric than reality and it will be harder to avoid a deepening crisis in public services. 

Major changes are happening including in the form of Police and Crime Commissioners, further directly elected mayors, new plans for ‘City Growth’, and ‘open’ public services.   But these will leave key aspects of our present constitutional arrangements, and a set of critical dysfunctions at the heart of English governance, largely untouched.

The new landscape for local public services currently emerging from Government reforms on health, policing, education, and local government is highly complex.  Accountability arrangements, and the citizen’s question of ‘who decides’ on the allocation of resources, have become virtually unanswerable even to the expert.  

On the financial front, achievement of large-scale public service savings through preventative measures, early intervention, and joined-up delivery remains a distant goal – rarely achieved in practice.  Many valiant efforts have been made, over many years.  Traditional arrangements for accountability to Government and Parliament, and our silo-based systems for delegation of authority, stand in the way.   

There needs to be a rethink of the present national arrangements for financial accountability and devolved decision-making, from Parliament downwards including changes in machinery of government terms. 

There are opportunities to do so but they would be greatly enhanced by a collective will to rise to the challenge set by the Committee to do strategy differently and better.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

How New is Your Agora?

A piece for New Start on the Portas review of high streets and town centres and specifically the 'town team' pilots which suggests some reasons to be positive.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Local Spending Reports: value rather than price

Yesterday we had announcements about new annual tax statements purportedly designed to increase transparency about how tax is used to support public services. There have been some rapid critiques of that initiative: it is partial in terms of income source (only focused on direct taxation not on indirect taxes); it is partial in terms of focusing only on what is spent and not what is achieved; it makes public services akin to shopping as if this is down to individual decision rather than a collective investment.

In short, to misuse Wilde, it is all about price rather than value. 

There is a strong sense that the purpose of these reports is not about spending money better. Just about spending less. 

Local authorities already provide an account to council tax payers of how their money is used but it focuses on what is being done with the money and to some extent why. But it is partial - inevitably it only focuses on the responsibilities of the local authority.

What we have never had is a proper account of what is being spent in an area by the variety of bodies involved in delivering public services. We have had numerous initiatives from LAAs to Total Place and now Community Budgets which were intended to try to get a proper handle on this. None of these has ever managed to come to fruition, partly because its difficult stuff and partly one has to say because the will has never quite been there to push on the surmount the final hurdles. Sadly, I'm not exactly holding my breath on the whole budget Community Budget pilots either. But we'll see.

But there is actually a requirement for Government to be providing a much more holistic account of what is spent in particular areas.

Anyone still recall local spending reports?

These were part of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 provisions which ended up as a hard fought compromise between a cross party lobby in Parliament and an Executive worried about a potentially unmanageable set of provisions. 

Section 6 of the SCA requires the Government to make arrangements for the development of LSRs. There was even a consultation on a second set of reports in 2010 about which absolutely nothing seems to have been heard.

Now that we have a Government with an apparently strong desire to push transparency wouldn't it be a good time to dust off local spending reports?

The purpose of LSRs in my view is that it might allow for some better understanding of the totality of public spending in an area but would also be the basis for improving value from how it is used. We say that we are genuinely interested in preventative action. Many councils and other organisations would say that this is one of the most creative ways of securing improved effectiveness from public spending. But the spend is fractured at the moment. The public have no clue that the majority of spend goes on the consequence rather dealing with the upstream causes or with interventions that might be more effective and a great deal cheaper.

But its all bedevilled by organisational boundaries and the ability to make progress is hardly being improved by some of the consequences of guided localism which is splitting things up rather than bringing them together.

So why not a push now from local authorities on really using transparency about full spend in local areas to make the case for more integration between budgets and more emphasis on prevention. To show taxpayers that their various contributions could secure better value. To engage in a discussion about making improvements in responsibilities and systems rather than moaning on about price. That would be challenging for councils and others: we know that there is very high spend on a small number of clients in some cases (indeed the 'troubled families' initiative promoted by the Government reflects this very point). 

But surely it has to be better than what we have now which on the one hand allows the local press and the famous armchair auditors to run often mischievous stories about minute bits of spending and on the other a narrative focused entirely on national direct taxation and spending.

Is the Government up for shining a light on how to improve the collective use of public spending at local level as well as every £500 spent by a local authority? 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

More evidence

Further to a recent post about evidence, a very interesting piece in The Guardian today -  http://tinyurl.com/6ovqnz2 - about significant new interest by Labour in upping the role of evidence in relation to education. Just how far this would have put a serious dent in recent political initiatives which have been highly selective in their use of evidence in terms of school organisation, the approach to teaching and the curriculum is of course moot.

Much would depend on how far such an Office for Educational Improvement would have teeth to stop or seriously embarrass Ministers; whether reports would be public as a matter of course and prior to decisions being reached; how independent it would be in terms of initiating research as opposed to testing proposals; how well funded it would be; what the terms of reference would be in relation to the tests to be applied particularly in terms of gauging effectiveness and how its relationship with Parliamentary scrutiny would be structured. 

At the level of teachers and schools there would also be a significant dynamic about the approach from such an Office in terms of initiating and promoting good practice or in hobbling innovation. Some fleet footwork would be required to ensure that the Office is seen as advancing discussion and change, not hobbling it.

But leaving all such questions to one side, it is surely significant that there is interest in greater transparency about evidence. Amidst all the sound and nonsense about various forms of transparency in recent years, putting an emphasis on how it could apply to the basis for policies rather than simply on how much is being spent on penny packets of services can only be a good thing.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Incidentally ..

The recent ruling in relation to the legality of saying prayers as part of a formal council meeting has generated a great deal of heat and rather less light. The judge simply found that the council did not have the necessary powers either directly or indirectly (in a refrain familiar to those working in or with councils it was not possible to find support for the prayers as 'incidental to the incidental').  There is a suitably droll passage in the judgement which says that:

'it is not for a Court to rule upon the likelihood of divine, and presumptively beneficial, guidance being available or the effectiveness of Christian public prayer in obtaining it'.


Now the Government has stepped in to apparently provide a 'power to pray' through the general power of competence in the Localism Act.

If nothing else this will mean that many more people are aware of the new power than would otherwise have been the case.

Two further observations are, however, worth making:

- firstly, it is not absolutely certain that the power of general competence will necessarily provide this apparently much sought after deliverance. The new power is subject to public law constraints and simply asserting that an individual has the ability to decide to pray may not provide complete justification for a council deciding to do so. Indeed there should be a strong case in terms of maintaining the secular approach of neutrality in the public sphere to say that operating in a civic capacity is indeed quite distinct from operating in an individual one;

- secondly, it is as a minimum rather amusing that the Government trumpets the new power as allowing for the saying of prayers at the start of formal council business whilst explicitly denying on the face of the Act the ability for councils to organise their own decision making procedures in ways other than those that are prescribed by legislation or secure the approval of the Secretary of State. 

One doesn't entirely anticipate that changing any time soon or indeed there being anything like the amount of sound and fury about it as there has been about saying prayers in a formal meeting rather than outside it.

What is it about evidence?

A recent review of what sounds like a frankly terrible book by yet another climate change denier contained a very good summary of its approach to evidence. Data is most certainly out. 'Ideology-based assertion, simple common sense and the ever trusty anecdote' are in. We are in the world of the Top Gear school of argument.

What is firmly locked out by the Top Gear school is anything approximating to the scientific method. Not just data but any rigorous attempt to understand, to test hypotheses robustly and to drop them when they don't pass muster. 

It's obviously important not to be too po faced about the use of evidence when it comes to decision making in public office (and certainly about applying something akin to formal scientific method). There is always judgement. Everyone comes with baggage. But one might still think that a properly informed understanding would be a good basis for making decisions even if a, perhaps considerable, degree of ambiguity or uncertainty remains.

The approach to 'evidence' is, however, indicative of some wider shifts in the approach to argument and policy making in a democracy and also of the confidence of the decision makers.

The arrival of New Labour in Government in 1997 was accompanied by some trumpeting of 'evidence based policy' as the new mantra. This was largely a defensive stance, part and parcel of a concern to differentiate the new Government from previous administrations which had been dangerously ideological and 'Old'. Bright things, young and old, duly scampered around collecting reams of data and other material as the basis for great new thoughts, chins were stroked and doorstop reports were produced.

At some point all of this rather morphed into what some wags described as 'policy based evidence'; a more selective approach to picking the facts and the evidence that suit and giving rather less emphasis (or indeed just plain ignoring) the bits that were inconvenient. Again that didn't stop the cottage industries whirring away producing the material and doorstop reports.

More recently, politicians seem inclined to go well beyond 'policy based evidence'. When presented with statistical evidence or rigorous, detailed analysis that seriously questions the basis for, or likely consequences of, a policy there is a tendency to dismiss this fairly directly with something along the lines of 'well, you might say that'. As a response this probably ranks some way below 'I hear what you say' .

The interesting thing is why people hold such very different views about the role and force of evidence and indeed what sorts of evidence they see as valid.

Evidence produced through something approximating to the scientific method have come under increasing attack, notably of course in respect of climate change but now more generally.

Two things are notable:

- belief and conviction (some might even call it ideology) are back big time (and are not big on the inconvenient uncertainty which might emerge from looking at the evidence)

- other forms of evidence - personal experience, intuition and particularly anecdote - are increasingly the chosen means for making choices and determining policy.

It's hardly surprising. Notable examples are powerful. They trump statistics and hard evidence every time. They also tend to trump typical examples.

But what is even more worrying is that we are being encouraged rapidly along a spectrum to a point where a significant proportion of the political decision makers and the population as a whole feel that more scientific evidence is problematic in itself. That it is almost inherently dubious. The product of an elite. At odds with a more authentic lived experience and good solid 'common sense'. And peculiarly messy old lived experience actually provides a simpler, truer explanation than any amount of analysis ever can.

The old adage that hard cases make bad laws (see the Dangerous Dogs Act as the example par excellence) seems now to have been reversed. Exceptional cases now seem to make good policy.  And in a populist sense, they often do.

There is, however, also something deeply cultural about this. In the UK that frequently comes down to class one way or another (and class does cross party lines).

Those more insecure about their position may well feel a need for substantial external support which has traditionally tended to come from a more scientific approach to evidence. In short, there is a felt need to demonstrate that a position is correct. 

Those inherently confident about their position are much more likely to take the correctness of their view as a given and be much more concerned to persuade or browbeat others into agreeing. This is where the sort of evidence that we see being deployed nowadays tends to come in; largely anecdotal with a smattering of personal experience and a pinch of intuition. As a witches brew it can be remarkably powerful, not least since it is often about reinforcing prejudices.

So, we still have evidence based policy of a sort but sadly, its the kind of evidence that wouldn't generally stand up to much scrutiny in court.

What though is also interesting is why some experts still seem to hold such power. The most instructive example here is the Institute for Fiscal Studies. At times it seems as if the country (alright, not quite the whole country) holds it's breath waiting for the IFS to pronounce. Yet it's a bunch of experts. But we do on the whole believe what they say. Why? Partly because its complicated, most of us do not profess to understand or to have the time to go through the detail. Partly because it's less susceptible to anecdote. Partly one hopes because they do set out the parameters and the uncertainty and provide a more rounded view that builds confidence. And of course partly, perhaps predominantly for many people, because we no longer trust our politicians on these issues and look for some validation.

This is not an argument in support of technocrats. Robust argument is fundamental to a functioning democracy and that no-one is going to hand their opponents an open goal if they can avoid it.

But it is to say that a political culture in which reasoned evidence often seems to be decried as the product of an intellectual elite is in danger of becoming seriously degraded.

Just look across the Atlantic to see where some of these tendencies can ultimately lead.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Payment by results?

The Guardian Public Leaders network has a very droll account of the session at yesterday's Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the 'troubled families' community budget scheme:

The intellectual gyrations undertaken around the taxing subject of when a target is an outcome would be bracing for the most ardent advocate of callisthenics. Sadly, when it comes to community budgets we still don't seem to be making much progress towards achieving the body beautiful.

There are some requirements for a workable scheme which are relatively easy to describe: 

1. A theory of change - the outcomes being described by Ministers (children back to school, reduced crime, parents into work and reduced expenditure) are all in themselves quite sensible but the relationship between them and the need for other elements are crucial. This is vexed territory but one clear question is whether it is for Government either explicitly or implicitly to provide an answer or for each locality to do so. For a workable scheme one feels that it should be the latter

2. Clear results. The frankly ridiculous arguments about when is a target not a target are largely political. The previous Government spawned a 'target culture'. So the current one can't abide them. Except when it finds that there is just too much pressure (such as on waiting lists). The point is that targets are not bad in themselves. The interesting question is who sets them and in respect of what. Some outcomes based accountability thinking would be welcome here - it might even help the Government to avoid setting targets by allowing those better placed to do so and to make more sensible allocations of responsibility between different organisations. That is all much easier if there is an agreed theory about what needs to change

3. Identification of the decision makers. Most of us thought that this was meant to be a scheme to promote more integrated decision making at local level. Currently it looks like a fragmented scheme which wishes the ends without willing the means - in particular reinvigorating the local collective decision making which has been pretty much systematically undermined by lack of support or active attack. Government needs to make clear that such arrangements are needed everywhere - not just where there are Mayors - and that where the local manifestations of national public bodies need to play a role and provide resources they are actively required to play their part

4. Addressing head on accountability to Parliament and at local level. Parliament has long been much stronger on post hoc examination of the regularity and value for money of resources which it has voted than on exerting influence in advance on allocations and the use of public money. The effect is that regularity becomes a major hobble on creative use of money at local level. That needs to change and community budgets are a good example of how it could do so by pushing more direct accountability down to local level rather than the further bout of callisthenics currently being undertaken to try to make a more devolved future fit with accountability via the Departmental Accounting Officer.

5. Simplicity. Community budgets can work perfectly well without a payment by results element. But given that the current dispensation is for a major PBR element it requires organisations to take risks, possibly big ones. Calibrating those risks raises the inevitable question of measuring their achievement (see the discussion above) but in doing so familiar dangers hove into view (about which I have posted previously): on massive complexity and a highly contractual culture; on making it much more difficult for organisations (typically voluntary and community sector ones) without much working capital to contribute; on hitting the target but missing the point because the focus is on what can be measured rather than what is significant; of being unambitious (repeat ad nauseam). Trying to line up organisations to take big financial risks in notoriously problematic areas of public policy is a major additional burden on making a community budgets scheme work. Some realism about the effects of such a requirement would be welcome as well as a willingness to have a further think about these sorts of issues rather than dodging the bullets on when an outcome becomes a target.

6. Trust. Probably the biggest missing ingredient of all.

To finish with a cheap point. A payment by results contract for the development of community budgets would make interesting reading.  

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Fly kites rather than flags

I'll happily admit that flags, along with crowns, uniforms and most things requiring an internal combustion engine do nothing for me.

So my first reaction to the consultation paper released by my old Department on liberalising the regime for flying flags was to sigh and think 'haven't they got anything better to do'? (Answer, most certainly).

But on reflection, when I read the paper itself I found myself becoming more agitated. 

One suspects that part of the deal with Ministers on this obsession about flags (remember the flag of each English county has been  flying happily in turn over Eland House) was to say, if you insist but we're not spending much time on it. 

We all advertise our allegiances and support through symbolic gestures. I have at various times worn red ribbons, CND badges, Amnesty International t-shirts and a whole host of other more or less well advised demonstrations of support for causes or people. They were an individual choice but one intended to support the rights of others. They were also a bit of a fashion accessory (and in those terms I fear were more often than not ill advised - but then again my first girlfriend was an oboe playing Quaker who performed in a piece called The Gates of Greenham so perhaps it worked).  

Flags on the other hand are symbols of power. They always were and they always will be. The consultation paper says this in terms and goes further. Flags 'demonstrate power and identity'. They are also, and this I have to say surprised me, a 'very British way of expressing joy'.

So here, as they tend to say these days, is the thing.

This is some more of that peculiar phenomenon developed by the current Government of 'centralised localism'. We in Whitehall will prescribe that some more flags can now be flown without the need for the involvement of the local planning authority which will now extend to symbols of the vestiges of the Empire, the armed forces as well as the flag of 'any recognised administrative area of countries outside the UK' (the example given is of Australian states but one wonders just who will decide what is a recognised administrative area on which there might in some cases be strongly opposing views).

But more importantly the paper makes a significant observation in saying that the aim is to allow people to fly flags without needing to seek consent 'to the extent that this is possible without causing harm to amenity or causing offence (my emphasis)'. 

I had a look at the original regulations. They are concerned with advertising (in itself illuminating) and the guiding principles are for local planning authorities to exercise their powers, unsurprisingly and sensibly, in the interests of amenity and public safety (so not obstructing road signs and the like). There's nothing about offence. But it may be that the consultation paper in what looks like a throw away comment is actually closer to the mark.

This week we have had more of the now classic contemporary approach to 'apology' which goes along the lines 'I'm sorry if anyone has taken offence at what I said'. I'm sad that the latest example of this comes from my own football team. 

This has also been a week in which my local MP has been lambasted for some remarks which in a historical context were absolutely correct. The development of the British and other empires was greatly facilitated by a cynical divide and rule policy in relation to indigenous populations. It may not not have been well expressed (twitter does tend to have that effect) but as some more sane commentary has pointed out the hysterical reaction to the comments completely and deliberately ignores the systemic power dynamics .

Flags come with baggage. Lots of it. In areas of conflict between communities the whole issue of flags and symbols is massively heightened. Just think for a moment about how sensitive this has been and continues to be in Northern Ireland. And not just in the ways that one might imagine. Loyalist areas started flying the flag of Israel; some nationalist areas responded by flying Palestinian flags. Both were making some very clear and obvious symbolic points.

What might be described as the UKIP tendency is alive and flourishing. UKIP had a go at Telford and the Wrekin for having the audacity to fly the European Union flag. The sane response from the council was that different flags were flown at different times but that recognising that we are part of something bigger than our town, our county or our country was legitimate and important. In other words we wear multiple hats and we fly multiple flags. 

I'm not a flag flyer but I recognise their power (there is academic literature on the relationship between flags as power symbols and the fear that they evoke or exploit). Exclusivist approaches to local identity based on historic devices and power plays well to some constituencies. Personally, the 'Fox News' approach to flag flying - that it's fine to be completely unbalanced (indeed unhinged) on one channel if there is balance across all the channels - is completely the wrong way to go. 

I may be over reacting but I'd much prefer some kite flying about better ways of expressing communal solidarity than flying flags. 

Intriguingly, however, there is nothing in the regulations about another important piece of symbolism - flying the flag upside down.