The Idox Information Service database: factual, accessible and essential

At a time when finding up-to-date and accurate information has never been more important, organisations and individuals in the public, private and third sectors need to know where the best resources are.

All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

The subjects range from planning and infrastructure to housing, health, education and culture. Each entry provides full bibliographic details, as well as an abstract summarising the key information contained in the original item.

Keywords and subject headings are allocated to each record, making it more likely to appear when searching for relevant items. Often, the abstract is enough to provide a searcher with the information they need. But if the full document is required, this is available, either online or by download.

The database is a highly respected library of high quality information, and brings together a wealth of articles and reports that are not available in a single source elsewhere.

To provide a flavour of what the database contains, here’s just a selection of the hundreds of items that have been added since the beginning of 2018.

End rough sleeping: what works
Published by Crisis

This report explores effective ways of tackling rough sleeping, drawing on a review of international evidence. The authors discuss key findings, impacts and barriers in relation to nine key interventions: hostels and shelters; Housing First; Common Ground; social impact bonds; residential communities; ‘no second night out’; reconnection; personalised budgets; and street outreach services. The report also highlights opportunities to improve the evidence base.

Fostering (House of Commons Education Committee report)
Published by The Stationery Office

In 2017, the Commons Education Committee conducted an enquiry into the foster care of children in England. The resulting report focuses on valuing young people and foster carers. As well as looking at the support for young people, including placements, engagement and transition to adulthood, the report considers the working conditions of foster carers, including financial support, employment status and training. The report concludes that foster care provides an invaluable service to society, but notes that England’s foster care system is under pressure. The Committee makes several recommendations for government, including the establishment of a national college for foster carers.

Still planning for the wrong future?
Published in Town and Country Planning, Vol 86 No 12 Dec 2017

Inactivity is one of the main factors impacting on health, and this article considers how planning may be a cause of, and a solution to, inactivity. The article discusses the health consequences of mass motoring in urban areas and the need to develop healthy communities through planning. The author calls for planning to develop more walkable, cyclable and public transport-based places, and recommends that places should be designed to make active and public transport more convenient than driving in order to increase physical activity and improve health.

Preparing for Brexit
Published by the Greater London Authority (GLA)

Brexit is, of course, a significant issue, and is likely to affect many different areas of public policy, from trade and the economy to public spending and devolution. The Idox database is collecting a growing library of reports and articles covering this important topic. This GLA report, for example, considers different scenarios to model five possible outcomes for the UK and London of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) Customs Union and Single Market. The report draws on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the macro-sectoral model, E3ME, and suggests that the more severe the type of Brexit, the greater the negative impact will be on London and the UK. It predicts that Brexit will not only reduce the size of the UK economy, but also put it on a slower long-term growth trajectory.

Work harder (or else)
Published in People Management, Mar 2018

Poor productivity is one of the most acute problems affecting the UK economy. This article suggests that the key to improving productivity lies with developing a happy, engaged and well-motivated workforce. And to reinforce the argument, the author provides evidence from a crystal glass products company in Cumbria. The article explains that since the company introduced a collective bonus for all employees based on turnover and margin improvement, turnover has almost doubled and gross margins have more than tripled.  The article attributes this success to the company’s staff working together to make small, continuous improvements.

Plastic not so fantastic
Published in Envirotec Mar/Apr 2018
Increasing concerns about the scale of plastic waste, particularly in the world’s oceans, has pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. This article reviews government and industry responses to the problem, including the benefits and drawbacks of deposit return schemes.

These are just a few examples, but there are many more reports and articles in the Idox database. For most of these items, full text access is also available, either via website links or through our document supply service.

Access to the Idox database is just one of the services provided to members of the Idox Information Service. Other benefits of membership include our enquiries service, a weekly current awareness bulletin and fortnightly topic updates.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of Idox Information Service membership,  please get in touch with our customer development team today.


You can read more about the Idox Information Service in these recent blog posts:

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

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.

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

Growing places: community gardens are rising up the policy agenda

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In April, a study by Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) reported a significant increase in community growing between 2010 and 2015. The results of the study found a rise of 79% in the number of sites devoted to community gardens, taking the total to 84, with land coverage rising to 29 hectares.

The increasing popularity of community gardens is also reflected elsewhere in the UK. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) estimates that there are now around 1000 community gardens around the UK.

What are community gardens?

Community gardens are defined by Greenspace Scotland as:

“locally managed pieces of land that are developed in response to and reflect the needs of the communities in which they are based.”

They differ from allotments in that the focus is on communal, rather than individual growing space. Most community gardens concentrate on cultivation of fruit and vegetables, although they may also promote complementary elements, such as recreation, biodiversity and education.

Last year, our Idox Information Service briefing on community growing highlighted a number of these projects, including the Incredible Edible community growing project in West Yorkshire and G3 Growers in Glasgow. Further examples include the Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, north London, and the Grove Community Garden in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in Streatham, south London, a patch of waste ground next to a health centre has been transformed into a community garden by a group of patients with long-term health conditions. The garden is now supplying enough produce to sell fruit and vegetables to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital.

Benefits of Community Gardens

A 2009 report from the FCFCG identified a range of social, economic and environmental benefits stemming from community gardens. These included:

  • social interactions and inclusion
  • healthy eating
  • natural therapy (feelings of relaxation, appreciation, happiness, achievement)
  • skills development, training and development
  • environmental awareness and activities

More recently, a 2015 report on community gardens in Glasgow indicated that participants enjoy physical and mental health benefits, make new friends and develop community empowerment.

In addition, community growth projects have a role to play in the local economy, providing stepping stones to employment and generating income through the sale of fruit and vegetables.

Community gardens: the policy challenges

As the benefits of community gardens have become more apparent, public policymakers have come to view community growing as a vehicle for delivering policy goals in sectors as diverse as health and the environment, business and planning.

In Scotland, a number of community gardens are being supported by funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. Other public funders of community gardens include the Big Lottery Fund and Scottish local authorities.

Earlier this year, research findings highlighted increasing support for community gardens from policymakers in Scotland at national and local levels, and the widening range of funding policy initiatives:

“There is no doubt that national and local government policy agendas are changing in response to the mounting evidence linking urban greenspace with a range of positive health, social, economic and environmental benefits and that increased support will be available for community gardens in Scotland in the future.”

However, the authors also identified a number of challenges facing community growing projects, including planning and legal issues, land availability, funding issues, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages.

Tackling these issues, the authors argued, will need support at local and national levels, but they went on to highlight problems encountered by community gardens in Scotland when applying for grant funding:

“…because the policies relevant to community gardens span such a wide range of concerns across a variety of sectors (including health, land use, social regeneration and the environment) and because funding tends to be located within individual sectors, they often feel pressured to fit in with social policy agendas and associated grant funding criteria which are not entirely suited to their original aims or the needs of their users in order to be eligible for grant money.”

As an example of this, one of the research participants recalled a local health group meeting where the direction of their community garden was pushed from a “therapeutic mental health benefit” agenda to a “back to work” agenda in order to fit in with a recent policy change.

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Looking ahead

It’s likely that prevailing policy will continue to affect the way community growing projects organise and develop. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which includes provisions giving communities the right to take over land in urban and rural areas, enabling, for example, the transformation of waste ground into community garden. And in its 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party pledged to work through the Community Empowerment Act to increase access to land for food growing purposes to develop allotments and community gardens.

If community gardens are to grow further, it appears that organisers will have to explore inventive ways of navigating a complex funding landscape, while satisfying the objectives of policymakers at national and local levels.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may be interested in some of our other posts on community development:

The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

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”

Markfor posters

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:

The self-employment boom … a challenge for government?

By Heather Cameron

There are around 4.5 million self-employed people working in the UK – 1 in 7 of the total workforce. And based on the current rate of growth, it is expected that the self-employed will outnumber public sector employees by 2020. But what impact is this shift in the labour market having on the economy and on government policy?

Growth

Earlier this year we wrote about the rise in female self-employment and entrepreneurship. And generally, jobs recovery in the UK following the recession has undoubtedly been helped by self-employment, which accounts for over a quarter of the growth in employment since 2010.

While the recession has accentuated the growth in self-employment, it is a trend that predates the downturn and it is the significant drop in the numbers leaving self-employment that has been the main driver of growth over the last five years.

Also, as people are living longer and healthier lives, many don’t want to give up working at the traditional retirement age. There has been a 46.5% increase in freelancers over 50 since 2008, an age group that now accounts for 72% of all self-employed people.

This could be seen as a positive outcome of growing entrepreneurialism, contributing to economic growth.  On the other hand, some see it as a move towards more risky, insecure work.

Why self-employment?

There is a definite attraction to being able to work for yourself and organise your own working hours. Most self-employed workers have chosen this path and there is evidence to suggest that job satisfaction is high among self-employed workers.

The freelancing model can also be beneficial to firms as it provides flexibility in access to expertise, helping them to manage peaks and troughs in demand for their services and enabling them to test new ideas with less risk.

A recent study of freelance workers found that a number of factors affect their wellbeing. When working hours are higher than their normal working pattern, freelance workers were found to be calmer and more enthusiastic. However, when the demands they face are difficult or conflicting, then anxiety increases and enthusiasm declines, potentially leading to depression.

Self-employment is therefore not without its drawbacks.

Challenges

Self-employment is often associated with a lack of stability in terms of income and employment benefits such as holiday/sick pay and pensions, and difficulties in accessing financial products and housing.

A particular issue recently has been ‘bogus self-employment’ where workers who would normally meet the legal definition of an employee are registered as self-employed, therefore not receiving any of the employee benefits afforded to registered employees. The government also loses tax revenue and responsible businesses can be undercut.

Access to training is another big challenge for the self-employed as they can only treat training that improves existing skillsets as tax deductible, meaning training for new skills is not covered. As a recent report by Demos argues, this contradicts the aspiration of policy makers to promote entrepreneurial behaviour.

Worryingly, the number of self-employed people receiving training in the UK has fallen in recent years while other European countries have seen a rise. Limited access to training could become a real concern and contribute to the problem of low pay and poor progression rates for self-employed workers and across the wider labour market.

A recent report by IPPR highlights data suggesting that the earnings of the self-employed across Europe are falling relative to employee earnings, and many are looking for more hours or another job, raising concerns over living standards among this group.

As the UK is unique in its self-employment led recovery, this may be of particular concern. According to IPPR, the growth in self-employment could be driving a rise in in-work poverty alongside the jobs recovery.

Support

With a record number of self-employed people now working in the UK, it has been argued that the government needs to better support this growing section of the workforce.

Self-employment has surpassed growth in permanent employment by 3 to 1 in the last decade, but, as Demos has recently reported, government policy has yet to catch up with this structural shift.

There have been moves towards providing support for self-employment, such as the New Enterprise Allowance (NEA), set up by the previous government, which provides people on certain benefits with support to start their own business. Figures published at the end of 2014 show that the NEA has helped to set up over 60,000 new businesses.

Nevertheless, more needs to be done to bring policy in line with the current situation.

The report by Demos makes 18 recommendations for policy to protect the flexibility that self-employment offers, while addressing power imbalances within the marketplace. These include:

  • reducing red tape for firms and the self-employed;
  • providing greater certainty over employment status;
  • creating a tailored pension scheme for the self-employed;
  • aligning the tax treatment of training for employees and the self-employed;
  • and protecting the self-employed from loss of earnings.

In July, the government launched an independent review of self-employment which will consider how those who want to work for themselves can be better supported.

Due to be published in early 2016, perhaps the outcome of this will herald a shift in policy which is in line with the shift in labour market structure.


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

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on labour market policy. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

Neither one thing nor the other: how reducing bogus self-employment could benefit workers, business and the Exchequer

Self-employment and ethnicity: an escape from poverty?

Policy brief on sustaining self-employment: entrepreneurial activities in Europe

Business start-ups and youth self-employment in the UK: a policy literature review

Making sense of self-employment in late career: understanding the identity of olderpreneurs, IN Work, Employment and Society, Vol 29 No 2 Apr 2015, pp250-266

Self-employment: what can we learn from recent developments?, IN Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, Vol 55 No 1 Q1 2015, pp56-66

The changing workforce (increased self-employment and flexible working practices), IN Business Voice, Jun/Jul 2014, pp20-24

*Some items may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Is the Freedom of Information Act ‘working effectively’?

Wall with the words 'Freedom Street'

Image by Kevan via Creative Commons

 

By Steven McGinty

In July, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Lord Bridges, announced that there would be an independent cross-party review on Freedom of Information (FOI).

The UK’s FOI Act was introduced in 2000 (in Scotland, FOI legislation came into force in 2005). The Act requires public bodies to publish certain information about their activities and to respond to requests for information from the public.

Since its introduction, the FOI Act has facilitated the release of information from across government. The most high profile releases have involved MPs’ expenses and correspondence between British diplomats ridiculing the notion of a widespread increase in migration from Poland to the UK, once they joined the EU.

Lord Bridges explained that the review would focus on three main issues:

  • whether there is an appropriate balance between having a transparent and accountable government and the need for sensitive information to be protected;
  • whether the Act adequately recognises the need to have a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation;
  • whether there is an appropriate balance between the need for public access to information and the burden on public bodies of providing this.

However, is this review really necessary?

Over recent years, a number of public figures have voiced their concerns over the Act. Even the man who introduced it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has stated that he was a “naive foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” to introduce it. He also suggested that it undermined “sensible government”.

Similarly, the former head of the Civil Service, Lord O’Donnell has argued that the requirement to release Cabinet minutes risked preventing “real discussions” between ministers.

There has also been discontent from local government, struggling to shoulder the financial cost of the Act. For instance, Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, stated that:

We spent £365,000 in 2010 answering freedom of information requests. What else could I do with that money? More social workers, more school inspectors, more spent on road maintenance.”

Although clearly frustrated by the Act, he doesn’t suggest withdrawing it. Instead, he proposes the idea of a £25 charge. His hope is that this would deter individuals from making ‘frivolous requests’.

In the 2010, University College London’s (UCL) Constitution Unit estimated that the cost of FOI requests for local government was £31.6 million. It also highlighted that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.

Safeguards already exist

However, the review also has its opponents. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has attacked the government’s decision. In particular, he criticises the UK Government for using its position at the top of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer (annual worldwide survey of open government) to justify the review.

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, has also added her disapproval. She explains that the UK’s position at the top of the Open Data Barometer should not be an excuse to undo the progress that has been made. In addition, she claims that the government is behind European countries on other transparency and accountability issues, such as state surveillance and freedom of the press.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has raised concerns over the review panel. It highlights that there are no panel members with a proven commitment to transparency. Currently, the five person committee consists of high profile political figures, such as former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard and former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Act has been praised for holding public bodies to account. For instance, the Daily Telegraph discovered that local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years, including stays at the Four Seasons in New York.

There are also those who maintain that safeguards are already in place. For example, section 35 of the Act provides a qualified exemption, which limits the release of information to the public. This safeguard is explicitly aimed at protecting the policy-making process.

A key challenge for any state is to strike the appropriate balance between effective governance and public accountability. Yet, with so many differing views, universal agreement is unlikely.  Therefore, no matter the outcome of the review, it’s likely that this debate will continue.


Further reading:

Want to know about social work theory or neighbourhood planning? We’ve got the answers!

Subject coverage

By Heather Cameron

With the wealth of information available these days, it’s no wonder we hear the term information overload more and more. Whatever topic you are looking for information on, it can be difficult to find sources you you can rely on, with internet searches retrieving a lot of unreliable material. This is where services such as ours can be invaluable.

Helping you with information overload

The Idox Information Service database contains over 200,000 items with around 200 new items added every week, covering all aspects of public and social policy.

The material consists of research reports, articles from academic journals and industry magazines, policy, guidance, evaluations, case studies, good practice and grey literature. All are chosen and summarised by our research team, so you know that you are accessing reliable resources, many of which are not freely available on the internet.

Breadth of coverage

Popular searches recently carried out by our members have included the following topics, which demonstrate the breadth of our coverage:

  • Theories in social work
  • Child exploitation
  • Anti-discriminatory practice in social work
  • Neighbourhood planning
  • Place-based approaches
  • City deals
  • Smart cities
  • Wellbeing and work
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Planning for social inclusion
  • Wind farms and their impact
  • Green economy
  • Widening access to higher education
  • Joint working between universities and business
  • Social media
  • Marketing and branding
  • Performance management
  • Food banks

Our database has a wide range of material covering various aspects of these topics, including recently published work that keeps our members up-to-date.

Recent research

Members searching on any of these topics can be reassured that the latest research and commentary is included, as the database is updated daily.

For example, for the search on placed-based approaches, a recent article from Regions, The meta-approach to regional development: a re-appraisal of place-based thinking looks at the thinking which informs the practice of place-based approaches to local and regional development.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ recent report on whether worker well-being affects workplace performance could be of particular relevance for the search on well-being and work, as could Public Health England’s report on workplace interventions to improve health and well-being.

With all the media coverage around child exploitation cases in recent times, it’s not surprising that our members continue to search for recent information and good practice in this area. One of the most recent items on child exploitation we have added highlights lessons from Oxfordshire, where the council’s reputation has been raised to one of national exemplar in tackling child exploitation.

Searching on joint working between universities and businesses would reveal promising practice of employer-education engagement across London and the South East in a recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), as part of a study examining how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses in particular work together with secondary schools and colleges. In addition, a recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) report on university and employer collaboration outlines the ways in which universities and employers can form collaborative partnerships to develop higher level skills.

Search strategies

Of course, some of these topics will inevitably retrieve a lot of results, so using our advanced search option can help to narrow things down. For example, searching for “neighbourhood planning” in the title field will return 86 results compared to 277 results when searching in all fields:

Basic search

basic search

Advanced search

advanced searchIn comparison, searching for “neighbourhood planning” on Google returns rather more with around 260,000 results. I think it would be fair to say that it may take a long time to find the quality information required if you had to sift through all these!


 

Members of the Idox Information Service can conduct their own database searches, or can request a search by one of our Research Officers. 

Become a member of the Idox Information Service now, to access our database and current awareness ervices in the areas of public and social policy. Contact us for more details.

Celebrating a different kind of library: the Idox Information Service

Number 95

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office, an art deco building in Glasgow

by Laura Dobie

It’s National Libraries Day this Saturday, and events are being held up and down the country to celebrate libraries and their contribution to communities. When people think of libraries, it tends to be public libraries which spring to mind and rows of bookshelves. However, the library sector is diverse.  Many librarians and information professionals work in different types of organisations, with different kinds of service users.

With libraries taking centre stage over the course of this weekend, we wanted to showcase our own specialist library service and the skills of our library staff.

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over thirty years ago under its earlier 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, but we’ve expanded our subject coverage over the years to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information.

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 research officers are all qualified librarians, and many are chartered members of CILIP. This picture shows the range of activities last year:

2014 statsGrey 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.

Although we may work in a specialist sector, many of our activities will be familiar from other libraries. We do our own abstracting and cataloguing, and current awareness services are a big part of what we do.

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. A recent 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 there has been an increasing trend towards self-service in libraries, and 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 a different kind of library, and library and information work, and the way in which we support professionals across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


Laura Dobie is a Research Officer at the Idox Information Service and a chartered librarian. She writes regular blog articles and research briefings for the service, and tweets for @IdoxInfoService

What’s preventing preventative policy?

governmentBy Stephen Lochore

I recently blogged about the potential benefits of preventative policy-making – an approach that aims to prevent or reduce the risk of social and economic problems. But if prevention really is better than cure, why isn’t prevention universally accepted and implemented?  What are the challenges, barriers and limits to preventative policy?

  • Funding and budgets are usually short-term while preventative policy requires long-term commitment. It may take decades for a preventative approach to deliver outcomes, yet require significant up-front spending. When faced with shrinking budgets, it may seem expedient to cut preventative spending rather than services that more immediately benefit local communities.
  • Changing priorities can undermine preventative approaches.  Much political attention is currently focused towards economic development, and it has become harder for many public bodies to maintain spending on activities that don’t explicitly target economic growth, even if they would save money in the long-term.  Public opinion fluctuates, and often focuses on local solutions rather than high-level holistic approaches.  Yet preventative policy often depends on long-term commitment.
  • Preventative intervention is difficult to evaluate – partly because of the long time-scale, sometimes compounded by a lack of obvious measures of success, but also because the problems such interventions try to address usually cut across policy domains, making it difficult to determine the net impact of any individual initiative among an ever-changing set of interrelated interventions.  To put it another way, preventative policy faces problems of both measurement and attribution.  This puts it at a disadvantage when there is an expectation to demonstrate measurable progress.
  • There is limited evidence about ‘what works’ in preventative policy.  The policy-making cycle operates at a different timescale to that needed to create a robust evidence base.  The Big Lottery suggests longitudinal studies of at least five years to support research into prevention.  People often quip that politicians want quick answers… the other side of the argument is that researchers only want to give comprehensive answers!
  • Public sector budgeting isn’t well suited to those ‘wicked’ issues that cut across departmental and service lines. Preventative spend in one area may save money in another by reducing demand for services.

Long timescales, interdependent issues, and limited evidence, all mean that preventative intervention carries a high level of uncertainty, and can be seen as risky.

There are also some general tensions within policymaking that are exacerbated when taking a preventative approach.

  • Participatory policymaking – communities may prioritise locally identifiable outcomes rather than long-term, holistic interventions.  Issues that are important at a local level (e.g. noise pollution, traffic congestion, litter) are not always the same as those policymakers seek to address, particularly using a preventative approach.
  • Centralised processes to establish good practice and monitor progress versus greater autonomy for localised decision-making and freedom from central interference.
  • Using evidence to follow established practice balanced against policy and research innovation to try and to evaluate new approaches. The relative paucity of evidence about some areas of prevention and early intervention mean that policy risks need to be taken, and policymakers have to accept uncertain returns and some risk to reputation.
  • Activities that have a predictable return or accepted value versus those that have potential for greater positive impact but less certainty.

Despite these challenges, prevention is a policy imperative throughout the UK, if for no other reason than its potential to reduce future public spending. However, it’s particularly notable in Scottish policymaking.

The Scottish Government designated prevention as one of its priorities for reform in its response to the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. The influence of the preventative principle can be seen in the Single Outcome Agreements (SOAs) produced by local authorities and their respective Community Planning Partnership. The guidance to CPPs issued by Scottish Government in 2012 explicitly stated that SOAs “should promote early intervention and preventative approaches”.

Prevention aligns with some of the other principles behind the CPP process in Scotland and public service reform elsewhere  – the idea of co-operation between levels of government, pooling resources and sharing benefits.  It may be risky, but it’s an imperative that all organisations involved in funding, designing and delivering public services ought to embrace.


 

Further reading

Christie Commission on the future delivery of public services

Climate change, Single Outcome Agreements and Community Planning Partnerships

Renewing Scotland’s public services: priorities for reform in response to the Christie Commission

Preventative spending and the ‘Scottish policy style’

The preventative agenda in Scotland is a worthy initiative, but the tensions inherent in its execution may yet undermine it

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on public policymaking. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.