Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

Follow us on Twitter to see what is interesting our research team.

Record number of rough sleepers – is enough being done?

homelessBy Heather Cameron

Rising for the seventh consecutive year, the number of rough sleepers in England has more than doubled since 2010. This is despite various initiatives over the years and a recent surge in political activity around homelessness.

The government has committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027 but given this alarming growth, it is difficult to see how this will be realised. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent revelation by the UK’s new Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler, that she doesn’t know why these figures have increased so significantly in recent years.

Highest ever recorded level – an underestimate

The government’s most recent annual rough sleeping count shows the highest ever recorded level. On a given night in autumn last year 4,751 people were recorded sleeping rough – an increase of 15% on the previous year and 169% since 2010.

However, the actual figure has been suggested to be much higher as these estimates only count the number of people sleeping rough on one night.

Recent research by homelessness charity, Crisis, found that more than 8,000 people were currently sleeping rough across England, predicted to rise to 15,000 by 2026, if nothing changes. The base estimate for rough sleepers across the UK is 9,100 – a figure that Crisis suggests is set to rise by 76% in the next ten years. And even these figures are recognised as an underestimate.

What’s behind this surge?

Lack of housing and rising property prices, along with government cuts and welfare reforms have been widely blamed for the increase in rough sleeping. However, Heather Wheeler has also said that she did not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise.

Despite admitting she did not know the reason for the huge increase, Wheeler did hint at two contributory factors. She referred to a “classic” reason for rough sleeping as coming out of prison with no support and “a real problem in London with people coming over [mainly from Europe] for jobs, sofa surfing with friends, and then the job changes and they have a problem.”

Wheeler also highlighted the lack of supply of affordable housing as the real issue. Indeed, Crisis has also highlighted this as a particular issue that, if addressed, could lead to ‘particularly noteworthy’ reductions in rough sleeping.

But while lack of supply is cited as an issue by most, so too are welfare reforms and funding cuts – including by a recent parliamentary briefing paper:

“Factors identified as contributing to the ongoing flow of new rough sleepers to the streets include: welfare reforms, particularly reductions in entitlement to Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance; reduced investment by local authorities in homeless services; and flows of non-UK nationals who are unable to access benefits.”

A recent report from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint reported that 85% of local authorities said welfare reform aimed at young people is a barrier to delivering housing duties. It also highlighted a need for more funding.

Findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have also shown that government cuts mean that housing benefit no longer covers rent for almost 70% of people in social housing.

‘A step in the right direction’

Successive governments have introduced initiatives to tackle rough sleeping, including: The Rough Sleepers InitiativeNo One Left Out and No Second Night Out.

More recently, there has been a surge of activity around homelessness which could provide grounds for optimism. The government has pledged £28 million for Housing First pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. This approach has been proven to reduce rough sleeping in other countries and a recent study in the Liverpool City region concluded the scheme could save £4 million compared with current homelessness services.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced last month, gives local authorities new responsibilities to step in earlier to prevent homelessness and support more people facing homelessness. Concerns have however been raised that councils will be unable to fulfil their new duties due to a lack of funding.

The government has also announced a new package of measures to tackle rough sleeping, which includes:

  • a new Rough Sleeping Team made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts to drive reductions in rough sleeping
  • a £30 million fund for 2018 to 2019 with further funding agreed for 2019 to 2020 for local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping
  • £100,000 funding to support frontline Rough Sleeping workers to make sure they have the right skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable rough sleepers.

Crisis has described the government’s new rough sleeping initiative as “a step in the right direction” but argues that “it falls short of what’s required to truly end rough sleeping”.

Way forward

The evidence suggests that the rise in rough sleeping numbers is down to a number of contributory factors, including welfare reforms and funding cuts. And while the recent surge in activity is welcomed, frustration remains over the government’s failure to recognise the “baleful influence of welfare reforms”.

The chief executive of Crisis has argued that if the government doesn’t invest in social housing and change direction on welfare reform, any reduction in rough sleeping won’t be sustainable:

“We must acknowledge that the continued rise in rough sleeping is a result of welfare cuts, decline in social housing, soaring private rents and chronically underfunded support services. Until we do we will only be tackling the symptoms and not the causes.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on housing solutions for prisoners and Finland’s Housing First approach.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

It has been widely argued that securing adequate housing for ex-offenders reduces rates of recidivism. However, it is not uncommon for a person to be released from prison with nowhere to live and there have been criticisms over the statutory support available for prison leavers, and the lack of housing options available on release.

Being homeless on release from prison can lead to a downward spiral, re-offending and more prison time, incurring substantial social and economic costs for all concerned. The annual cost of re-offending to the economy in the UK has been estimated at between £9.5 and £13 billion.

Housing linked to re-offending

Various studies have highlighted the link between housing and recidivism and the importance of housing support for rehabilitation.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) back in 1996 highlighted that ex-prisoners are more likely to re-offend if they do not find satisfactory accommodation on release – two-thirds of ex-prisoners with no satisfactory accommodation re-offended within 12 months of release, while just a quarter of those with good accommodation did so.

The Social Exclusion Unit highlighted in a 2002 study that housing was one of the factors that had a “huge impact” on re-offending and that having stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth.

A report published in 2012, found that three-fifths (60%) of prisoners believed that having a place to live was important in stopping them from re-offending in the future. It also found that 15% of people in prison were homeless prior to custody. More than three-quarters of prisoners (79%) who reported being homeless before custody were re-convicted in the first year after release, compared with less than half (47%) of those who did not report being homeless before custody.

The Howard League of Penal Reform has highlighted that a third of people leaving prison say they have nowhere to go. If those on remand are included, it is estimated that this could represent up to 50,000 people annually.

Further, the rough sleeping in London report (CHAIN) found that 32% of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of prison, indicating that a significant number hidden homeless are ex-offenders.

Such statistics suggest a clear link between housing and re-offending. It has even been suggested that ex-prisoners have intentionally re-offended to avoid homelessness.

 ‘Inadequate’ housing support

The JRF report found that the general level of housing support received by prisoners was ‘inadequate’.

Worryingly, 15 years after this report, Barnardo’s highlighted the need for improved support for young ex-offenders as it found children as young as 13 were being released from custody without a safe place to live. Barnardo’s argued that supported accommodation on release from custody could produce savings of more than £67,000 per individual over a three-year period.

A review of probation services carried out in 2014 also criticised the system, finding that:

“contact between offenders and offender supervisors or managers varied considerably and even where there was good contact, this had little impact on accommodation and ETE [employment, training and education] outcomes at the point of release, although contacts were more effective post-release. Sentence planning and oversight were weak and resettlement work in prisons was insufficiently informed.”

The Public Accounts Committee has more recently noted that “the offender housing problem is deteriorating”, despite probation reforms. And Crisis has also raised concern about the lack of financial or practical support to find accommodation for those leaving prison.

Current action and the Homelessness Reduction Act

Most prisons have a housing and resettlement service called ‘through the gate’, introduced by the government in 2015. However, early reports on these services have not been hopeful, described as “having a negligible impact on reducing prisoner re-offending rates, two years after its introduction.”

Local authorities also have a statutory duty to assist homeless and vulnerable ex-offenders in some circumstances, and if not entitled to social housing, they must provide advice to ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This duty has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England, which has just come into force. The Act puts an obligation on prison or probation services to notify a local authority if they believe a person to be at risk of homelessness.

Crisis has described the Act as “the most significant change to the homelessness legislation in 40 years”.

In Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and partners launched the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards in December 2017. These standards represent a good example of preventative measures, which aim ‘to ensure that the housing needs of individuals in prison are handled at an early stage, in a consistent way across Scotland, regardless of where they come from, their housing status and how long they have been in prison or young offenders’ institution’.

Will it make a difference?

It is too early to tell whether these actions will have the desired impact but here’s hoping they will be more effective than previous reforms. It has been suggested that such provisions will go some way to help create the culture change needed but that it is not enough.

The evidence points to the need for greater collaboration and partnership working across all sectors.

With the shortage in housing, austerity, and increasing numbers of homeless people among the whole population, it will certainly be no mean feat.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our team.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in:

Universal Credit – “forcing many into debt”

Jul 07 Dealing With Debt - Magnifying Glass

By Heather Cameron

“The biggest change ever made to the benefits system… is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt.”

This is the conclusion of a new report from Citizens Advice on Universal Credit (UC). It warns that the roll-out should be paused to allow ‘significant problems’ to be fixed.

What is Universal Credit?

UC was introduced in 2013, with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, making transitions into work easier and making every hour of work pay. UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with one benefit, to be paid in arrears, as a single household payment, on a monthly basis.

The objective of UC is to help people on low incomes or not in work to meet their living costs. It affects a range of people, both employed and unemployed, disabled people with health conditions, single people, families, homeowners and renters.

Roll-out so far has been gradual but the process is to speed up considerably from October. By the end of roll-out in 2022, it is expected around 7.2 million households will receive UC, over half of which will be in work.

With such a significant number of people affected, it is imperative that the system works in their interests. But evidence from Citizens Advice suggests the system has a number of flaws that need addressing to prevent 7 million households from facing serious financial risk.

And this isn’t the first time similar conclusions have been reached.

Flaws

Back in February, a Guardian investigation found that policy design flaws in UC are pushing thousands of benefit claimants into debt. Former welfare minister Lord Freud also admitted to MPs that administrative problems and design issues with UC are causing around one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction.

In 2016, an inquiry into UC and its implementation by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the inflexibility of the payment systems which may cause financial hardship for some claimants.

Citizens Advice highlight three “significant problems” with UC:

  • people are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income;
  • UC is too complicated and people are struggling to use it; and
  • people aren’t getting help when the system fails them.

The data shows that:

  • more than one in three people helped on UC by Citizens Advice are waiting more than six weeks to receive any income, with 11% waiting over 10 weeks;
  • nearly a third of people helped have to make more than 10 calls to the helpline to sort out their claim;
  • 40% of people helped said they were not aware they could get an advance payment to help with the initial waiting period for their first payment;
  • over half of the people helped borrowed money while waiting for their first payment; and
  • UC clients are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues as those on other benefits.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly highlighted the issue of waiting time, arguing that it required immediate action.

While Citizens Advice support the principles of UC, it argues that pushing ahead with roll-out while these problems remain will only put thousands more families at financial risk.

Recommendations

In response to these findings, a number of short and longer term considerations were highlighted where action will be needed to help secure the aims of UC by the end of roll-out. These include reducing the six week wait for initial payment, improving the support available for those moving onto UC, and helping people achieve financial stability on UC.

The charity recommends that the roll-out is paused while the government addresses the significant issues that have been highlighted. If improvements are not made, it is argued that both UC claimants and the government will face significant financial risks, which will increase rapidly if thousands more households move onto the benefit later this year.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous article on in-work poverty.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments health, social and community care are interesting our research team.

Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Metro mayors – what is their worth?

market_townBy Heather Cameron

As voters went to the polls once again on 4th May for the local elections, six combined authorities in England saw directly-elected metro mayors chosen for the first time, as part of the government’s devolution agenda.

The six areas – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – account for almost 20% of the population of England. This means a third of the English population, including London, now have a directly-elected metro mayor.

Advocates of the role believe metro mayors have the potential to transform both local democracy and local economies. However, not everyone is as supportive.

What are directly-elected metro mayors and what are their responsibilities?

Directly-elected metro mayors are chairs of their area’s combined authority, elected by the local population. Their role involves working in partnership with the combined authority to exercise the powers and functions devolved by central government, set out in the local area’s devolution deal. In contrast to existing city mayors, who are also directly elected, or local council leaders who make decisions for, and on behalf of, their local authorities, metro mayors have the power to make decisions for whole city regions.

The devolved powers predominantly focus on strategic matters, including housing and planning, skills, transport and economic development, with the exception of Greater Manchester, which also has powers and funding related to criminal justice and health and social care. Each devolution deal is very much tailored to the local area however, so the combined authorities will have varying powers and budgets.

The aim of metro mayors is to support local economic growth, while providing greater democratic accountability.

Concerns

While the government believes the role ensures clear accountability over devolved powers and funding, concerns have been voiced within local government itself about the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of the incoming combined authority mayors. And democratic support for the role has always been weak.

In terms of accountability, metro mayors will not be accountable to an elected assembly, as in London, but only to their cabinet made up of other council leaders. This, and their potentially wide-ranging powers have been highlighted as a concern in terms of back-room stich-up deals being created between mayors and individual authorities“.

Their introduction has also been described as “potentially worrying” as the local people were never given the opportunity to have a say on the new roles and that, instead, they are products of ‘deals done behind closed doors between councillors and representatives of central government.’

It appears rather ironic that this proposal of greater devolution may actually reflect an imposition from central government of its own policies and desires on local government.

Nevertheless, the new metro mayors do enable greater local control over local matters and have been argued to represent the best chance yet of ensuring devolution is sustainable over time. It is also likely they will get increasing powers over time, as in London.

But the question remains whether they will facilitate local economic growth and help to re-balance the English economy.

Final thoughts

Whether the new metro mayors will succeed in this aim or not, only time will tell. There has been little evidence of improved performance under elected mayors in England so far, although it has been suggested there is some evidence that their introduction has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues, and that there was improved relationships between partners.

Some of the successes of the London mayor have also been suggested to be an indication of the potential impact of the directly-elected mayor role.

As has recently been argued, their success, or otherwise, “should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on devolution:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020: has it been worth the wait?

Whitehall, London

By Steven McGinty

On 9 Feb 2017, and after over a year of delays, the UK Government finally published the Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020.

It’s been a long time since the Government Digital Strategy was published in 2012. Therefore, it’s understandable that politicians, industry leaders and media commentators have been frustrated by the lack of a new strategy in 2016.

In January 2017, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) warned that the UK risked being left behind and losing its competitive advantage in the digital economy because of its ‘absence of clarity and strategic focus’.

Similarly, Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, wrote a letter to digital minister Matt Hancock highlighting his disappointment at the lack of a government digital strategy.

However, now that the Government Transformation Strategy is here, what does it say and will it have a lasting impact?

A brief overview

According to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the Government Transformation Strategy is:

“The most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world, by a government that has already done more to transform itself than any other.”

It sets out the government’s aim to build on the success of the 2012 strategy, and to not only focus on improving the citizen experience but to change the way services are delivered. The strategy states that the government will achieve this by transforming:

  • Whole citizen-facing services – ensuring an improved experience for citizens, businesses and users within the public sector
  • Full government departments – enabling organisations to deliver policy objectives more flexibly, improving citizen experience, and working more efficiently
  • Internal government – supporting the collaboration of government departments and delivering digitally-enabled change more effectively

However, the majority of the strategy is structured around five main objectives:

Business transformation

Government departments have made significant progress over recent years.  The strategy explains that lessons have been learned through this service transformation process, and that there is now cross-government agreement on the key areas that transformation must focus on. These include bringing policy development and service design closer together and recognising that government services are delivered through a variety of channels (online, telephone and face-to-face).

Grow the right people, skills and culture

Since 2012, government departments have been recruiting digital, data and technology specialists to improve their digital capability. However, the strategy accepts that the public sector is working in a competitive market and that recruiting and retaining staff is likely to remain a challenge. Embedding a new culture is also identified as an important enabler of change, with several goals highlighted, including increasing civil servants’ knowledge of digital and improving digital experts’ understanding of government.

The Digital Academy, which was formed in 2014 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will be transferred (by the end of 2017) to the Government Digital Service (GDS) to create nationwide training opportunities for civil servants.

Build better tools, processes and governance for civil servants

Civil servants vary widely in how they work, including the digital technologies they use and their approach to policy development. The new strategy explains that the government will create a better working environment by developing common and interoperable technologies that can be shared across government and adopt a more agile working environment.

Make better use of data

Data is vital for providing services that meet the needs of citizens. However, the strategy emphasises that the government must earn the public’s trust in managing data safely, securely, and ethically.

Create shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities

The government has already had some success in introducing shared platforms, such as GOV.UK – a publishing platform which brought together over 300 government agencies’ and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. The strategy outlines the steps to be taken to encourage the development of new technologies, including leaving large single contracts with IT firms – a practice which is deemed a barrier to providing better technologies for civil servants – and purchasing from a wider variety of suppliers, such as SMEs.

From digital to transformation

It’s important to note that the strategy’s title has changed: from a digital strategy to a transformation strategy.

Jane Roberts, strategy director at Kable, suggests that this reflects the government’s realisation that digitisation is not a process with a defined end date, but a ‘constant dynamic ongoing process.’ Government, says Roberts, now understands that digitisation involves more than just moving services online, and that whole scale change is needed, from encouraging civil servants to work more collaboratively (including sharing cross-governmental data), to digitising back office processes.

In addition, Roberts also highlights the need for digital services to be designed to cope with this dynamic process. This includes supporting the integration of new technologies – particularly those related to the Internet of Things (the use of internet technology to connect everyday items) – and responding to increased citizen demand for greater control over their personal data.

What does it mean for local government?

The Government Transformation Strategy makes no comment on the challenges facing local government. However, London Borough of Camden councillor, Theo Blackwell, suggests that the strategy leaves scope for a ‘digital settlement’ to be developed between central and local government. He observes that the strategy:

leaves the door open for this discussion to be starting and concluded in short order, kickstarted by elected mayors and combined authorities in May 2017, and building on the groundwork of the last two years”.

Mr Blackwell also sets out what needs to be done to achieve this digital settlement:

  • Support the ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as improvement – encouraging local councils who have already made progress with digital transformation to work together, as well as helping struggling councils to improve;
  • Open platforms and a new market for start-ups – enabling the development of platforms and smaller start-up companies;
  • Shared Resource – developing partnerships between local councils and central government, which fund digital initiatives jointly.

Missed opportunity

The strategy has also received a significant amount of criticism for its lack of detail and limited commitments. Independent digital analyst, Jos Creese, has described the strategy as:

“…a mix of re-packaged principles and refreshed ‘transformational government’ themes, coupled with some new but not revolutionary ideas.

Creese argues that there is a general lack of pace with government programmes, such as with GOV.UK Verify – an identity assurance platform that allows people to prove who they are when using government services. And – unlike Theo Blackwell – Creese believes that the lack of collaboration between central government and the wider public sector is a missed opportunity (particularly as 80% of public services are outside central government). In his view, the strategy should have addressed some of the fundamental challenges facing local services, such as healthcare and crime prevention.

Final thoughts

Although the Government Transformation Strategy has received a mixed response since it was first published, there are certainly positives which provide hope for the future. Firstly, it was important that the strategy was finally published to provide a clearer indication of the government’s future direction.  Secondly, in the coming months, the government will have the opportunity to provide greater clarity, and set out how they intend to achieve the praiseworthy objectives of the strategy and realise the full potential of digital transformation.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles

More, better, faster: the potential of service design to transform public services

Découverte

For government at all levels – national, regional and local – the year ahead promises even greater challenges.  The need to provide more, better and faster services, using fewer resources, while responding to unprecedented levels of technological, demographic, and social change is greater than ever.

Increasingly, public sector organisations are taking an interest in the concept of service design as a means of responding to these challenges and developing better public services.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of service design and consider how it can contribute to public service innovation.

What is ‘service design’? 

Initially a private sector concept, ‘service design’ is an innovative approach that has successfully been applied to the public sector in order to ‘do more with less’.

The Service Design Network defines it as:

“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers”

Some of service design’s key principles include:

  • the creation of services that are useful, useable, desirable, efficient, and effective;
  • the use of a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of the service encounter;
  •  the use of a holistic approach that considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process, and ‘touch-point’ (customer interaction) design decisions;
  • an implicit assumption of co-crafting services with users (e.g. co-production).

Approaching service design in this manner has a number of advantages, including improved knowledge of user requirements, lower development costs, improved service experience, and improved user satisfaction.

Indeed, in 2012, the UK Design Council has estimated that for every £1 invested in the design of innovative services, their public sector clients have achieved more than £26 of social return.

Service design in the public sector

How should service design be applied within the public sector?

A report by the Service Design Network, drawing on research by public service designers around the world, identified five areas of the public sector that are particularly relevant for service design:

  • policy making
  • cultural and organisational change
  • training and capacity building
  • citizen engagement
  • digitisation

The report presents a number of examples of the successful application of service design in the public sector.  Two such examples are highlighted below.

Case study: Transforming mental health services in Lambeth

The London borough of Lambeth was under pressure to cut mental health budgets by more than 20%, at the same time as experiencing double the average rate of prevalence of mental health issues in England. In response, it employed a service design approach to transform its model of care for people suffering mental health problems.

The transformation was achieved over several years. Lambeth incorporated the use of service design by introducing a social networking site called Connect&Do, employing in-house service designers and prototyping new services through a multi-agency hub for community-based wellbeing.

These have all contributed to making Lambeth an award-winning pioneer in participation and innovative, collaborative commissioning.

Case study: Transforming services for vulnerable people in Brent

Brent Council worked with a design partner to support the review of three areas: employment support and welfare reform; housing for vulnerable people; and regeneration.

The council also wanted to strengthen its internal capacity by developing an innovation hub and training a cohort of managers and officers in service design methods.

Three reviews were conducted in parallel by a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and managers. They conducted extensive research, including ethnographic interviews, observations, focus groups, pop-up community events, expert interviews, data analysis and visualisation. At key points, the teams came together to share insights and critique each other’s work as they progressed from research into idea-generation and prototyping.

The new innovation hub aimed to build staff capability, hold idea-generation events and provide an accepting environment for rule-breaking experimentation. It also included leadership development for innovation through specialist guidance of the senior management team.

Thinking outside the box

Service design encourages people to get alternative perspectives and develop creative solutions that go beyond their usual comfort zones. By doing so, it has the potential to positively transform public sector service delivery and improve efficiency. In effect, service design is all about viewing things from a different angle, which – as Albert Einstein observed – can often open up new possibilities:

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on service design.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

‘Think globally, act locally’ – local job creation

Jobssign2

By Heather Cameron

The Local Government Association (LGA) last week called for greater devolution of employment and skills funding to councils and a ‘radical rethink’ of the way Jobcentre Plus works. Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board said:

“Job centres need to engage with more unemployed people for a start and then help more claimants move into sustainable employment. This is crucial to boosting local growth. Councils know best how to do this. We know our local economies, we know our local employers and we know our residents and we can bring local services together in a way central government will never be able to.”

Local solutions

Of course, local solutions for job creation and economic growth is not a new idea. Local development and job creation initiatives first emerged in the 1980s, in response to a ‘new phenomenon of high, persistent and concentrated unemployment that national policies seemed powerless to reverse on their own. Since then they have continued to spread and develop.

Although unemployment is at an 11-year low in the UK, according to recent research many countries, including the UK, are seeing widening gaps in the geographic distribution of skills and jobs. And the importance of local solutions has again been highlighted.

The OECD’s most recent edition of Job Creation and Local Economic Development argues that local development is a key tool for addressing the problem of such unequal distribution. Similarly, in its submission to last year’s Autumn Statement, the LGA argued that local government is central to the delivery of locally tailored solutions to national public policy challenges.

Boosting productivity growth, while ensuring growth delivers improved living standards and distributes the benefits of increased prosperity equally, are highlighted by the OECD as the twin challenges facing all policymakers. Underlined as a crucial but difficult task, it is argued that ‘actions originating at any single governance level or policy area will not be sufficient’.

Whole-of-government approach

The OECD report, therefore, examines how national and local actors can better work together to support economic development and job creation at the local level. In particular, it outlines what both national and local actors can do to improve the local implementation of vocational education and training (VET) and SME and entrepreneurship policies.

Among the recommendations for national actors include:

  • Design VET frameworks that allow local stakeholders to tailor training to local labour market needs while still maintaining a certain level of national consistency
  • Build the capacities needed to make VET systems more agile locally
  • Develop a strong national apprenticeship framework that builds a high quality system, includes strategically-designed incentives for employer participation, and allows for flexible delivery frameworks
  • Maximise the efficiency of SME and entrepreneurship policy delivery by allowing for local tailoring, co-locating services, using intermediary organisations to deliver programmes, and/or developing formal agreements for the division of competences and financing between governance levels
  • Develop national frameworks and strategies to support disadvantaged young people in entrepreneurship, and clearly assign responsibility for this policy portfolio to a single agency or ministry
  • Embed entrepreneurship into national education frameworks, while also providing integrated packages of entrepreneurship support in other settings to reach young people outside of the education system

Among the recommendations for local actors include:

  • Balance the need to meet pressing local labour market demands with ensuring that VET helps to move local economies to higher skilled and value-added products and services
  • Encourage VET teachers and trainers to maintain contact with local employers and industries to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date
  • Boost employer engagement in apprenticeships
  • Tailor the delivery of apprenticeship programmes so that they work better for a broader range of employers, including SMEs, and disadvantaged populations
  • Forge connections across administrative borders in developing and co-ordinating entrepreneurship and SME policies
  • Work with organisations that have already established relationships with disadvantaged youth to maximise the reach of entrepreneurship programmes
  • To better reach disadvantaged youth, provide integrated packages of support, use hands-on learning methods, and involve entrepreneurs in programme delivery

Decentralisation?

The report concludes that local actors need both flexibility to tailor delivery of national policies to local conditions and the capacity to use this flexibility to ensure informed decision-making.

It is noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean political decentralisation, but rather ensuring the right tools are used to add local flexibility while maintaining national coherence.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on Local Enterprise Partnerships

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.