Learning from International Development Programmes

8 08 2010

Participatory methods

A public agency commissioned a programme to help the long term unemployed back into employment. The programme is at risk of not delivering. I was made aware of the issues recently and it made me return to some audio material we had on our Open University B822 course on approaches to development work using less traditional management styles and more participatory methods.

The audio programme interviewed a number of people engaged in development work in developing countries. It particularly focused on the work of Action Aid and juxtaposed this with the work of the World Bank.

The programme made the point that the often overly bureaucratic and hierarchical approaches of institutions such as the World Bank were as much to blame for the failure of programmes to bring about change as the perceived weaknesses of providers and staff on the ground.

As if to suggest an alternative, the audio programme made much of the participatory action approach (for example the work of Robert Chambers at Sussex University) that is increasingly being used by agencies such as Action Aid. The point was that using such an approach helped unlock local capabilities. It appeared a longer and more drawn out process but the results appeared far more satisfying.

The audio programme went on to reveal the results of a survey at the World Bank which showed that the culture was more often attuned to focusing on larger projects with quicker turn around and that this was seen as key to promotion within the organisation.

Does this story hint at what maybe wrong with what has been happening closer to home. It strikes me that public bodies can seek quick wins as opposed to doing the necessary development work. One likely result of this approach is that local areas can miss out.

Problems without simple solutions
Maybe it is better commissioning that is needed? Is the argument that it is the providers fault, a false argument?

A Trust folds or a commissioned service does not deliver to expectations so a public body can take a decision not to go down this route again. Is that right?

Surely some form of ‘competition’ between providers is needed particularly on problems without any simple solutions, for example working with young people outside of school. Traditionally a role covered by the youth service is it fair to leave this to just one agency?

Recently it’s been interesting to read about what appears a mushrooming of initiatives trying to provide new solutions to public service challenges.  For example Croydon and Brighton councils commissioned Participle to develop a youth programme called Loops. Loops aims to engage young people beyond their usual peer groups getting them to experience their wider community in new ways, for example from being shown how a large hotel works, to helping to organise a music festival to meeting a novelist.

Maybe we need to appreciate that unless we let the market mature in terms of providers (and commissioners) we are not really allowing real public sector reform to take place. Do we need to braver?

Maybe in many service areas we need to prepare in house services to deliver as external services and then when appropriate ask them to be ready to compete in an open market? At the same time maybe we need more commissioners to emerge and not rely on the few large public body commissioners?

Maybe all this is part of a wider shift in focus that is needed, a shift from aid to self sufficiency. Maybe there are lessons from international aid and development, for example the work that has been done on developing micro finance through programmes such as those pioneered by the Grameen bank?

It has been suggested that micro finance schemes have been a better way to make development happen as opposed to traditional ‘hand outs’. As we now tackle our own challenging finances approaches from elsewhere may be far more appropriate and acceptable here in the UK than before?


Peak State

3 08 2010

Steven Toft writing in the Guardian refers to the work of blogger Adil Abrar who makes the point that similar to arguments that we have reached a point of peak oil production a similar argument could also be made about the state. In this case the argument runs that it’s not that the resources of the state have run dry but rather it’s just not efficient any more.

According to Anatole Kaletesky in his new book ‘Capitalism 4.0: The birth of a new economy‘, government has run out of money. He argues that what has been revealed is that states can no longer satisfy advanced society’s complex demands for healthcare, education and personalised retirement planning. Figures quoted from the IMF of the cost of ageing to the British government are calculated as 335 per cent of GDP.

Kaletsky argues that quite a lot of current state spending on healthcare in the UK is consumed by the relatively affluent elderly and that this basically represents a transfer from poor to rich. He believes that a reduction in spending on those on middle incomes would not necessarily damage the quality of life as long as there was high quality acute care available for all.

Kaletsky’s key argument appears to be that Britain (and others) commitment to government funded health, pensions and long term care cannot be honoured. If Britain continues down this policy line many public employees will lose their jobs and more households will sink into poverty all to ensure that the NHS can keep growing (NHS spending was 6.6% in 2001 and is not almost 10% of GDP in 2010). If the new coalition wants to provide a wider safety net and serve the interests of other sectors apart from health than NHS reform is inevitable including its partial privatisation. The suggestion is that a more mixed model of public and private provision should be further developed.

Steven Toft points to the poor prognosis for UK public finances where it is predicted that paying off the government’s debt will take decades and future liabilities for pensions (£770 bn) and Private Finance Initiatives (£200 bn) look particularly grim. He suggests that the challenge for the public sector will be to find clever ways (e.g. through social innovation and total place type initiatives) to deliver services for much less money whilst at the same time managing the expectations of the many who do not realise that the state has peaked.

The new challenge in what Kaletsky terms capitalism 4.0 will be to demand that government must expand and contract at the same time. The point seems to be that where the ‘market’ can be found to deliver better this needs to be pursued, whilst at the same time ensuring that the state can intervene for example in education to provide pupils from poorer backgrounds with pupil premiums, means testing, needs blind admission and scholarships.

To distribute or to re-distribute, that is the question?

2 08 2010

Recently I was able to catch the Moral Maze on the Big Society. The Moral Maze discussion between the panel and witnesses appeared to focus on a division between the distribution of power and wealth and the re-distribution with those on the political right arguing for the former and those on the left the latter. In some ways it was an argument between those arguing that the state had played a key role under New Labour in re-distributing wealth and resources to the poor against those who felt that the state both under Labour and before had a ‘paralysing’ effect especially on the poorest.

Matthew Taylor (RSA) was agreeing that the Big Society as an idea could have a key role in positively changing the ‘culture’ of the country but was very concerned at the speed at which this experiment was being carried out. Michael Portillo made a point he has made before that without addressing the culture of dependency all aspirations would come to nothing.

Philip Blond (ResPublica) was keen to highlight a new role for the state as facilitator (not as provider), however, there was concern from around the table that getting councils and civil servants to pilot Big Society initiatives would do little to break the top down stranglehold that the coalition has said it wants to change.

Nick Pearce (former head of No 10 Policy Unit) made much of the progress New Labour had made on education whilst Melanie Philips was keen to point out that schools had been left in a very poor state. Nick’s argument was that where the state was strong and active, such as Scandanivan countries, there was evidence that there was greater fairness. However there was more debate about whether the culture in the UK could be compared to that in Scandinavian countries and whether it was the absence of a strong religious driver here that was contributing to break down in our communities and not how much or how little the state contributed per se.

Arguably the most interesting and inspiring contribution was from Silla Carron (Chair of the tenants association at Clarence Way Estate) who had helped transform her estate so that people were encouraged to speak out; children were involved in decisions and the estate had become a place where tenants were proud to live and no longer felt it was a ‘no-go’ area. As she said to the Moral Maze panel it’s not enough to sit in an office and work with a community, you need to go and spend time living and working in the community to really bring about the changes that are needed. Maybe Cilla is right?

Speak Truth to Power

19 07 2010

The only thing we need fear is fear itself? It’s a statement that chimes well with one used in counselling for bouts of anxiety, “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

What is it that makes people fear their boss, their employer, the ‘organisation’ and what impact does this have on innovation, creativity and change?

French and Raven identify five types of power that may start to build a picture of what we are up against. Let us take the five elements of power one by one:

  • Reward power is the power to give people what they want and ask them to do things for you in exchange. An employer or senior may use this to offer a pay rise or promotion in return for ‘good performance’.
  • Legitimate power is the power coming from a higher power source often with coercive (e.g. sack, dismissal, investigation) power
  • Referent power is what ‘leaders’ of groups can have. This is the power from another person liking you or wanting to be like you.
  • Expert power is the power of knowledge and skills that someone else requires.
  • Coercive power is the power to force someone to do something against their will. This can also include the withholding of rewards or expertise or the threats of social exclusion.

Knowledge of these types of power may understandably contribute to the feelings of fear each level of the organisation has of ‘stepping out of line’. Maybe it also contributes to a collective failure to really speak truth to power – we know where things are going wrong, we want to try something different yet we fear ultimately making the change or taking the initiative. Local Government is no different and if anything in a large organisation these elements of power can be far more pronounced. It may also be a reason why as a model large organisations can be particularly ill suited to change, innovation and creativity.

A tutor at the Open University who introduced me to French and Raven’s model outlined how in his workplace his acquisition of expert power, which his employer required, gave him a useful tool to challenge other forms of power in which he believed he was weaker.

Maybe collectively we can suggest ways we can address issues of power to bring about changes we want to see. How ready are we to speak truth to power?

The Rise and Rise of the Private Sector…

17 07 2010

At the cost of sounding unnecessarily incendiary the talent appears to be in the private consulting sector or at least that is the impression given – you want to improve your services and reduce costs as a local authority so you ask the private sector to come in and advise. You don’t ask another public body; arguably the skills are not there.

The private sector have gained considerable knowledge and expertise of public service work over many years and are well placed at a time like now to capitalise on the potential contracts that will flow (see article). Deborah Orr’s reflections on public debt and how the opportunity to review public services is also worth considering. Whilst people may fear the cuts it may help expose inefficiencies that may rightly need addressing and maybe part of the reason why people have voted in a way that made this coalition government a reality.

The private consulting companies are coming in to ask the fundamental questions that the public sector should have been asking itself long before any financial collapse. Is it not a key sign of the poor culture of public services such as those delivered via local government that apparently no such fundamental root and branch analysis has ever taken place or taken place on a consistent basis? And this maybe goes to the heart of the problem – could many parts of the public sector be depicted as a sick patient protected over years and years, imagining itself into a state of ‘improvement’ through audits and reviews largely of its own making. Is this crisis already exposing with the assistance of private consultants the excessive ‘fat’ of public agencies? Is this not in itself shameful?

If as I suspect many (if not publicly but secretly) are grateful for this opportunity to do some clearing out maybe it’s not the cuts themselves that are the concern but how things will end up looking. Is it as some or many suspect that the private sector will benefit greatly from what ends up happening or will social enterprises, mutuals and smaller localised initiatives have a fair share of the cake. Experience from the externalising of leisure centres that started to take place in the 1990s suggests that eventually the market consolidates into a dozen or less key players who swallow up smaller rivals. Will social or local enterprises really emerge to challenge the bigger private (consulting) firms? Recently Tridos bank announced that a £3 million social investment fund created to make equity investments in social enterprises was unable to fund enough organisations which met the qualifying criteria. It made only one investment in two years.

Have years and years of being looked after by the state in jobs that paid relatively well and which were not so demanding taken the edge off whole swathes of public sector staff. I was recently talking with someone in another authority about the opportunities to form an enterprise and deliver their service through this route but got the distinct impression that whilst this sounded exactly what they would have liked to do it was the risk, the lack of know how and lack of support that would ensure that they would stick around in the public sector for as long as possible despite the unhappiness they felt for how mediocre things were. They were going to stick around maybe in the hope that some form of miracle would happen or at worst they would at least be able to claim the relatively good salary and terms/conditions in exchange for an unsatisfying job. How many more public servants, particularly in local government are like this?

It appears that this time the crisis won’t allow any form of status quo to remain. And whilst the coalition may talk about localism and the emergence of mutuals and social enterprises I think they and others maybe disappointed in the short term. It is very likely as the references above suggest that the real winners at this stage will be the private companies and that maybe at some later stage as the market matures we may see the emergence of new forms of more democratic and equitable enterprises.

In the short term the future of local authorities is likely to be in the hands of a small elite of officers/members with more and more services shared, externalised or just stopped. The private sector will definitely benefit, its methodologies are what we are all going to be using far more now than before and it is likely that as the coalition envisages the public sector will contract and a reinvigorated private sector will emerge. On one level this maybe no bad thing if it disrupts inefficiencies in the current system. But what we all need to be wary of is that it does not itself become a new oppressive system.

The cherry and the cake

15 07 2010

Recently colleagues have been discussing approaches around behaviour change. It is certainly an area of great interest across the public sector and much has been made of its efficacy? Recently at a presentation on ‘nudge nudge think think’ (see www.civicbehaviour.org.uk/policy_briefings/ ) the case was again made for the efficacy of such an approach packaged as ‘robust’ and ‘scientific’:

  • door to door canvassing led to 10% increase in kerbside recycling
  • a 6% increase in household food recycling as a result of residents getting ‘smiley face’ feedback on how their street was performing

Whilst the headline findings appear to show changes there are questions that remain:

  • is it not the case that when people are given attention, at least for a short period, they largely respond favourably – what’s scientific about that?
  • how long can you keep behaviour change interventions going before they lose their edge?
  • if these campaigns do not deal with the substantive issues, are we wasting effort on what looks good without addressing what really matters?
  • is it the case in many communities that they feel that no one in power has really done anything for them (debt, unemployment, drugs) and so why should they do anything in return, hence resistance to any forms of behaviour change (the recycling bin at the back of my flats is one image of a campaign that has failed to ignite).

My observations of living in a vulnerable community is one of worklessness, drug abuse, debt, family breakdown, long term unemployment, lack of sufficient education and skills. In this environment behaviour change approaches may only ever be nice additions which fail to address the more substantive issues. A report, ‘The End of Regeneration? Improving what matters on small housing estates’ from the Young Foundation makes the case for a more in depth and sustained approach with examples:

  • Harlem Community Zone adopts the ethos ‘whatever it takes’ and runs community centres, parenting classes and three schools with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills
  • The Place2Be is a children’s counselling service for children who have difficult home lives such as parents with drug or alcohol addiction or parents separating
  • Peer to Peer motivators which train volunteers aged 19-25 to work with NEETs to help them overcome barriers preventing them from pursuing education, training and employment
  • Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme that set up a local football team that involved teenagers on an estate who had been identified as at risk of offending. The outcome of a six month programme was that young people on the estate were comfortable travelling off the estate to train which helped to break the ‘estate mentality’
  • Think Family is an approach to co-ordinating support from children’s, young people’s and adults and family services for the families who are most in need.
  • Framework Housing Association provides tenants with support services to help them sustain their tenancy – these range from help with basic life skills such as setting up a new home, budgeting and accessing local services to help with personal problems such as drug and alcohol addiction
  • Growing Roots, Strengthening communities was a five year initiative from Canada that gave grants to resident led groups that undertook projects such as improving community gardening, offering parenting classes and developing neighbourhood associations. Investment was made in leadership development for residents so that they would have the skills to continue with the initiatives once the funding dried up

Maybe our resources and time can be better spent on addressing the substantive issues contained in the proverbial ‘cake’ rather than worry too much about the cherry?

Something most definitely needs to be done, we can’t continue to have a situation where ‘problem’ tenants are moved onto estates and then local residents have to deal with the fall out and make a case for their removal because public agencies currently feel unable to manage this.

‘Yes, but…’ vs ‘Yes, and…’

10 07 2010

I think we may hear a lot of ‘Yes, but…’ in forthcoming days and months. Typically the conversation about a new, innovative or different idea that may improve a service is ‘Yes, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ then leads into one or many reasons why the idea cannot happen which leads to no change.

Yes, but the culture of the two authorities are not the same so we cannot really explore shared services
Yes, but the regulation means we cannot do that
Yes, but the contract we signed means we cannot do that
Yes, but they are in the in-house supplier we agreed to work with
Yes, but we have to use the so and so recruitment portal because that is what we agreed
Yes, but they have a strong lobby and now is not the time to rock the boat
Yes, but we are already too far down the process of re-tendering to do a re-think on the service as a whole
Yes, but they do not have the necessary skills and knowledge
Yes, but only qualified people can do that job
Yes, but the risk however small has to be taken into account and for that reason it will be difficult to do…

then there is the ‘Yes, and’ approach

yes, and what about looking at best practice in shared services
yes, there is regulation and we can see how we can get the service we want and meet regulatory requirements
yes, and…

Will the forthcoming weeks and months and years become a battle of ‘Yes but’ vs…‘Yes, and…’ – what do others think?