One constantly hears the slogan that local government is closest to the people and thus serves the people best.
But is it really close to the people and which people does it serve?
When did you last attend a council meeting? When did you last feel that you had a direct voice in a local government decision that affects your life? Do you know the name of your Councillor? Did your Mayor keep their election promise – did you even know what the promise was?
The truth of the matter is that most of us will answer negatively to all of these questions. That’s probably why most of us grumble about ‘crazy’ local government decisions but stand impotently by as the same group of Councillors are returned at the elections every few years. Continue reading Local Government by Lottery?→
George Osborne always plays the role of the smiling conjurer who pulls the rabbit out of the hat and steals the scene with aplomb. In his 2015 spending review and autumn statement, the surprise announcement was that cuts to tax credit will not be as stringent as expected – although housing benefit claimers are the losers. Concealed within the chancellor’s hat are cuts of more than 50% in grants to local government and tense optimism about the growth, employment and pay forecasts on which everything depends.
The chart below gives the main winners and losers in the spending review over the period up to 2019-20. Cuts are legion. The winners are the big players – the NHS and pensions – both accounting for about a fifth of total spending – which receive real increases of 3 to 4%.
Jacob Aars and Dag Arne Christensen discuss their recent paper in Policy & Politics, which is free to download in September 2014.
The role of voluntary associations in promoting political capacities and involvement has received a great deal of attention over the last 15-20 years. Extra-parliamentary organizations are assumed to produce a number of positive effects not only for individual members, but also for neighborhoods and local communities at large. They are thought to perform a social role, as the fabric that contributes to uniting society. In turn, associations are supposed to play a political role in fostering citizens’ capacities for taking part in collective action. Continue reading Local associational life and attitudes towards local government→
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.
The Policy & Politics Blog features debates from recent issues. An extract is below, then please click on the link at the end to download the full article. Policy & Politics is the leading journal in the field of public policy with an enviable reputation for publishing peer-reviewed papers of the highest quality .
Policy & Politics Debates, October 2012
In May 2012, ten of England’s major urban local authorities held referendums on moving to a model of governance focused on a directly elected mayor. Only one city – Bristol – voted in favour. Elsewhere the proposal was rejected relatively decisively, albeit with a generally low voter turnout.
David Cameron’s coalition government has emphasised large urban areas as drivers of economic growth. It has championed elected mayors as the mechanism for delivering the leadership necessary to capitalise on the potential of our cities. The outcome of the referendum therefore represents a significant setback.
May’s referendums are only the latest instalment in this saga. The leitmotif is central government enthusiasm finding limited resonance at local level. Given that we have had several unsuccessful attempts to (re)invigorate the idea of elected mayors for England, is it now time to put the idea to bed?
History may come to define the current UK coalition Government as the government that ushered in the end of the welfare state as we know it. The government that forced through a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between the citizen and the state. It may well turn out that the British population like the principle of firm action to address the state’s fiscal problems rather more than they like the practice. That story is yet to play out fully.
A more positive aspect of the current political agenda is the emphasis upon localism and involvement. The government aims to move power out of Whitehall and down to localities, giving local elected representatives and communities more scope to determine their own future. The two parties that comprise the current Con-Dem government may value this policy direction for different reasons. Are we talking about a vision of state withdrawal and survival of the fittest? Or a more positive vision of enhancing social cohesion and commonality of purpose in the more fragmented and networked Big Society? It is difficult to identify a consistent narrative. But the parties’ interests intersect and we are expecting Localism bill to be laid before Parliament next month.
While greater local autonomy and accountability in decision making is laudable, it is not without problems. What are the practicalities of delivering on this agenda? Is it another case of something that many feel is fine in theory but less palatable in practice?
Much has been written about participation and deliberation in policy making. Much has been written about the challenges facing those seeking make it a reality. The news is, generally, not encouraging. This is well-trodden ground.
One aspect of the issue which requires greater exploration is how changing structures of governance interact with mechanisms to enhance participation and local deliberation. In a paper in Policy & Politics Robert Hoppe addresses precisely this question.
The paper aims to provide some theoretical reflections on the links between policy problems, the structure of policy networks and appropriate mechanisms for deliberation. It focuses on the practical ‘perplexities’ and dilemmas in running deliberative projects, highlight problems at each of the input, throughput and output/outcome stages.
Equally importantly in the current context, the author pinpoints power – or the ‘ironies of real power politics’ – as at the heart of the issue. Participation mandated from the centre runs the risk of simply being seen as a supplement to existing processes, without significantly altering the locus of control. While deliberation from the bottom -up runs the risk of colliding with the self-identity of those at the centre who see themselves as having the legitimacy to make the decisions.
The author holds out some hope that governance structures can be nudged in the direction of accommodating the views of a wider range of stakeholder and citizens. But there remains a tension between peaceful, collective “puzzling” over what do to and the ‘competitive and potentially violent mode of political interaction’ that is “powering”. A timely reminder of the complexity of the challenges in realising the potential of deliberation – and a suggestion that some of the more far-reaching aspirations for deliberation may be over-reaching in the face of the unavoidable subtle, and not so subtle, uses of power.