The Future of British Foreign Policy

For a small island country located off the coast of Europe, Britain has been a central player in international affairs for a longer period of time than most other countries in the world. Britain’s rise to global influence was shaped by the agricultural and industrial revolutions that it led through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which provided the basis upon which British influence spread throughout the world. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain was recognized as having an Empire where the sun never set. By this time Britain faced challenges from other countries, most notably Germany and the United States, who, with larger economies and in many cases greater resources, were able to overtake British leadership in many areas of economic activity. This was for all intents and purposes a natural state of affairs as British influence had been shaped by being the first country to industrialise in the modern era. It was therefore inevitable that at the dawn of the Twentieth Century there would be a decline in Britain’s global standing. But while a decline was inevitable, the early decades of the Twentieth Century actually saw an expansion rather than a contraction in British influence as the British Empire expanded as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and through the spoils of the First World War. But just as the British Empire was expanding, it was also the case that it was changing with the emergence of the Commonwealth and pressures for independence in the colonies.

British politicians and policy-makers would spend a great deal of the Twentieth Century debating how best to deal with these challenges of a changing global role through the emergence of other centres of economic power and the desire for independence in the colonies. For a long time – possibly far too long – there was a belief in the minds of British politicians that Britain could continue to have a global role. On the one hand, this was a position that was shaped by Britain having emerged victorious in the Second World War. On the other, it was based on the fact that Britain continued to have economic, political and security interests spread throughout the world and that British influence continued to be significant in postwar decades. For example, British coal and steel production was greater than many continental European countries in the 1950s and the British economy continued to grow in what became known as the ‘long boom’ that took place from 1945 until the early 1970s. This would lead Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to comment in 1957 that most Britons ‘have never had it so good’, while a decade later in 1967 Prime Minister Harold Wilson reflected that a ‘white heat of technology’ was revolutionising British competitiveness in science and technology.

Although there were some truths to these claims, it was also the case that in 1945 Britain was for all intents and purposes a bankrupt country and pretensions to global influence would be hard to maintain with limited financial backing. Moreover, Britain’s economic industrial base was also largely shaped by machinery and practices that tended to be a product of the pre-war period rather than the having fully embraced the modern industrial practices that came to the fore in the years after 1945. And when combined with the fact that many British companies were oftentimes operating in the not overly competitive environment of Empire and Commonwealth markets, a direct impact of this was that the British economy did not experience the same levels of growth rates that were enjoyed by many of its competitor countries, most notably France, Germany, Japan and the United States. This state of affairs was reflected in a decline in Britain’s share of world trade, which fell from 19 per cent in 1960 to 10 per cent in 1970.

These issues came to a head over Britain’s reaction to European integration. Winston Churchill’s view that ‘we are with Europe, but not of it’ summed up the position of policy-makers in the late 1940s and 1950s. In London, the view was that Britain’s interests would be best served by attaching emphasis to the Empire and by endeavouring to be a global power. In 1948 the then Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, set out a plan for Britain to be a so-called ‘Third Force’ in world politics which in effect meant that it would be a world leader that sat alongside the Soviet Union and the United States. On the one hand there was some justification for such an opinion. Britain played a leading role in many international organisations, such as having a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, was a leader of the Commonwealth, and continued to play a leading role in many technological developments such as nuclear power and the jet aircraft. Yet at the same time, the stretch marks on British influence were evident as early as 1947 through independence for India and being unable to support the government in Greece at a time of communist insurrection. The 1950s would see Britain have a humiliating exit from the Suez Crisis, while by 1962 the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had to use all his charm to persuade the youthful US President John F. Kennedy to provide Britain with the Polaris missile to ensure that the country could continue to have a delivery mechanism for its nuclear weapons. To many observers, this meant that Britain had become the 51st American state.

Although the nuclear links with the US helped to cement the so-called ‘special relationship’, the economic and political conditions that determined the need to secure access to Polaris emphasised the predicament that Britain found itself in. The 1960s would see Conservative and Labour governments endeavor to come to terms with the need to trim the sails of Britain’s global ambitions. This would be reflected in the very machinery of government, with the merger of the separate Foreign Office and Commonwealth Relations Office in 1968 to create the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This was a symbolic change that was also reflected in a decline in defense spending and a contraction in British overseas bases so that by the end of 1971 Britain had with the exception of Hong Kong abandoned all overseas bases East of Suez. Just as there was a change in British overseas military presences, the 1960s also witnessed a rapid shift away from Empire to Commonwealth as decolonisation took place at a considerable pace. But while decolonisation had been shaped by local demands in the countries concerned and Britain’s inability to support the development of the countries in a way that was deemed necessary, it was also the case the decolonisation resulted in a process of mass immigration to Britain which divided opinion within the country.

Of all the issues that Britain faced in this period, one of the most significant was the question of European integration. In the early 1960s Prime Minister Macmillan had come to the conclusion that Britain should seek membership of the new European club, the European Economic Community (EEC). This was a club that only a few years earlier in 1955 the British government had taken a somewhat superior view to by not fully participating in the negotiations that led to the signature of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 and which lay the foundation for the creation of the EEC on 1 January 1958. The French President, Charles de Gaulle, was not entirely convinced about Britain’s intentions for membership and spent much of the 1960s cementing French influence within the Community and keeping Britain out. By the 1970s the game seemed to be up for Britain. The country appeared to be on the precipice of economic disaster with three-day weeks being influenced by fuel shortages.

For the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, the answer was that Britain had to be a member of the European Community to preserve British influence and to inject some life into the British economy. Yet the benefits of membership did not initially materialise as the world economy went struggled to grow at a time of high oil prices that had been influenced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Britain, it seemed, had joined at the worst of times. There was also a lack of consensus among the political parties about the benefits of membership. This was particularly the case with the Labour Party, where Harold Wilson attempted to juggle the competing demands of warring political factions by holding a renegotiation and referendum on British membership in 1974 and 1975. The renegotiation provided some useful changes to the Community for Britain, but at the same time caused a lot of irritation and frustration among European leaders who questioned the wisdom of such action. More than anything else, such actions also highlighted the manner by which politicians were willing to put the issue of European integration before party loyalty and set a precedent that has continued to the present day.

Some four decades on from Britain’s accession to the European club it is apparent that far from having a settled relationship with Europe, Britain’s relationship is more problematic than ever as evidenced by the rise in popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment that a future Conservative government will have a referendum on British membership. In the eyes of the public at large, ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’ have become a byword for all that is wrong with Britain, ranging from excessive interference by European policy-makers to the changing landscape of British society through immigration. Yet at the same time, the intervening four decades have also seen British influence in Europe impact on many positive developments. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who vociferously campaigned for the liberalisation of trade across the European Community led the most notable of these developments. In her eyes, the single market program as it came to be known offered British companies the opportunity to access European markets that had hitherto been locked down by state regulation. Yet, this program of change also ushered in a whole gambit of policies, from interference in social affairs to the creation of a single currency, which were regarded by many as crucial to maximising the movement of people and goods across Europe. For Thatcher, such initiatives cut to the core of a nation state’s responsibility and as such she was adamantly opposed to their transfer to decision-making at a European level. Yet on this as with many other matters, her views were out of step with the views of both her Cabinet colleagues and fellow European leaders. In the end, the issue of European integration proved her nemesis and in late 1990 the uncharismatic John Major replaced her as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. At a time of considerable change at the European and global level, Major found it difficult to exercise control over his government and the Conservative Party who were increasingly rebellious about the intrusion of European policies into the everyday nooks and crannies of British politics.

Changes at a European level went hand-in-hand with broader global changes that have been reflected in the rise of China and the emergence of new power blocs in South America, Asia, the Gulf and Africa. In 2001, the former Goldman Sachs employee, Jim O’Neill, coined the acronym BRIC to refer to the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China that he regarded to be at the forefront of newly industrialised development. It is a term that has oftentimes been expanded to BRICs through the inclusion of South Africa. Over a decade later, he coined the term MINT to refer to the countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey which he considered would in the not to distant future have the capacity to join the world economic elite. While on the one hand these acronyms are catchy and popularist by virtue of their usability, they highlight the fundamental shift that is taking place in the ordering of world politics and which by its virtue has an inevitable impact on Britain’s own place in the world.

This is a world that has changed beyond recognition over the last three decades. The ending of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 on the one hand offered a sense of future peace and security as the Damocles sword of nuclear war was removed. Over twenty years later it is apparent that the world is not a safer place as the padlock of Cold War politics has been opened to create new tensions and conflicts that are not shaped in a traditional understanding of the power of nation states. This came to the fore of the publics’ attention through the bombing of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and which in turn resulted in a US-led war on terror that saw Britain commit to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US over the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. For the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, British commitment to this cause was because the world had been shaken and that there was a need to intervene to tackle the threat of terrorism. A few years earlier in 1999, Blair had spoken of the need for Britain to intervene in conflict zones in what became termed as the ‘doctrine of the international community’. This was a view that was shaped by the legacy of the conflict in the Balkans, where in the 1990s many Western countries – including Britain – had stood on the sidelines and watched ethnic cleansing take place with the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Crucially, however, Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be different propositions in terms of intervention. They were not quick fix missions and Britain’s deployment to Afghanistan would last thirteen years until October 2014. It would be the largest deployment since the Second World War and ostensibly stretch Britain’s military capacity to breaking point. While it could be argued that the deployments had the best of intentions, they were ill thought by political leaders who gave little consideration to the military implications in terms of operational capacity and post-invasion rebuilding. As the present turmoil in Iraq with the threat posed by Islamic State emphasises, Iraq and Afghanistan have not been moulded into the stable and safe countries that was envisaged at the time of intervention. For the British public at large, these military campaigns have also created a backlash against government and which in turn has meant that politicians have become less gung-ho in terms of a willingness to commit overseas. But while this is situation that has also been shaped by a reduction in Britain’s force capacity through a trimming of the size of the country’s armed forces, this inevitably creates moral and ethical dilemmas regarding decisions not to intervene in countries that are being torn apart by conflict. Syria is a notable example.

The question that therefore arises from this brief summary is what are the options for British foreign policy going forward? This is a question that is largely posed within the context of Britain’s relations with Europe where Eurosceptics argue that there is a need to either leave the European Union (EU) or to at the very least refashion Britain’s relations with the EU through an adjustment in its terms of membership. It is also the case that in terms of British politics, the question mark that hangs over the country’s relationship with the EU is for all intents and purposes an English one, given that the electorate of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have not registered the same level of disquiet over European integration. To this end, question relating to a possible withdrawal from the EU or a reshaping of the terms of membership also pose significant questions for the future of Britain. This is an aspect of policy that has been shaped by the policy of devolution which has seen greater powers being transferred to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh and which saw a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate vote for independence in the September 2014 referendum. While the outcome of the referendum vote was in favor of Scotland staying within the Union, the question that dominated the minds of many was the uncertainty that a vote in favor of independence would bring and the fact that Britain would have been considerably weakened by Scotland leaving.

In many ways these issues marry the debate as to whether Britain would be better off outside of the EU or not. For many people, the grass outside looks greener, but they are also uncertain about the implications. Yet, while questions relating to European integration seem to spark a great deal of emotional response, it is important to consider the implications if Britain was to leave. At the moment approximately 50 per cent of all of Britain’s trade is within the EU. For Eurosceptics this indicates that Britain has the capacity and ability to decide its own future outside of Europe. And while it is certainly true that Britain could survive outside of the EU, a critical argument is that Britain would not be part of the decision-making structures for where 50 per cent of its goods are traded and more importantly would not be part of the negotiations with non-EU countries that are for the most part shaped by European negotiations. The point here is whether people consider that a small island nation of 62 million people is able to exercise significant influence on the likes of China and India, each of which has a population in excess of 1 billion. These are issues that also extend beyond concerns about trade. The major threats to world politics today involve a degree of joined-up decision-making and responses. At a European level, a good example here is legislation on the environmental where the collective influence and weight of the 500 million people in the EU are able to exercise influence at a global level on environmental negotiations.

For Britain these issues have posed the dilemma as to whether it considers its position as a medium-sized military and economic power is best secured through its membership of the EU or outside of the EU through its relationship with America and other linkages such as the Commonwealth. In reality while Britain’s influence is secured through all of these mechanisms, it is first and foremost a European power. The challenge that Britain faces is in many ways more domestic than foreign, as the country’s political parties need to articulate a more reasoned and informed set of viewpoints that reflect the reality that Britain’s interests are fundamentally of a European nature and that the best way to defend the country’s position in a globalized world is through EU membership.

 

http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781408248294/


Alasdair Blair is Professor of International Relations and Head of the Department of Historical and Social Studies at De Montfort University. He is the author of eight books, including International Politics: An Introductory Guide (2009) and Companion to the European Union (2006).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Localism and Equality

An important element in the Coalition Government’s platform, the Localism Agenda is based on four main strands:

1.    New freedoms and flexibility for local government;

2.    New rights and powers for local communities;

3.    Reform to make the planning system clearer, more democratic and more effective; and

4.    Reform to ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally.

The Department for Communities and Local Government asserts that the Bill has ‘the potential to effect a significant change in national life, passing power to a local level, creating space for local authorities to lead and innovate, and giving people the opportunity to take control of decisions that matter to them’.

In general, it is difficult to argue with the goals of the Bill (although, the specifics of how they will be achieved have been challenged by several sources).  However, local authorities must ensure that delivering the Localism Agenda does not have a detrimental impact upon meeting the needs of all residents. Whilst communities of place and communities of interest may sometimes coincide (ethnic/religious conclaves), local communities are diverse and often people may find that the community they feel more connected to is a geographically dispersed community of interest, e.g. LGBT community. Hence a narrow focus on meeting the needs of a local majority must not ignore the needs of a disadvantaged minority.

It is easy to recall examples of tension between the interests of local communities and those of minority groups. The proposal to construct a large mosque in east London was met by opposition from residents in Newham Council. Similarly, Basildon Council has been involved in an ongoing controversial legal battle to evict the gypsy and traveller residents of Dale Farm.

While there is no quick and easy solution to these disputes, local authorities must remain mindful of their responsibility to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and promote good relations between different groups of people.  A myopic view of localism can easily give way to an “us against them” mentality.  Local authorities must carefully balance the needs of local communities while guarding against NIMBYism.

Equality simply must not be sacrificed for localism.

Heather Cover, Equality and Diversity Management Analyst, West Lindsey District Council and Centre for Local Policy Studies, Edge Hill University

Posted in Equality and Diversity, Localism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why focusing on equalities still matters

Recent developments in the public sector make it easy for the average bystander to conclude that equality and diversity is losing its importance for local authorities.  Following ten years of rather prescriptive regulation, the last two years have seen statutory obligations around equality & diversity rapidly falling away. In came budget cuts and out went officers with responsibilities for equalities.  In many cases the work is not fully picked up by remaining staff.  More recently, equality monitoring surveys have come under attack as being costly, ‘unnecessary, and intrusive’. Furthermore, demand for assessments to be completed under the Equality Framework has dropped drastically.

Despite all of these difficulties, there remains a strong argument that equality and diversity is still relevant to local authorities’ work for legal, practical, and moral reasons.

Legal

The Equality Act 2010 imposes a single equality duty upon the public sector, under which local authorities have certain responsibilities. While there are less rigid structures in place to govern how the councils will meet their duties, they are still obliged to demonstrate their compliance with the Equality Act.  Indeed, if a council were challenged under a judicial review, it would have to satisfy a court that it has met its legal requirements.

Practical

Every local authority in the country aims to provide public services which meet its residents’ needs.  Taking full account of equality and diversity issues into consideration is part of understanding that different residents have different types of needs.  Using this information allows councils to effectively target their resources and services.  Focusing on equalities is still relevant to councils because it helps them to deliver better services to local residents.

Moral

Equalities should still matter to local authorities because Britain remains a deeply unequal society. Women are still paid less than men in similar positions. Homophobic bullying remains a real problem and this summer’s riots suggest that racial divides remain. Local authorities need to ensure that their policies and services tackle rather than further entrench equality and discrimination. The social and economic importance of this is demonstrated by analysis such as that published in the ‘Spirit Level’ , which illustrates that more unequal societies do worse on almost every quality of life indicator.

Heather Cover, Equality and Diversity Management Analyst, West Lindsey District Council and Centre for Local Policy Studies, Edge Hill University

Posted in Equality and Diversity, Spending cuts | Leave a comment

Proof of delivery?

Ministers are keen to promote mutuals as the way forward for the public sector, but there is little evidence to suggest that these will help to improve the quality and efficiency of services

Many extravagant claims have been made about the potential benefits that co-operatives and mutuals could bring as service delivery vehicles for the provision of local public services. However, when the evidence is examined in detail do these claims stand the test of scrutiny?

The latest research publication from the Association for Public Service Excellence, Proof of delivery, finds very little evidence base to support any of the claims made about the superiority of co-operatives and mutuals over any other form of service delivery in public services. From 1,600 sources our researchers were only able to find 12 case studies where any impact evaluation had been carried out.

For a concept that is being pushed so hard as a response to the cuts agenda this is asking decision makers to take a huge leap of faith.

From the limited evidence base that exists there are some key factors for successful operation of mutuals and co-operatives within the public sector. These include:

  • Contract lock in – an initial sufficiently long contract in terms of volume of work and financial commitment to allow bedding in of new arrangements and also ensuring the avoidance of future divestment of services that would change the character of the original body.
  • Collaboration – the need for on-going support through public subsidy, advocacy and expert advice in order to support the fledgling organisation.
  • Buy in – there needs to be buy in from all stakeholders, staff, elected members, citizens and service users.

Apse has argued for a number of years that without on-going support, collaboration and facilitation from the public sector the social economy will struggle to survive. This research reinforces this message.

A further point to emerge from the research is that there appears to be downward pressure on staff terms and conditions brought about by the formation of co-operatives and mutuals. At a time when statutory protection of terms and conditions are being removed from public sector workers by the government this is highly unlikely to generate great enthusiasm for a transfer to this model of provision among the key asset of any organisation, the staff.

A final and fundamental point is the fact that very little evidence exists of accountability to elected members and/or the wider community. In a time of diminishing budgets and intensified scrutiny of public spending, are local politicians really going to handover public funds to bodies with a self interest without any influence or recourse should things start to go wrong?

We need a proper evidence-based debate on the role that co-operatives and mutuals can play in public service delivery. Where they can demonstrably add real value, they should be supported. Anything less would do local communities a great disservice.

Paul O’Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence. The Proof of delivery research was undertaken through Apse’s knowledge transfer partnership with De Montfort University by Adele Reynolds. It is available for sale here.

Posted in Co-ops and mutuals, Public Service Reform, Spending cuts | Leave a comment

Performing governance

I have spent recent years researching various aspects of collaboration in public and social policy and have been struck by a number of observations which seem puzzling. Partnership, collaboration, integration (or whatever we currently call it) seems to continue to be a central aspect of policy reform across a range of different areas (health and social care, education, regeneration, child protection, criminal justice…) regardless of the fact that we have little evidence that these ways of working improve outcomes for service users. Collaboration has long been seen as a kind of public good that is beyond criticism and individuals, institutions and organisations still continue to engage in collaborative activities despite often being bruised from previous attempts. What is it then that is so compelling about collaboration?

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery I started to think about the nature of performance. Collaboration is often predicated on the notion that it should improve performance; yet what isn’t always clear is what types of performance it should improve. Generally it is supposed that collaboration will make things quicker, safer, more innovative and a number of other rather abstracted and optimistic aims but with little specificity of what or how or why. Yet we also accept that collaboration changes working practices, organisational structures, roles, patterns of communication, rules of engagement etc, meaning that it has a wide range of impacts beyond these broad types of aims across a number of different domains.

Therefore in thinking about the performance of partnerships we need to go beyond traditional measures of organisational performance such as efficiency and effectiveness and also delve into issues of identity, legitimacy and prevailing norms and rules. The sorts of measures which have traditionally been used to evaluate the performance(s) of partnership seemed to be incapable of capturing the complexity and the dynamism of a number of the collaborative initiatives that I had researched. Nor did any of them manage to explain the enduring appeal of collaboration in its broadest sense.

At this point I came across the work of an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) called Jon McKenzie. Jon has broad research interests encompassing performance theory, new media, and civil disobedience. He also heads a major initiative in digital humanities involving media studies, studio-based practices, digital learning, and quantitative humanities research. In 2001 Jon wrote a book called Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance and this really resonated with me in thinking about performance and partnerships.

Jon argues that in addition to more traditional measures of performance, cultural performance (efficacy) has emerged as an important force within contemporary society. Cultural performance incorporates a whole field of human activity; in all cases a performance act, interactional in nature and involving symbolic forms and live bodies, provides a way to constitute meaning and affirm individual and cultural values. McKenzie argues that a focus on cultural performance allows us to go beyond rationalist models of policy analysis, to consider policies as more than instruments for bringing about particular ends, but rather to explore their social and cultural impacts. This is particularly important when applied to the field of public policy where policies are made in relation to some sort of notion of the “public good”.

With this in mind, Helen Sullivan and myself decided to put together a seminar and invite Jon McKenzie to address the assorted collection of academics who had gathered together at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham. We invited Jon to set out his thesis about cultural performance and then followed up Jon’s paper with our own attempt to apply these notions to collaboration in health and social care. McKenzie defines performance as the ‘embodied enactment of cultural forces’. As such it offers a new way of examining the enactment of policy and identifying the “additional value” of particular policy terms. This can tell us much about why policies do – or do not – work and how these might be developed more effectively so that they influence practice. Not only does this provide value in terms of a new theoretical perspective on policy analysis but there are also practical implications which may be transferred across a range of different policy domains.

This certainly seemed to be borne out by the experience of the participants who provided a number of fascinating contributions and insights during the course of the day. Some of the conversations focused on the operationalisation of the notion of performance. So, for example, if we understand performance in a wider sense then is everything a performance? Is there anything outside of performance? Should we only look at what is being performed or should we look at what isn’t being performed? The issue of emotion and the affective realm was also a core component of conversations and the how emotions interplay with performance in policy enactment was of interest to a number of contributors. Although most present agreed that a different type of performance that goes beyond the traditional efficiency and effectiveness was a helpful analysis there was less agreement over whether this “additionality” was efficacy as outlined in McKenzie’s work. Many of the discussions centred around how we might define what these other types of performance are, whether this is one type of performance and whether it is appropriate to intervene in these types of performance.

Although we didn’t find any definitive answers to the puzzles set out above we did seem to get closer to the issues during the day and this type of theoretical framework seemed to have resonance with others. So much so that we hope to organise another event building on the success of this first meeting, a second seminar will be held at DMU in early 2012, if you are interested in the seminar please get in touch with me (h.e.dickinson@bham.ac.uk) or Catherine Durose (cdurose@dmu.ac.uk).

Helen Dickinson, Lecturer at the Health Services Management Centre at the University of Birmingham.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Opening up Public Services: power to the people or power to the market?

High quality public services are an essential part of everyday life. Being able to access those services is one of the most basic requirements that we as citizens demand from the government. Not my words; but those of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the first paragraph of this week’s long awaited and much trailed Open Public Services White Paper. The coalition government make much of their urgent moral purpose, which aims to extend equality of opportunity to all. But does the White Paper contain the broad strategic direction and specific policy solutions that will allow them to deliver on these laudable objectives? 

Why does it matter?

Predictably there is very little in the White Paper that represents anything new with most initiatives having already been announced. It does however represent a clear statement of intent about the future of public services. The broad direction of travel set out in the White Paper is one of ideology over evidence with the marketisation of public services driven by choice and competition.

There can be no clearer message that the White Paper seeks to open up public services to the market than the statement made by David Cameron;

‘This White Paper says loud and clear that it shouldn’t matter if providers are from the state, private or voluntary sector’

Those of us in local government know that despite the media narrative, a state monopoly in the provision of public services has never really existed. In fact a recent guardian article makes the point that at least 40% of local authority spending goes on private and voluntary sector contracts. But in the end although local authorities can divest themselves of public service delivery, they cannot divest themselves of the responsibility for those same services.

Much of the commentary and analysis thus far has focused on the potential for further marketisation, yet the White Paper does set out five key principles for reforming public services:

Choice

People will be given direct control over the services they use, increasing choice through methods such as direct payments and personal budgets. This is premised on the notion that choice will drive competition, which will in turn improve standards. But choice for who?

Indeed, a recent blog from NEF makes the critical point that;

‘People who are better educated, better off and better connected have louder voices and are better placed to navigate information and make choices that bring them real benefits’  

Decentralisation

Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level because the closer decision making is to the people affected, the better. Again, no one across the public sector is going to argue that empowering local communities isn’t a good thing. Indeed, some of us have been arguing for a greater focus on empowering local communities for a long time. But is it not the case that major public spending cuts impacting severely upon local services means that decentralisation isn’t just about devolving power, it’s also about devolving responsibility for cuts to services?

Diversity

This is without a doubt the most controversial element of the White Paper. The government are clear that services should be open to a range of competing providers and there is no presumption that only one sector should run services. It has been much commented upon that the government announced its plans to introduce further competition and marketisation into public services on the day that Southern Cross announced it was shutting down. There can be no clearer example of the impact that market failure can have on the provision of frontline public services. 

So, how can opening up more public services to more market competition possibly address this problem of endemic market failure?

Fairness and accountability

The state will have a new role to ensure fair access to public services that are responsive to the people they serve and held to account by citizens and elected members. However, there is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality with no sign of these warm words around ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ being matched by the required policy substance. The White Paper talks about improving accountability through mechanisms such as ‘choice’ and ‘voice’; but it is difficult to see how this can be squared with the need to reduce inequalities.  

Good public sector organisations are always innovating and changing to improve services. But of course public services need to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. It’s about time we had a real debate about reforming public services;

  • A debate that doesn’t disguise reform as a cover for public sector spending cuts and marketisation
  • A debate that seeks to draw upon the expertise, knowledge and passion of public sector staff rather than constantly attacking their pay, pensions and job security
  • A debate that recognises that local government is key to the size and vibrancy of the voluntary sector and understands the need for collaboration rather than competition

 Written by Adele Reynolds

Posted in Citizen Engagement, Public Service Reform, Spending cuts | Leave a comment

The future for citizen-run services

Researchers and practitioners met at the University of Birmingham on 9-10 June 2011 for the first seminar of series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on ‘third party government’. A slightly ambiguous term which nonetheless draws the attention to an often neglected but major plank of public policy over the last two to three decades, the location of public policy making at arm’s length from the institutions of representative democracy. A discussion of ‘third party government’ opens up questions democracy, delegation of authority, transparency, and autonomy in the contemporary state. ‘Third party government’ is also a focus which allows discussion across public, private, voluntary and community spaces where public policy is being shaped and delivered. Core themes of discussion included:

  • Who are the actors and stakeholders who ‘fill’ these ‘spaces’ of third party government?
  • How do these different actors interact and co-ordinate?
  • How can third party government be considered in a comparative perspective particularly between the US and UK?

Discussions included a number of highly policy relevant topics from the commissioning of public services to the role of the third sector in delivering public services to the potential for citizen-run services.

Citizen run services have been central to the current Coalition government’s policy agenda of the ‘Big Society’. ‘Big Society’ builds upon but also challenges the role for citizens outlined by the previous New Labour government. The challenge comes in the shift from citizens ‘influencing’ or shaping decisions which affect their everyday lives and the public services they receive to actively ‘doing’ and becoming involved in the delivery and even running public services. The ‘Big Society’ has been relentlessly (arguably deservedly) critiqued since its emergence in the run up to the 2010 General Election and is now somewhat of a beleaguered brand (it was recently re-launched for the fourth time), but what does it mean for the future of public services?

There are some initial concerns that the ‘Big Society’ raises for looking at citizen-run services. ‘Big Society’ has been pitched as a response or correction for the ‘big State’ associated with the previous government. However, delivering on the ‘Big Society’ cannot mean the ‘small State’ espoused by many. Extensive and varied evidence shows that the community action demanded by the ‘Big Society’ is importantly catalysed by state intervention and sustained through state support, advocacy and brokerage. This ongoing role for the state is particularly important in disadvantaged areas to ensure that the Big Society is not something which only includes those with the existing skills and opportunity to get involved.

This is an argument that citizen-run services should not be about citizens delivering services on their own, but in collaboration. But it is not about apologising for the current role of the state. Demands for citizen engagement have long been swimming against the tide of a managerial revolution in public services. Indeed, opportunities for citizens to get involved have often been structured to allow the ticking of a box rather than reflecting what citizens are interested in and informed about. There are often mismatches between citizens’ needs and priorities and what they are assumed to be. Public bodies can often be narrow and inflexible. Innumerable policies have been developed with the aim of engaging citizens, but rather than looking at citizens in the round, such policies have often caricatured citizens, focusing only on ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ people. Such measures have also often been set in a context of contradictory measures which have pathologised or ignored some citizens whilst seeking to ‘activate’ or ‘empower’ others.

So, where do we go from here? Well let’s not under-estimate or assume that the state, notably in its local form doesn’t have the capacity to respond to the challenge of the ‘Big Society’. Many public sector staff, notably those who engage regularly with citizens in their communities, have the expert ‘local knowledge’ to inspire and catalyse action in those communities. In order to deliver the ‘Big Society’ we should be encouraging these skilled public sector staff to collaborate with citizens, communities and organisations of the third sector to shape and deliver services that best meet the needs of communities. But, these individuals who ‘work’ the spaces of third party government are the same people being targeted by current cuts to public spending. The Government should be cautious that it is not losing the very people who can deliver on their policy ambitions.

Posted in Big Society, Citizen Engagement, Community Action | Leave a comment

Local Government beyond the fragments

Recently this blog hosted an article urging local government to set out a positive and compelling vision that will guide the sector through an ever changing environment. There can be no doubt that local government is facing an unprecedented set of challenges, having to respond to increased levels of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. Yet current developments in public policy seem to actually remove the ability of local government to respond effectively to these challenges. Indeed the moves towards radical public service reform wrapped up within the discourse of ‘Building the Big Society’ seem to sit most comfortably within the conception of a residual local authority acting primarily as commissioners rather than deliverers of local public services.

This approach risks the continued hollowing out of local capacity from local government with complex strategic issues reduced to a disparate set of contracts. It is always interesting to hear about local authorities like Enfield who reject this fate and are instead determined to redefine their role, establishing clear plans for service delivery. Last week Enfield Council hosted a conference which sought to consider what the role of the co-ordinating council should be in a landscape where services are becoming increasingly fragmented. In an article prior to the conference Enfield’s Council leader Doug Taylor makes the highly salient point that common services such as street cleansing can only be provided within a single area wide framework. Just imagine different waste vans competing to collect rubbish from the same street? He opened the conference by emphasising the importance of a strategic co-ordinating role for local government and this was very much the theme for the rest of the day.

Setting out the current opposition thinking

Caroline Flint (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) pitched her address well by emphasising that the breadth of services that local government provides as well as its unique democratic mandate means it is well placed to be a place shaper as well as a service provider. The Shadow Minister then went on to outline the three pressing challenges that the sector needs to address;

  • Restoring the public finances in a way that is fair and supports jobs and growth
  • Improving public services, making them fairer and more efficient
  • Reversing the trend of disengagement from the political process and civil society

When seeking to predict future opposition thinking around the future of local government, it is important to understand that market based orthodoxies have very much become the prevailing public policy norm regardless of which party is in power. The real test of opposition thinking is likely to come when the Shadow Local Government team set out with clarity how they will ensure that the capacity, knowledge and expertise to intervene in local communities is both retained and enhanced.

Should the role of the local authority be as a co-ordinator of services and provider of last resort?

It is clear that if the result of government policy is to increasingly fragment service provision, then local government will have to carve out a vastly different role for itself. There are however radically different and competing views on what the future role for local authorities should be. Too often this debate has been driven by a comfortable acceptance of orthodoxies such as markets, competition and choice rather than seeking a strong values framework within which to make decisions and drawing upon evidence of what has actually been shown to work. The conference clearly set out two quite distinct visions for the future, which could be summarised as collaboration vs competition.

The standout speech of the day was definitely the one given by the Chief Executive of Family Action who put across a compelling case for greater collaboration between the public and voluntary sectors, pressing home the point that local government is key to the size, vibrancy and quality of the voluntary sector. There have been many commitments from Government ministers to put the voluntary sector at the heart of public service reform, opening up new opportunities for them to deliver public services as part of the Big Society. Yet what came through very strongly was that yes there does need to be much more of a level playing field between sectors; but between the private sector and the voluntary sector, where there are often vast disparities in the length of contracts that are awarded to deliver public services. This would seem to be contradicted by recent soundings from Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, implying that the Government will not scale back plans to use for profit providers in public services in an attempt to boost charities and social enterprises.

Really vital issues were raised about what the co-ordinating council means for democracy. Who will be accountable as service delivery gets more fragmented? Service deliverers or commissioners?

In light of some of these issues that were raised around democracy and accountability, it was great to hear the speaker make the positive case for local government and urge the sector to reclaim some of its ground as a deliverer of services. Equally, the narrative that is often propagated amongst certain elements of the media that the public sector is inefficient and creativity can only come out of the private sector must be challenged.

An altogether different vision for the future of local government was articulated by other members of the panel who sought to emphasise the importance of choice and competition in public service delivery. Clearly there is a belief amongst certain stakeholders that more competition will generate the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary to redesign services. This narrative should be challenged because real innovation must come from those closest to the frontline rather than a top down, one size fits all approach to redesigning services that has been proven not to work. 

What role for the co-ordinating council?

No local government event would be complete without Tony Travers, Director of the Greater London Group at LSE who closed the event by giving his views on what the future landscape in local government might look like. Emphasising that whilst fragmentation of service provision is likely; all the basic units of the state will still be in place. The overall message from the conference as a whole was that there is a real necessity for an institution with the specific accountability that is derived from the ballot box and which has the capacity to shape an area.

The conference itself outlined a really interesting vision for the future of local government styled around the idea of the ‘co-ordinating council’. Only the local authority can join up services and shape the local area, only the local authority can advocate across the whole of the local area with one single voice and only the local authority can distribute services and spending fairly. This isn’t an arrogant out of touch vision that says that the local authority is irreplaceable; but one that draws upon a deep sense of responsibility and straightforward accountability to local people and local communities.

This represents a clear and compelling vision for the future of local government. Yet some of the potential problems with the co-ordinating council became much more apparent after listening to Tony Travers’ closing address. There are unresolved contradictions between increased fragmentation of service provision and the logic of place shaping and local democracy. The conference was very much focused around how to respond to a more fragmented service landscape yet, it seems to me that the challenges that local government faces are so big that there needs to be much more focus on avoiding this service fragmentation in the first place. In light of this, I came away with two key questions that must be answered about the co-ordinating council before it can be considered to be a workable alternative model to what the Government are driving forward;

Is there a need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to shape the wider local place is retained?

What are the implications for democracy and local accountability if service provision becomes increasingly fragmented?

Written by Adele Reynolds

Posted in Big Society, Commissioning, Localism, Spending cuts | Leave a comment

Housing: Bricks or Bubbles?

No longer seen as ‘safe as houses’, there has been a recognition following the financial crisis, that the housing market is inextricably linked to the health of the wider economy.  When the bubble bursts for housing, the effects are felt widely.  A recent report: Forever Blowing Bubbles, by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR)   makes the link between the fate of the housing market and the fate of the economy very clear.  It suggests a number of solutions:

  • Increase the supply of housing – ‘clearly necessary…, but alone it is insufficient and slow to take effect’
  • Explicit consideration of house prices in monetary policy
  • and fiscal policy too – ‘but arguably tangential,… and politically highly fraught’
  • Regulation of credit – is suggested by IPPR as the key area of focus (and they state this also what IMF and OECD want to focus on).

 IPPR does also suggest ‘improving the strength of substitutes to owner occupation’ through, for example, reform of the private rented sector, improve market pricing, and to prevent ‘moral hazard’ (e.g. the assumption that house prices can only go up).

But is there another way?  The IPPR suggestions are still framed in the discourse of ‘market knows best’ and that we should tweak the regulation of markets to mitigate the effects of housing bubbles and the after-effects of them bursting.  This persistent orthodoxy of the markets (in addition to suggesting a collective amnesia of the banking crisis that preceded the recession) prevents more radical solutions being mooted. 

In her blog, below, Adele Reynolds, also seems frustrated at the pervasiveness of the orthodoxy that the principles of private sector markets still rule the discourse of local government.  Adele’s analysis of KPMG’s concept of what a ‘Brilliant Council’ should look like demonstrate the need for us to boldly offer alternative ideas.

An idea that is worth examining in more detail in the provision of housing and the avoidance of overblown bubbles, is the idea of de-coupling the vagaries of the market and the provision of affordable homes.  One example of this is the Community Land Trust (CLT) model in the United States of America.  At a recent National Housing Federation conference the example of providing homes through CLTs was provided by Dev Goetschius and John Emmeus Davis   who urged us to “take a stand on the land”.

In the USA, and very important to the success of the CLT approach, the value of the property is not linked to value of land, it is independent of the market.  It is linked instead to average income and earnings in the area.  In a number of schemes the leasehold of the home is available to the occupier, but the freehold of the land is retained by the Trust – the land itself always remains debt free and detached from market prices.  There are varying models in U.S – but the key is that the resale value of homes is independent of land value.

There are some excellent examples of CLTs closer to home, at High Bickington in Devon affordable homes are being provided’ and at Lyvennet  in Cumbria the model is being expanded to include a village pub and other community resources.  In the U.K these CLT models share many of the values of their U.S counterparts, but the value of land and property is still wedded to the market.  Successful CLTs in this country are dependent on generous landowners gifting land, charitable organisations providing start-up capital funding, or public sector agencies providing land and support for projects.

 CLTs are an exciting part of the solution to provide affordable homes following a recession.  There are some excellent home-grown examples.  However, perhaps it is time to think more radically about how we value land and property – there may be some scope for the model from the U.S.A where the value of the home is linked to average incomes, rather than over-inflated market prices which have a tendency to balloon and then burst.

Written by Jo Richardson.  Editor and contributing author of the policy press book (2010): From Recession to Renewal.

Posted in Big Society, Co-ops and mutuals, Community Action, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Setting out a future vision for local government: local authorities at the heart of every local community

Local Government faces an unprecedented series of challenges and will have to respond to an increased level of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. It has never been more vital that the sector sets out a positive and compelling vision for what local government will look like as we move forward into an unknown future. It was therefore interesting to read the joint effort by KPMG and CPSP setting out what the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ will look like. Yet by the end of the document, a feeling of pessimism set in about the narrowness of the vision that they set out and the way in which it reinforced rather than sought to challenge prevailing public policy orthodoxies.

The paper consistently espouses the need to ‘explicitly manage the council as a business’ and operate with a ‘board of shareholders mentality’. Yet surely key local government services from leisure centres to street cleaning benefit the whole of society, not just individual service users. Stated very simply, the problem with managing a local authority as if it is a business is the fact that it isn’t actually a business! Whilst the private sector can rigidly focus on delivering shareholder value, local authorities have a wider strategic role in ensuring the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of their local communities. Without reading too much further than the Executive Summary, it became clear that the ‘Brilliant Local Authority’ would be hampered by its lack of core capacity to deliver on some of these broader policy objectives.

Does it matter who delivers services?

The idea that local authorities can be agnostic about which part of the economy delivers service provision or that councils should simply be strategic commissioners is a very worrying one. Although local councils have never been the sole provider of public services, there is a clear need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to intervene in local communities is retained. Without this capacity, dealing with complex strategic issues from climate change to flood management will become reduced to a disparate set of contracts.  

The notion that local authorities should enthusiastically cede control to others is also a problematic one. Of course, empowering local communities is important; but decentralisation must not become an end in itself.  And is not the case that markets can be every bit as disempowering as large bureaucracies? Maybe the answer lies in a commitment to supporting and working with local communities to add value to the way in which services are delivered rather than divesting responsibility onto others. 

What are the implications for local democracy and accountability?

Local Government is based on the notion of an effective local democracy and the paper specifically states that, ‘local government is by definition political’. Yet by depoliticising service delivery and conflating commissioning with the procurement process, politics is actually removed from local government. Not least in the way in which local democracy is damaged by reducing the role of elected members to handing out contracts.  It could also be argued that the role of politicians in shaping the wider local place can only ever be an aspiration, if local authorities go down the road of systematically removing the strategic levers and mechanisms of service delivery.

It is welcome that the paper raises vital issues such as place shaping, public value and the political nature of local government. Yet as this article argues, the policy framework set out within the paper will remove all the capacity from local authorities to actually act on these issues.  There is therefore an urgent need to set out an alternative non prescriptive vision emphasising key principles such as public value, local democracy and collective citizenship. It would be useful for stakeholders across the sector to look at and contribute to the concept of the Ensuring Council, which seeks to deliver services in accordance with a set of values and democratic practises, responding to changing circumstances in a way that is value rich rather than value less.

Local Government is now clearly at a tipping point where it must set out its vision for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years. However, this should be based on a vastly different vision to the one set out in the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ report. Local authorities have a duty be at the heart of every local community, delivering those visible frontline services that the public rely on. This is of course very different to reducing citizens to shareholders and treating public services like private businesses.

Posted in Commissioning, Localism, Spending cuts | 2 Comments