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.