Policy & Politics Annual Lecture 2014: Bringing Politics Alive: Engaging the Disengaged in the 21st Century

David BlunkettOn 27th March 2014 David Blunkett MP visited the University of Bristol to give the annual Policy & Politics lecture. To get a flavour of what was a fascinating evening, take a look at the short film we have produced to capture the event.

David also gave us the text of his talk beforehand. As you might expect, he didn’t stick entirely to script. He also took questions from the audience and via Twitter.

The paradox of security regulation: public protection versus normative legitimation

Adam White
Adam White

Adam White, University of York, discusses his article, written with Martin Smith – The paradox of security regulation: public protection versus normative legitimation – available in issue 42.3 of Policy & Politics.

The UK private security industry has been playing an interesting and tricky hand of late. On one side, the Coalition government has presented it with huge opportunities for growth by simultaneously slashing police budgets and promoting outsourcing. On the other side, it has been prevented from taking full advantage of these opportunities because of its rather shady reputation – a problem intensified by recent high profile scandals, from the 2012 Olympics security debacle to overcharging the Home Office on electronic tagging contacts. 

One central way in which the industry has been playing this hand has been to throw down the regulation card. The industry has been using statutory regulation to cover itself in the reassuring images and symbols of the state, thereby cleaning up its shady image to a certain degree and putting itself in the position of being able to take full advantage of any opportunities coming its way.

In this article, we call this ‘normative legitimation’: the process through which the private security industry seeks to legitimate its activities to sceptical citizen-consumers by appealing to the state-centric norms which permeate the domestic security sector. We argue that this process creates an unusual and interesting regulatory politics. The more the state introduces regulation to protect the public from the industry, the more the state (consciously and unconsciously) legitimates the industry and allows it to come into further contact with the public.

After a brief tour through the history of liberal discourse and politics (where security becomes connected to the state), the article turns to the paradox of security regulation in postwar Britain. This article (we hope) will appeal to anyone interested in how the private security industry is positioning itself within today’s rapidly changing security landscape.

The paradox of security regulation: public protection versus normative legitimation is available on Ingenta.

How do you measure public confidence in public services?

Richard Cowell and James Downe
Richard Cowell and James Downe

Richard Cowell and James Downe from Cardiff University discuss their article on the intricacies of measuring public confidence in public services. ‘Public confidence and public services: it matters what you measure’ (Policy and Politics 40(1)) is available free on Ingenta until 31 March 2014.

The belief that the public should have confidence in their public institutions is an enduring societal concern, yet as an outcome it seems increasingly elusive. One survey after another suggests continual public disaffection with politicians and politics. While governments across the political spectrum express concern about declining levels of confidence in our public institutions, and lay claim to actions to address it, they seem to be having little impact.

Our paper focuses on one of the most intuitive mechanisms by which governments might lift public confidence – by improving public services. Here we find a puzzle that official measures such as statutory performance indicators, inspection reports and user satisfaction surveys showed steady improvement in public services between 2001 and 2008 but, counter-intuitively, levels of public confidence declined.

Our argument was that if this elusive relationship between public services and public confidence was ever going to reveal itself, then the issue of measurement itself needed careful scrutiny i.e. does it matter what you measure? One immediate problem is that the public have a fragmentary knowledge of government services. Moreover, there are multiple and competing ways of measuring the quality of services – such as efficiency and value for money, or accessibility and quality – not all appreciated equally by all sections of society. The same fuzziness clouds concepts of confidence and trust. Confidence in public institutions may be based on evidence from using public services or on the sense of emotional attachment one feels towards the service provider. Public perceptions about services also come entangled in wider concerns about the honesty and responsiveness of public institutions, both of staff and the politicians to whom they are accountable.

Our approach used the (then) burgeoning piles of data about local government and its services to test statistically the performance-public confidence link. Some of the measures came from our own survey of local government managers, of whom we asked (i) the extent to which they thought services provided by their local council had improved and (ii) whether they believed that local people had a high level of confidence in their authority. Other measures came from external assessments of changes in performance and public confidence for each local authority.

Our analysis confirmed the paradoxical tendency observed at national level, in that improved local services was associated with declining public satisfaction with the way that councils run things. We also found that local managers – perhaps wisely – tended not to rely solely on official measures of service performance to judge how their council is doing, as the wider set of measures that managers used exhibited a slightly stronger and positive relationship with public confidence. From this we concluded that the idea of a relationship between service quality and public confidence should not be abandoned, but that the measures needed further thought.

Our analysis was conducted between 2008 and 2009, and the storms that have since blown across the UK and other democratic states give strong reason for an intensified focus on the public services/public confidence nexus.

Deep cuts in public spending have unfolded simultaneously with marked shifts in government priorities and new political narratives. For governments, being seen to be in control of public finances is now presented as a key determinant of public confidence, with efficiency suddenly pre-eminent among the basket of measures by which ‘performance’ might be measured. The May 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has sought to manage tensions between budget cuts and service quality through ‘the big society’ and ‘localism’, with the expectation that local communities can become more responsible for service provision (and less likely to place responsibility for any shortcomings on national government). It matters, we would argue, that researchers can trace these shifting policy theories and their outcomes.

We suggested developing multiple indicators alongside in-depth qualitative research to try and unpack what determines levels of public confidence. It is disappointing therefore that the coalition government also cut much of the data-gathering machinery that our research had utilised. Organisations with a keen interest in policy impact, such as the Audit Commission and the Standards Board for England, have been axed. The biennial Citizenship Survey, which gathered information on public participation activities and trust in government has been stopped as well as the regular survey of attitudes to standards in public life.

As our paper has shown, studying the relationship between service performance and public confidence is rarely likely to generate unambiguous good news, yet it matters for informed policy discussion that some measurements are made.

Public confidence and public services: it matters what you measure’ (Policy and Politics 40(1)) is available free on Ingenta until 31 March 2014.

Public Procurement in a Globalizing World

Sangeeta Khorana
Sangeeta Khorana

Sangeeta Khorana and William Kerr discusses their article, Transforming Vietnam: a quest for improved efficiency and transparency in central government procurement, written with Nishikant Mishra (all from Aberystwyth University) in the latest issue of Policy & Politics

As the world becomes increasingly globalized and trade barriers to both goods and services decline through preferential trade agreements, one major aspect of economic activity remains closed, to a considerable degree, in most countries – government procurement. The continued isolation of government procurement processes is important because of the size and importance of government economic activity in national economic life. In most modern market economies, the proportion of gross domestic product comprised of government activity exceeds 30 percent and may range up to 50 percent. In some developing countries, the proportion attributable to government may be even higher. Excluding such large portions of economic activity from the benefits of trade liberalization may considerably inhibit economic growth and impede economic development.

There are many reasons why government procurement remains closed to international competition. It is often difficult for politicians to justify government expenditures on foreign products to taxpayers – even if those taxpayers are happy to purchase imports themselves. The question is also often asked by local suppliers to the government who are also taxpayers – “I pay taxes and you use that money to buy foreign products that compete with my products.” Politicians may also see procurement as a means to use public money to reward political supporters and as a means to buy votes. In the case of some goods and services, there may be a fear of losing local control or being dependent on foreign suppliers. Government procurement contracts can also offer considerable opportunities for garnering corruption income. Opening procurement contracts to foreign bidders often requires a higher level of transparency in the bidding process that makes it much more difficult for rent seekers to extract income through corrupt practices. As a result, the goods and services procured by governments are often the last major area of economic activity subjected to the pressure of foreign competition.

Widespread reservations about opening government procurement processes to foreign competition has also meant that arriving at an international agreement to liberalize government procurement has proved much more difficult that negotiating international trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) or General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) – each with more than 150 signatory countries.

As a result, there is only a plurilateral international agreement on the liberalization of government procurement where countries can choose not to belong. The plurilateral agreement is the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) which has not attracted a wide membership from the international community. Only 42 countries have chosen to join the GPA. Developing countries are conspicuous by their absence – only 6 have chosen to join.

In our article, Transforming Vietnam: a quest for improved efficiency and transparency in central government procurement, we use a cost benefit approach to discuss some of these issues. Vietnam joined the WTO in 2007 and was allowed observer status to the WTO GPA in December 2012. As a major and rapidly growing developing country considering joining the GPA, it would be a major coup for the liberalization of procurement as Vietnam might be an example to spur other developing countries to join. The decision to join the GPA, or not, has been a difficult one for Vietnam and its struggles with the question provides a fascinating case study that sheds considerable light on the questions that governments in developing countries face in considering membership to the WTO GPA.

Transforming Vietnam: a quest for improved efficiency and transparency in central government procurement is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.