Category Archives: Politics

The state and gay marriage

The British press is full of the debate about gay marriage at the moment. The religious right is horrified at the prospect that it could be made legal, whilst David Cameron has become an unexpected champion of the cause. I come at the question from a slightly different angle.

For years when people asked me when I would marry my stock answer was to quote Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist and revolutionary

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

Marriage I saw as an institution of State and Church. If there is love I argued, what need is there for marriage?

Then one day I changed my mind. I realised that I wanted to get married. I’d found the woman I wanted to stay with and I wanted her to know that. But that desire had nothing to do with seeking the approval of Church or State for my love. What it had to do with was my partner and I.

Exchanging ringsMarriage to me meant making a clear commitment to my partner. It meant saying to her I love you, and I know sometimes it will be hard, but I know you’re worth it and I promise to work through things when they get tough. It meant telling the world about our love; making that commitment witnessed by those who are important in our lives. At our wedding we gathered together all of our friends and family to help us celebrate. But we didn’t invite the State. What’s it got to do with them?

Of course, like it or not, the State has a lot of power over our lives. Having your marriage recognised by the state has its benefits—inheritance, tax, pensions, perhaps residency. Pragmatically we did the minimum we could get away with to get those benefits, and popped down to the registry office with a couple of witnesses a few days before our real wedding. Dressed in our normal scruffy clothes, with no ring and turning down the offer of a reading, I don’t think the registrar thought we were taking it very seriously. Which was about right. We weren’t. We sought the State’s approval of our marriage grudgingly. We were there for little other reason than to clarify who gets what when one of us dies. Having to make the extra effort to do that was an irritation. It was a practical business deal, and if the option of civil partnership had been available to us then we would probably have preferred that.

What really mattered came later. In a very personal ceremony in an orchard in Herefordshire we declared our love to each other, made our commitments and celebrated with those who matter—our family and our friends. That was our wedding. The nurturing, loving relationship which has held each of us through the ensuing decade and through some difficult times is our marriage. And neither Church nor State has any part in that.

Irrespective of the sexuality of the partners, there is no place for the State in marriage. Marriage is between those who marry. The State should concern itself only with the practicalities, which it should do even handedly without any regard for sexuality. Whether gay or straight, the state should abandon any pretence at having a role in marriage and leave marriage to those who are in love.

Blood over breakfast

Browsing Facebook this morning as I munched my marmite I found myself faced with a photograph of the blood splattered bodies of Palestinian children lying dead on a pavement. It’s not the first time in recent weeks that friends have felt it necessary to remind me of what is going on in the world in such a graphic way.

Wars appall me. And the situation in Gaza is no exception. I do not need these photographs to remind how inhuman this violence is. I’m told that the pictures are being circulated because if this were on a street in the West we would all know, because the media is ignoring what is happening in Palestine and Israel. Are either of these claims really true?

If children where murdered on a street in Brighton, would we see their blood covered bodies on our TV screens? Would they be on the front page of the Daily Mirror? No, they wouldn’t. And they wouldn’t because to do so would be pointless. What happens to people when they see such images? They turn off, they turn away. Is that what you really want—to have people turn away from the plight of Palestinians?

Stop a moment and think about the most powerful war photograph you have ever seen. Got it? I’m guessing the vast majority of you are thinking of Nick Ut’s image of a naked girl running away from a nepalmed village in Vietnam. Why? What is it about this image that moves everyone who sees it? That sticks in their minds for years to come? There is no blood. No gore. The horrific injuries, that still scar the girl in the picture today, are not in shot. The power is in the emotion that is captured and the story that is told. Good photography draws us in. Makes us want to look again. Moves us in powerful ways, touches our humanity. Snapshots of dead bodies just make us turn away. Who wants to look at blood over breakfast?

Is the media really ignoring what is happening in Gaza? I think not. A few days ago I heard the BBC report that the number of Palestinian deaths had now reached 100. This statistic was poignantly followed with another clear, factual, unambiguous statement. Three Israelis had died during the conflict. A powerful message delivered without gore. Yesterday the BBC’s More or Less tore into some of the Israeli Defence Force’s casualty statistics (starts about 12:40 into the programme), and Owen Jones’ appearance on Question Time was hardly brushing the issue under the table.

There are powerful images too. Images that tell a story of human suffering without showing us blood and gore. Who could not be moved by the pictures of BBC worker Jihad Misharwi crying with grief at the death of his 11 month old son?

This is a conflict that is getting more coverage in the UK media than any other that doesn’t involve UK troops. It is not being ignored. Powerful messages that engage people are being made. But bloody images of dead children threaten to undo all that good and turn people off. Think before you share this horror.

Out of touch Tory

A few days ago the media reported that MPs had called for a 32% pay rise for themselves. The figure actually came from a survey of MPs conducted by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the body responsible for setting MPs’ salaries. BBC Radio 4’s PM programme dutifully rang round and found an MP prepared to give an interview on the matter—Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire. If you’re quick you can hear Mr Bridgen’s musings (about 33min 25 seconds in, or listen on AudioBoo), but for those of you that missed it here’s a brief transcript of a part I’d like concentrate on:

A man or a woman who’s very capable, doing well in their profession, whatever that may be, with a family, are they going to be willing to take that pay cut and look their children in the eye when it’s Christmas and you can’t have what you normally have because mummy or daddy wants to be an MP. Umm, there’s a whole load of people who will not be able to be MPs. You either have to have people who think that £65,000 is a lot of money, or people for whom £65,000 is insignificant, and the vast majority of the public are in the middle and they would struggle to be a member of parliament I think.

Setting aside the bizarre and emotive comments about children at Christmas let’s look at the idea that the “vast majority” of the public are “in the middle”, by which Mr Bridgen presumably means they neither consider £65,000 to be insignificant, nor do they consider it to be a lot of money.

If Mr Bridgen is talking about the national debt then I would be inclined to the view that £65,000 is insignificant, but it seems pretty clear from the context—a discussion about MPs’ salaries—that he is not. He is talking about salaries. On the first point, then, instinctively I agree with him. I have no evidence to back this up, but a hunch that if I were to do the research I would indeed find that the vast majority of the public do not consider £65,000 to be an insignificant salary.

On the second point, however, I think he just may be a little out of touch. Do the “vast majority” of the public really not consider £65,000 to be a “lot of money” in the context of salaries? Of course, I can’t go out and ask the whole of the public, but with a properly designed survey drawing on a large enough representative sample I could find out. And as luck would have, just such a survey exists.

Since 1983 the British Social Attitude survey has been conducted annually, involving in depth interviews with 3,000 respondents selected using random probability sampling to ensure that the results are representative of the British population. In 2009 the survey asked the question “What is a large income (per year)?”. And when the results have been appropriately weighted to allow them to be generalised to the whole population they are pretty clear.

82.7% of the British population consider £65,000 per year to be “a large income”.

Of course, “vast majority” is a somewhat subjective term, although objectively it must be greater than 50%. But I’d being willing to wager that if you asked the British public the vast majority would consider 82.7% to be a vast majority. And “a lot of money”, in the context of salary, is not exactly the same as “a large income”, but it’s as near as damn it.

This is just one MP and his views on one subject. It’s impossible to generalise from this, but it is pretty clear that on this issue Andrew Bridgen is completely out of touch with the British public.

He goes on to argue that

There’s no doubt that over the past 20 years MPs’ pay has not kept pace with the Civil Servants they were pegged at 20 years ago.

This statement too is somewhat dubious. It is actually not quite 20 years—MPs’ pay was pegged to that of senior Civil Servants following a full review of pay and expenses in 1996. In each year between 1996 and 2007 it increased by the same amount as the midpoint on the senior Civil Servants pay scale. Except for 2001 and 2002. In these years MPs’ got an additional £2,000 in their pay rise1. Since 2008 MPs’ pay has been linked to a basket of 15 groups of public service workers. It has risen by 1.5% since April 2009, a period over which there has been a public sector pay freeze. This blog suggests that over the past 20 years MPs’ pay has increased relative to the mean salary in the country. And data collated on the Guardian’s data blog suggests that between 1989 and 2008 MPs’ salaries as a proportion of the national mean rose by 9% (from 193% to 211% of the mean).

There may be good reasons to pay MPs more, but Andrew Bridgen certainly hasn’t found them, and frankly nobody with such a fragile grasp of facts should be paid as much as he’s being paid now.

  1. Kelly, R, 2009. Members’ pay and allowances—a brief history [Online]. Standard Note SN/PC/05075. London: House of Commons Library. Available from: []

Valuing outcomes in urban forestry

Eric Pickles says that local government must become more efficient1. It’s nothing new. Sir Peter Gershon was saying the same thing back in 20042 and increasing efficiency was an important driver of the public sector reforms of the Thatcher era3. We all need to work hard to increase productivity, but how do we know if we’ve succeeded?

Productivity goes up if the ratio of outcomes to inputs increases. Outcomes are not what is actually produced, but the satisfaction that a customer gains from these4. So in a bed factory the inputs are labour, materials etc, the outputs are beds and the outcomes are a good night’s sleep. Directly measuring the value of a good night’s sleep is quite hard, but the market gives us a pretty good idea by showing what a customer is prepared to pay for a bed. Consequently it’s common in the private sector to use outputs as a proxy for outcomes when assessing productivity.

The outputs and outcomes of local government are not generally traded in the market, so assessing their value is rather more difficult. Let’s consider how we might go about assessing the value of outcomes from one particular local government service, that of managing public trees.

There are some particular problems with this area. Firstly, trees grow slowly. The effects of changes in the way they are managed can take many years to become apparent. The effects of planting a new tree at a particular place will not be fully apparent for several decades, in much the same way as the effect of education on a person’s job prospects and salary lags well behind the actions of a school teacher. Secondly, the outcomes of managing public trees are many and disparate, and often difficult to disentangle from other causes. They can range from a sense of well being5 to cleaner air67, reduced crime8, reduced CO2 emissions9, flood mitigation10, increased economic activity11 and more12. Thirdly, whilst value in the private sector is usually viewed from the perspective of a consumer, many of these values are wider and can be characterised as being social or environmental13.

One potentially straightforward way to assess efficiency gains in the public sector is to assume that output is equal to input and to establish an indicator of service quality. A given increase in quality over the base line can then be quantified by reference to the baseline input14. However, given the complex nature of the outcomes of tree management, establishing an indicator that reflects overall performance would be difficult. Furthermore, the delayed impact suggests a need to be able to account for anticipated future benefits.

The concept of Social Return on Investment (SROI) has gained some support recently15. SROI uses financial proxies to monetise the outcomes of activities that have social benefits and can be used either evaluatively or to forecast future value16. If suitable proxies can be found it could offer a way forward.

The i-Tree system may help provide those proxies. Developed by the USDA Forest Service, i-Tree is a software modelling package that can be used to estimate the value of a range of benefits, including energy and CO2 saved, stormwater runoff, air quality and increases in house values17.  Its use so far in the UK has been limited and the two publicised studies, in Torbay and Edinburgh, restricted themselves to estimating the value of carbon storage and air quality1819. Benefits are context sensitive—the savings on air conditioning costs deriving from shade trees are likely to be rather more in San Fransisco than in Sheffield for example—and much of the work on monetising benefits has been done in the US. Further work is needed to adapt i-Tree to the UK context, but it shows some promise as a means of monetising the outcomes of urban forestry.

A significant problem remains, however. The UK valuation figures are based largely on avoided costs—societal costs of poor air quality, notional costs of “non-traded carbon”20. As such they do not represent the value that citizens attach to urban trees. One aspect of the US model, house prices, can be said to represent citizen based value in that it represents a revealed preference, but beyond that the views of citizens are largely absent from the system. Given that so much of the value of urban trees can be seen as social and environmental it may be appropriate that valuation is not based solely on citizens’ views, but is it right that those views are excluded altogether?

  1. Pickles, E (2011). Delivering better for less locally [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 29 March 2013] []
  2. Gershon, P (2004). Releasing resources to the front line: independent review of public sector efficiency [Online]. London: HM Treasury. Available from: [Retrieved 29 March 2013] []
  3. Hughes, OE (2012). Public management and administration: an introduction. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan []
  4. Watt, P (2006). Measuring efficiency gains in local government that derive from improved service quality. Birmingham: INLOGOV, University of Birmingham []
  5. O’Brien, EA (2005). Publics and woodlands in England: well-being, local identity, social learning, conflict and management. Forestry, 78 (4): 321–336 []
  6. Donovan, RG, Stewart, HE, Owen, SM, MacKenzie, AR and Hewitt, CN (2005). Development and application of an urban tree air quality score for photochemical pollution episodes using the Birmingham, United Kingdom, area as a case study. Environmental Science & Technology, 39 (17): 6730–6738 []
  7. Nowak, DJ, Hirabayashi, S, Bodine, A and Hoehn, R (2013). Modeled PM2.5 removal by trees in ten U.S. cities and associated health effects. Environmental Pollution [Online], 178: 395–402. Available from: [Retrieved 25 June 2013] []
  8. Kuo, FE and Sullivan, WC (2001). Environment and crime in the inner city: does vegetation reduce crime? Environment and Behavior, 33 (3): 343–367 []
  9. McPherson, EG and Simpson, JR (1999). Carbon dioxide reduction through urban forestry. General Technical Report PSW-GTR-171 [Online]. Berkeley, CA: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. Available from: [Retrieved 2 April 2013] []
  10. Xiao, Q and McPherson, EG (2002). Rainfall interception by Santa Monica’s municipal urban forest. Urban Ecosystems, 6 (4): 291–302 []
  11. Wolf, KL (2003). Public reponse to the urban forest in inner-city business districts. Journal of Arboriculture, 29 (3): 117–126 []
  12. Coder, KD (1996). Identified benefits of community trees and forests. University of Georgia Cooperative Service Forest Resources Publication FOR96-39 [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 2 April 2013] []
  13. Bovaird, T and Watt, P (2010). “Understanding value for money in local authority led public services: scoping a research programme.” In Sixth Transatlantic Dialogue: Rethinking Financial Management in the Public Sector. Siena, Italy. 24 June 2010 [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 29 March 2013] []
  14. Watt, P (2006). Measuring efficiency gains in local government that derive from improved service quality. Birmingham: INLOGOV, University of Birmingham []
  15. Millar, R and Hall, K (2012). Social return on investment (SROI) and performance measurement. Public Management Review [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 1 April 2013] []
  16. Nicholls, J, Lawlor, E, Neitzert, E and Goodspeed, T (2009). A guide to social return on investment [Online]. London: Cabinet Office. Available from: [Retrieved 1 April 2013] []
  17. Sarajevs, V (2011). Street tree valuation systems. Research Note FCRN008 [Online]. Edinburgh: Forestry Commission. Available from:$FILE/FCRN008.pdf [Retrieved 29 March 2013] []
  18. Rogers, K, Jarratt, T and Hansford, D (2011). Torbay’s urban forest: assessing urban forest effects and values. A report on the findings form the UK i-Tree Eco pilot scheme [Online]. Exeter: Treeconomics. Available from: [Retrieved 25 March 2013] []
  19. Hutchings, T, Lawrence, V and Brunt, A (2012). Estimating the ecosystem services value of Edinburgh’s trees [Online]. Edinburgh: Forestry Commission. Available from:$FILE/Edinburghi-treereport.pdf [Retrieved 3 April 2013] []
  20. Hutchings, T, Lawrence, V and Brunt, A (2012). Estimating the ecosystem services value of Edinburgh’s trees [Online]. Edinburgh: Forestry Commission. Available from:$FILE/Edinburghi-treereport.pdf [Retrieved 3 April 2013] []

Does size matter?

Writing on the INLOGOV blog a few months back, Catherine Staite argued that it’s time to start talking about merging smaller councils, asking

How can we justify the inefficiencies and unnecessary overheads of two tier areas and tiny unitaries in the current financial climate – when cuts are having a real impact on the most vulnerable?1

But is the assumption that big is better necessarily true? With Britain’s largest council, Birmingham City Council, in dire financial straits2 perhaps it’s time to question the belief that larger authorities are more efficient.

When two small district councils, Babergh and Mid Suffolk, considered whether they should merge they compiled a detailed business case which suggested that a merger would save council tax payers around £1.8m annually across a combined general fund budget requirement of around £20m3. What is conspicuous by its absence in that business case is any discussion of the impact that merging might have on outcomes. The implicit assumption appears to be that outcomes will remain the same, thus allowing the reduced costs to be claimed as efficiency. Let’s consider some of the reasons why this might not be the case.

Allocative efficiency

To explain what I mean by allocative efficiency, we’ll look at an almost topical example. To keep our food bill down we achieve economies of scale by buying a lot of our food in bulk from a wholefood wholesaler. A few weeks ago we were compiling our bi-monthly order and with Easter approaching we wondered whether we should buy a box of six chocolate eggs. It would have saved us a fair bit on buying eggs individually from a retailer. The problem is that the nephews like their chocolate sweet and milky, we prefer it dark and at least 70% cocoa, and the in-laws are partial to a spot of white chocolate. So buying a crate of identical eggs would have meant that most people didn’t have the chocolate experience they would have liked. We’d have pushed down our inputs, but outcomes would have suffered.

This is a very real danger with merging authorities. A bigger council may enable economies of scale, but economies of scale assume that the same service is right for everyone. Different areas have different problems, different populations and different aspirations. The ability of a council to respond to the preferences of its citizens should sit at the heart of any measure of performance4 and smaller, more decentralised units may provide better opportunities for greater responsiveness56.

Leadership and staff engagement

During my career in local government I’ve worked for both a large unitary and a small district. The contrast in the culture of the two organisations, and in my sense of engagement and ability to influence outcomes, could hardly be more marked—I was far happier in the small district. It would be foolish to generalise from this one personal observation and there may be many factors other than organisational size involved. Nevertheless, there is evidence that transformational leadership is more prevalent in smaller organisations7 and there is evidence that transformational leadership enhances staff commitment, engagement and performance89.

Staff are at the heart of public service delivery and the ability to deliver services efficiently depends on their commitment and engagement. Merging councils threatens this commitment and may actually result in reduced productivity as a result.

Size and the ‘new model’ for public services

In her blog post, Catherine discusses a new model for public services being developed by INLOGOV. Key to this new model is building capacity within communities themselves, facilitated by public bodies building stronger relationships with them10. But is merging authorities going to facilitate stronger relationships between communities and councils? Studies in Scandanavia suggest that larger political units have lower levels of non-electoral participation11, lower levels of political trust and lower satisfaction12. Larger councils are likely to feel more distant to citizens, with elected members representing larger numbers of constituents. The job of building trust will be all the more difficult, threatening any potential improvements in outcomes that the new model might deliver.

The new model discussion paper observes

Perhaps the behaviour which really needs to change first, so other change can follow, is that of people in the public sector.13

It is difficult to disagree. I am not arguing that things should stay the same. There is no doubt that the public sector has to get smarter in delivering better outcomes for less. It needs radical change in the way in which it approaches service delivery. It needs to work more closely with communities both to ensure outcomes are aligned with community aspirations and to enhance the capacity of communities themselves. It needs changes in approach and culture throughout. But creating larger authorities is unlikely to facilitate this change.

  1. Staite, C (2012). Making ends meet: what aren’t we talking about? [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 1 April 2013] []
  2. Butler, P (2012). Birmingham City Council faces £757m bill to settle equal pay claims. The Guardian [Online], 12 November. Available from: [Retrieved 3 April 2013] []
  3. Babergh District Council and Mid Suffolk District Council (2011). Detailed business case for staff and service integration, and for the creation of a new council [Online]. Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils. Available from: [Retrieved 3 April 2013] []
  4. Boyne, G (1995). Population Size and Economies of Scale in Local Government. Policy & Politics, 23 (3): 213–222 []
  5. Wallis, JJ and Oates, WE (1988). “Decentralization in the public sector: an empirical study of state and local government.” In: Fiscal federalism: Quantitative studies [Online]. University of Chicago Press. pp 5–32. Available from: [Retrieved 4 April 2013] []
  6. Kahkonen, S and Lanyi, A (2001). Decentralization and governance: does decentralization improve public service delivery? PREM Notes 55 [Online]. The World Bank. Available from: [Retrieved 3 April 2013] []
  7. Alimo-Metcalfe, B and Alban-Metcalfe, J (2006). More (good) leaders for the public sector. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 19 (4): 293–315 []
  8. Bass, BM (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8 (1): 9–32 []
  9. Herold, DM, Fedor, DB, Caldwell, S and Liu, Y (2008). The effects of transformational and change leadership on employees’ commitment to a change: a multilevel study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (2): 346–357 []
  10. Staite, C (2012). A new model for public services? [Online]. Birmingham: INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Available from: [Retrieved 25 February 2013] []
  11. Rose, LE (2002). Municipal size and local nonelectoral participation: findings from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 20 (6): 829–851 []
  12. Denters, B (2002). Size and political trust: evidence from Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 20 (6): 793–812 []
  13. Staite, C (2012). A new model for public services? [Online]. Birmingham: INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Available from: [Retrieved 25 February 2013] []

Time to crowd source performance management?

Public sector targets have been getting a bad press recently. Speaking about the Mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal, David Cameron told Parliament that the Francis Inquiry blamed

…a focus on finance and figures at the expense of patient care—he says that explicitly—underpinned by a preoccupation with a narrow set of top-down targets pursued, in the case of Mid Staffordshire, to the exclusion of patient safety1

And it’s not just the NHS. In November 2012 five Kent police officers were arrested for allegedly manipulating crime figures2, a practice that research by a former police officer suggests is just one of several ways used by the police to game targets3.

That targets can lead to gaming, distortion and unwanted results is not a new discovery. Target setting dominated Soviet Union economic planning for 60 years and plenty has been written on the way that targets were gamed there4. So why are they still around?

Well firstly because they appear to work. For example, despite the widespread evidence of gaming in the NHS during the New Labour era, there is also evidence that targets did play a part in bringing down waiting times5, and they were certainly implicated in some impressive economic growth in the Soviet Union. But a more compelling reason for at least some form of performance measurement is accountability. Public bodies act on behalf of the public, spending public money to provide services that the public want or need. It is not unreasonable to expect that they should be able to demonstrate that they are doing this in an effective and efficient manner—that their performance should be measured and that they be taken to task if it is not up to par. Is there a better way to achieve this?

The operations of public bodies are complex, with multiple, potentially competing objectives sometimes covering many areas. Trying to sum up performance with a small number of measures requires a degree of aggregation6 which hides detail. It makes by and large flawed assumptions about the ability to judge the whole by looking at a part7, allowing the situation where an organisation both hits its targets and delivers abysmal levels of service. The use of clear, prescriptive methods for measuring lends itself to gaming and manipulation of the figures. The process of audit is wrapped in information asymmetry—the organisation being audited knows far more about its workings than the body doing the auditing. But what if public bodies were expected to work on the basis of completely open books, publishing for public scrutiny as much data about their performance and operations as could be accomplished whilst still respecting issues of data protection?

With all the data out in the public domain aggregation is reduced. It becomes possible to spot differences in performance in different areas of the organisation’s operations. There is less reliance on reporting only small parts of the story. To an extent a reverse information asymmetry is introduced—there is no prior knowledge of who will look at which area of the data when or how, making gaming extremely difficult. Organisations would be incentivised to ensure that all their figures showed good service, not just those they know they will be judged on. Eric Pickles has already said he wants an army of armchair auditors scrutinising local government accounts8, but why stop at finance? The digital era and modern management information systems make this level of transparency possible for the first time. There are examples from around the globe of increased transparency leading to corruption being uncovered by citizens9; it’s time to extend that to poor performance.

Of course, I am not suggesting that all responsibility for performance management be crowd sourced. Monitoring performance, reviewing information, learning from it and improving systems as a result, is the job of managers. But introducing the possibility of scrutiny by citizens or peers can do much to overcome the weaknesses of the current approach. Such change represents not just a major shift in culture towards greater transparency, but a shift in attitude towards how data are used, from the terror of sanctions to a more learning focused culture based on intelligence gathering10. It allows an organisation to concentrate on learning how best to deliver its services, instead of how best to hit it targets. The two are rarely the same thing.

  1. Hansard (2013). House of Commons. Wednesday 6 Feb 2013 [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 24 April 2013] []
  2. Laville, S (2012). Kent police officers arrested over crime statistics ‘irregularities’. The Guardian [Online], 15 November. Available from: [Retrieved 24 April 2013] []
  3. Patrick, R (2009). Performance management, gaming and police practice: a study of changing police behaviour in England and Wales during the era of new public management [Online]. PhD thesis, University of Birmingham. Available from: [Retrieved 23 April 2013] []
  4. Bevan, G and Hood, C (2006). What’s measured is what matters: targets and gaming in the English public health care system. Public Administration, 84 (3): 517–538 []
  5. Hood, C (2006). Gaming in targetworld: the targets approach to managing British public services. Public Administration Review, 66 (4): 515–521 []
  6. De Bruijn, H (2006). Managing Performance in the Public Sector. 2nd ed. London: Routledge []
  7. Bevan, G and Hood, C (2006). What’s measured is what matters: targets and gaming in the English public health care system. Public Administration, 84 (3): 517–538 []
  8. Department for Communities and Local Government (2010). Eric Pickles ‘shows us the money’ as departmental books are opened to an army of armchair auditors [Online]. Available from: [Retrieved 19 November 2012] []
  9. Bertot, JC, Jaeger, PT and Grimes, JM (2010). Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies. Government Information Quarterly, 27 (3): 264–271 []
  10. Hood, C (2007). Public service management by numbers: Why does it vary? Where has it come from? What are the gaps and the puzzles? Public Money & Management, 27 (2): 95–102 []

Excuses, excuses

Most of us have done it at some time—when given negative feedback we become defensive and find excuses for the actions that are being criticised, or we turn it around and criticise those who are criticising us. Criticism is never easy to take. It’s an understandable reaction, and one that is just as common in organisations as it is in individuals.

A decade or so ago I was working for a large unitary authority when its first Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) results were announced. They had been rated as ‘weak’—the second lowest of five possible ratings. Rather than acknowledge the failings and focus on how to improve, the initial response of the the Leader of the Council was to brand the decision as unfair and criticise the Audit Commission’s approach to assessment1.

More recently, the Francis Inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust noted that the Trust has failed to take notice of multiple warning signs and found a culture of defensiveness, inward looking and lack of openness to criticism to be major contributors to the extensive problems there. The report observes:

The Trust’s culture was one of self promotion rather than critical analysis and openness… It took false assurance from good news, and yet tolerated or sought to explain away bad news (para 1.7)2

and continues:

…the Trust was an organisation that lacked insight and awareness of the reality of the care being provided to patients. It was generally defensive in its reaction to criticism and lacked openness with patients, the public and external agencies (para 1.114)3

Denying criticism may not always lead to the atrocious failures that happened in Mid Staffordshire, where some reports estimate up to 1,200 patients may have died as a result4, but it is surely not the action of an organisation focused on learning and continual improvement.

Kolb's cycle of learning

Feedback informing Kolb’s cycle of learning
(adapted from Kolb5)

Feedback is a vital part of learning, whether that be for individuals or organisations. It illuminates our blind areas and increases our self-awareness6. It helps us to identify areas that need improvement that we may otherwise have missed. It can provide valuable information for reflection, feeding in to and complementing the cycle of learning described by Kolb7 (see figure). Today’s environment is in a constant state of change and organisations cannot afford not to be learning8. This requires an outward focus—the rest of the world is an essential learning resource—and a willingness to learn from mistakes9. Feedback, both good and bad, represents valuable external knowledge and a successful organisation will recognise this and be able to assimilate and apply that knowledge10. Organisations that have a strong learning culture accept negative feedback as willingly as they do positive feedback and use it as a source of reflection with a view to improving. In contrast, organisations that deny the validity of negative feedback are unlikely to learn from it and miss a valuable opportunity.

This is not to say that the targets of regulators and inspection bodies are always right. I’ve already noted some of the adverse effects that targets can have on organisational performance. But it would be foolish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even amongst a collection of seemingly meaningless targets the feedback about why those targets were missed may provide valuable intelligence that will help improve services further. Even if you don’t believe that what is being measured is useful, this does not mean that there are not valuable lessons that can be learnt from the process. The good organisation will not focus solely on the regulators’ targets—it will have its own more rounded concepts of excellent service delivery, seeing hitting targets as merely a by-product of being good at its core purpose. It will use any and all feedback that it can get to feed into the process of working out how to get better at that purpose.

Of course, getting negative feedback is not easy for employees who have worked hard to deliver a service. It is the job of leaders to maintain morale and to support the staff through this. This is not achieved by being defensive or drawing inwards. In the long term this only means the certainty of disappointing results next time too, and it sets a poor example for individuals’ learning. The leader’s role is to encourage, not stifle, learning11. Leaders need to work to establish a culture of continuous development, to emphasize the positives that can be drawn from learning and to motivate and empower employees to work together to find new solutions12. They should not be making excuses. They should put up their hands and admit the mistakes, and ask how they can do better next time.

  1. ‘Good’ – but not good enough (2002). Nottingham Evening Post, 12 December, p 20 []
  2. Francis, R (2013). Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry: executive summary. [Online]. London: The Stationery Office. Available from: [Retrieved 23 April 2013] []
  3. Francis, R (2013). Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry: executive summary. [Online]. London: The Stationery Office. Available from: [Retrieved 23 April 2013] []
  4. Smith, R (2009). NHS targets ‘may have led to 1,200 deaths’ in Mid-Staffordshire. The Telegraph [Online], 17 March. Available from: [Retrieved 24 April 2013] []
  5. Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall []
  6. Luft, J (1982). “The Johari Window: a graphic model of awareness in interpersonal relations.” In: Porter, LC and Mohr, B (eds) NTL Reading Book for Human Relations Training [Online]. pp 32–35. Available from: [Retrieved 21 April 2013] []
  7. Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall []
  8. Behn, RD (1998). What right do public managers have to lead? Public Administration Review, 58 (3): 209–224 []
  9. Davies, HTO and Nutley, SM (2000). Developing learning organisations in the new NHS. British Medical Journal, International edition, 320 (7240): 998–1001 []
  10. Lane, PJ, Koka, BR and Pathak, S (2006). The reification of absorptive capacity: a critical review and rejuvenation of the construct. The Academy of Management Review, 31 (4): 833–863 []
  11. Broussine, M (2009). “Public leadership.” In: Bovaird, T and Löffler, E (eds) Public management and governance. 2nd ed [Online]. Abingdon: Routledge. pp 261–277. Available from: MyiLibrary. [Retrieved 10 October 2012] []
  12. Heifetz, RA and Laurie, DL (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75 (1): 124–134 []

The pitfalls of joined up working

Joined up working—it’s all the rage in public management at the moment. It helps the public sector work more efficiently. It reduces duplicated effort. It enables multiple agencies to combine their resources and expertise to tackle those “wicked issues”—another big public management buzzword.

And on the face of it it all seems to make sense. In the context of fire, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has been doing interesting ‘joined-up’ work recently sharing data with a variety of other agencies to help identify, at an individual level, who is most at risk of fire1. This enables them to target fire safety interventions very precisely, which will surely mean better outcomes for less effort and cost.

As I’ve been reading around the subject of community relationships with public bodies, however, I’ve started to uncover bits of evidence to suggest that joined up working may not be entirely good for outcomes. It’s all to do with trust. Some really interesting research in Bristol has suggested that actually some communities, and particularly poorer communities, distrust the fire service2. This distrust hampers the ability of the fire service to communicate the  fire safety message and may be reducing the uptake of fire safety measures. And the suspicion is that it may in part be down to the fire service being associated in people’s minds with other public services.

The notion is explored in more depth in some earlier research into poor uptake of community health initiatives amongst those in more deprived communities3. The researchers in this study found strong evidence that people in poorer communities were reticent to engage with public services for a whole host of reasons. These included fear of loosing resources such as benefits, feeling they were being watched or judged, and poor experiences in the past, both of being treated without respect and of simply not getting the help they felt they needed. And crucially for the work being done by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, data sharing between agencies was identified as a significant factor leading to fear and distrust of the public services. This seemed to be particularly acute where Social Services were concerned, with the fear of having children taken into care widespread. Few would argue that protecting children isn’t important, but perhaps that purpose is not best served by an approach which is perceived as turning all public sector workers into spies, leaving parents afraid to engage with primary health care services.

There are certainly real benefits to be had by public services working together, but what is starting to become clear is that there are also some real problems associated with it. For all it may be done with the best intentions, some of the most disadvantaged people in society perceive joined up working by public bodies as a significant threat to them. As a result they make choices about the way in which they engage with services that may significantly hamper the ability of those services to achieve their aims. There are no easy answers. Abandoning joined up working is not a realistic option. But there is a clear need for public services to deepen their understanding of how their actions are perceived and how they affect the willingness of communities to engage with them.

  1. Higgins, E, Taylor, M, Jones, M and Lisboa, PJG (2013). Understanding community fire risk—A spatial model for targeting fire prevention activities. Fire Safety Journal, 62 (A): 20–29. DOI 10.1016/j.firesaf.2013.02.006 []
  2. Matheson, K (2012). Fire fighters, neighbourhoods and social identity: The relationship between the fire service and residents in Bristol [Online]. PhD Thesis, University of the West of England. Available from: [Retrieved 14 November 2013] []
  3. Canvin, K, Jones, C, Marttila, A, Burström, B and Whitehead, M (2007). Can I risk using public services? Perceived consequences of seeking help and health care among households living in poverty: qualitative study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (11): 984–989. DOI 10.1136/jech.2006.058404 []

The mythical Green news blackout

Green Party supporters are upset. Apparently, the BBC are ignoring them. They’ve even set up a petition to demand more coverage from the Beeb, and my Facebook newsfeed is full of people encouraging me to sign it. I’ve a lot of time for the Green Party, but I’m not going to sign.

You see, I just don’t think there’s been a news blackout. The Greens are mentioned throughout the BBC’s election coverage. They’ve reported Natalie Bennett’s view that the Greens are now a ‘national party’ and her view that change is coming. With a quick search on the BBC’s website I found 21 news articles published today that mention the Greens. To say they are being ignored is simply a fallacy.

I do agree that they don’t have quite the coverage that UKIP have though. And here’s why—it’s quite simple really. They aren’t as newsworthy. News is about things that are, well, new. The Greens may have, as the petition points out, 178 council seats. But only 18 of them are gains over the position on Wednesday. UKIP, on the other hand, gained 161 seats. The fact is that both Independents and Residents’ Associations won more council seats than the Greens. Even the critique of media coverage by Another Angry Voice described their showing as “hardly an earth shattering performance”. Essentially, it was wholly unremarkable.

Look at the Greens share of the European Parliament vote in the UK. Yes, they gained one extra MEP, rising from 2 to 3. But their share of the vote is most remarkable for being almost exactly the same as it was last time. That really isn’t news. Jump, as UKIP did, by nearly 11 percentage points—and from a start of 16.5%, that’s a 66% increase—and you’re newsworthy. Get nearly wiped out, as the LibDems did, and you’re newsworthy. Achieve only a few moderate gains that basically leave you in the same position as before—a fringe party with a few localised successes—and you really can’t expect to make headlines.

The BBC’s editorial decisions have been entirely proportionate. UKIP’s gains are big news. And important news. News that we all need to hear and take notice of. News that should not be denied. The rise of the far right should be worrying every decent human being in the country. This is not the time to whinge about some perceived bias in the BBC. It is the time to look at what is happening, take stock and ask how can we ensure that UKIP’s game stops here.

Time for a change of image?

And for the Greens, it’s time to start asking what they need to do to move their game on. Here’s my penn’th. They need to change their image. Many will be screaming at that “it should be about policies, not image”. Well yes, it probably should. But it isn’t. That’s real life—get used to it.

Those who know that the Greens are a credible party with well rounded policies already vote for them. But for most of the electorate they are perceived as a single issue party focused on the environment, and perhaps a bit flaky with that. They are seen as middle-aged politicians who spent their youth living in yurts and buses. Their activists sit at elections counts knitting peace scarves. Not that there’s anything wrong with knitting peace scarves, but it is not an image that appeals to the majority of the electorate. And yes, of course the BBC could have chosen not to use that photo. Just as the activist could have chosen not to get her knitting out. The Greens need to learn to play the game. They need to find a way to get across to the wider electorate that they are not a single issue party. That they have credible policies that address the economy and society as well as the environment. And one thing that stands in the way of that is their name.

After Grenfell, local authorities must break the link between fire and inequality

This is an article I wrote for The Conversation. You can read the original article here.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower has brought the inequalities that exist in British society into sharp relief. The number of dead or missing and presumed dead has risen to 79 people in one of the Britain’s wealthiest areas, due to what London Mayor Sadiq Khan called a “preventable accident” caused by years of “mistakes and neglect” by government officials. Meanwhile, there have been accusations that the local council and building management organisation failed to listen to residents’ warnings about the risk of fire.

My ongoing research indicates that these points may all be linked. It’s a well-established fact that fire has always affected poorer communities more. To prevent fires, there must be effective engagement between communities and public services. But my findings suggest that the way these services operate does little to encourage disadvantaged and marginalised communities to work with them.

Searching for answers

In my own analysis of house fires in the West Midlands, I found striking inequalities in the way that fires are distributed. Areas with high rates of fire also tended to be areas where residents’ income was lower, unemployment more widespread, or a higher proportion of the residents came from black and minority ethnic groups. One earlier study found that children whose parents were long-term unemployed were a staggering 26 times more likely to die of fire related injuries than children whose parents were in higher managerial and professional occupations.

Surprisingly, though, there is little solid evidence explaining why this is so. It is easy to think of some possible reasons: poor quality housing; the inability to afford modern, safer electrical equipment; higher rates of smoking (smoking is a major cause of fire deaths). But the truth is that we just don’t know. It may be, though, that the communities affected by high rates of fire have some ideas. This is one reason why it’s crucial that those charged with improving fire safety learn to listen.

Deep fried plantain

Deep fried plantain – delicious, but risky.. Fimb/Flickr, CC BY

I spent time talking to people in a diverse, disadvantaged part of the West Midlands. Among those I spoke to was Peter, a Tanzanian man. I had already established that areas with high African populations tended to have high rates of fire. Peter had no doubt as to why this was. His community, he told me, are not used to cooking on gas and do a lot of deep frying. Information like this is of great value to those interested in improving fire safety. But it is information that will be lost to fire safety officers and local councils alike, if they don’t engage with the diverse communities that they serve.

Working together

It’s important to recognise that fire prevention is not something which can be done to a community. The community must join in and take part – it is a joint effort. In the disadvantaged area where I worked, people were very wary of dealing with public services any more than necessary. This meant that they were unlikely to engage with the local fire service, or with other groups attempting to promote such things as fire safety or healthier eating. And many of the reasons I heard for this were far less likely to affect more affluent, middle-class residents.

For one thing, the people I spoke with were fed up with nothing ever changing. They felt that they weren’t being listened to, and no matter what they said or did their lives stayed the same – so they had given up trying to engage with services. They also worried that having contact with one service would lead to unwanted contact with other services, with social services being a particular fear, as others have noted. And they felt judged – judged for needing help, judged for where they lived.

What’s more, fire was just not a priority. It seemed an unlikely possibility, set against all the other pressing problems they had to worry about, such as the bus service being withdrawn or the landlord not carrying out repairs. And for many, the prospect of engaging with local services to make their homes safer felt daunting. The language used by public sector workers was confusing. The way in which meetings were run was unfamiliar. Organisations dominated by middle-class, white employees tended to approach engagement in ways which make sense to middle-class white people. This created services which felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar to many of those who I spoke to.

If tragedies like Grenfell Tower are to be avoided in the future, public services need to get much better at engaging with the communities that they serve. And because those communities are diverse, the approaches taken to engage must also be diverse. Examples of valuable efforts I came across included hanging out in hairdressers frequented by African women, and working in partnership with an organisation with existing links to sex workers, to try to reach them.

Creating environments in which people from many backgrounds feel safe and comfortable engaging is a huge challenge for many in the public sector. It will push organisations out of their comfort zone. It will require time, investment and new skills. But these challenges can no longer be deferred, if we want to build a society which is fairer and safer for everyone.

Chris Hastie, PhD candidate, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.