Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Institutional Memory: we need a more dynamic understanding of the way institutions remember

Institutional memory is central to the task of governing. But existing understandings of how institutional memory works are too limiting and rooted in an ontological falsehood, argue Jack Corbett, Dennis C. Grube, Heather Lovell, and Rodney Scott. They explain why a more dynamic approach is needed.

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

When Lewis Carroll wrote those words in 1872, he was describing an encounter between Alice and the White Queen. The Queen claimed the extraordinary ability to remember things before they happen, because her memory ‘works both ways.’ It’s the kind of skill that our modern politicians and civil servants might dream of possessing. But what if they are actually already better at it than commonly presumed?

For the last decade or so, scholars and practitioners alike have decried the steady diminution of institutional memory. They have observed that records systems are failing as technology sweeps aside existing recording keeping structures without systematically replacing what is being lost. The fast pace of a 24/7 governance environment means governments are becoming more reactive; more demanding of immediate action and advice. It leaves little time for valuing the careful capture and protection of the documents that make government tick.

In our new article in Governance, we argue that these observations are undoubtedly true, but that they lead us to think of memory as a static force trapped in a moment in time. We suggest that corridors of paper files were actually little better at driving the effective use of institutional memory than the palpitating collection of electronic files that clog the arteries of government communication today.

The reason is that existing conceptions of institutional memory are too limiting. They are rooted in an ontological falsehood. Memory is not simply something that is written down and stored away, but rather it is a living form of communicating with the past that is continually re-shaped and re-imagined by those who are recollecting it. In other words, memory is a dynamic force in which future action is governed by the stories of what worked well in the past and why. Like the White Queen, in drawing on institutional memory politicians and civil servants are effectively remembering forwards, because they are framing future action based on past success or failure.

None of this is to say that written documentary evidence should be discarded or discounted in discussions of institutional memory. Far from it. Our assertion is simply that such documents are able to tell stories – to retrieve memories – only when interpreted by actors. Institutional memory becomes a living story that requires both a documentary record and the active recollections of those who were there.

One of the key reasons why institutional memory has become problematic is that it has been conceptualised in a ‘static’ manner more in keeping with an older way of doing government. This practice has assumed that knowledge on a given topic is held centrally (by government departments) and can be made explicit for the purpose of archiving. But, if government doesn’t actually work this way then we shouldn’t expect it to remember this way either. Instead of static repositories of summative documents holding a singular ‘objective’ memory, we propose a more ‘dynamic’ people-centred conceptualisation that sees institutional memory as a composite of intersubjective memories open to change. This draws to the fore the role of actors as crucial interpreters of memory, combining the documentary record with their own perspectives to create a story about the past, rooted in the present, to shape the future.

We follow scholars like Barbara Czarniawska and Charlotte Linde, who have analysed organisations as human constructs, shaped and held together by the stories they tell about who they are and what they do. In other words, whilst we acknowledge that the forces shaping modern governance – speed, 24/7 news media, technological advances, the influence of public and private networks – are having a profound impact on the institutional behavior of government agencies, they are not changing the fundamental truism that memory is an active construct.

What the modern governance environment has done is force us to confront this fact. Memories that were once held close in government departments have instead become shared, iteratively dispersed through both public and private sector networks of actors. The consequence is that if modern governments actually want to protect institutional memory, looking backwards to static forms of archival storage alone will not deliver that goal. Even if returning to the past were desirable, we argue that it is no longer feasible because of the dispersed nature of modern governance. So not only does a dynamic, ‘living’ form of memory better capture the realities of how government actually remembers, it also offers the most effective hope for operating within the realities of how government works today.

It is of course all very well to offer a new theoretical perspective, but the challenge is also to give it a shape that makes it useable for government practitioners. We suggest in our article that the way to operationalise a dynamic form of institutional memory is to provide forums for the exchange of ideas and memories, and systems capable of capturing it. So, when starting a new project, we argue for building diverse teams of people with different experience levels, from right across government and the private sector. This allows actors to disperse memory more effectively than a siloed mentality that clings to one view of the success or failure of past initiatives. Our research interviews suggest looking at options like co-locating teams of people together in meaningful ways – not as an added-on one-hour meeting a month, but as a deeply entrenched method of daily interaction – either physically or through virtual connections. Conceptually, the end point is a Wikipedia model of memory – a bank of documents that is constantly updated, changed and reinterpreted in real time through the minds of those working on a problem.

Alice in wonderland was adamant that she couldn’t ‘remember things before they happen.’ The White Queen might retort that she had actually been remembering forward all along.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Governance.

About the Authors

 Jack Corbett is Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Southampton.




Dennis C. Grube is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.



 Heather Lovell is Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania.



Rodney Scott is currently a visiting fellow at the Ash Center For Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Oxfam crisis: we need a more informed debate about NGOs and international aid

Few would say that the alleged behaviour of aid workers in the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal is acceptable. But the nature of the criticism that has followed these revelations, including government threats to cut Oxfam’s funding, is driven more by politics than genuine understanding of the sector, explains David Lewis.

Evidence of sexual misconduct by staff within Oxfam rightly made the news headlines recently. Oxfam has admitted that past problems had not been handled well enough, offered a full apology, and has publicised improvements to its safeguarding arrangements that it hopes will afford better protection to people in the future. Its deputy chief executive resigned.

Few people would suggest that the alleged behaviour of these aid workers is acceptable. The exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable by those tasked with providing them with assistance and support during a time of crisis is inexcusable.

Nor would many disagree with the criticism that Oxfam has been less than transparent about what actually happened, how it was dealt with, or how much of it was communicated to the Charity Commission. It is good that the murky world of humanitarian work and disaster relief is now being subjected to much closer public scrutiny.

But the storm of criticism that has greeted the revelations, which included a government threat to cut Oxfam’s funding, and calls in the press for its chief executive to resign, is disproportionate and unhelpful. It has been driven more by politics and ideology than genuine understanding of the sector.

What is needed now is an effort to build a better-informed public discussion about the pros and cons of international aid, the nature of humanitarian action, and the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Oxfam. NGOs themselves have a responsibility to initiate this. But for this to happen, three key points about NGO work need to be far better understood.

NGO workplaces are ambiguous and difficult

We live in an era in which unprecedented light is currently (and rightly) being shone on the problem of abuse and harassment in society. It is simply naive to think that sexual harassment is not an issue in every area of institutional life, including the development and charitable sectors. Or that bad people don’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the power imbalances implicit in front line humanitarian settings.

Humanitarian emergency work usually takes place in unstable areas, in pressured situations, in places where there is a high degree of dysfunction and disorder, and where little goes according to plan. It’s messy, unpredictable and difficult.

We have to move beyond the oversimplified popular stereotyped view of aid workers either as ‘idealised virtuous helpers’ or as ‘self-serving overpaid professionals’. Neither view is accurate. The work attracts many different kinds of people with varied motivations, usefully expressed by Jock Stirrat in terms of his three archetypes of ‘missionaries’, ‘mandarins’, and ‘mercenaries’.

Aid doesn’t travel by itself

Governments and private individuals who donate to NGOs are understandably committed to a belief in securing ‘value for money’. However, this can lead them to expect that resources can reach those in need without requiring much in the way of organisational structures or overhead costs.

This is unrealistic. To do effective work, agencies need to invest in proper management systems including safeguarding. One outcome of the relentless pressure to minimise resources spent on NGO overheads is that it may contribute to a lack of effective management. A key theme in my own 2014 book on NGOs and management is the point that aid money does not magically move from people’s donations or taxes to arrive safely to the people who need it – it requires effective management processes and systems to make that happen.

A better-informed public aid debate

The debate about international aid has become ideological rather than being based on a discussion of proper evidence. An informed debate about international aid is needed, but the current politically motivated attack on aid is unhelpful. Bringing international aid into the ongoing ‘culture wars’ benefits no one.

Instead we need to challenge misleading public perceptions of what it is that development organisations do. The government used to spend a tiny part of the aid budget on something called ‘development education’ in schools and local communities – aimed at promoting public understanding of international development issues. The funding for this was cut in the UK during the 1980s. What’s now needed is improved safeguarding systems, a clearer code of conduct and a raised level of public education and debate.

Ironically, a 2017 Tufts University report on sexual harassment in the international NGO sector found that Oxfam was ahead of other NGOs in its safeguarding systems and was identified by the authors as an example of ‘best practice’.


About the Author

David Lewis is Professor of Social Policy and Development at LSE, and author of Non-governmental Organizations, Management and Development (2014).



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Howard Lake (Flickr, CC BY-SA).

How can politicians build a case for action on climate change, when British voters aren’t interested?

Voters are simply not asking their representatives to act on climate. Rebecca Willis draws on interviews with MPs to find whether MPs can still construct a ‘representative claim’ and justify action on climate change. She identifies four different types of claims and explains why it is not straightforward for a politician to argue that action is in the interests of their electorate.

Scientists are clear that urgent action is needed on climate. At the Paris Summit, world leaders agreed to limit rises in global temperatures. And yet, climate change barely troubles domestic politics. As part of a collaborative research project with Lancaster University and Green Alliance, I have interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament since 2015. One message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, “Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.”

This is a fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?

The answer to this question boils down to the way in which political representation is understood. This is something that has been debated ever since the Ancient Greeks’ early experiments with democracy. In the UK parliamentary system, we tend to think about representation in terms of the electoral constituency. MPs represent the local area that elected them. But they are influenced, not controlled, by what their electorate tells them. They are representatives, not delegates. This is explained well by a new theory put forward by the political theorist Michael Saward. He argues that representation should be seen as a process of claims-making, in which the politician makes claims which are then accepted, rejected or ignored by the electorate. In short, representation is a dialogue. When an MP campaigns against a hospital closure, they are, in effect, saying “I am campaigning for local health services and this makes me a worthy representative of this area”. Saward calls this a “representative claim”.

Saward’s theory helps to explain how MPs might tackle a complex global issue like climate change. It’s a harder sell than the local hospital, that’s for sure. But my research shows that MPs develop ways of claiming that action on climate change is necessary. In my interviews with MPs, I encountered four different sorts of “representative claim”.

A cosmopolitan claim: This frames climate change a global problem to which a global solution is proposed. Politicians argue that it is in the interests of the global community to take action. As one interviewee told me, “a lot of the impacts of climate change are going to hit other places before they hit here. [My constituency] is not likely to be one of the first places to be hit particularly badly. So what? I just happen to be here.”

This claim has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. Yet it has limited appeal, as another explained, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space… We have these sort of massive big things about what will happen in other parts of the world… and they’re like, “yeah, ok, whatever”.” In short, this claim is often ignored.

A local prevention claim: Another strategy is to tailor the claim explicitly to a local setting, saying that action is necessary to prevent local impacts like flooding. One MP representing a flood-prone area told me that he used floods as a way of talking about wider climate impacts. This claim has the advantage that it links a global issue directly to the local area, and allows a politician to talk in terms of the interests of local people. As with the cosmopolitan claim, though, it does not link directly to a case for local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A co-benefits claim: The most common strategy that interviewees reported was linking climate change to practical, achievable local actions, particularly economic measures, such as encouraging renewable energy generation, or improving transport infrastructure. This has the obvious advantage of relevance to the local area. As one MP told me, “I’m happy to use an economic argument if that means that more people will come on side… I change the language to be much, much less extreme.” The disadvantage of such a claim, though, is that it may reduce the opportunity to discuss the full implications of climate change, focusing instead on small steps at a local level.

A surrogate claim: A significant minority of MPs in my sample use an intriguing strategy, which I call the ‘surrogate claim’. This approach involves promoting local benefits, like public transport, or reduced congestion, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change. In this case, although the politician is privately thinking of a particular strategy in terms of its climate benefits, they deliberately do not mention this, because they think it would backfire. One judged that, if he had mentioned carbon emissions in arguing for a sustainable transport scheme, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’”.

These findings are relevant both for the way we understand representation, and for thinking about how we might tackle climate change. My study confirms that politicians construct their representative role in an active sense, as Saward describes. Politicians know that climate change requires political attention, and so they find ways of building a claim that is meaningful to the people they represent. Seeing representation in this way overcomes the vexed questions of whether politicians can or should represent nature or other species; people beyond their constituency; and over the long-term rather than a single electoral cycle.

The answer is deceptively simple: they can, and should, if they can make a representative claim which is accepted. Implicit in the theory, however, is the idea that some claims are harder than others to sustain; a claim like the cosmopolitan claim identified here, based on the long-term interests of a globalised humanity, will find it more difficult to gain traction than a claim which represents immediate local interests. Thus the theory provides a nuanced account of the way in which politicians conceptualise their role as a representative.

The research also points to ways in which politicians could be better supported. Demonstrating wide buy-in, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted. Second, politicians might be tempted to use a surrogate claim, trying to get the right policies in place without seeking a mandate for action on climate. But such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the case.

Last, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support. Who will it appeal to? Does it help to make the wider case for action? It is only by making bold, positive claims that a political, as well as scientific, case for action on climate can be made.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Political Studies.

About the Author

Rebecca Willis is a Researcher in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Sport and Britishness: the politics of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Although primarily about medal tables, Olympism, and human interest stories, the Winter Olympics have much to say about the representation of national identities in contemporary sport, writes John Harris. He reflects on the politics of the 2018 Winter Olympics.


There’s always the sport. Or so people say, more and more often, as they become sadder about what is happening to the rest of television (Raymond Williams)

Raymond Williams was right, and his words seem even more pertinent now. Taking part in the Olympic Games is the dream of athletes in a range of sports and represents the pinnacle of many sporting careers. Despite the ideology of Olympism, merely taking part is no longer always enough. The medal table becomes ever more visible in a variety of media across a whole host of nations and for athletes from Great Britain and Northern Ireland (GB&NI) the rewards attached to national lottery funding means that there is an increased pressure to perform.

For us armchair Olympians, the comprehensive coverage from Pyeongchang (South Korea) across the BBC offers the opportunity to watch sports that might only capture the imagination once every four years.  As the athletes do well, we get to learn more and more about individuals, and claims and counter-claims are likely to be made about the nation. As always, the curling teams will be made up entirely of women and men who compete for Scotland in the World Championships, but for Great Britain & Northern Ireland in the Olympic Games. Being both Scottish and British is something that many are comfortable with, but is a topic that gets significant coverage when it comes to sport.

The human interest stories and the dramatic events contribute to make the Olympics a kind of soap opera. The 2016 Great Britain and Northern Ireland team was celebrated for the number of openly gay athletes in the group, the number of couples taking part, and the six sets of siblings that wore the Team GB colours. The winter Olympians are not as diverse a collective but they wear the same colours and sporting success can be widely celebrated in a number of ways.

The British media focus in the summer of 2016 moved on from the stories of major health concerns and social unrest to concerns about how the diving pool turned from blue to green. Williams once noted the compulsive talk before and after a big event, the type of chat that has always surrounded sport but is reshaped by the studio ritual. There is even more studio talk about sport now and success for GB&NI in Pyeongchang will be framed around the wider socio-political sphere in much of the media coverage.

The then-Prime Minister David Cameron described London 2012 as the time that ‘patriotism came out of the shadows’. The decision on Brexit and continued uncertainty as to what the future holds means that the landscape has altered markedly since 2012. Yet whilst some things change, some things remain the same.

The Great Britain and Northern Ireland team won more medals than expected in 2016 as there is usually a spike in medal success when a nation hosts an Olympics and a fall thereafter. Four years earlier the negative press surrounding the so-called ‘Plastic Brits’ disappeared as soon as many of these athletes who were born outside of the country performed well. Research on the print media reporting of London 2012 showed that a progressive, benign version of Britishness was most visible in the narratives of the nation. The successes and failures of ‘our’ athletes become an important point of departure for discussions of broader political issues.

Sport is often used as a tool for political means. Mega-events like the Olympic Games are never just about sport but much of this is politics with a ‘small p’. Of more significance here in 2018 is that a Korean team has been part of the games in Pyeongchang as North and South Korea came together in the women’s ice-hockey competition. China and the USA will keep a close eye on how the other is performing in the all-important medal-table and there will be continued debate on the place of Russian athletes in the Olympics. In 2022 the games will take place in Beijing as it becomes the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympic Games.

The Winter Olympics have not always been looked upon favourably by the British media. For many years there was little to celebrate in terms of the number of medals won and there was limited support for athletes competing in activities often described in derogatory or sarcastic terms. With increased funding and a clear focus on the podium then we are now in a very different era and sports that do not do well face significant cuts to the funding they receive from UK Sport.

It is often said that sport is a reflection of society and the Olympic Games are also a story about athletes of all shapes and sizes. But the event also offers an important window into the idea of ‘Britishness’ and the (re)presentation of national identities in contemporary sport. The winter Olympics may not have the same global appeal as the summer event but as a means of discussing identities, and as a site for boosting national prestige, it still has a visible presence.


About the Author

John Harris is Associate Dean Research in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. His publications include Rugby Union and Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan).

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Overseas Electors Bill: does government really intend to give expats ‘votes for life’?

Will the Overseas Electors Bill, proposing to give Britons living abroad the right to vote in UK elections for life, make it beyond second reading? Sue Collard puts recent developments in their wider context and explains their potential implications. She argues that if government does indeed mean business, then the issue is far too important to those affected to justify it being eventually sacrificed to party politics.

An announcement from the Cabinet Office on 8 February confirmed that the government is still committed to implementing a pledge made in the 2014 Conservative Manifesto and endorsed by David Cameron in 2015, to grant ‘Votes For Life’ (VFL) to UK citizens resident abroad. This means abolishing the current rule that disenfranchises UK citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years.

Cameron’s promise was originally made in response to long-standing demands by expat campaigners, whose public figurehead is the indomitable war veteran, Harry Shindler MBE. But he and other activists were deeply aggrieved by the government’s failure to implement VFL before the EU referendum, despite their legal challenge. Verbal commitments under Theresa May to honour Cameron’s pledge before the next scheduled election have done little to reassure them, and it has been widely assumed that this bill was being kicked into the long grass.

That is, until the recent statement, which went further than the simple reiteration of a tired promise. This time it was backed up by the publication of detailed responses to the policy proposals announced in October 2016. This latest document shows that the Cabinet Office has indeed been hard at work, trying to thrash out the complex implications of extending the franchise to what it estimates to be potentially 3 million ‘overseas electors’.

Registration issues

The current system of electoral registration allows ‘expatriate’ citizens to continue to vote for 15 years (by postal vote or by proxy), in the constituency where they were last registered. Until 2015, registration levels for overseas electors were in fact extremely low, largely due to bureaucratic obstacles. But the introduction of online registration in 2014 triggered a massive increase in registration, which was further magnified by the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 snap election, when the number rose to over 285,000.

This increase has caused headaches for the electoral authorities, trying to administer an already overloaded and underfunded electoral system. But the introduction of VFL would add to their burden because it means developing a whole new registration process to cater for those whose registration lapsed more than 15 years ago: their previous addresses cannot be verified through the electoral registers because the law does not require electoral authorities to keep these for more than 15 years. The Cabinet Office proposes therefore to allow registration based on proof of previous residence; but this throws up additional complications that have been highlighted by the Association of Electoral Administrators in its response to the consultation.

Certain campaigners have suggested that the creation of dedicated ‘overseas’ constituencies, such as those created by France, Italy, and Portugal, would avoid the problems of establishing proof of previous registration or residence, and would give expats better representation. However, this idea has been rejected by the Cabinet Office on the grounds that it constitutes ‘too fundamental a departure from the existing arrangements’. Besides, it is a proposal that does not sit well with the government’s plan to reduce the number of constituencies.

Does the government really mean business?

Just how significant is the government’s recent announcement? The failure to include VFL in the latest Queen’s Speech suggested that, given the Brexit agenda, parliamentary time would not be found for this bill. Yet February’s press release explicitly makes reference to the imminent second reading debate in the House of Commons of a Private Member’s Bill on Overseas Electors, to be presented on 23rd February by Glyn Davies MP. The implication, now confirmed, is that the government will be supporting this bill.

This is further corroborated by the simultaneous statement from the Chair of ‘Conservatives Abroad’, Heather Harper, who welcomed the government’s renewed commitment to VFL: “The second reading of [the Overseas Electors Bill] brings us closer to getting votes for life for all British expatriates”. Conservatives Abroad have played a key role in getting VFL put on the government’s policy agenda. They have been campaigning on this issue for many years within the party, but it was the advent of coalition politics in 2010 which enabled them to highlight the potential contribution of overseas supporters towards winning selected target seats in marginal constituencies. Their efforts in the 2015 election campaign were rewarded by Cameron’s inclusion of VFL in the Queen’s Speech.

So it looks as if now the government really might mean business on VFL, but this time, spurred on by a different political context: the post-Brexit. The message from Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution, makes an explicit link to a brave new vision of the post-Brexit world and the role that expats are expected to play in it:

Following the British people’s decision to leave the EU, we need to strengthen ties with countries around the world and show the UK is an outward-facing nation. Our expat community has an important role to play in helping Britain expand international trade, especially given two-thirds of expats live outside the EU.

Assuming the VFL bill makes it beyond the second reading, we can expect any subsequent parliamentary debate to be highly politicised: opposition parties see VFL not as a progressive move to end the disenfranchisement of potentially millions of its citizens living outside the UK, but as a cynical ploy to increase Tory votes and donations (individuals can only donate if they are on an electoral register). It remains to be seen whether partisan positions based on mere assumptions about the political preferences of expats will continue to hold sway, or whether more substantiated arguments might be brought to bear on the discussions. This issue is far too important to those directly affected to justify its being sacrificed to party politics.


About the Author

Sue Collard is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex.




Adult social care: is privatisation irreversible?

The privatisation of adult social care is a 30-year process that has grown unchecked, made worse by austerity politics. Should the private sector lose interest and leave the market, the consequences will be grave. Bob Hudson writes that, whilst it is not feasible to eliminate a model that has become so deeply embedded, improvement is possible. He explains how this would include a combination of better funding and smarter commissioning.

The outsourcing of public services to private companies is a model in disarray. The impetus for challenge has been the collapse of the outsourcing giant Carillion but concerns have also been raised across a number of other public services including probation, the prison service, forensic science service, and the NHS. Much less interest has been paid to the longer-standing privatisation of adult social care, where the debate tends to be focused on levels of funding and the respective obligations of the state and citizen to contribute to individual care costs. This relative absence of policy interest in examining the ownership structure of adult social care may be due to three related factors – market penetration, market fragmentation and market fragility.

Market Penetration: The longer the period over which outsourcing has taken place and the greater the penetration of the market, the more difficult it is likely to be to reverse the situation. This is the situation with adult social care, where the process has been in train for over 30 years and the current structure is deeply embedded. In 1979, 64% of residential and nursing home beds were still provided by local authorities or the NHS; by 2012 it was 6%. In the case of domiciliary care, 95% was directly provided by local authorities as late as 1993; by 2012 it was just 11%.

Market Fragmentation: There is no compact adult social care service that can be easily repatriated into public sector ownership. Rather the sector is characterised by a multiplicity of fragmented, competing providers. The care home sector supports around 410,000 residents across 11,300 homes from 5500 different providers. The situation in home care is even more diverse with almost 900,000 people receiving help from over 10,000 regulated providers. Nor is it any longer the case that the state is even the dominant commissioner of these services – the privatisation of care alongside tighter access to local-authority-funded care has resulted in a large growth of self-funding ‘customers’.

Market Fragility: The third complicating feature of the adult social care market is its fragility and the politically toxic consequences of market failure. The first major casualty was Southern Cross in 2011 – a large national care home provider which had 9% of the market nationally but a much greater share in certain regional areas. Much of the Southern Cross provision was eventually taken over by another major provider, Four Seasons, which is itself now at high risk of going under. Either through financial collapse or strategic withdrawal the market model is at tipping point.

There is a growing view that the problems associated with the outsourcing of adult social care need to be addressed, but if no ‘big bang’ change is feasible, what are the alternative options? Better and fairer funding is a prerequisite but the local state (as the biggest commissioner of services) and national government (as policy-maker) can also act in other ways that could create better care quality and reshape the provider mix. Four dimensions can be identified: commission local and small; commission holistically; commission individually; and commission ethically.

Commission Local and Small

The trend, especially in the residential sector, is for small operators to be replaced by large provider chains with more than fifty care homes which in turn house up to a hundred residents each. A focus on smaller and more local commissioning is needed to counteract this trend. Small organisations hold vast expertise about the issues affecting people locally and can serve very specific communities of interest. Moreover, much of what they do focuses on bringing people together which ties in closely with the policy focus on loneliness, ideas around Asset-Based Community Development, and on supporting communities to rebuild their own social infrastructure by harnessing community businesses.

Complementary to this is the concept of Local Wealth Building, a growing movement in Europe and the USA based on the principle that ‘places’ hold significant financial, physical, and social assets of local institutions and people. The key here is local ‘anchor’ institutions (public, social, academic, commercial) and their procurement role in supporting the local supply chain. This will include opening markets to local small and medium enterprises rather than looking to national and international chains. Central government also has a role to play here, for example by minimising corporation tax rates for small local businesses.

Commission Holistically

It no longer makes sense to think of social care commissioning in isolation. Rather the focus is upon ‘holistic’ or ‘place-based’ commissioning. Most social care is commissioned separately from other place-based interventions. However, market-shaping is a much broader strategic task spanning several council departments and other partners – social care, transport, housing, economic development, health, community safety, training providers and more. Coordination on this scale would require significant investment in capacity, skills, and structures – in effect, the reinvention of robust local governance.

Commission Individually

Policies on access to social care support have created two groups of ‘individual commissioners’: those who fund their own care and those whose care is funded via an individual budget. Both are in need of greater support. A market requires ‘customers’ who seek and digest information to inform their choice of product. From this perspective the care home market in particular has some characteristics of an inefficient market – entry is often unplanned, made in response to a personal crisis and with very low rates of switching to a different provider in the event of dissatisfaction. The Competition and Markets Authority  raises the prospect of enforcing consumer law, but others will take the view that it is simply not possible to replicate a market with informed ‘consumers’ in the social care sector. However one option that can work for some people is that of personal budgets and more recently personal health budgets, though here too there are issues to be resolved around matters like making choices and decisions; receiving information and advice; budget management, monitoring and review; and risk management and contingency planning.

Pixabay (Public Domain)

Commission ethically

Ethical commissioning could include the following dimensions.

Commission from ethical employers: Commissioners need to be able to distinguish between the workforce practices of different providers and prioritise those acting as ‘good employers’. This might have several components such as prioritising providers that comply with minimum standards around workforce terms and conditions, have effective training, staff development and supervision, and encourage staff to participate in collective bargaining.

Commission from transparent providers: A ‘transparency test’ could stipulate that, where a public body has a legal contract with a private provider, that contract must ensure full openness and transparency with no ‘commercial confidentiality’ outside of the procurement process. All providers of public services should – at a minimum – publish details of the funding they receive, performance against contractual obligations, the suppliers to whom they subcontract services, the value of these contracts and their performance, and user satisfaction levels.

Commission from tax compliant providers: The ownership of all companies providing public services under contract to the public sector, including those with offshore or trust ownership, should be available on the public record. At the same time, a taxation test could require private companies in receipt of public services contracts to demonstrate that they are domiciled in the UK and subject to UK taxation law.

Commission from not-for-profit providers: A fresh approach to adult social care offers the opportunity to rethink the role of other sectors. Whilst wholesale renationalisation seems unlikely there is every reason to encourage local authorities to begin to build up their own in-house provision and to support all organisations with a social purpose, whether in the public, private or voluntary sector. This could include encouragement for user-led organisations, social enterprises, mutuals and others to recruit and train service users in innovative ways.

The privatisation of adult social care in the UK has an unusual policy trajectory compared with other sectors. Devoid of any real debate or stated purpose, a 30-year process of outsourcing has grown unabated and unchecked. The scale of penetration and the dismantling of alternative providers have resulted in a situation that fails to meet ordinary market standards around choice and control. And now, as a result of austerity politics, there is every chance that the private sector will lose interest and leave the market with serious consequences for those in need of services and support. Whilst it is not feasible to simply eliminate a model that has become so deeply embedded, a combination of better funding and smarter commissioning can, over time, reshape ownership structures, increase provider stability, focus on ethics rather than cost, and enhance the quality of care.


About the Author

Bob Hudson is Professor in the Centre for Health Services Studies at the University of Kent.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Engaging the public with the scrutiny of legislation requires more than just asking for their views

Cristina Leston-Bandeira and Louise Thompson examine the impact of a stage of the legislative process piloted by the House of Commons in 2013, where the public were invited to comment on a bill undergoing parliamentary scrutiny. They explain why, despite an impressive response, the Public Reading Stage failed to make much of an impact.

Recent years have seen increasing calls for more integration of the public’s views directly into decision-making processes. However, attempts at implementing this in practice are still few and far between. Our recent article in the Journal of Legislative Studies analyses one such attempt: the 2013 Public Reading Stage (PRS) of the Children and Families Bill, an attempt by the House of Commons to integrate the public’s view into the formal legislative process.

The PRS enabled members of the public to submit comments on the specific contents of a government bill, over a period of two weeks, just before it was scrutinised in committee. Over 1000 comments were submitted via a web forum. Our article analyses the impact of the PRS on the actual scrutiny of the legislation. We explore whether the PRS contributed to MPs’ evaluations of the bill, changing it or supporting it in any way. Our study draws on a content analysis of the comments given by the public, complemented by interviews with MPs, officials, and PRS participants.

As the table below illustrates, these comments were often very focused. Over 80% commented on a specific clause, schedule or even word of the bill and almost 50% were based on personal or professional experience. These included some harrowing accounts of the difficulties people were facing in their daily lives and how the legislation might be able to change this. For example, one father told of his own struggle to see his children, stating on the forum that he would support ‘stronger wording’ on shared parenting in the Bill to ensure that 50/50 parenting is assumed from the outset in the family courts.

Mechanisms such as PRS could therefore potentially be a valuable means of incorporating an alternative viewpoint into the scrutiny of a piece of legislation; one that is closer to daily reality, enhancing parliament’s capacity for scrutiny by highlighting what may be a very different point of view and accounts from those who the legislation will directly impact. But we find that although the PRS had an impressive response, it failed to make a tangible impact on the parliamentary scrutiny of the bill. This was largely due to the choice of bill and its poor integration into the formal legislative process.

In some respects the PRS did add value to the bill’s scrutiny. It demonstrated that a wide range of individuals were keen to contribute to discussions about legislation and to suggest improvements. The comments left on the web forum provided an alternative perspective for parliamentarians, offering very personal and emotive accounts of the bill’s potential impact on children and families. The parliamentary scrutiny also chimed well with the most popular issues raised by the public, making the resulting changes conceded by the government have a clear basis of popular support.

But we cannot say that these changes were the direct result of the contributions made at PRS. PRS awareness among parliamentarians was very low and the web forum’s comments were referred to on only a handful of occasions during the bill’s committee stage. So while it may have opened the doors to parliament, providing a new avenue of public participation, it didn’t necessary lead to any changes in the scrutiny of the bill. This may have been due to the choice of a bill which had already received a significant amount of pre-legislative scrutiny.

However, its reduced impact on parliament’s scrutiny of the bill was also the result of a legislative process which was not adapted in any way to formally take account of the PRS. For instance, the positioning of public reading immediately after the bill’s second reading in the Commons severely limited its impact. It gave very little time for the comments to be posted and even less time for their dissemination to those MPs who would be on the bill committee. Rather than adapting the normal legislative process to include the PRS, the PRS was made to fit into it. This is also illustrated by the fact that the summary of the public’s evidence, which was collated by parliamentary officials at the end of the PRS, was submitted to the bill committee as a piece of written evidence. It did not constitute a formal, procedural part of the bill’s scrutiny process. It is no surprise then that the impact on the actual scrutiny of the bill was negligible, despite the richness of the comments submitted by the public.

Our study of the PRS highlights two issues in legislative engagement strategies. The first concerns their purpose. Aiming to enhance scrutiny by integrating genuine experiences from the public does not happen automatically just because the views of the public are collated. The choice of bill used in this case, for instance, clearly had an impact on the PRS’s usefulness. Besides wider issues reflecting the government’s power to influence the choice of bill, the fact this bill had already undergone considerable scrutiny made the PRS in many ways irrelevant, as it added little to the MPs’ understanding of the bill’s consequences. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the (in)adequacy of established legislative processes to accommodate external inputs.

In this case, the process supporting the PRS could have been more fully integrated into the formal parliamentary scrutiny of the bill. Engaging the public with legislative scrutiny means nothing if parliamentarians themselves do not utilise and consider the public’s input. This may mean better dissemination of the public’s comments to MPs and peers, the positioning of PRS at an earlier stage of the legislative process (perhaps as a form of pre-legislative scrutiny), or a period of time allocated on the floor of the House or in committee specifically for the discussion of the public’s view.

The analysis of the UK Parliament’s attempt to integrate the public’s voice into the legislative process shows, therefore, that while the public’s view may enhance the understanding of the consequences of a bill and therefore enhance its scrutiny, this in itself does not constitute effectiveness. In order to have a greater impact on legislation, its integration needs to be thought through as something more integral to the legislative process rather than simply sitting in parallel with it. Integrating the public’s view directly into representative institutions requires a very careful consideration of their role and of the processes in place to facilitate it and to maximise its effect on scrutiny.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ article “Integrating the view of the public into the formal legislative process: public reading stage in the House of Commons published in the Journal of Legislative Studies. If you don’t have access and would like a copy, please contact the authors directly.

About the Authors

Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. She tweets @estrangeirada.



 Louise Thompson is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey. She tweets @louisevthompson.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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