How well is your economy? Moving beyond GDP as an indicator of success

by Scott Faulds

Since the early 20th century, the predominant method of evaluating the success of a country has been through the metric of Gross Domestic Production (GDP). This measurement is based upon the assumption that economic growth is the key indicator of a successful country.

In recent years, this assumption has been challenged, with politicians and economists, arguing that the focus on GDP has led to the development of policy which values economic growth at the expense of the wellbeing of society.

Following the 2018 OECD World Forum, Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand, have formed a group known as the Wellbeing Economy Governments, to share best practice of how to build an economic strategy that will foster societal wellbeing.  Additionally, organisations such as the OECD, European Commission and United Nations, are all conducting research into the development of policy beyond GDP. Therefore, it is clear that the previously held consensus surrounding the use of GDP has begun to break down, with countries across the world searching for different ways to evaluate the success of policy.

We must forge ahead with progressive economic policies that defy common stereotypes about costs and benefits and keep on promoting gender equality as part of a forward-looking social justice agenda

Katrín Jakobsdóttir
Prime Minister of Iceland

 

What’s wrong with GDP?

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), GDP is the measurement of the monetary value of all final goods and services produced within a country during a given period. However, it should be noted that this measure excludes unpaid work and the economic activity of the black market. Simon Kutzents, the modern-day creator of GDP, argued that whilst GDP was effective as a measure of productivity, it should have never been used as an indicator of the welfare of a nation.

Critics of GDP contend that the measure is overly simplistic, due to its interpretation of a successful country as one which is experiencing economic growth, arguing that some countries with growing economies have many social problems. For example, in China GDP grew by 6.6% last year whilst levels of inequality rose faster than in other countries, and society faces a great deal of political oppression. Therefore, it can be said that GDP does not provide a true picture of the success of a country, as it fails to consider societal problems, such as inequality and political freedom.  

The wellbeing approach

As a result of growing criticism of the use of GDP, several countries have started to look at alternative approaches of measuring success which considers factors beyond economic growth. This has led to international interest around the concept of wellbeing, a desire to create policy to improve the wellness of society.

This can manifest in a variety of different forms, from Scotland’s National Performance Framework to New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget –  both policies designed to help improve the health of society rather than solely increasing economic growth.

However, this should not be interpreted as a movement away from encouraging businesses to grow; rather the Wellbeing Economy Governments believe that by improving the wellbeing of society they will indirectly stimulate sustainable economic growth.

“We need to address the societal well-being of our nation, not just the economic well-being

Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister of New Zealand

As a result of creating a budget justified by improvements in societal wellbeing, New Zealand has invested record levels of funding into supporting the mental wellbeing of all citizens, with a special focus on under 24s. Additionally, the budget prioritises measures to reduce child poverty, reduce inequality for Māori and Pacific Islanders and enable a just transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy. New Zealand believes that by tackling these inequalities, economic growth can be stimulated in ways that benefit all New Zealanders, where improvements in mental health alone could lead to an increase in GDP of 5%.

Therefore, whilst GDP isn’t the main priority of policy making under the wellbeing approach, it is possible for economic growth to occur as a result of implementing policy designed to improve the wellbeing of society. After all, according to the World Health Organisation, a healthier and happier society is a more productive society.

How well is well?

It is evident that the use of GDP as a measure of a country’s success has faced a great deal of criticism in recent years. However, some economists are not ready to give up on GDP quite yet. They argue that whilst GDP is not a perfect representation of a country’s success, neither is the wellbeing approach as it can be incredibly difficult to quantify societal wellness.

For example, if we compare one citizen who is in poor health and lives in an area experiencing low-levels of crime with another citizen who is healthy and lives in an area with high-levels of crime, how can we quantify which citizen has the better level of wellbeing?

In short, critics of the wellbeing approach argue that whilst it is vital that society’s wellbeing is considered during the policy-making process, basing policy solely around wellbeing is ineffective and would be incredibly difficult to measure, due to the personal nature of what constitutes wellbeing.

“Growth in GDP should not be pursued at any or all cost … the objective of economic policy should be collective well-being: how happy and healthy a population is, not just how wealthy a population is.”

Nicola Sturgeon
First Minister of Scotland

Final Thoughts

In summary, whilst there is a great deal of international interest in the possibility of a movement away from GDP, no consensus has yet formed as to whether the wellbeing approach is the way forward. With all new forms of policy, other countries often wait to see if early adopters succeed before following their lead. Perhaps it will be left up to smaller countries to prove that an economic policy focused on wellbeing can be successful.

Until then expect to see a great deal of interest in New Zealand’s implementation of the Wellbeing Budget and the results of the second meeting of the Wellbeing Economy Governments in Iceland this autumn.


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What works now: how can we use evidence more effectively in policymaking?

Evidence use in policymaking is nothing new. It has been talked about by policymakers, academics and professionals for the best part of ten years, and has been highlighted a lot, among other places, on this blog. Over the years various government initiatives have been set up to try to establish how best to use evidence and identify “what works” in relation to specific policy interventions, and “evidence-based” policymaking has become the catchphrase of policymakers across most sectors.

One of the newest books to be added to the Idox Information Service library reflects on the rise of “what works” as an approach to policy development. The book builds on discussions from the first edition of the book, and provides a sector-by-sector breakdown of how evidence is – and could be – used in policymaking across areas like health, the environment, education and criminal justice. It also offers some insight into appraising evidence and how to assess quality, as well as how evidence is used internationally, providing examples from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, this book has been a welcome addition to our collection.

Making use of research across policy

In 2013, the UK government launched the What Works Network, which is now made up of 10 independent centres committed to “supporting the creation, supply and use of evidence” in specific policy areas including crime and policing, education and economic growth. The centres aim to improve the way government and other organisations create, share and use (or ‘generate, translate and adopt’) high-quality evidence for decision-making. According to the UK government, the initiative is the first time a government has taken a national approach to prioritising the use of evidence in decision making.

What Works Now? highlights research from Weiss (1979) which suggests that there are “7 types of research use”:

  • Knowledge Driven – research will be developed, applied and used once it has been produced
  • Problem Solving – research will be applied directly to a particular policy problem in order to solve it
  • Interactive – research forms part of a wider web of knowledge, policy and other research which all interact with each other
  • Political – research could (and probably will) be used to retrospectively provide support for a policy decision which has already been made
  • Tactical – research can be used as a tool to delay or deflect from decision making or action around a particular issue (i.e. “more research is needed in this area”)
  • Enlightenment – research informs policy through encouraging people to think and discuss particular ideas or concepts in a different way
  • Embedded research – research production is embedded in a wider contextual system which includes political priorities, the law and the media

Building a research base to support “what works”

Creating and disseminating research effectively have been cited as being key to creating a “what works” evidence base. A number of research institutes and think tanks contribute alongside real-life experiences of practitioners and other stakeholders to try and establish the conditions which support effective interventions and lead to positive policy outcomes.

One of the big discussions currently is around the creation of academic research to support what works programmes. Exploring what sort of research is useful to practitioners and policymakers and aligning this with the research agenda of academics and universities can help to create an effective supply chain of evidence to inform policymaking. However, often academics often do not engage with the policy process, or politicians politicise evidence, picking and choosing which findings to take notice of, which can distort the perception of what evidence is available in a particular area.

Encouraging fuller participation and a more robust appraisal of research from across the board is something which many institutions are trying to work towards. Research impact and knowledge exchange is now integrated into research funding and a growing number of people are working to feed research more effectively into the policy arena.

Evaluating research and evidence and judging which to take forward to inform policy decision making is also important. Along with discussions around assessing and labelling evidence the book considers how some of the main organisations in the UK concerned with promoting evidence-informed policy have gone about appraising evidence, weighing it up, assessing quality and “fitness for purpose” and taking account of non-research based forms of knowledge and evidence, such as the personal experience of practitioners.

Applying “what works” in practice

Applying “what works” in practice can be a challenge, especially in a setting that is perhaps very different from the conditions of a study that has been shown to produce successful outcomes from a particular intervention.

In the book, 10 guiding principles to support the use of evidence in practice are set out:

  • Translated – To be used research must be adapted and reconstructed to fit with local contexts. Simply providing findings is not enough
  • Ownership – Ownership of the research and allowing people to feel a sense of ownership over the development of research
  • Enthusiasts – Individual “champions” can be useful in ensuring that research actually gets used
  • Local context – Local context must be taken into account, particularly in relation to specific barriers and enablers which might help or hinder change
  • Credibility – Credibility of researchers and the people who support the research is key to ensuring that the research is taken seriously
  • Leadership – Strong leadership provides motivation, authority and integrity in the implementation of evidence
  • Support to implement change – Ongoing support to implement change is important, this could include financial, technical, organisational or emotional support
  • Develop Integration – Activities need to be able to be integrated with existing organisational systems and practices, changes do not happen within a bubble
  • Engage key stakeholders – To ensure effective uptake and buy-in key stakeholders should be involved as fully as possible form the earliest possible stage
  • Capture learning/ Effective evaluation – Don’t forget the importance of evaluation, identify what worked and what didn’t to help share learning and support future projects

Final thoughts

In theory, using evidence to inform policy sounds straightforward. The reality can be quite different. What Works Now? highlights that the “what works” agenda remains dominant across the policy landscape, even if the application or approach to it differs from policy area to policy area.

What counts as evidence is still disputed; getting evidence “out there” and encouraging academics to be involved in the policy process is still hard to achieve (although there is good work being done in this area to try and combat this); and context is still key to making evidence work in a particular environment.

Understanding evidence, and how to use it effectively has been a core aim of policymakers in the UK, and across the world for the many years. This book, and the supporting research outlined in it highlights that while evidence is still at the fore of policymaking, actually identifying what works and putting it into practice is a bit more of a challenge.

Members of the Idox Information Service can log into our website to request a loan of “What works Now?”

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A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

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Plugging into the future: can electric vehicles clear the air?

“Electric Car2Go”by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.

Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.

Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.

Driving out diesel

There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.

Electric currents

As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.

Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.

In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.

Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.

Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.

Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.

Green for go?

Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.

In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and  set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.

But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.

Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.


If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…

The unusual suspects: how to make sure Citizens’ Assemblies are representative

Citizens’ Assemblies have been in the news a lot recently. Among the ideas mooted have been a Citizens’ Assembly to sort Brexit, a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the potential details of Scottish Independence and a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on steps to tackle climate change.

They have been heralded by some as a new democratic process which will put the public at the heart of policy development and decision making at a local and national level; one of a number of “deliberative democratic tools” to help engage people more in decision-making processes, allowing people to decide not only what outcome they want, but which issues should make up the agenda in the first place. However as experiences so far have shown, the theory and the execution do not always match up.

With some arguing that they are just another opportunity for those who already have a voice to make their voice even louder, advocates of Citizens’ Assemblies and similar projects have their work cut out to ensure they are both representative and effective.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

The basic principle of Citizens’ Assemblies is this: collect a representative group of people from a particular area, invite them to a discussion, and allow them to identify and discuss potential policy issues and options based on an initial question. They are then invited to come to an agreed consensus which is then reported to politicians/ government.

The members of a Citizens’ Assembly are typically selected at random from the general public – like a jury – and can, in theory, be any size, but the larger they are the more likely they will be to be representative of the electorate. The aim is to secure a group of people who are broadly representative of the electorate across different characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity, social class and the area where they live. Depending on the topic they will be discussing, information about party political affiliation or voting in referendums may also be taken into account.

Citizens’ Assemblies tend to rely on a few key values in order to function effectively, and participants should be made aware of these expectations and values (or any additional objectives) at the outset:

  • Debate should be informed and informative and should allow for discussion and deliberation based on sound argument and evidence;
  • Experts in a particular field and campaigners from all sides and all possible viewpoints should be invited to discuss their arguments with participants and be willing and able to be questioned;
  • Participants should be willing to talk and listen with civility and respect;
  • Participants should be representative of the general population as far as possible and should reflect a range of perspectives.

The sessions of the assemblies themselves vary but will usually include learning and evidence sessions introducing the assembly, the participants and the question to be discussed as well as background and contextual information and additional evidence from invited experts; sessions in which campaigners are able to present their arguments and be questioned; and sessions which focus on deliberation, discussion, consensus building and reporting. Facilitators will often be used to ensure a fair spread of opinions are heard – but facilitators cannot participate in the discussions themselves, and organisers will often pre-plan elements such as seating plans or evidence presented to assembly participants to ensure an even spread of opinions.

The fundamental idea is that if you randomly select a representative group and give them time, information and a safe space to discuss issues, you can create an illustration of what it would be like if everyone had the tools and time to discuss and debate the important issues. There is, however, no legal obligation for Government to take the recommendations forward.

What has happened elsewhere?

In the Republic of Ireland, they have held a number of “democratic experiments” and the Irish examples have been cited as examples of how Citizens’ Assemblies can effect change.

In 2012-13 the Irish Constitutional Convention led to the bringing forward of legislation and the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in the Republic of Ireland, and the 2016-17 Citizens’ Assembly paved the way for the 2018 referendum which legalised abortion. Ireland has been cited as a major inspiration for a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly to be established, something Nicola Sturgeon expressed support for in her speech at the 2019 SNP conference.

Ireland is, supporters of the concept argue, an example of how Citizens’ Assemblies can be effective at helping to reach consensus on contentious issues and allowing people to have a meaningful say in what legislation is put forward to parliament, not just having the choice of policies that are prescribed to them by politicians. Critics have argued however that the Irish experience has, to a degree, been oversold in Britain and shows how “the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes”.

And, for all the perceived successes of the Irish experience, the somewhat contrasting experience of Iceland also has some potentially useful lessons for anyone looking to implement Citizens’ Assemblies at a national level. The experience there shows that it doesn’t always go to plan. Citizens were invited to input into the new values of Iceland’s constitution following the 2008 economic crash. Consultations took place across the country and a series of recommendations were presented but these were not taken forward by parliament.

Other models of Citizens’ Assembly have been trialled in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Canada. The Canadian model invited public input into electoral reform proposals in British Columbia and Ontario, while the G1000s organised in Belgium saw 1000 participants randomly selected to deliberate for one day on major policy issues. Success in Belgium inspired the Netherlands to run a similar scheme.

How can we ensure everyone feels able to participate?

Deliberative models, like Citizens’ Assemblies, aim to encourage consensus building and finding common ground. They also aim to take opinions and make decisions based on a diverse spread of participants, however identifying and encouraging those on the fringes of democratic processes to participate can be a challenge. But it is a challenge that Citizens’ Assemblies and other local community engagement models need to address.

Research conducted around improving local community empowerment initiatives highlights a number of relevant questions and opportunities to improve engagement in deliberative democratic processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies.

  • Is it appropriate to pay participants to attend?
  • Should organisers actively invite participants from certain underrepresented groups or highlight to people that they are part of an underrepresented group to encourage participation (minimising self-selection bias)?
  • Will holding meetings at evenings or weekends enable or disable certain groups from attending and what impact might this have on the make-up of the assembly?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities that are accessible via public transport?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities which are accessible to disabled people and people with children (perhaps with creche facilities)?
  • Have organisers ensured that the information presented is robust but varied, so that everyone feels their views are represented in some way by the evidence?
  • Have organisers considered additional support for participants? (Organisers should provide effective and complete support throughout the process, making no assumptions on previous knowledge or understanding of how participation in activities like Citizens’ Assemblies work and understanding potential anxieties around participation, particularly of first-time participants).

Final thoughts

Citizens’ Assemblies and other similar mechanisms like Citizens Juries have the potential to revolutionise the democratic process in the UK. Although not intended to be a replacement of the traditional mechanisms of government, if done well, engaging citizens more meaningfully in not only the decision making process but in setting the options under discussion in the first place could transform how policy is made and how politicians interact with their public.

The emphasis on weighing available evidence and consensus building is also valuable, particularly in instances where politicians are unable to come together over contentious issues. However, to be truly transformational, the assemblies must have a level of self-awareness which recognises the difficulties some groups may have in participating in the process.

Finding ways of tackling this, and engaging the “unusual suspects”, giving them a voice and showing them that their opinion can have a direct impact on the choices taken by politicians could potentially repair some of the damage which appears to have been done to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, but it is clear we have a long way to go yet.


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Digital Leaders Week: Closing the digital divide

Today, in our final Digital Leaders Week blog post, we’re looking at the issue of digital inclusion.

As you look around, it may seem as if everyone is online. In the street, on the bus, in cafes and shops, most people seem to be glued to their smartphones. But a number of articles on our blog have highlighted the digital divide in society, between those who have access to digital technologies and those who don’t.

In 2018, we focused on digital exclusion among young people:

“One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

Our blog went on to highlight research by Carnegie Trust UK which found that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Schools and local authorities have been tackling digital exclusion in a number of interesting initiatives. We’ve reported on a ‘bring your own device’ scheme in secondary schools in Inverclyde, where children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge. Another project – BBC Micro: Bit gave children the opportunity to learn how to code.

Recently, a new project was launched to ensure young people have equal access to digital technologies. During 2019, Digital Access for All (DAFA) will be working on a series of pilots to test out different ways of improving digital access for children and young people.

As our blog underlined, addressing digital exclusion among young people is crucial for their future development.

“Failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.

However, the digital divide is not confined to the younger generations. This month, new research has shown that one-fifth of the population do not have foundational digital skills, such as using an internet browser or connecting a device to a wi-fi network. Nearly one in ten of the population have zero digital skills.

There are good reasons why people dislike going online, such as concerns about security and affordability. But being “digitally disadvantaged” matters because it can exclude individuals from earnings, employability, communications and retail transactions benefits. As government moves increasingly towards a digital by default position, the need for everyone to improve their digital skills will become more important.

A lot of work is going on to address digital exclusion, including research into its causes, funding initiatives and training programmes. Local government is also playing its part.

In 2017, the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year at the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) Awards – a showcase event for sharing innovation and improvement in local government. Among the initiatives that impressed the judges was Go ON Croydon, which aimed to help people struggling with technology or lacking digital skills.

“The Go ON Croydon project was introduced to support the 85,000 people in Croydon who do not have basic digital skills. Reaching out to organisations such as community and faith groups, this year-long programme set out to highlight and promote the council’s digital skills initiatives. One scheme promoted by the project was digital zones.  Staffed by volunteer digital champions and located in banks or retail stores, these physical spaces provided places where people could go to have their questions answered and to improve their basic skills.”

The Go ON Croydon project clearly made an impact, with digital skills levels in Croydon increasing from 70% to 79% within one year.

Throughout this Digital Leaders Week, we’ve highlighted just some of the ways in which the public, private and third sectors are working to help people make the most of the tremendous opportunities presented by digital technologies.

Digital doesn’t have all the answers, but it does provide examples of good practice from which organisations, communities and individuals can learn. As we enter a new “fourth industrial revolution”, where artificial intelligence, automation and robotics become more commonplace, our blog will continue to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital.


Some of our recent articles on digital technologies include:

To read more of our digital-themed blog posts, follow this link.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital government – looking beyond Britain

 

Image: Digital Leaders

This week, the Knowledge Exchange blog is marking Digital Leaders Week with a look back at some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and focusing on more recent digital developments.

Our blog has often taken an international view of digital transformation, looking for lessons that might be learned from cities and countries around the world that have been leading the way in making the most of digital technologies in society.

Singapore is one country that has been blazing a trail in digital readiness, and in October 2015, we reported on the city-state’s efforts to ensure that more and more government services could be delivered electronically.

Among the earliest innovations was eCitizen – a first-stop portal for government information and services:

“When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).”

That was impressive enough, but, as the Smart Nation website explains, Singapore has continued to explore how digital innovation can improve citizens’ lives. From assistive technology and robotics in healthcare and environmental news updates to autonomous vehicles and an app linking parents and schools, Singapore’s digital revolution is transforming the way its citizens live, work and play.

Closer to home, Estonia has been leading the way on digital government. Our blog post from August 2015 reported on the country’s pioneering approach:

“In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.”

The article went on to highlight some of the key elements in Estonia’s approach to digital government:

  • An ID card (installed on a mobile phone), providing every citizen with secure and instant access to online services such as internet banking and public transport.
  • A national register providing a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia.
  • Estonian government services, including verification of citizens’ identities, enabling them to vote in e-elections. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In 2017, Wired magazine called Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.” And with good reason:

“Estonians have complete control over their personal data. The portal you can access with your identity card gives you a log of everyone who has accessed it. If you see something you do not like – a doctor other than your own looking at your medical records, for instance – you can click to report it to the data ombudsman. A civil servant then has to justify the intrusion. Meanwhile, parliament is designed to be paperless: laws are even signed into effect with a digital signature on the president’s tablet. And every draft law is available to the public to read online, at every stage of the legislative process; a complete breakdown of the substance and authorship of every change offers significant transparency over lobbying and potential corruption.”

Our blog noted that there were lessons for the UK to be learned from the Estonian experience:

“…it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.”


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In 2019, Idox Elections has gone from strength to strength, delivering local and European Parliament elections in the UK. In addition, Idox made electoral history in Malta, using an Electronic Vote Counting Solution to count the country’s European Parliament election ballots for the first time. Idox’s e-counting software successfully reduced the counting time from days to hours, delivering the poll results in record time.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


With over 90% of UK local authorities as customers, Idox has built relationships that last across a varied portfolio, incorporating specialisms such as electoral management, business transformation, software solutions, managed services and front-end design and delivery. Our recent white paper explores the new digital trends being embraced by local government.

Five challenges facing the people who make elections happen

They’ve been called “the unsung heroes of democracy”, and in the past few years the UK’s electoral administrators have been facing unprecedented challenges that have imposed enormous strains on our voting system.

Multiple general and local elections, a new system of electoral registration, and referendums on Scottish independence and UK membership of the European Union have stretched – almost to breaking point – the resources of the country’s electoral administrators. And this year, their efforts to continue providing electoral services to the high standard they always strive for has been tested further.

Here are just five of the major challenges facing the people who deliver democracy.

1. The European Parliament Elections

It’s the poll that UK voters weren’t expecting to be part of. But because Brexit didn’t happen as planned, the UK was obliged to take part in the elections to the European Parliament.

Making elections happen is no small matter, involving months of planning and many different agencies, including central and local authorities, non-statutory bodies, partners and contractors, such as the police and postal services. Printing of ballot papers, arrangements for postal voting, booking polling stations and arranging venues for election counts are just some of the elements that need to be confirmed well in advance of polling day.

When the government confirmed in April that the UK would take part in the European Parliament elections on 23 May, this left electoral administrators with just a few weeks to organise a poll that would usually take months to prepare. Things were further complicated by unpredictable factors. Would enough staff be available to count the votes on a bank holiday weekend? And with forecasts of a higher than expected turnout, would extra ballot boxes be needed?

Initially, it looked as if the elections would be delivered smoothly. However, on Thursday morning, reports began to emerge of citizens from other EU countries being denied the right to vote. Thousands took to social media under the hashtag #deniedmyvote to complain that they had either been turned away from polling stations or barred from voting because of delays in registering them.

The Electoral Commission, which oversees UK elections, acknowledged the problems, and said the very short notice of the UK’s participation in the EU elections had significantly affected election administrators’ ability to inform and register citizens of other EU states intending to vote in the UK.

Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement highlighted the difficulties facing electoral services teams:

“This has caused havoc for electoral administrators tasked with delivering a national poll with extremely short notice.”

The Electoral Commission has promised to review the process, but its chief executive, Bob Posner, has indicated that there are broader lessons to learn:

 “We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.”

2. Trialling voter ID

In 2018, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing.

Earlier this month, further pilots took place during local elections, involving 10 areas of England, including Derby, Mid Sussex, North West Leicestershire and Pendle. The trials required voters to show different types of photo ID and/or non-photo ID in order to be given a ballot paper.

The pilot schemes involved additional work for electoral administrators. Voters had to be informed well in advance of polling day about which forms of identification were valid in each area, and staff required additional training on delivering the identification requirements. In three areas voters could apply for local identification cards, while two areas used technology to scan QR codes on voters’ polling cards. Before the 2019 pilots began, two councils pulled out of the trial, with one believing it was too much work on top of a boundary review, and another expressing concerns about the time needed to inform the electorate about the changes.

Although an evaluation of the 2018 trials found that Returning Officers and their staff in polling stations were able to run the new processes without any significant problems, the Electoral Commission was not able to draw definitive conclusions on how a voter identification requirement would operate in the future across the country, or at polls with higher levels of turnout.

The authors of the report also found it impossible to say whether the requirements actually prevented attempts to commit electoral fraud at elections. Critics of Voter ID say the relatively low levels of fraud in UK elections mean identification is unnecessary, and could put some voters off – particularly the elderly, homeless and people with disabilities – if they do not have the necessary documentation.

It’s still too early to assess the impact of the 2019 trials, but a Local Government Chronicle analysis of the pilots found that almost 700 people were turned away from polling stations operating voter ID pilots and did not return.

3. Funding elections

“Administering elections requires ample resources. Administering them well requires even more”
Benjamin Highton: Political Science and Politics, January 2006

Funding arrangements for elections in the UK are highly complex, with separate personnel and operational costs for electoral registration and elections / referenda, and funding coming from local and central government. But there is surprisingly little information available about the cost of electoral services.

A 2017 University of East Anglia (UEA) study has underlined the difficulties in collecting accurate data about the budgets and spending of electoral organisations. However, the UEA survey found that, while budgets for electoral services have been rising, so too has the cost of managing these services. The authors found “strong evidence of many electoral services being financially stretched.”

Local elections and registration are funded from local authority budgets, and since 2010 they have been significantly affected by the financial restraints imposed by austerity cutbacks. At the same time, election administrators’ resources have been stretched by additional polls, as well as the introduction of a new electoral registration system.

In 2010, the Association of Electoral Administrators called on the UK government to undertake a thorough review of funding and resources required to deliver electoral services. The AEA repeated this call in 2015 and again in 2017, when it described the existing funding model as flawed:

“We remain disappointed that, despite recognising in its response to our 2015 report that general funding arrangements are an ongoing issue, the Government has failed to give any further thought as to how to address it.”

Does this matter? For those who believe elections just happen, their funding might seem of marginal importance. But when lack of resources leads to electoral mismanagement, the consequences for public confidence in democracy could be grave.

4. Improving communications about elections

The past week has underlined the importance of spreading the word to voters in order to ensure that they know when, where and how to vote in forthcoming polls.

The issue of elections communications was put in the spotlight earlier this year in a Local Government information Unit (LGiU) report.

The report focused on local elections, and expressed concern about falling turnout, suggesting that factors may include voters being unaware about candidates and their policies, difficulties in finding out local election results and a sense that local democracy is somehow “lesser democracy”.

The report went on to provide councils with tips on improving elections communications. The advice included simple guidance, such as:

  • providing photographs of preparations for elections and of the count
  • posting the results of elections on council websites
  • using social media to raise awareness about registration, voting information and other election-related information

In addition, websites such as Where Do I Vote and Who Can I Vote For can deploy council-supplied information to raise awareness about local elections and candidates – some councils are also highlighting these sites on their own websites.

The report highlighted examples of good practice. These include efforts by Kirklees Council to convey the many different aspects of delivering local democracy, and the inventive use of infographics by Coventry City Council to display election results quickly and clearly.

These techniques are all helpful in raising awareness about the opportunity to take part in decisions that could affect the way we are governed at local and national levels. As the LGiU report concludes:

“Proactive, open and transparent communication about elections does not guarantee active engagement with local government, but it is the essential base on which we build democratic involvement.”

5. Enabling blind / partially sighted people to vote

A functioning democracy is one where anyone entitled to vote is able to vote – and that includes people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, a High Court decision highlighted the difficulties facing blind and partially-sighted people when they enter a polling station.

The ruling concerned a tactile voting device (TVD), a transparent plastic overlay that fits on top of the ballot paper, with cut-out sections for the voter to mark their vote. However, even with the device, blind or partially sighted voters still require assistance to read the names on the ballots. The High Court ruling, delivered earlier this month, said the provision of a TVD “does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote”, and described it as “a parody of the electoral process”.

The challenge is to find and implement a solution that allows blind people to vote independently, while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. Elsewhere, new technology has been used, such as a telephone dictation system in New Zealand and a combination of audio and braille systems in Germany.

Perhaps the most effective solution would be a web-based system, enabling all voters to cast their votes online. But the UK government has been reluctant to introduce electronic voting because of concerns about fraud and security.

In the meantime, 350,000 people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted are waiting for the day when they can vote independently and in secret, just like the rest of the electorate.

Final thoughts

Former prime minister Harold Wilson once observed that a week is a long time in politics. The truth of that statement has been brought home in the past seven days, which has seen another attempt to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament, significant results in the European Parliament elections, and the announcement of the current prime minister’s resignation.

Interesting times lie ahead, and it’s not out of the question that the UK’s electoral administrators could soon be called upon once again to help voters play their part in shaping the country’s political future. Unsung heroes they may be, but our democracy depends on them.


Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management. Find out more here.

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How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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Lessons from America: ideas and caveats from the US midterm elections

This month, a new session of the United States Congress met for the first time since November’s mid-term elections. The election results brought mixed fortunes for the country’s main political parties. Although the Republicans retained control of the US Senate, the Democrats gained the seats they needed to take control of the House of Representatives.

Beyond the impact on American politics, the 2018 vote shone a light on the management of elections in the US, with a particular focus on registration and voting issues arising on election day. It’s worth taking a closer look to see if the midterms offer any lessons for the UK system of voting.

Voter Registration

Electoral registration is an important and often highly sensitive issue. The validity of elections depends on ensuring a high turnout, which means encouraging all eligible voters to ensure their names are on the electoral register.

In the United States, electoral registration is very complicated, as each of the fifty states has its own registration rules, processes, and deadlines. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law has described the US voter registration system as ‘broken’, and ‘a chief cause of long lines and election day chaos’

During the run-up to the mid-term elections, many states reported record numbers of voter registrations, reflecting intense media attention and the widely held view that the mid-terms represented a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. On national voter registration day alone, 865,000 people registered to vote, compared to the 154,500 people who had registered in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that some states have been making it harder for US citizens to register, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalised groups. A report in The New York Times highlighted attempts in Alabama and several other states to require proof of citizenship before granting the right to register to vote in state and local elections. There were also reports that strict voter registration requirements had disproportionately disadvantaged students in New Hampshire, that poorly labelled forms prevented more than 300,000 voters in Arizona from updating their voter registration information, and that manipulation of voter rolls had been taking place in Georgia and Ohio.

One possible way of overcoming these problems is automatic voter registration (AVR). The Brennan Center for Justice reports that fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, and more states are expected to join the list. The policy streamlines registration by making it opt-out instead of opt-in for eligible citizens who interact with government agencies. For example, under AVR anyone issued with a driver’s licence has their details passed to the electoral registration authorities and they are then automatically registered to vote.

The impact of AVR has been striking. Since Oregon became the first state in the US to implement AVR in 2016 voter registration rates have quadrupled, while in the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont in 2017, registration rates jumped by 62%.

Election day voting issues

The record numbers registering to vote was a foretaste of the turnout for the mid-term elections.  An estimated 114 million votes were cast by voters for the House of Representatives. This was a significant increase on the 83 million votes cast in 2014, and the first time a midterm election surpassed 100 million votes.

However, the figure could have been higher. Across the US, there were reports of delays in polling stations opening, long queues of people waiting to vote and extensions to the scheduled closing times. In many cases, the problems were caused by technical issues and equipment failures due to the use of ageing voting machines. Unlike UK voters, for many years, Americans have been using a variety of devices to cast their votes, from punch card systems to touch-screen technology. However, in the most recent elections, 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most existing systems are no longer manufactured.

From broken ballot scanners in New York to machines changing votes in South Carolina and untested technology in Michigan, the technical difficulties heightened fears that inadequate equipment could undermine faith in democracy.

Another election day issue concerned the requirement for voter ID. Ten US states require eligible citizens to present some form of government-issued identification before they can vote. But 11% of Americans don’t have the relevant ID and certain groups, such as black communities, those on low incomes and students are even less likely to have the required documentation.

The problem has been compounded by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act introduced to protect minority voters. The 1965 Act required states to obtain permission from the federal government before changing voting laws. The 2013 ruling in effect struck down practices that helped make sure voting was fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

Following the ruling, the state of Alabama enacted a strict voter ID law, which remained in force for the 2018 mid term elections. The state dismissed claims from civil rights groups that an estimated 118,000 potential voters lacked the necessary photo ID.

Lessons for the UK?

Registration

In 2014, the UK government replaced household registration with Individual Electoral Registration. While the new system improved the accuracy of the register and helped to counter fraud, there are concerns that certain groups of voters – such as students, private renters and young adults –  might be falling off the electoral register.

The success of AVR in the US suggests that this method of registration can ensure that these and other groups don’t miss out on voting, for example because they’ve forgotten to register after moving home.  The UK’s Electoral Commission has advocated an automatic registration scheme similar to that in Oregon, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government, from getting a driving licence to applying for benefits.

Voting technology

Much has been made of internet voting as a way of improving turnout at elections. Estonia has pioneered online voting for parliamentary elections, but only a few countries have followed their example. In the UK, pilot schemes involving internet voting have taken place at local level, but there are no plans to introduced online voting for national polls. However, e-counting (the electronic counting of ballot papers) is becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe. An e-counting solution developed by Idox has been used successfully for elections in Scotland, Norway and Malta, resulting in considerable  improvements in speed and accuracy of results.  The problems caused by obsolete technology in the US elections underline the importance of ensuring the mechanics of elections systems are up to delivering transparent, fair democracy.

Voter ID

Concerns about election fraud has prompted the UK government to consider voter ID. During last year’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. While some saw the trials as successful, others argued that the fact that hundreds of voters were turned away because they did not have the relevant documentation proves the policy of voter ID is misguided. Further trials of voter ID have been proposed, but these are being challenged.  The American experiences of voter ID raises questions about the exclusion of citizens from exercising their democratic rights.

Final thoughts

Delivering transparent, fair and accessible elections is never straightforward, but the challenge is all the greater in one of the world’s biggest democracies. America’s midterm elections may have changed the landscape of the country’s politics, but they’ve also provided ideas and caveats to exercise the minds of electoral administrators on this side of the Atlantic.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on elections: