Archive for the 'public policy' Category

What is the ethical purpose of local government?

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman’s book Reclaiming local Democracy published in May.  At a launch in London on 10 June politicians, media commentators and the public debated some of the key issues covered in the book.  Ines Newman tells us more in her guest blog.

I wrote ‘Reclaiming local democracy’ because I want to generate a challenging debate on the ethical purpose of local government as well as more interest in local democracy. Brilliantly, that’s exactly what happened at the launch of the book earlier this month. Local vs central, financial independence and moving the agenda on from ‘what works’ to ‘what should an ethical local government do’ were all hotly debated.

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Contributing editor to the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network, David Walker, raised the issue of a ‘postcode lottery’ if councils deliver different services in different areas. If, on the other hand, local authorities have an obligation to meet basic human need how can this provide scope for local decision-making? Such questions go to the heart of central/local relationships.

The basic human need for shelter places an obligation on governments to provide housing. But the form of the built environment and the variety of households in each area requires a discussion in each local authority area, involving residents, around what type of housing should be built and where.

My concern is how the local can influence the national

"I believe the central/local debate is misframed"

“I believe the central/local debate is misframed”

I believe that the central/local debate is ‘misframed’. We will always need strong central government to promote equality and facilitate redistribution. The question, therefore, is not just about which services should be devolved to local government.  More significantly, it is about how local government, together with local social movements, can help define basic human needs and rights at both national and local levels.  So my concern is how the local can influence the national. I see the Localism Act 2011, with its financial control of local government and minor devolution, as ‘hollow’ localism.

Financial independence

The lack of financial independence led to a debate on council tax. Council tax is highly regressive and has been made worse by its devolution to local government with reduced funding. This has resulted in many of the poorest households facing the highest cut in their living standards ever imposed by a government, as they now have to pay the ‘new poll tax’.

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government engrossed in Reclaiming Local Democracy

I believe that if politicians have the ability to right an injustice, they should do just that. Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, raised the political difficulties that will be caused by the protests from those who will lose out. Another contributor suggested that it was therefore essential for council tax reform to be in a party manifesto so that the democratic mandate could be used to support implementation. I would like to see local councillors campaigning now on council tax reform, to ensure the voice of poorer residents is heard against the more powerful, affluent residents whose interests are threatened. This is precisely where the local should be influencing the national, so we can develop a fair tax base for local government.

Ethical approach

In the book I argue that we need to move the agenda from ‘What works?’ to ‘What should an ethical local government do?’ Hilary Benn argued that these two questions are not necessarily in conflict and I agree with him. I believe the problem with the ‘What works?’ question is that it is usually asked in relation to a narrow output target which may fail to address the causes of the problem. The ‘best’ solution can then be determined by an expert. If such a methodology is to be combined with an ethical approach, the political questions should take priority. By providing a clear set of questions to ask in relation to the ethical implications of policy decisions, the book aims to support the political process and councillors who want to make a difference.

It’s great that the book has started to generate a debate. The green shoots of a new revival in local democracy are evident and I welcome feedback on the themes both of the debate and the book in general.

Reclaiming Local DemocracyReclaiming local democracy is available at a special discount rate on the Policy Press website.  Get involved in the debate by encouraging your local library to order a copy! 

A missed opportunity: Why the Law Commission got it wrong on hate crime

Jon Garland, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey

Jon GaJG picrland and Neil Chakraborti are co-editors of Responding to hate crime: The case for connecting policy and research, published by Policy Press last month.

 

Recently the Law Commission published the results of its year-long investigation into the efficacy and scope of hate crime laws. The consultation, a reference from the Ministry of Justice, had the specific remit of examining the ‘aggravated’ offences and incitement to hatred legislation in order to see if these should be extended to include groups that were not previously protected.

That the Law Commission was asked to undertake this review at all was a reflection of the increased social significance of hate crime and also (and relatedly, of course) the heightened importance of hate crime legislation. Supporters of this legislation argue that it has a specific, symbolic importance in that it reflects society’s condemnation of the victimisation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. However, one of the issues examined in this process was the inequality that exists in the provision for different victim groups within the mish-mash of hate crime legislation. The criminal justice system currently recognises just a handful of different identity communities as hate crime victim groups – the so-called ‘five strands’ of race, religion/faith, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity – about which the police are required to collect hate crime statistics. Surprisingly, though, some of these ‘five strands’ receive more protection from the law than others. For example, the aggravated offences provision within the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 currently covers race and faith groups, but not those relating to disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Similarly, in the case of the incitement to hatred legislation, race, faith and sexual orientation groups are included, but not disability or gender identity.

So how has this rather odd situation come about? Well, the explanation is, in some ways, quite simple: there is no single all-encompassing ‘Hate Crime Act’ that covers different types of offences and all identity groups, but instead there exists a number of different pieces of legislation that have been drawn up over time which have, gradually, included one group after another in a rather piecemeal fashion. This has resulted in the disparities of provision that the Law Commission was asked to investigate.

Under a degree of expectation, the Law Commission therefore published the findings from its extensive investigations at the end of May. The Commission concluded, perhaps rather disappointingly, that a further, Government-sponsored review into a wider set of questions surrounding the aggravated provisions was necessary. It also, rather frustratingly for some disability campaigning groups such as the Disability Hate Crime Network, declined to recommend that the incitement legislation be broadened to include the strands of gender identity and disability. The Commission’s reasoning for this was that it had not been persuaded of the ‘practical need to do so’, that prosecutions might in any case be rare and that new incitement legislation might ‘inhibit discussion of disability and transgender issues’.

This verdict means that disabled and transgender communities still find themselves ‘out in the cold’ regarding the incitement laws. It also means that some groups appear to be accorded a more ‘privileged’ position than others within the five strands, which is an unfortunate outcome of the Commission’s work. Although the justification provided by the Commission for declining to make this recommendation  has some logic, it does seem a shame that it failed take the opportunity, in the words of the Disability Hate Crime Network, to extend the law’s coverage to ‘capture a unique, specific and grave type of wrong’.

 

 

 

 

A response to the European and UK local elections by Alison Shaw, Director of Policy Press

Image

When I set up Policy Press it was because I was passionate about social issues.  I felt strongly that we needed to fight for a fairer society, one that looked after all its citizens regardless of their wealth and background; race, ethnicity or faith; gender, age or (dis)abilities; regardless of whether they lived in England or Ethiopia.

Our authors are the experts on how to achieve that goal, from understanding the challenges at a theoretical level through to how to implement policy and practice on the ground, and until today, I have been delighted to let them do the talking.  But following the recent results in the UK local and European elections I am moved to join the conversation and speak out.

This weekend we have seen again the rise of the extreme right in politics, both in the UK and across Europe.  This move appears to be a response to a range of factors – a belief that the European Union is inefficient and has too much control over nation state policies; a fear that immigration is a threat to jobs, security and culture; and an understandable anxiety for many as the global recession continues to take its toll.

It may be that the European Union as an institution is in need of reform, but we have to remember why we have a Union.  Initially a post-World War II settlement, it was a means for ensuring cooperation to avoid future conflict.  More recently it has been more about power and global influence in response to the rise of the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil – but the initial  collaborative intent must not be forgotten.

My fear is that, if we remain silent, then things we take for granted like the belief in equality and fairness will be lost and things we don’t think possible, will happen.  Our authors’ thoughtful writing has helped me to contemplate many of these issues and the three books below stand out for me.

ImageThe UK Government’s response to the global recession was an ‘Austerity’ drive, cutting back spending dramatically, especially to the welfare budget. This has hit those already in challenging circumstances in a devastating way.  Mary O’Hara, a journalist and Fulbright Scholar spent a year travelling the UK interviewing those facing hardship and those supporting them.  Her eloquent, insightful book Austerity Bites, published today, provides first hand testimony of what it is like to be struggling –  not to have enough to feed your family despite working your hardest in low paid, insecure jobs.

When we feel our security is challenged, one response is to fight back.  When we feel threatened we can look around for those that are different to blame.  Perhaps this points to why we are facing an increasing tide of anti-immigration rhetoric.  The headlines in some of the UK tabloid papers have been shocking: “We must stop the migrant invasion” Daily Express, “4,000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out” Daily Mail or “How Romanian criminals terrorise our streets” Daily Express.

headlines

Image

Malcolm Dean, previously Social Affairs Editor for the Guardian, looked at how the media influences and manipulates public opinion and the effect this has on politics and policy in his highly praised book Democracy under Attack.  It provides perhaps one possible answer to how and why we have seen the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and the UK Independence Party (UKiP) gaining such traction in the recent elections.

Image Dimitris Ballas, of Sheffield University and Danny Dorling and Ben Hennig of Oxford University have created the first European Social Atlas and it  analyses social and political Europe in detail.  This beautifully produced book shows in clear graphic form that Europe is a blend of cultures, languages, traditions, landscapes and ideologies that are often not bound by state or regional borders.  The social atlas of Europe is “an insightful look at today’s Europe” (Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley) and will be published on 25 June. It shows Europe and the Europeans in an entirely new light and highlights why we should be, working together, not pulling apart.

The grass roots are withering and the money is drying up – what future for local parties in general election campaigns?

 Charles Pattie_for blog

By Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie, authors of Money and electoral politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections, out on 7th May 2014.

With the 2015 general election now less than a year away, political parties will again be focusing on funding of their campaigns. As in previous elections, candidates will need two resources to sustain their general election campaigns – people and money. Each is in increasingly short supply. As a result, the nature of constituency campaigning has changed very substantially in recent decades, and is likely to do so even more in the future.

People are needed to manage the constituency campaign and to promote the candidate’s/party’s cause across the local electorate: as the average constituency has some 70,000 voters, this means reaching a large number of people. In the past, most candidates could rely on activists drawn from their party’s local members, but as their numbers have declined the available pool has been reduced. Some candidates have replaced them by supporters – non-members who are nevertheless willing to promote the party’s cause – and by volunteers from nearby constituencies where there is an excess of supply relative to demand.

Money is needed to sustain the campaign organisation – its office and equipment, plus staffing – but in particular to meet the costs of posters and leaflets. Research has clearly shown that the more intensive the local campaign, as indicated by the amount that the candidate spends on those items, the better the performance: those who spend more tend to get more votes, and their opponents get less.

This relationship is clearly demonstrated in our book just published by Policy Press – Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections. In it we found that the more marginal the seat, the more that candidates spend either defending what they hold or seeking to unseat the incumbent. But over the last two decades, even in those targeted places, the amount spent has declined – especially, but not only, by Labour candidates. It is becoming increasingly difficult for local parties and their candidates to raise funds – and central party organisations rarely transfer money to their local branches as contributions to their costs (although the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have done so for targeted seats in the pre-campaign periods).

In the four months preceding a general election, candidates can spend up to £40,000 on their campaigns– but in 2010 very few reported spending anything like that amount. The reason why is very clear from our analyses of constituency party accounts. All local parties with either an income or an expenditure of more than £25,000 in any year must lodge copies of their accounts with the Electoral Commission – which publishes them. In only just over half of the British constituencies (359) did the local Conservative party return its accounts to the Commission: even in a general election year, the Conservatives lacked a local organisation turning over more than £25,000 in over 40 per cent of all constituencies. But they were much better placed than their two main opponents: for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats there was an organisation turning over that amount in only 80 constituencies each – only 13 per cent of all seats.

Local parties derive their income from three main sources – donations, appeals, and fund-raising events. In 2010, those local Conservative parties that submitted accounts to the Electoral Commission raised over £3million in each of those categories – some £11million in total. The 80 local Labour parties whose accounts are available for scrutiny raised only just over £2million, the majority from donations, and local Liberal Democrats were in a similar situation – they raised £2.7million in donations, out of a total income of some £3.8million.

All donations to local parties above £1,000 must be reported to the Electoral Commission, irrespective of their total income. In 2010, the Conservatives reported 1,131 separate donations, totalling just under £5million. Labour local parties reported many more – 2,273 totalling £3 million: the Liberal Democrats received only 666 donations, totalling just under £2million.

So the Conservatives attracted more money, in larger chunks. And they got it from different sources than their opponents: one-third from companies, compared to just 8 per cent for local Labour parties, who got most of their donations (some 45 per cent) from trades unions. Some 70 per cent of the Liberal Democrats’ income came from individuals: Labour parties got 25 per cent of their money from this source and the Conservatives some 60 per cent.

As the money has dried up and the membership grass roots have withered, so local campaigns have become centralised – and increasingly focused on target seats. For the seats that they either hope to win, or fear losing, the parties conduct extensive telephone polling, produce leaflets for the candidates there, and send customised letters and other canvassing materials to potential supporters. Voters elsewhere are largely ignored and their candidates have to rely on what they can raise and mobilise locally.

This trend will be extended in 2015. The parties have already identified their target seats and placed control of the campaigns there in the hands of centrally-appointed staff. Voters in those constituencies (fewer than 150 out of the total of 650) will experience lots of canvassing activity – see lots of posters, get lots of leaflets, and be contacted by letter, e-mail, phone, twitter and whatever on several occasions: their votes count. That will not be the case in most of the other seats, however; candidates there may send them a single leaflet but otherwise they may be overwhelmed by the deafening silence of the local campaign; nobody will knock on their doors on election day to make sure they vote.

Might this all change if there is cross-party consensus that party funding should be reformed? Two main features of any such reform package have been discussed – and then rejected by at least one party: a cap on the total amount spent on campaigns (other than local); and a limit on the maximum size of any donations. Some hope that if such a package were introduced then local campaigning might be revived, with benefits for local democracy. But there is no incentive for the parties to campaign intensively in most constituencies: only the marginal seats matter.

And so in many parts of the country, the money available to candidates through their local parties will continue to dry up, the number of activists and supporters prepared to give their time to canvass electors will continue to decline, and local democracy will go on withering away. The trends and patterns identified in Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections can only breed pessimism regarding Britain’s democratic future.

Transatlantic lessons for middle Britain

Sophia Parker

Sophia Parker

This post originally appeared on the Bright Blue blog on 13 March 2013.

Sophia Parker is an Associate at the Resolution Foundation, having previously been the Director of Policy and Research. She is the editor of The squeezed middle published in January 2013.

The squeezed middle: the pressure on ordinary workers in America and Britain is a collection of essays from America’s leading thinkers in the field of living standards to understand what lessons, if any, we might draw from the US experience.

You may well wonder what we can take from a country where the crisis in living standards is so great that it’s not an exaggeration to talk of America’s ‘lost generation’. Productivity has risen threefold since 1970 but barely a dollar from this buoyant economy has made its way into the average person’s pay packet. Even the recent return to moderate growth in the US has not eased the challenges most families are facing.

The US is an outlier in the sense that the historic link between pay and productivity was brutally severed forty years ago – thankfully the UK does not exactly mirror this glum picture.

However Resolution Foundation analysis highlights a deeply worrying development: since the early 2000s, wages and household income have flatlined for British low and middle income families, and since the recession they have in fact declined. This suggests that despite important differences, at a fundamental level the US and the UK share a problem: while our nations have got richer, low and middle income households have suffered a stagnation and even decline in living standards.

There are other alarm bells that should be ringing too: as in the US, we have seen inequality rise sharply in recent years. Living costs continue to rise faster than inflation, significantly reducing the spending power of low and middle income households. Furthermore, from tax credits to worker rights, many of the policies that have historically protected Britain from looking more like the US are either under threat or being watered down.

But let’s not start wringing our hands just yet. While acknowledging the impact of globalization, technological change and immigration, the contributors to the book are compelling on the crucial role of policy and politics in shaping economic realities.

They underline the most important lesson that we can take from the US experience: decline and stagnation of the scale seen in the US is not inevitable. We do in fact have a choice as to whether we want to reverse the declining living standards of low and middle income households. Policy decisions and political priorities can augment or mitigate economic trends, and determine who gains most from any future growth we might enjoy.

So the question now is whether any of the major parties are able to find a language and set of policy priorities that make living standards an organizing political idea. There are some welcome signs that the new generation of Conservatives recognize the significance of the issues. But there aren’t many quick wins here. Reflecting on the American experience, the book’s contributors set out a challenging set of issues where action is needed, including:

  • A focus on who benefits from growth, as well as on achieving growth in the first place.
  • A focus on improving market wages, as well as on ensuring taxes and transfers are actively supporting working families.
  • A focus on broadening employment and in-work supports such as childcare, as well as on the quality of jobs.

President Obama declared that a chart showing the declining living standards of America’s middle class was his ‘North Star’ in his re-election campaign last year. Will any political leader here do the same? If not, then we risk treading the path that the US has already gone down – with disastrous consequences for the third of our working age population who live in low and middle income households.

The squeezed middle is available to buy with 20% discount at www.policypress.co.uk

Is the last chance saloon still open?

Malcolm Dean

Malcolm Dean

Exclusive: the first verdict on the Leveson Inquiry from the Guardian‘s Malcolm Dean

‘So, finally the bogeyman has arrived. A regulated press! Government intervention! Stalinism! Precious liberties won through 300 years of courage and eloquence to be forfeited by a panic about phone hacking!’ Harry Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, summed up Fleet Street’s response well this morning (30th November) in the Guardian. Written before he even saw today’s edition, it could not have been more accurate. The Sun’s editorial condemned Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for allowing ‘state officials to walk into papers like the Sun and censor stories.’ The Mail‘s headline declared ‘Cameron’s stand for freedom – defiant PM says he won’t back key proposal’. A Telegraph headline was equally upbeat and panegyric: ‘Unexpected decision makes PM a leader in defence of liberty’.

No doubt there were big smiles in Downing Street this morning from such widespread media endorsements. Undoubtedly that was one reason for his veto. Another was the need to pacify his rebellious right wing backbenchers.  So much for Cameron’s pledges that he would support Leveson so long as it had the support of victims and there was nothing ‘bonkers’ in it. His veto broke both his own tests. Add two more to his 37 u-turns. His purported reason, given in Parliament yesterday, was the Leveson plan would cross ‘the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law’. As one Lib Dem MP noted, he had his waterways wrong: ‘not a Rubicon, barely a brook’.

Leveson rightly insists that he has not produced a statutory system, but an independent system given statutory backing. Leaning over backwards to get the media barons on side, he has left the media to produce a replacement of the hapless Press Complaints Commission. True, he is requiring a rigorous regulator with investigatory powers and severe sanctions, not just a complaints office. But the media had already accepted that. What they have not yet conceded, but which he rightly insists on, is that the industry should not be involved in the appointment of its chair and the board, which should have no serving editor on it, although an ex editor and retired publisher could be. Why legislation was needed was his bundle of incentives to encourage the news groups to join: an arbitration service providing a fair, quick and inexpensive avenue for victims to seek settlements, which would only be open to news groups who sign up. Non-media members would be left to the courts, subject to exemplary damages for not signing up and unable to claim their legal costs even if they won.

The idea that politicians are eager to rein-in the media is a myth. History documents not six but seven reports in the last 63 years demonstrating their reluctance: three royal commissions (1949, 1962, 1977), Younger (1969), Robertson (1983), along with two from Calcutt (1990 and 1993) all producing proposals which governments declined to take up. Stephen Dorrell, media minister in 1993, explained to Leveson why the Conservative government declined to take up Calcutt’s ‘last chance saloon’: the depth of opposition within the media. No change there.

There is no doubt about the public’s support: 82 per cent opposed a self-regulated system under the industry’s control; 79 per cent supported Leveson’s idea of an independent system underpinned by law in a YouGov/Media Standards Trust poll last week. All solicitors and judges operate under a similar system. Finland passed a law in 2003, which provides people with a statutory right of reply and news groups with a duty to correct – yet in eight out of the last ten years the country has come top in the World Press Freedom Index.

Leveson’s Inquiry, eight months of hearings, 650 witnesses, generating 6,000 pages of evidence did a brilliant job of exposing the depth of the media’s shortcomings – both criminal and the seven non-criminal sins listed in Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics: distortions, dumbed down content, more interested in politics than policy, hunting in packs, being too adversarial, too readily duped, too negative. Yesterday’s four volume, 2,000-word report will make this sorry saga more readily available. It’s not without its own shortcomings: silence on ownership; pretty feeble on the failures of the police investigations; even more feeble on Hutton’s closeness to Murdoch. Not even an easy read with cumbersome sub clauses sprayed everywhere, but undoubtedly on the right line in its proposals.

What happens now? Currently with both Labour and Lib Dems backing Leveson, plus up to 70 Conservative MPs who earlier endorsed statutory support, there is a Commons majority in favour of Leveson. The Government has agreed to produce a draft bill. It believes it will demonstrate the complexities. Meanwhile, there is still no consensus among editors on how independent of the industry the new body should be. Leveson is the eighth report since 1949. Currently it looks as though we’ll need a ninth. Shameful.

Malcolm Dean, is former Associate Editor of the Guardian and founder of Society Guardian. He is also author of Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics, due out in paperback in March 2013 with new forewords by Professor David R. Mayhew and Howard Glennerster and updated conclusions.

The Paralympic Legacy – A New Dawn or a False Dawn for Disabled People?

The Paralympics is currently taking place in the UK against a backdrop of heavy cuts to disability benefits. George Osborne was booed when he attended a medal ceremony, as was Theresa May, and the sponsorship of Atos (who carry out the controversial tests to determine whether claimants of incapacity benefit are “fit to work”) has caused controversy and protest. Here, Alan Roulstone, co-author of Understanding Disability Policy, examines the 2012 Paralympic legacy and whether it could be a false dawn for disabled people:

Alan Roulstone

There has been much talk ahead of and during the London Paralympics 2012 of the legacy of the Paralympics in changing attitudes towards disabled people. The British Prime Minister captured these sentiments of hope at the games’ opening ceremony noting the promise for: “Eyes are being opened, attitudes hopefully shifted”. This and many similar comments by social leaders are suggesting a longer term shift in attitudes towards disabled people engendered by the successes of disabled athletes.

Such change would of course be very welcome indeed, especially during a period of recession when disabled people are struggling to retain or gain paid work. Indeed, even the most ambivalent observer could not deny the power and social exuberance at the sight of very fit and talented disabled athletes attaining the very pinnacle of sporting achievement. That said, the assertion that a wider and lasting legacy may be seen in attitudes and treatments of disabled people has to be viewed with real caution.

Firstly, there is no evidence at all that the treatment of disabled people in countries hosting Paralympic games has improved the lot for disabled people more generally. There is little evidence that the Sydney or Beijing Paralympics have discernibly improved disabled people’s lives. China continues to be coy about the use and extent of institutions for many even young disabled people. Australia is busy implementing a Basics card for welfare recipients, many of whom are disabled, which will ensure that spending can be monitored and that swathes of the Australian population will be denied access to the parallel cash economy. This, it is feared, will enshrine a form of social apartheid where types of spend will be associated with welfare status, the effects of which will be potentially deeply stigmatising.

A number of things are being muddled, it can be argued, in the assertion that many disabled people can be helped by the Paralympics being staged in London. The first relates to disability diversity. Although the different events and challenges see hugely diverse categorisations being applied -amputee, double amputee, muscle weakness, sight limitations – the common denominator here is that of elite trained, fit, largely young individuals with physical impairments. These are not simply athletes, but elite athletes who have made a career in a given sport. No one denies the sheer effort and determination in achieving such levels in sport. Many of those however facing the worst attitudes and treatment barriers are people who are unwell, may have flare-up conditions ( such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell disease) which makes even limited physical activity difficult.

There is of course a risk that only those disabled people who are seen to overcome their predicament will be treated as heros and well regarded;  or to use a high-jump metaphor, that the bar of social expectation will be set even higher. This mirrors what happened when stories of austistic savants began to hit the public consciousness in the 1980s and a number of my friends and colleagues with autism/Aspergers syndrome were asked what it was they could do that was special. Sometimes, a little knowledge is of course a dangerous thing.

The reality for many disabled people is that, whilst some can work, given the opportunity, and many can contribute to a range of important social activities, they may face major social, environmental  and attitude barriers in everyday life. They are some distance from the heroic image of a medal winner mounting a podium. However as a disability researcher and policy writer it has long been my view that disabled people are heroic in contending with the daily obstacles of the built environment, the shifting of the ‘welfare category’ in a way that severely disadvantages former welfare recipients.

The most difficult aspect of the Paralympics for many disabled people has been the bizarre juxtaposition of seeing great sporting achievements (rightly) being applauded and poster girl/boy images of photogenic disabled people alongside arguably the most aggressing and top-down reform of welfare since the Poor Law. This is not simply a reform of welfare along the lines of the Fowler reforms of the 1980s, this is a fundamental reassertion of who counts as disabled. Disabled people once accredited by medical and DWP/DSS authorities as ‘disabled for life’ risk being told they are  no longer ‘that disabled’ and will be reviewed periodically or worse still have been taken off Disability Living Allowance. The same mindset is already being applied to Employment Support Allowance recipients/applicants and there are many horror stories as to who is being told they are ‘fit for work’, including people with terminal cancer and brain tumours.

Disabled people are diverse, it goes without saying. The binary worldview that there are heroes and villains cannot justly be applied to disability. Disability is complex – people may emphasise their challenges to get the welfare support to which they are entitled, but will of necessity have to emphasise what they can do when applying for paid work – this says more about contemporary society than it does about disabled people. The sooner sick and disabled people are seen as contending with different barriers – from hurdles, high jumps, to medical and welfare systems – the better. This type of re-evaluation would be a truly Olympic change to policy thinking.

Alan Roulstone is Professor of Applied Social Sciences (Disability Policy) at Northumbria University and Honorary Professor at Swansea University, UK.

Understanding disability policy by Alan Roulstone and Simon Prideaux is available for only £15.00 (RRP £21.99) during September from our website.  

What is the impact of evaluation research on public policy?

Evaluation for the real world book imageEvaluation research findings should be a key-element of the policy-making process, yet in reality they are often disregarded. In this blog post, Colin Palfrey, one of the authors of Evaluation for the real world, looks at the history and impact of evaluation:

“The formal evaluation of public services has a history of little more than 50 years. Discovering what impact various social policies, programmes and projects have had on the intended beneficiaries makes political and economic sense. Why, one might ask, has evaluation had such a relatively limited pedigree?

Part of the explanation could perhaps be explained by the response from several medical practitioners in the 1970s and 1980s who considered the movement towards evidence-based medicine as an unwarranted assault on their professional wisdom and integrity.

Nevertheless, in spite of initial opposition from some quarters, evidence-based medicine, with its emphasis on the randomised controlled trial as the primary, if not the sole method of producing cogent evidence, became widely accepted as the ‘gold standard’ on which to base professional practice.

Although academic articles and books began appearing in some numbers in the USA during the 1960s, there was little academic or political interest in formal evaluation in the UK until two decades later. It would appear that in the UK, for example, the formulation of a policy, particularly when enshrined in legislation, was deemed sufficient to ensure its full implementation and once implemented to have the intended effect.

However, it is highly probable that the movement towards evidence-based medicine impinged on the world of civil servants and politicians. Certainly with the Thatcher government in the 1980s questioning the value of the public sector in terms of its efficiency, major projects and initiatives – notably the National Health Service – came under close scrutiny. Government spending on public sector services now had to prove its cost-effectiveness.

In the UK this concern with efficiency and cost-effectiveness spawned a number of government documents directed at policy advisers. Politicians now needed to know ‘what works’ and at what cost. This emerging culture of evidence-based policy prompts the question of how evaluation research commissioned by governments influenced or even shaped central policy.

It is on this question that our book focuses. Given the plethora of learned articles and books on the subject of evaluation over the past 50 years or so, what evidence is there that evaluation research in its many manifestations – commissioned project evaluation, policy evaluation, theory-driven evaluation – has had an impact on public policy at central and more local levels. In short, how cost-effective has evaluation research been?

The book looks at the possible reasons why academics, in particular, appear somewhat sceptical, if not despondent about the outcome of their research-based findings. Those who make decisions about allocating taxpayers’ money to a range of policies and their embodiment in programmes and projects, are not bound by any contractual arrangements to act on the results of evaluation research  – whether this has been designed and delivered by academics or by research-oriented private companies. .

We contend that the exploration of the impact of evaluation research on public policy is long overdue.”

Evaluation for the real world: the impact of evidence in policy making, by Colin Palfrey, Paul Thomas and Ceri Phillips was published on 13 June 2012 by The Policy Press. You can order a copy at 20% discount here.

Hedgehogs, Foxes and Sociologists*

Dr. Katherine Smith                        Dr. Nasar Meer

 

Dr. Nasar Meer and Dr. Katherine Smith write:

The late Isaiah Berlin once distinguished between two types of political animal: the first was a prickly hedgehog (who views the world through the lens of a single defining idea), and the other a cunning fox (for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea).  Sociologists have traditionally aspired to be neither. Motivated less by ‘normative’ positions and arguments, it is with some bemusement that many of us have encountered Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent admonishments.

Like Bill Jordan (see previous blog post), we agree that the study of economics has been found wanting, and that Chakrabortty certainly catches something of a deeper conversation amongst academics, with the important proviso that Chakrabortty’s piece on occasion conflates those who study markets with those who feverishly endorse them. True, economics has in places been stripped of its critical and holist features, but there are political economists who continue, often persuasively, to take a more direct route (see for example David Harvey’s RSA lecture on the financial crisis). We do not wish to intrude on private grief however and so will leave economists to speak for themselves and focus instead on those who have disappointed Chakrabortty most.

A prevailing strand of sociological inquiry in Britain has long sought to make our social world more knowable through a methodology of verstehen; a term employed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).  While this can incorporate quantitative and comparative perspectives, Weber’s task was to ‘empathetically understand’ the ways in which the actions of people and groups in society are inscribed with ‘meaning’.  Through the study of this meaning, he maintained, we could observe intentional or unintentional social outcomes, as shown in his study of early capitalism in Northern Europe, and specifically the role of a Calvinist-Protestant work ethic in encouraging capital accumulation and investment.

Much has changed in sociology, and we have past many ‘post-’s, but these approaches remain familiar to students and teachers of the discipline whose research spans the seemingly banal to the most contested; the most intimate to the most innocuous topics. That is to say that there is perhaps a consensus that whatever else sociological inquiry resembles, it must necessarily be motivated by a concern with something greater than political debate. It is here that Chakrabortty’s lament that a ‘Focauladian lens’ or studying ‘the holistic massage industry’ is a distraction from what really matters comes up short; not least because he repeats the error he is critiquing by giving primacy to all that is seemingly ‘economic’. Another way of putting this is to say that economics is not the only sphere of the social world and, to reverse the problem, it is short-sighted to uncouple economics from the study of culture, gender, ethnicity, and so forth, and so miss the intersectionalities of social phenomena.

This means it is not for sociologists to ‘defeat’ economists but to engage in sociologically valid inquiry that incorporates more than economics.  This does not mean ignoring the economic crisis rather to take it in the round. Hence the core theme of the 2010 British Sociological Conference (BSA) was ‘Inequalities and Social Justice’, while ‘Sociology in the Age of Austerity’ was the core theme for our 2012 meeting. Each of these showcased important arguments that are yet to find their way into press, partly because the rigours of peer-review can entail a lag of around eighteen months between article submission and publication (we have elsewhere discussed what the implications of increased auditing of scholarship might entail) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=419128.  Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of sociological scholarship on the economic crisis that offers more than the sum of its parts and so deals with the big questions too http://tinyurl.com/6wy6jrb

In many ways Chakrabortty’s concern strikes at the heart of what has been debated widely – indeed on the pages of the journals he says ignore the economic crisis – as Public Sociology.  An important point here is that there is more than one ‘public’.  So when sociologists engage in the mass media, as is easily observed in the mediatised letters and campaigns against the NHS and Social Care Bill or the hike in tuition fees, Michael Gove’s ‘free’ schools, or the Government’s targeting of the most vulnerable, this is just one kind of public.  Sociologists also engage with other ‘publics’, many of which may be less visible to journalists such as local communities, prisons, virtual communities, and students (of various kinds, both inside and outside universities), as well as conventional academic publics. These too are sociological terrains of political economy.

It may be easy for Chakrabortty to dismiss a few (purposively selected) niche research topics as irrelevant but it is equally important to ensure that those with a public voice do not presume to know what is, and what is not, of interest to different kinds of publics. In the context of the economic crisis and its fall out, debates that take place between broadsheet commentators, academics and policymakers are just one kind of conversation (and, if we are honest, a rather elite and limited kind).

*Dr. Nasar Meer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Northumbria University www.nasarmeer.com, and author of The impact of European Equality Directives upon British Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Policy & Politics, 38(2). Dr. Katherine Smith is a Lecturer in the Global Public Health Unit at Edinburgh University http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_policy/katherine_smith

Collaboration in public policy and practice

Paul Williams, author of the recently published Collaboration in public policy and practice, explains the importance of individual actors to collaborative working and to the future of public services:

“Forms of intra and inter-sectoral collaboration have steadily grown in popularity as a means of designing and delivering public services. They are driven by the prospect of securing a more efficient use of resources, of tackling complex and wicked issues, and as a way of involving citizens and communities. In the current age of austerity, it is even more important for people and agencies to work together, to share resources, knowledge and expertise and develop new and innovative solutions within reduced budgets. However, the experience of collaborative working is highly problematic because of differences in aims, accountabilities, professional perspectives, performance management frameworks and cultures – and despite much activity and repeated attempts to promote this form of working through legislation, structural re-organizations and financial incentives – success on the ground is far from impressive.

It may be that the focus on the structural determinants and factors of collaboration is misplaced and that the effectiveness of this form of governance rests with actors – practitioners, managers, leaders and dedicated staff – that are committed to working in a collaborative and networked fashion, forging relationships with colleagues in other sectors, agencies and professions, to achieve shared purposes. This cadre of public actors can be referred to as the boundary spanners because their focus is on working across conventional boundaries of organization, profession and sector to tackle complex and interdependent problems such as health inequalities, poverty and crime.

Critically, boundary spanners need to possess a particular set of skills and competencies to be effective in this type of environment:
• interpersonal skills to develop and sustain relationships based on trust and reciprocity;
• networking skills to forge constituencies of interest and enhance levels of communication;
• entrepreneurial abilities to foster innovation and creativity;
• and co-ordination skills to ensure the smooth running and servicing of collaborative programmes.

Boundary spanners face a range of tensions in their everyday practice, including managing and working across multiple forms of governance – hierarchical and networked; coping with the dilemmas of different accountabilities; and managing the boundaries between personal and professional relationships. Despite these, boundary spanners have an important role to play in the future of public services; training and development programmes need to better reflect their needs, and more research is necessary to understand their role in different collaborative contexts and conditions.”

Paul Williams is the author of Collaboration in public policy and practice: Perspectives on boundary spanners published by Policy Press. You can order your copy at 20% discount here.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates

Archives


Blog

Publishing with a purpose

Public Administration Review

Public Administration Review is a professional journal dedicated to advancing theory and practice in public administration.

EUROPP

European Politics and Policy

Urban Studies Journal

Publishing with a purpose

INLOGOV Blog

Official Blog of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

JOURNAL OF PUBLIC POLICY

The official blog of the Journal of Public Policy

Social Europe Journal

debating progressive politics in Europe and beyond

OUPblog

Publishing with a purpose

PolicyBristol Hub

Publishing with a purpose

Publishing with a purpose

Democratic Audit UK

Publishing with a purpose

Path to the Possible

Democracy toward the Horizon

finding development

The views depicted here are my own, do not represent the views of anyone/anything else, and cannot be reproduced in whole or in part without my express written consent.

The Policy Press Blog

Publishing with a purpose

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,647 other followers