A better place for everyone: how investing in social infrastructure could be the key to levelling up

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Social infrastructure is a broad term which covers a range of services which meet the local and strategic needs of an area. It can defined in many different ways, depending on which reports you read, but definitions often include:

  • physical places, services and spaces like youth services, community health, recreation, green space and sport and education and outreach services;
  • community organisations, such as voluntary groups, charitable groups, neighbourhood fora, local business groups and social enterprises; and
  • the physical and social links between places and people, including digital infrastructure, and walking and cycling infrastructure.

While the definition is broad and sometimes disputed, one thing that is generally agreed on is that social infrastructure is a key part of joining up physical infrastructure with services and communities for the benefit of the people who live and work in an area.  It is important for social cohesion and effective placemaking and for that reason it has been highlighted by many commentators as a key part of the levelling up agenda.

A cornerstone of public life in our towns and cities

Many commentators have emphasised the role of “informal” spaces, libraries, parks, recreational spaces and community hubs as being overlooked and undervalued in the wider discussions of services and provisions within local areas for many years.

It seemed there was a perception that many of the services covered by the collective term “social infrastructure” were considered to be “supplementary” to core services delivered at a local level, like social work, and while the work they did within the community was recognised as positive, often they were first in line for cuts to services.

However, in recent years, the wider intangible value that these spaces and communities which social infrastructure supports has become recognised. Social infrastructure plays a vital role in supporting disadvantaged and marginalised groups within communities, often providing links to key services and support for people who had previously had significant barriers to access. More broadly social infrastructure can help with preventative and early intervention, with policies and investment that can reduce the need for more intensive (and expensive) support later on.

It is now considered common practice that investment should maximise public or ‘social’ value that is investments that deliver the best solutions to support the public good. In practice this means including wider non-financial considerations such as community wellbeing and environmental sustainability when making the business case, and prioritising and planning projects that achieve positive social value outcomes for the public.

Supporting inclusive growth, levelling up and the post pandemic recovery

Having poor social infrastructure has been found to contribute to the lack of inclusive growth and levels of low productivity for left behind communities. Even before the coronavirus pandemic The Inclusive Growth Commission called for investment not just in physical infrastructure in poorer communities but in the social infrastructure which ‘develops the capacities and capabilities of individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in society and economic growth’. The most deprived communities often have the worst social infrastructure, which can exacerbate already deep rooted inequalities around areas like wealth, health and race.

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, published in 2018, highlights research that demonstrates how social infrastructure affects our personal and collective wellbeing, leading to safer, healthier, more tolerant and stable communities, and facilitates social capital the connections made between people. As we seek to “level up” those communities left behind, and those most significantly impacted by the pandemic, building these connections and improving social capital will be an important tool to help communities develop.

Research from Frontier Economics, published in June 2021, found that for every £1m invested, there are likely to be economic and fiscal returns worth £3.2m, including a £0.7m boost in employment, training and skills opportunities for local residents. And the Centre for Progressive Policy has illustrated in their recent programme of work that investment in social infrastructure plays a vital role in increasing the ​“health and skill levels of more deprived sections of the population and reducing place-based inequalities in line with the government’s levelling up agenda,” as well as offering good value for money and significant productivity returns.

Final thoughts

High quality and inclusive social infrastructure and its wider role in the creation of socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities is key to a successful levelling up agenda. New investment in social infrastructure will not only help to level Britain up, it will also unlock creativity, innovation and other local resources that can help rebuild the economy and build in local resilience for the future.


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Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

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By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

The benefits of third sector research for policy and practice engagement

By Bonnie Thomson

Policy determines almost every aspect of our lives. It dictates the social, ecological and economic conditions around us and acts as the backbone to a functioning society.

For policy to be fair and reflective of everyone’s needs, it should have a solid grounding in evidence. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector research can have a huge part to play in evidence-based policy development. Organisations in this sector tend to be embedded in the communities they serve and operate on a “values-driven” basis, making them ideal candidates to represent those from all facets of society who may not otherwise be represented in the policy sphere.

Using third sector research to influence policy and practice was the focus of a recent Policy Scotland webinar, where guests from across the sector shared insights and experiences of harnessing their third sector research projects as vehicles for policy engagement.

Developing projects with policy in mind

Dr Hannah Tweed of Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland commenced her presentation by emphasising the importance of allowing real life experience to guide policy. Her project, which focused on experiences of self-directed support in Scotland, was co-produced with peer researchers who utilised their lived experience of social care to direct the design of the study – including which areas to focus on and how best to phrase questions.

Hannah went on to discuss how the team sought to involve local authorities and third sector partners working in social care in the development stage of the project. In doing so they benefitted from practical expertise on how to distribute surveys and conduct interviews in the most accessible formats. This helped to reduce barriers to participation and ensure a wider range of responses.

Engaging governing bodies early on in the project was also a reliable way of garnering interest which could be useful for policy influence down the line. Third sector partners offered invaluable local knowledge and contacts which may not have been reached without the power of word-of-mouth. Additionally, by invoking this level of cross-sectoral input in the project, the team were able to amplify the magnitude of the research, making as many people aware as possible.

Communications and dissemination

A steady stream of communications was also cited as key to policy impact and engagement. Robbie Calvert of the Royal Town Planning Institute discussed this in relation to his 20 minute neighbourhoods research.

Reports, news releases, policy briefs and social media posts were just some of the project outputs that Robbie highlighted as being crucial to gaining and maintaining traction around his research. Timing was a key element for disseminating research outputs, as this piece of work began to take shape around the time of the 2019 general election. Seizing an opportunity, Robbie and his team lobbied with party spokespersons and researchers across the political spectrum, delivering regular consultations and briefs. The end result was that almost every political party featured 20-minute neighbourhoods or a similar idea in their manifestos, which gave a strong sense of added value for the concept.

Both Hannah and Robbie discussed the merits of a succinct set of recommendations, covering large and small issues, in gaining the attention of policy makers. Hannah explained that policy recommendations at the small scale should not be forgotten as they can act as useful, simple outcomes to meet and complement the larger, national changes. Recommendations should be robust, showing consideration for practicalities and cost implications, whilst also painting a clear picture of “where next” for policy, practice and future research avenues.

Knowing your stakeholders

Dr Sarah Weakley of Policy Scotland rounded off the webinar by highlighting the importance of well-defined stakeholders in achieving policy influence. She began by describing how best to position a piece of research within the policy landscape. This involves working out which policy actors are key players in the area, what kind of work they have been known to engage with in the past, and, crucially, what new perspectives can be offered. Taking the example of poverty, she explained:

“We know about poverty, it has been with us forever, there’s nothing new about it. What can be added are some of the new solutions that your research might point to.”

Knowing the policy space was noted by all three speakers as being key to achieving influence. Sarah followed this up by acknowledging that the range of policy stakeholders is far wider than just central government. Some examples of other lesser-considered policy actors include:

  • think tanks;
  • community planning partnerships;
  • other third sector organisations; and
  • universities.

Establishing a network of groups and individuals who are doing work either directly or tangentially in a similar field and forging connections was a message echoed by all speakers. Sarah summarised this most succinctly by stating that policy making is based on relationships. Knowing not just the kind of work being done in an area, but also the people working in and around the area, is essential for exerting influence.

A key piece of advice offered was to not be afraid of reaching out to those in the sphere. Policy makers are usually looking for expertise in a broader sense, rather than a very narrow specialism on one specific topic – meaning research can be beneficial in policy areas which may seem digressive at first glance. Moreover, cuts to local authority departments over the years mean that there has been a decline in in-house research capacity. As such, there can often be more enthusiasm for external engagement. On this note, Sarah explained that local authority engagement can also influence practice on a grander scale if you can find the “right” person, making a further case for the necessity of networking.

Final thoughts

This webinar provided invaluable information on how to use third sector research to influence policy and practice. Each speaker gave practical advice on designing a far-reaching research project, disseminating outputs to the right people at the right time, and understanding the policy landscape – all contextualised neatly within their own research.

Evidence-based policy making is integral to building an equitable society that functions effectively for everyone. Third sector organisations conducting novel and meaningful research are well-placed to contribute to this and have the tools to enact real policy change. The guidance from this session could be a useful starting point for organisations looking to maximise their social impact and alter the policy landscape for the better.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on the third sector and policy making

Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

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Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

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Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

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Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

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Take yourself back to the beginning of the last decade, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister, the term Brexit has yet to be coined, and the Nokia 1280 was the world’s best-selling phone. In the ten years that followed it’s no understatement to say that the world is almost an unrecognisably different place. And that’s before we even discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consider the widespread roll-out of high-speed internet and the adoption of smartphones: the development of both of these technologies has massively expanded the locations in which we can learn, work, shop, and consume and produce media. In 2010, 28% of the UK population actively used a smartphone, by 2019, it had almost trebled to 82%.

Developing the digital economy

The widespread adoption of devices that provide users with the ability to easily access the internet and download applications has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Apple estimates that the iOS App Store in the UK alone has generated more than £3.6 billion in total earnings and supports up to 330,000 jobs. Analysis by Vodafone has estimated that the UK internet economy is now worth £82 billion – that’s 5.7% of the UK’s GDP.

Put simply, in the space of a decade, technological advancements have enabled the development of an almost entirely new sector of the economy and changed the way we all interact with each other.

Unfortunately, not everyone experienced the benefits of the digital age, as can be seen by the numerous closures of big-name high-street retailers. Many of these failed to anticipate the pace and extent to which consumers would embrace e-commerce and online-only retailers, such as Asos and Amazon. The failure to anticipate the speed at which people would begin to use smartphones, gain access to high-speed internet, and shop online is a prime example of the need for futures thinking.

Embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking (sometimes known as strategic foresight) is an approach that can help identify the drivers of change that will shape the world in the future. Crucially, futures thinking is not about predicting the future, rather, it’s about considering how the numerous plausible potential futures may have an impact on today’s decisions or policymaking. A key element of futures thinking is the need to embrace uncertainty, and accept that our future is not predetermined and can be altered at any time, by any number of factors.

Techniques that are commonly used within futures thinking include:

–       Horizon scanning

–       Axes of uncertainty

–       SWOT analysis

–       Backcasting

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no set approach to futures thinking; it’s flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of any organisation. This flexibility is something that the Government Office for Science highlights as a key benefit, as it actively encourages “creative approaches” and supports a high level of customisation.

If we apply this to the previously mentioned example of the widespread adoption of smartphones in the 2010s, you can see how futures thinking may have been a useful approach to help decide how much focus traditional retailers placed on developing their online stores. For example, most of the evidence at the time concurred that the use of smartphones and e-commerce would gradually grow. However, the pace at which they would grow was relatively unpredictable.

Therefore, a futures thinking approach may have considered how different paces of smartphone adoption may impact the number of people shopping online. This may have been useful to determine the level of investment required to develop an online platform that would meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of online shoppers.

Creating a futures culture

Taking a long view and considering how future events may impact the decisions you make today can have several benefits. One of these is the development of more resilient policies which can take advantage of changing circumstances, and mitigate against potential risks. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (New Zealand) contends that this approach allows for the creation of “policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events”.

Additionally, the Government Office for Science, argues that even just by undertaking futures thinking exercises, an organisation’s focus can be shifted towards a more long-term outlook. In turn, this can generate new ideas and approaches, which can lead to innovative solutions to potential future challenges.

In short, futures thinking can facilitate an entire culture change, and create organisations that are more responsive and proactive in addressing emerging opportunities and challenges.

Limitations

Naturally, futures thinking does have its limitations. It’s not always an appropriate approach and it cannot anticipate every possible eventuality.

For futures thinking to be successful, it’s important to recognise that it provides the best results in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty. As a result, in scenarios where there is relative certainty surrounding changes that may affect a policy, there is little benefit to adopting a futures thinking approach.

Futures thinking can also be complex, trying to envision and anticipate numerous eventualities can be difficult and requires an element of trial-and-error to explore the tools and approaches that will be useful for each organisation. In particular, it’s important to consider the scope and objectives of any futures thinking exercise, as there is potential to take too wide a view of an issue and over-extrapolate data. This runs the risk of ignoring the context of an issue, which may highlight that certain scenarios won’t conform to typical linear prediction models.

Final thoughts

Amid a global pandemic, where certainty is regularly sought after but rarely found, a futures thinking approach may be useful to help those who make decisions and create policy.

Lockdowns, vaccines, and other public health mitigations do look like they will provide us with a chance to live with the virus , and get back to something that resembles normality. However, the potential for new variants of concern to develop and spread around the world creates a level of uncertainty. Futures thinking provides the framework in which to consider how each of these potential eventualities, may impact the decisions and policies made today.

In short, in a world where certainly is hard to come by, futures thinking may provide us with a way in which to continue to create policy and make decisions that can continue to be advanced no matter what the future brings. However, for this to happen, it’s important to remember that no one can truly predict the future.


If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

–       Changing government, changing society: what now for public innovation?

–       Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

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

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Devolving health and social care in England: an opportunity to transform how we approach health and care?

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In recent years, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has increasingly encouraged the transfer of powers over health and social care in England away from central government and towards city regions. These bodies, DHSC argues, are uniquely placed to understand the challenges faced by their local populations, the capacities and expertise of their local NHS and to develop plans for the future. This should enable them to approach health at a local level, promoting increased delivery of care in the community, and a greater integration between health and care services.

Putting local places at the centre of “Build back better”

In August 2020 the Health Devolution Commission launched its final report, Building back health and prosperity. Among other themes, like taking a “health in all policies approach”, the report found that devolving accountability and power to a more local level creates the potential to understand communities and places better, and to meet their needs.

The NHS Long Term Plan has also outlined a new direction for the NHS based on the principle of collaboration rather than competition, and the introduction of new structures such as Integrated Care Systems, Integrated Care Providers and Primary Care Networks. These partnerships bring health and social care commissioners together to plan and deliver integrated and person-centred care.

In the context of “building back better”, awareness of how our external experiences and contexts impact our health and wellbeing (for example the impact of poverty, deprivation, housing, and unemployment) is increasingly important.

Beyond the immediate recovery from the pandemic, health devolution could be one way of opening up the possibility of integrating not just disparate services within the NHS – or even NHS and social care services in a locality – but bringing together in a combined strategy and structure all of the services, systems and partners in a community that have an impact upon the health of a local population, and the care services to better meet their health needs.

“It doesn’t have to be a battle”- partnerships and balance are the key to effective devolution

The move away from centralised processes and organisations towards more local ones can sometimes be portrayed as a rejection or an attempt to “break free” from central government. However, practitioners have been increasingly stressing that devolution does not mean complete independence, and that while improved local decision making will improve outcomes for local people, that does not mean that the need for some centralised decision making is completely removed.

On the contrary, some decisions should and will be taken at a national level, but the ability to distribute power, decision making and accountability to a local level will have significant positive impacts for improving “citizen voice”, transparency and co-production in decision making.

This is where the Health Devolution Commission argues that balance, communication, and partnership between the local and national infrastructure needs to be aligned so that devolution can be successful and sustainable. Integrated planning and management of long-term health care strategies is important, as is the ability to bring citizens and local decision makers into discussions about national health policy.

The Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, including patient voice and carers organisations, also plays an important role in linking together services and communities. As well as partnering to deliver services, these organisations also often offer vital bridges between statutory systems and those communities which can often be excluded from engagement with services or who can find it harder to access them. The commission also emphasised the importance of bringing these bodies into the conversation on devolution going forwards as they will be invaluable partners in the process.

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

DevoManc providing the blueprint?

In 2016, as part of a pilot, control of the health and social care budget for Greater Manchester was transferred to a partnership team in the area comprising local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, NHS foundation trusts and NHS England.

The combined authority identified that the health of its population was one of the key obstacles to its economic growth. By relating the concept of regional economic prosperity with health, they began to see health in a completely different way – as part of a wider plan and an investment for growth, not a burden.

“It’s better to have decisions made locally, because local people understand what local problems are and what Greater Manchester needs. We need to work together.”

Lord Peter Smith, Chair of Greater Manchester Health and Care Board

The Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership are working in partnership with other sectors including education and housing to support everything from good eating habits and exercise to education and everyone’s ability to earn a decent living. The partnership is taking action to give children the start they need, support independence in old age, tackle illness earlier on and even prevent it altogether by improving the lifestyles of local people.

Other areas of England are also currently undertaking their own health devolution journeys, including London, West Yorkshire and Harrogate, as well as some other combined authority areas. However, one of the big challenges is that currently, while we can learn from the experiences of those already on their devolution journey, there is no common, consistent or comprehensive understanding of what good heath devolution looks like, full evaluations of the benefits it brings or overarching strategies on how it should be developed.

This is something that will need to be addressed if health devolution is to be successfully rolled out across England.

Final thoughts

Devolution of health to a more local level provides an opportunity to tackle the big public health challenges of our time at source, and to create a better, more joined up community health ecosystem. It also provides the chance to share and collaborate, learning from best practice and delivering improved health and social care services at a regional and national level.

It has been suggested that the coronavirus pandemic, while traumatic in more ways than one for the NHS and its staff, may provide the re-setting point needed to implement some of the changes proposed in relation to greater health devolution. Proponents of this view argue that improved funding to support effective and high quality care, improved integration between health and social care, and greater positioning of health and assessment of the impact of decisions on health across all policy areas, should be among the top priorities as the country looks to recover from the pandemic.

As the Health Devolution Commission underlines:

The pandemic has shown we cannot go back to the way things were. We need a ‘new normal’ and we believe that comprehensive health devolution is the only viable solution to the challenges the country now faces.”


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The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 2

A window of opportunity

In policymaking, there is a concept known as the “Overton Window”, which describes the range of policies that politicians can propose without being considered too extreme by the population at large. This window of opportunity can be shifted and can allow for policies that in the past may have been considered unthinkable and radical to become mainstream and even sensible.

The impact of Covid-19 and the public health measures that have been required to suppress the virus, have undoubtedly resulted in a shift in the “Overton Window”. Policy interventions, such as the Job Retention Scheme and national lockdown, which involved massive amounts of government spending and restrictions to every aspect of our day-to-day lives, suddenly became normal and were largely approved of by the public.

In these circumstances, the concept of the Green New Deal, a policy package which involves large amounts of government spending, designed to create green jobs, develop green infrastructure and modernise the economy, may no longer be such an unfeasible idea.

Build back better: a green recovery

The economic impact of Covid-19 is expected to result in a 5.2% contraction of global GDP, amounting to the deepest global depression since 1945. In order to recover from this contraction, governments are formulating unprecedentedly large economic stimulus packages, designed to mitigate the economic and social damage created by the pandemic. Already there are numerous examples of governments utilising aspects of the Green New Deal within their economic recovery plans.

European Union

Next Generation EU – A European Green Deal

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission was already working on creating a European Green Deal, which would support the EU transition to climate neutrality by 2050. After the onset of the pandemic, the European Commission moved to position the Green Deal as a key pillar of the EU’s €750 billion recovery package, known as Next Generation EU. 25% of the recovery package has been dedicated to funding climate action, whilst the entire package features a commitment that any money spent as part of the EU’s economic recovery must “do no harm” to the EU’s climate neutrality goal. The recovery package includes policies that are similar in nature to other Green Deals, including:

  • a €40 billion ‘Just Transition Fund’, to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the green transition and diversify economic activity;
  • a €91 billion a year fund to improve home energy efficiency and develop low carbon heating;
  • the introduction of an EU-wide border tax on carbon-intensive industrial imports with the potential to raise €14 billion.

French Government

France Relaunch

The French government’s recently announced €100 billion stimulus package, includes a €30 billion package of measures designed to aid France’s transition to carbon neutrality. The measures set out within the package incorporate core elements from Green New Deals, such as developing cleaner forms of transport and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. The package includes the following green measures:

  • a €11 billion investment in developing and encouraging the use of green transport methods, nearly €5 billion of which will be used to upgrade rail lines to encourage freight traffic from road to rail;
  • a €6 billion investment to help improve the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings;
  • A €2 billion investment to help develop the hydrogen sector.

Scottish Government

Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland

Within this year’s Scottish Government Programme, it is evident from the first page that it views the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to create a  “fairer, greener and wealthier country”. The programme explicitly describes the measures contained as “the next tranche of our Green New Deal” and borrows extensively from existing Green New Deals, with policies including:

  • a £100 million green Job Creation Fund;
  • a £1.6 billion investment to decarbonise the heating of homes and other buildings;
  • a £62 million Energy Transition Fund to support businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors over the next five years to grow and diversify;
  • capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank with £2 billion over ten years, with a primary mission to support the transition to net zero emissions.

UK Government

A Plan for Jobs

A key element of the UK Government’s plans to support and develop the labour market is the creation of green jobs, through investment in infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a principle which is at the core of the Green New Deal. The Plan for Jobs includes similar proposals, such as:

  • a £2 billion Green Homes Grant scheme that will provide homeowners and landlords with vouchers to spend on improving the energy efficiency of homes across the UK;
  • a £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme that will offer grants to public sector bodies, including schools and hospitals, to fund both energy efficiency and low carbon heat upgrades;
  • a £40 million Green Jobs Challenge Fund for environmental charities and public authorities to create and protect 5,000 jobs in England.

Final thoughts

The concept of the Green New Deal is one that appears to evolve and shift as time goes on. This is unfortunately to be expected as time runs out for governments to take meaningful action to avert rising global temperatures. The transition to carbon neutrality is one that will undoubtedly result in massive changes to almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and therefore it is not surprising that the journey to reach this point may require bold and unprecedented action.

However, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, it would have been unimaginable to consider the levels of spending and intervention that governments would be required to take in order to implement a Green New Deal. The shift to carbon neutrality involves a complete reimagining of the economy and requires a great deal of public support, in particular when the energy transition may threaten the jobs of those who work in carbon-intensive industries.

In a post-Covid era, the concept of governments spending huge sums of money and making unprecedented interventions is now our everyday reality. The economic consequences of the pandemic will require an extraordinary response to ensure that its legacy is not one of increasing levels of unemployment, inequality and stagnation. In this new world, the ambition and wide-ranging nature of the Green New Deal may no longer be seen as unfeasible. In fact, as can be seen in the UK and Europe, governments are already looking to implement various elements of the Green New Deal as part of their economic recovery packages. Perhaps the Green New Deal is about to have its time.


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Part one of this blog post was published on Monday 14 September.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19: