Technical education – reformed for whose benefit?

by Stacey Dingwall

The expansion of grammar schools may not have made it into this year’s delayed and reduced Queen’s Speech but another education policy did – the government’s planned ‘major’ reform of technical education.

As Her Majesty set out, the government’s plan is to ensure that people “have the skills they need” for high-skilled, well-paid jobs, facilitated through “a major reform of technical education”.

A reformed system

The Chancellor detailed plans for a new ‘T levels’ system in March’s Budget, which is being created with the aim of equalising technical and higher education in order to improve the country’s productivity levels. The Budget announcement promised an increase of 50% in the number of hours students train, as well as £500m of funding per year to deliver the new system. The reforms will also simplify the system, reducing the currently available 13,000 qualifications to a mere 15.

The Budget announcement followed the April 2016 publication of the findings from Lord Sainsbury’s review of technical education. The review found “serious” problems with the existing system, noting that British productivity levels lag behind countries including Germany and France by up to 36 percentage points. It also highlighted that the country is forecast to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills by 2020.

The Sainsbury Review made a series of recommendations, including the introduction of a framework of 15 qualifications, which the government accepted in full (where possible within existing budget commitments) in its July 2016 Post-16 skills plan. The plan details how the government plans to deliver its reformed technical education system, by working closely with employers and providers, and ensuring that the system is an inclusive one, accessible no matter someone’s social background, disability, race or sexual identity.

Investing and cutting

Also included in the planned reforms is the construction of new ‘Institutes of Technology’, which are intended to “enable more young people to take advanced technical qualifications and become key institutions for the development of the skills required by local, national and regional industry”. At a time when schools and colleges are facing continued cuts and pressures on resources, this is one part of the reformed system that’s come in for criticism.

Speaking to The Guardian, Marcus Fagent from design and consultancy firm Arcadis stated that capital investment is essential to the new technical education system, in terms of space to teach the new curriculum. He also highlighted how addressing the issue of space for teaching has enabled countries like the Netherlands to deliver successful technical education provision.

The fact that our continental neighbours do it better with regards to technical and vocational education is something that keeps coming up. Even the new system has come in for criticism for its continued focus on leaving it so ‘late’ to try and promote technical education as a potential path for pupils. While Britain sticks with starting at 16, countries like Germany offer vocational routes to pupils from as young as 10.

Decentralisation and young people

This week, the Local Government Association will publish a new report that argues that previous reforms within the skills system have failed due to a lack of progress in the devolution of powers to the local level. Written by the Learning and Work Institute, the report will also recommend the creation of “one-stop” services covering apprenticeships, technical education reform, local adult skills planning, the successor to the European Social Fund and oversight of employment services.

In amongst all the arguments over reforms and provision, it’s telling and worrying that the voice of those who will be most affected by the new system is rarely heard – that of the young people trying to navigate a complex and ever-changing education system. With more reforms to GCSE grading also announced in the last week, they have every right to be anxious about navigating an education system that’s supposed to support them to deliver the productivity gains the country needs.

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 education articles. 

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

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Counting the cost of data protection failures in local government

A laptop keyboard with a padlock on it.

By Steven McGinty

In August, Hampshire County Council were fined £100,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after social care files and 45 bags of confidential waste were found in a building, previously occupied by the council’s adults’ and children’s services team.

Steve Eckersley, the ICO’s head of enforcement, explained that this data protection breach affected over 100 people, with much of the information “highly sensitive” and about adults and children in vulnerable circumstances.  In his view:

“The council’s failure to look after this information was irresponsible. It not only broke the law, but put vulnerable people at risk.”

A widespread problem

In 2015, Big Brother Watch, an organisation which encourages more control over personal data, published a report highlighting that local authorities commit four data breaches every day. It found that between April 2011 and April 2014 there were at least 4,236 data breaches. This included, at least:

  • 401 instances of data loss or theft
  • 159 examples of data being shared with a third party
  • 99 cases of unauthorised people accessing or disclosing data
  • 658 instances of children’s personal data being breached

In the past year, local authorities have reported a 14% increase from the previous year in security breaches to the ICO. The figures show that 64% of all reported breaches involved accidentally disclosing data. This supports research which suggests that human error is a major cause of data protection breaches.

These statistics are both positive and negative for the ICO. Peter Woollacott, CEO of Huntsman Security, suggests that it could show that local government is becoming better at identifying security breaches. However, he also acknowledges that most organisations are subject to multiple attacks, with only some being detected.

Areas for improvement

In 2014, the ICO conducted nine advisory visits and four audits of social housing organisations. It found that improvements could be made in ten areas, including:

  • Data sharing – organisations regularly share personal data but few have formal policies and procedures to govern this sharing.
  • Data retention – few organisations have data retention schedules for personal data, which provide details on when records should be disposed of, although most only extend to physical records. Data protection legislation sets out that data must not be stored for ‘longer than necessary’.
  • Monitoring – there is little evidence that organisations monitor their compliance with data protection policies.
  • Homeworking – where organisations allow staff to work flexibly, it often wasn’t formalised.
  • Training – there are varying levels of data protection training found in organisations.

Public confidence

Unsurprisingly, high-profile data breaches, such as the loss of 25,000,000 child benefit claimants’ details in the post by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), have left the public concerned about their data.

In October, a YouGov poll showed that 57% of people believed that government departments could not share personal data securely. And 78% of people didn’t believe or didn’t know whether the government had the resources and technology to stop cyber-attacks.

A poll by Ipsos Mori has also shown that 60% of the public are more concerned about online privacy than a year ago. The three main reasons given were: private companies sharing data; private companies tracking data; and the reporting of government surveillance programmes.

The cost of data protection failures   

The implications of failing to protect the public’s data are serious. Not only could local government be heavily fined by the ICO, but it could also have an emotional or economic impact on individuals if their data enters the wrong hands and is used maliciously (e.g. to commit an act of fraud).  However, there are wider issues for government.

At the moment, both local and central government are undergoing digital transformation programmes, digitising their own operations and moving public services online. Examples include social workers using electronic social care records and the public paying council tax or booking appointments through their local council’s website.

If the public buy into ‘digital by default’ (the policy of ensuring online is the most convenient way of interacting with government), then services could be delivered a lot more efficiently, resulting in significant savings. However, if the public are concerned over the security of their personal data, they may be less willing to consent to its use by government.

We’ve already seen this in some areas. In 2014, the Scottish Government announced plans to expand an NHS register to cover all residents and share access with more than 100 public bodies, including HMRC. This year, the Scottish Government attempted to bring into effect the ‘Named Person Scheme’, where every child in Scotland would be assigned a state guardian, such as a teacher or health visitor.

With both of these schemes concerns have been raised over privacy, including from the ICO in Scotland. The Supreme Court has also ruled against the Named Person Scheme, over the data sharing proposals.

Final thoughts

Local government needs to be robust in ensuring compliance with data protection legislation. The financial costs could be great for local government, but the bigger concern should be public trust. If councils fail to meet their legal obligations, they may find it challenging to implement policies that use public data, even if it brings the public benefits.


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 data related articles. 

BIM: the digitisation of the built environment

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde hosted a seminar on the digitisation of the built environment and how digital is disrupting the construction sector. The event focused on the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and its use in Scotland in particular.

What is BIM?

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As defined in the UK government’s industrial strategy, BIM is “a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets”. Specifically, it embeds key product and asset data, and a 3D computer model that manages information throughout a project’s lifecycle. BIM has been described as a “game changer” for the construction industry, and can be used in the construction of new buildings as well as retrofitting and refurbishment.

Speaker: David Philp, AECOM

The first presentation came from David Philp, Global BIM/MIC Consulting Director of AECOM and the Chair of the Scottish Futures Trust’s BIM Delivery Group. The Group was established on the recommendation of the Scottish Government’s 2013 Review of Scottish Public Sector Procurement in Construction, and tasked with delivering a BIM implementation plan for the country, which was published in September 2015.

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David focused on the pathway set out in the implementation plan for Scottish public sector projects worth over £4.32m to adopt Level 2 BIM by 2017, as recommended by the 2013 review. In England, the industry was required to have adopted Level 2 by April of this year; a recent survey carried out by Construction News found that almost 70% of main contractors, consultants, professional services and clients had either fully embedded the Level 2 standards into their systems, or were using Level 2 when it suited the project.

The suitability of different levels was something that David stated was important to consider on a case by case basis – while the goal is to be Level 2 capable, sometimes Level 1 may be more appropriate. This is different to the approach taken in England, where the government has mandated that only Level 2 should be used from now on. As highlighted by David, the Chancellor’s latest Budget also included a commitment to “develop the next digital standard for the construction sector – Building Information Modelling 3 – to save owners of built assets billions of pounds a year in unnecessary costs, and maintain the UK’s global leadership in digital construction”.

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David also described the benefits of using BIM, particularly Level 2, in construction projects, in terms of efficiency, reducing risk and the creation of more sustainable and intelligent infrastructure. He also touched on the use of BIM in the construction of the High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham (HS2), due to begin in 2017. BIM has been described as the “backbone” of the HS2 project, which will be the largest BIM project undertaken in Europe so far.

Speaker: Professor Bimal Kumar, Glasgow Caledonian University

The seminar concluded with a presentation by Professor Kumar, Head of BIM at GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment. Professor Kumar, who works with David Philp as part of the BIM 4 Academia Working Group spoke about his department’s work in embedding BIM into the taught curriculum of the courses they offer, as well as his work in developing a BIM strategy for NHS Scotland, which involved mapping their existing processes to BIM processes.

Professor Kumar also shared some of his personal opinions on the adoption of BIM in Scotland, stating his belief that it will take another 30 years before Level 3 is fully adopted. He emphasised the need to ‘demistify’ BIM, as too many organisations still think that it will cost them too much in terms of effort and money to comply with the standards.

Overall, the seminar offered a good opportunity to find out more about something that, while mystifying to most, is set to transform the global construction industry.


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Fairness Commissions: tackling poverty and inequality in the UK

by Stacey Dingwall

Next month, Brighton and Hove will become the latest council area to publish the report of its Fairness Commission. Established in 2015, Brighton and Hove’s is one of 24 Fairness Commissions set up in the last five years across the UK, in areas ranging from Dundee to Plymouth.

What are Fairness Commissions?

Fairness Commissions began to come together in 2010, in the wake of rising inequality in the UK. Inspired by the publication of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (the founders of The Equality Trust), local authorities came together with academics, trade unions, and third and private sector partners to draw  up recommendations for ways of tackling inequality and poverty in their local area.

Similar to a parliamentary select committee, Commissions begin their work by gathering evidence from the public, which is then analysed and synthesised into a final report containing recommendations to the local authority. Typically, this process lasts for a year.

In their report on Fairness Commissions published in July 2015, the New Economics Foundation outlined the typical stages of holding a commission:

  • Scope: decide what and whom you are targeting with the commission.
  • Language: decide what to call the commission and define its purpose.
  • Resource: decide on a proportionate budget and allocation of staff time.
  • Leadership: invite commissioners to participate and appoint chairs.
  • Communication: start talking about the commission locally and invite people to participate.
  • Participation: gather evidence and solutions through a range of methods.
  • Analysis: develop recommendations based on the evidence and possible solutions.
  • Recommendations: make recommendations for change to the relevant organisations.
  • Implementation: put the recommendations into action.
  • Evaluation: monitor progress, measure change, and report on it.

Fairness in London – the Tower Hamlets story

Two key reports have been published by Commissions in London: one by the pan-city London Fairness Commission and another by the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission. Inequality between the East and West of the City dates back to Victorian times and while Tower Hamlets has seen some improvements, most notably due to investment in education, this gap still persists. Although home to the global financial hub Canary Wharf, a major contributor to the borough’s £6 billion a year economy, 49% of Tower Hamlets’ residents live in poverty – the highest proportion in the entire country. Despite ever increasing house prices and rents in London – an average income of £75,000 was required to privately rent in the borough in 2012 – a fifth of its residents earn under £15,000 a year.

These figures, alongside evidence of stark health inequalities and the impact of welfare reform, formed the basis of the Fairness Commission’s inquiry in 2012-13. Speaking to residents, the Commissioners found a distrust of the big business that now dominates the borough, partly due its perceived contribution to the gentrification of the area. Residents whose families had lived in Tower Hamlets for generations spoke of feeling like they existed in a “parallel world” and that opportunities in the borough were inaccessible to them. The Commission’s final report made a total of 16 recommendations, for local and national government and the third sector, aimed at bringing the local community back together and making Tower Hamlets a fairer place to live.

Fairness and inequality – the political agenda

The London Fairness Commission was one of the organisations who made recommendations to the new Mayor of London ahead of his election on the 5th of May. In a poll conducted one week prior to polling, the Commission found that three out of four respondents believed that the income gap between those on the highest incomes and those on the lowest incomes had increased over the last five years, and that the majority would welcome the introduction of an annual London Fairness Index to test whether the city is a fair one in which to live.

The Index was one of the key recommendations in the Commission’s final report, which described the city as a ‘ticking time bomb’. Housing, transport and childcare were identified as the three biggest issues facing London, and the Commission made a number of recommendations on how to address these, including:

  • a binding London minimum wage of £9.70 per hour;
  • setting ‘affordable rents’ at 30% of household income rather than 80% of market rent; and
  • suspending the right to buy scheme for five years while supply is increased.

Reducing inequalities was also a key feature of the Scottish Parliament elections, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledging that the SNP would “use every power” to tackle poverty and inequality in the country. Sturgeon also detailed plans to implement the recommendations of the Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality, publish a Fairer Scotland Action Plan, and reintroduce the socioeconomic duty for public bodies to consider the impact that their decisions will have on narrowing inequalities.

With the UK government committed to continuing their austerity programme, and persistent evidence that the UK is one of the least equal of the world’s developed countries, it’s clear that reducing inequality and striving for fairness will, and must, remain high on the political agenda for the foreseeable future.


Read more from our blog on poverty and inequality in the UK:

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Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

Smart citizens, smarter state: from open government to smarter governance

 

By Steven McGinty

Last year, a poll by Ipsos Mori found that only 16% of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth. Although scepticism is healthy for a democracy, these figures are significantly lower than in 1986, when 38% of the public trusted MPs “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party

The British Social Attitudes survey attributes this decline in public confidence to the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. However, a more general dissatisfaction with institutions (the media, the police, and financial institutions) – who have all had their own scandals – may also be a factor.

With this decline in trust, it’s not too surprising that the British public are calling for greater transparency and more ‘open government’.

What is open government?

According to Professor Beth Simone Noveck’s book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, open government involves moving away from a ‘closed-door model’ of governance to one where government institutions connect with people and organisations from a diverse range of backgrounds. This includes citizens, academics, voluntary organisations and the commercial sector.

Examples of citizen involvement

The commercial sector has already benefited from greater citizen involvement. For instance, Facebook, which relies heavily on its 1.44 billion monthly users to generate content, is valued at over $300 billion. This is three or four times more than traditional US media companies such as CBS and Viacom. Netflix, a global streaming service for movies and TV series, also sought to benefit from outside talent by offering a million dollars to researchers who could improve their ability to make recommendations for their subscribers.

However, it’s not just about the commercial sector. Galaxy Zoo, an online citizen science project, has been very successful thanks to its pool of ‘citizen scientists’, who help translate raw information into useful scientific knowledge. In its first year, the project created 50 million ‘classifications’. To date, the project has published 48 articles using the data classified by volunteers.

Benefits of open government

In her book, Professor Noveck includes an example of how government might reduce reoffending. She explains that to initially understand the problem data scientists are required to interpret the data. Legal scholars, practitioners and victims’ groups are also needed to help understand the practical realities of the criminal justice system.  Using this scenario, she describes how professionals, such as psychologists and social scientists could design pilot projects to reduce reoffending.

Professor Noveck argues that increasing openness could provide greater insights and a more legitimate form of government. She suggests that open government has the potential to restore trust in public institutions.

Failure of open government

In 2010, the Coalition Government consulted the public on its programme for government. The website received a total of 9,500 official responses; although no government policies were changed as a result.

At the time, The Guardian described this as a failure, and Simon Burall, Director of Involve, a group advising bodies on consultation, warned that

You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again.”

Although a proponent for more open governance, Professor Noveck concedes that government initiatives to involve citizens, like the one introduced by the previous UK government, have failed.  She claims that the ad-hoc nature of these programmes and the long standing culture of closed-door practices present major barriers.

Smarter governance

Therefore, Professor Noveck advocates a move towards, what she calls, ‘smarter governance’. In essence, this means that institutions should look to target and match specific people with the right opportunities – which is now possible thanks to ‘technologies of expertise’. Well known platforms such as LinkedIn allow individuals to be found based on their particular skills. And online learning platforms such as the Khan Academy provide ‘badges’ to indicate the mastery of skills.

In the UK, the app GoodSAM, which evolved from London’s Air Ambulance service, is designed to alert approved medical professionals when an emergency is nearby, so that potentially lifesaving treatment can be administered.

In the US, the New York Police department maintains a database of its employees’ abilities, ranging from language skills to hobbies, such as yoga or beekeeping. The department takes the tasks of collating skills very seriously, with all new recruits completing a form as part of the human resources process. Having this knowledge allows senior officers to make better use of their staff abilities, and provide a better service.

Conclusions – “More Minecraft, less statecraft”

Professor Noveck concludes her book by calling for positive steps to ensure that institutions not only listen to advisory boards and formal committees, but also include the citizen experience and wider expertise. She recommends that there should be a diverse range of conversations between government and its citizens, and that reinventing the processes of decision making should be a matter of urgency.


The Idox Information Service includes a traditional library service offering a range of physical books, documents and reports.  The book, ‘Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing’, by Professor Beth Simone Noveck, is the latest addition to our collection, and can be borrowed by Information Service members.  If you would like to subscribe to the Information Service please contact us at AskTheResearchTeam@idoxgroup.com

 

Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

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Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, Australia. In this interview with the Knowledge Exchange, Mark talks about how his research is used in policy development.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The more I’ve got involved in the practice of decision making and developing policies, the more I’ve seen the value of evidence. To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas. Politicians have their own sources of evidence – internal policy, preferred sources, media etc. – and ministers are enveloped by a whole range of sources. Good evidence has to find a way of being heard and cutting through this.

Civil servants are very skilled in committees and running processes and programmes effectively. They are good at technical solutions and responses, but not adaptive developmental issues, which require time. Their ability to engage and get to the hardest to reach groups within policy, was one of the key findings of our study. How do you cost programmes which take a long time and investment, and target groups experiencing significant marginalisation?

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Real time evidence – which we can only do through open data. In Australia this is difficult as we don’t have national datasets to enable large scale analysis or comparison. The UK is far ahead of us in terms of data and its use in evidence. In the UK there is no shortage of data, but it needs to be more dynamic, whereas in Australia it’s not sufficient. Resources such as Euromonitor don’t exist in Australia, so we can’t compare or contrast issues or monitor impact. Spatial modelling is very influential due to this lack of data – simulated models for different areas are necessary as we don’t have the real data.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing knowledge, things which you really need to avoid?

Not understanding the political dynamics leads to failure. Not understanding that knowledge is power, and assuming that what makes good evidence is what makes good understanding, are big traps to fall into. Just because you develop good evidence doesn’t mean it will be accepted.

The most important first step is agreement around values and principles. The classic example in Australia would be the original agreement on the child support scheme:  ‘absent fathers should contribute’ was the fundamental principle and getting that agreement led to the introduction of the scheme.

What are the main issues facing policy makers in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

This may be peculiar to Australia, but the personalisation of politics and policies, is now impacting. The ‘Obama technologies’ approach of targeting messages to voters and the targeting of resources to particular groups, is on the rise, so policy is becoming individually relevant. If we know what people want, we can then move resources to target their needs. The evidence to help policy makers to do this successfully (i.e. generally the use of new technologies, big data, social media, getting real time data on preferences) is going to grow in importance and be in demand.

Key policy issues are ageing, the cost of care and pensions, funding the social security gaps and climate change. There is also a rise in the development of preventative health and generally the funding of higher education.

How do you think people will be carrying out evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

Technology, everyone always says technology! Normally there is a lag between the technology and its realisation in public policy – this was certainly the case up until recently.

Largely because there is an association between technology and productivity, there is an inverse relationship between use the use of consultants and productivity. There is only a productivity gain in the public sector in the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the use of technologies.

There is a presumption of localism in policy, but actually technology development is leading to more centralisation. This can be a positive thing for the availability and reliability of data, but negative for understanding very local issues.

If you had a ‘best-kept secret’ about research, evidence and knowledge, what would you recommend, and why?

An approach which is useful in thinking about the context of evidence and policymaking is to ask “I am in my ‘cockpit’ (desk, computer, books, advisors, people I know), but what is in your cockpit?” We’ve found that the more experienced policy officers all had mentors, all had experts, they knew about data, and could do policy relatively quickly. This contrasted with younger policy makers (the ‘Wikipedia policy makers’). Fast-track policy making is being done (ministers deciding and the policy maker sent off to write the evidence base) but if their ‘cockpit’ isn’t complete then the policy making can have holes.

Finally, what led you to a role developing knowledge institutions and focusing on research and evidence development? 

In 1999,  I established the international development unit at York, looking at post-war recovery study. It was just before Afghanistan and Iraq so we became the ‘go to’ place for it, and started to look at the interface between evidence and politics. Many were disregarding the evidence – it’s really all about jobs and poverty; people move towards radicalisation when they have no hope no future.

I came to Australia for the better relationship between government and academia, through the National School of Government.  I have been able to do things in Australia that I wouldn’t have been able to do in UK, bringing together theory and practice. The UK is good at collaboration, and I have taken that to Australia aiming to be the ‘collaborator of first resort’.


You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkEvansACT and you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on the use of evidence in public policy:

Should the UK introduce a tax on sugar?

An assortment of liquorice allsorts sweets.

by Stacey Dingwall

Recent months have seen two enquiries to our Ask a Researcher service for evidence on sugar consumption in the UK. Namely: should this be taxed?

Sugar has become somewhat of a villain in the UK, with magazine articles, research and governments all telling us that we should be greatly reducing, or even eradicating completely, our consumption of added sugars in particular. The week beginning 30th of November even saw the first National Sugar Awareness Week, part of a campaign to encourage the government to establish a sugar reduction programme in the UK. However, is a ‘sugar tax’ really necessary?

Sugar consumption: a public health issue?

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), absolutely. Last month, they published a review of how to tackle obesity in the UK, which included the introduction of a sugar tax. The report notes that, according to the latest forecasts, half of all adults in the UK are expected to be classed as obese by 2050. Key to reversing this trend, it is argued, is to tackle issues around diet and nutrition among children, who are now spending double the amount of time per day in front of screens than children in 1995 (something that has been shown to increase cravings for food and drink, but not for nutritionally sound items). Alongside other developed nations, the UK is also seeing an ever increasing rate of consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks.

While the RSPH recommends placing restrictions, or ending, the use of advertising and sponsorship by junk food and drinks companies around family and sporting events, it also argues that this is not enough to tackle the country’s obesity problem. The RSPH supports the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks of 20%, or 20p per litre. Their report highlights evidence which suggests that this could prevent or delay around 200,000 cases of obesity per year, and points to the experience of Mexico, who introduced a tax of 10% at the start of 2014. During that year, sales of sugary drinks declined by 6% overall, and by 9% among those living in the most deprived areas of the country (the demographic group most likely to be obese).

What does the government think?

After a delay, the UK government published Public Health England’s (PHE) review of the evidence for action with regards to sugar reduction in October. The report:

  • agrees that too much sugar is consumed in the UK
  • favours a reduction in advertising to children
  • recommends the introduction of a tax on full sugar soft drinks of 10-20%

This, combined with a range of other measures, it is argued, could save the NHS £500 million per year. The PHE recommendation was also supported by the House of Commons Health Committee, in their recently published Childhood obesity – brave and bold action report. Having heard evidence from parties including Sustain and Jamie Oliver, a key figure in the campaign for the introduction of a sugar tax, the Committee recommended that such a levy should be introduced at 20%, in order to achieve maximum impact.

The Prime Minister, however, is still not convinced, stating that he believes there are “more effective” ways of tackling obesity. The government is due to publish a strategy on childhood obesity in the New Year.

What does the evidence say?

A number of countries have implemented a form of taxation on sugar or saturated fats. These include:

  • a tax on saturated fats in Denmark
  • Finland’s tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
  • Hungary’s public health product tax
  • France’s tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages

According to a review of using price policies such as these to promote healthier diets by the World Health Organization, food pricing policies are feasible, and can influence consumption and purchasing patterns as intended, with a significant impact on important dietary and health-related behaviour. Crucially, however, the same review notes a lack of formal evaluation in this area.

A report published earlier this year by the activist group Taxpayers’ Union of New Zealand, Fizzed out: why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity,  questioned the validity of nutrition related taxes. Reviewing the experience of Mexico, they suggested that the reduction in consumption of sugary drinks following the introduction of an excise tax of one peso per litre in January 2014 had been overplayed.

It’s also the case that the Danish tax on saturated fats was repealed by the government after only one year. This was due to a number of economic impacts that quickly became apparent after the tax was implemented, and resulted in plans for similar taxes to be abandoned. In fact, fat consumption in Denmark has been on a downward trend for some time now, therefore no tax incentive was required. And according to the Danish minister of finance, “to tax food for public health reasons [is] misguided at best and may be counter‐productive at worst”.

Whether the UK Prime Minister will be swayed on this matter remains to be seen. It’s likely that a ‘sugar tax’ will continue to be deemed too politically sensitive to introduce, especially as one in five people continue to live below the poverty line.


Related reading
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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

The local prevention of terrorism

by Steven McGinty

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris there has been a renewed focus on preventing terrorism.  On a national level, the UK government has increased the defence budget by an extra £12 billion, and is expected to hold a vote on airstrikes in Syria. More locally, there has been fierce debate about looming police cuts, with the Muslim Council of Britain suggesting that it could harm trust with communities.

At the Knowledge Exchange, we recently received an Ask-a-Researcher request for information on the role and importance of local partners within the counter-terrorism and extremist space. We provided the member with a number of resources to support their work; but there was one that stood out.

Essential resource

The book was ‘The Local Prevention of Terrorism: Strategy and Practice in the Fight Against Terrorism by Joshua J. Skoczylis, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln, UK. It was published in September 2015 and appears to be a vital resource for UK policymakers and academics.

The book explores the UK government’s Prevent policy, a key strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) that focuses on stopping people becoming or supporting terrorism, as well as examining its impact on local communities.

Concepts and tensions affecting Prevent

In chapter 2, the key concepts are analysed that underpin CONTEST, and in particular the Prevent policy.  This involves looking at the idea of prevention, the relationship between Prevent and policing, and the relationship between communities and CONTEST.

An interesting point raised is that the narrative of CONTEST provides a powerful basis for which policies are based on. There is a critique of the phrase ‘international terrorism’ (often used in government strategies), with the author suggesting that the lines between international and local have been blurred, with terrorist attacks being carried out by local residents.

Prevent – an innovative counter terrorism strategy

One of the main arguments put forward is that the Prevent policy is an innovative approach to counter-terrorism. The author explains that Prevent occupies the ‘space somewhere in the middle, between extremism and violent extremism’. In essence, this space provides an area for honest engagement within communities, free from the security and intelligence community. This space allows local actors to be involved in the debate, including local authorities and Muslim organisations.

Delivering Prevent to Maybury Council

In the final chapters, the book reflects on Prevent’s impact on Maybury, a mill town in the north of England. Since 2007, several Prevent programmes have been delivered in the area, including Channel, an early intervention programme for young people vulnerable to be drawn into terrorism. Although, the majority have focused on community cohesion and awareness raising.

The book also discusses the findings of a report commissioned by Maybury Council into the Prevent policy. It highlights that the Prevent programme has been viewed as ‘divisive’ and has alienated members of the community that local agencies need to engage with. In particular, it suggests that focusing solely on Muslim communities, using surveillance measures, only breeds distrust.

The report also highlights the tension that exists between the national and the local delivery of Prevent. It explains however that Maybury Council have adapted their own policy to address local needs; although it’s noted that this may change as the government have introduced a more centralised administration process for Prevent funds.

Conclusions

At the end of the book, the author comes to several conclusions about the local delivery of Prevent. One of the main conclusions is that evaluation is crucial for establishing what policies and programmes are successful. It is important that an evidence base is developed and that good practice is shared amongst practitioners.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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