Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


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If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

Equal to the task? Addressing racial inequality in public services

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Throughout October, a series of events to promote diversity and equality will take place as part of Black History Month. Although there are many achievements to celebrate, it is an unfortunate fact that many people in the UK today still experience disadvantage due to the colour of their skin.

Over the summer, reports by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), found that racial inequality in the UK was ‘worryingly high’.

In its biggest ever review of race inequality in the UK, the EHRC concluded that:

“while for certain people life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some– in particular young Black people – life on many fronts has got worse.”

Audit of racial disparities announced

The government responded quickly by announcing an audit of racial disparities in public services. It promises to ‘shine a light on injustices as never before’.

From summer 2017, Whitehall departments will be required to identify and publish information annually on outcomes for people of different backgrounds in areas such as health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice.

As well as enabling the public to check how their race affects the way they are treated by public services, the data is also intended to help force services to improve.

The audit is being called ‘unprecedented’ – and it certainly is – up until now, public services in the UK have not systematically gathered data for the purposes of racial comparison. Indeed, according to the FT, very few countries, if any at all, currently produce racial impact audits.

‘Worryingly high’ levels of racial inequality

The audit will have its work cut out.  The review by the EHRC found that, compared to their White counterparts, people from ethnic minorities were more likely to be:

  • unemployed
  • on low wages and/or in insecure employment
  • excluded from school
  • less qualified
  • living in poverty
  • living in substandard and/or overcrowded accommodation
  • experiencing mental and physical health problems
  • in the criminal justice system
  • stopped and searched by police
  • a victim of hate crime
  • a victim of homicide

Institutional racism

Similarly, the CERD findings into how well the UK is meeting its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) raised serious concerns about the level of institutional racism in UK public services. Omar Khan, of the Runnymede Trust, suggested that the findings would ‘embarrass the UK on the world stage’.

Longstanding inequalities in access to services, the quality of care received and patients’ health outcomes were criticised, as was the over-representation of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in psychiatric institutions.

The committee echoed the EHRC’s concerns regarding higher unemployment rates and the concentration of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in insecure and low-paid work.  They also criticised the use of discriminatory recruitment practices by employers.

In education, there were concerns regarding reports of racist bullying and harassment in schools, and the lack of balanced teaching about the history of the British Empire and colonialism, particularly with regard to slavery.

The committee also concluded that there had been an outbreak of xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly since the EU referendum campaign.  Indeed, the rise in post-Brexit racial tensions has been widely acknowledged.

Equal to the task?

Although the audit has been welcomed by many, including the EHRC, others have raised concern about the extent to which it will tackle the root of the problem.  Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, remains sceptical, stating that “within two or three years every single one of these audits is forgotten”.

Some have noted that in order to be effective, the audit will also have to capture outcomes for migrant families, and for poorer White people, who also suffer from discrimination and disadvantage.  Others, including Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow equalities minister, have noted that there is a ‘huge gap’ in the review as it would not include the private sector.

The EHRC have called upon the government to createa comprehensive, coordinated and long-term strategy to achieve race equality, with stretching new targets to improve opportunities and deliver clear and measurable outcomes.”

Certainly, the data produced by the racial equality audit may well provide some basis for the establishment of such targets.

So while this October there is cause for celebrating the progress made so far, the findings of the EHRC and the CERD underline just how entrenched and far-reaching race inequality remains.  As the EHRC states:

“We must tackle this with the utmost urgency if we are to heal the divisions in our society and prevent an escalation of tensions between our communities.”


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From failure to improvement: how public services can turn themselves around

Abhacken

A new report on the instructive role of failure has been published this summer by the Institute for Government.

Failing Well describes the experiences of four previously failing public services organisations which managed to turn their services around.

Introducing the report, the authors highlight what failure means for public services.

“Failure matters because failure happens. The constellation of organisations that constitute public services in the UK is inherently complex and therefore at permanent risk of failure. This risk, while longstanding, is particularly acute at present. Service providers remain under pressure to cut costs and reconfigure the way services are delivered.”

In addition, structural changes to the ways services are being delivered – a push towards more decentralised and autonomous models of public services – can heighten the risk of failure.

And the authors note that the impacts of failure in the context of public services can be serious:

  • unacceptable standards of service provision
  • harm to service users
  • disruption to service provision
  • discontinuation of the service entirely

Doncaster Council

Four case studies in the report illustrate the different ways in which identified failings in a public sector organisation can lead to changes for the better.

In 2010, a corporate governance inspection by the Audit Commission reported that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council:

“does not do enough to meet the needs of its most vulnerable people, does not safeguard children, and has not been good at helping vulnerable people find a home.”

In short, the commission described Doncaster Council as “a well-known failure”.

In the light of this damning assessment, the Communities Secretary appointed a new chief executive and a team of commissioners to oversee a turnaround at the council. As Failing Well’s authors note, the move by central government to impose its will on local government in direct opposition to democratically elected councillors was an extraordinary step. One of the lessons from Doncaster’s case is that earlier forms of support may prevent such interventions before a public service reaches the point of serious failure.

The report goes on to describe the improvement plan for Doncaster Council agreed by the new commissioners, covering areas such as corporate issues, health and caring. At the same time, the commissioners sought to repair breakdowns in personal relationships at the council that were partly responsible for the problems in running the organisation. By 2014, confidence in the governance of Doncaster Council was restored, and the commissioners were withdrawn ahead of schedule.

West Sussex Children’s Services

Another case study in Failing Well describes the traumatic impact a poor Ofsted assessment had on West Sussex County Council’s Children’s Services, particularly concerning recruitment and retention. But the labelling of failure also proved to be pivotal in bringing problems into the open and stimulating action.  Children’s Services presented its own improvement plan, with progress measured by the council’s Improvement Board. Subsequent Ofsted assessments demonstrated that the journey from failure to improvement was under way.

Lessons from failure

The case studies from Doncaster and West Sussex, along with those from a school and an NHS foundation trust, highlight the different pressures faced by a range of public service organisations. But the authors found some common lessons emerging from these different stories:

  • Peer-to-peer support provides opportunities for earlier intervention – but it needs a trigger.
  • Interventions may not need to remain in place until the turnaround is complete.
  • Insularity is often a characteristic of failing organisations.
  • Responses to failure can be over-reliant on structural reforms.
  • Creating an open, no-blame culture helps to protect against future risk of failure.
  • There is scope for more sector-wide learning from failure.
  • Failure can appear to get worse before it gets better.
  • Turnarounds should set the foundation for long-term improvement, as well as dealing with immediate problems.

The authors warn against an over-reliance on blame, suggesting that this can forestall attempts to understand why failure arose. And they conclude that cultural reform is key to responding to failure:

“In all of the case studies, turnarounds were to some extent predicated on the adoption of new cultures and ways of working…Open, blame-free cultures, where staff are actively encouraged to flag risks or concerns about standards of provision, allow organisations to prevent further failure and encourage reflection when failure does occur.”


Previous blog posts on the the subject of public sector services include:

Commissioning the third sector … are we outsourcing authority as well as services?

By Rebecca Jackson

Public sector cuts under the coalition and current Conservative governments’ programme of austerity have been far reaching and severe. Social enterprises and charities have been promoted by government as a new and effective way to deliver public services in a way which meets the needs of service users but are more cost effective than previous models.

But the closure of Kids Company last month raised questions about the difficulties of outsourcing public services. When a body receives public money, but is ultimately a private organisation or business, who is held responsible for how that money is spent, who is responsible for its regulation and who is ultimately held accountable for its failures?

social enterprise 5

Photo By Paul Carttar & Carol Thompson Cole w/ David Gergen and dpict.info Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Rolling back the state

Estimates suggest there are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK, employing around a million people. Social enterprises and charities have been incorporated extensively into the delivery of public services. This is not only to provide efficiency, but expertise and personalised service in a way that national government-led roll-outs could not. There have been a number of schemes which have functioned effectively, where social enterprises and charities have successfully integrated to help local authorities deliver public services.

Social enterprises represent an alternative way of doing business in the UK; one which promotes investment in communities and projects which promote sustainability and collaboration. They include organisations from the economic, social, cultural and environmental sectors. Their diversity is one of their major advantages.

However some more sceptical about their use have commented that a growing government obsession with outsourcing public services, to both the private and third sector, has created a “shadow state”. Increasingly people have begun to question whether this approach is a sustainable or suitable method for the delivery of public services in the UK. There’s no doubt that social enterprises provide an alternative approach to service delivery, but at what cost to the taxpayer and government legitimacy?

Questions of legitimacy and authority

Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh in south London, Kids Company provided a range of services to vulnerable children in London, Liverpool and Bristol. Its high profile supporters within government included David Cameron. However Kids Company was forced to close after a very public “funding crisis”. Now there are questions over exactly whose responsibility it was to make sure that the money given to Kids Company by government was spent correctly and who is liable for the failure of the charity and the potential loss of £3m of public money.

There are two key issues. The delivery of specialist services to improve outcomes for hard-to-reach groups, is not easy or cheap. Commissioning these services from the third sector, when there are recognised issues with their ability to access sustainable finance and investment, as well as workforce and skills issues within the sector, is never going to be straight-forward. The situation of Kids Company is actually very unusual as sector surveys show that the main challenge that social enterprises and the voluntary sector face when delivering contracted services is the risk that the focus shifts from the needs of service users to meeting narrow, performance management requirements. Public sector procurement models based on cost and value for money leave little leeway and also put organisations into competition with each other for scarce funding.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship between transparency, legitimacy and government authority. Kids Company lacked transparency and in the end, by not addressing concerns or applying appropriate scrutiny, government outsourced its authority as well as its services.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons
Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Answers in the form of regulation?

What exactly went wrong with Kids Company will hopefully emerge in time as a result of the statutory inquiry which was announced last week by the Charities Commission.

Within the existing structure in place in the UK, charities and third sector organisations in England and Wales are held accountable for their practice and conduct by the Charity Commission, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own independent regulatory bodies.

However their effectiveness is disputed. Many smaller organisations are left to largely self-regulate. There is no official stance from government on charity regulation, no mandatory standard of practice, only guidance to direct charity conduct. A damning Public Accounts Committee report in 2014 found that “We are dismayed by the fact that the Charity Commission is still performing poorly and failing to regulate the charity sector effectively. It is obvious that it has no coherent strategy and …it is clear that the Charity Commission is not fit for purpose.

It seems that the government lacks the necessary instruments to scrutinise and challenge the way that charities or third sector organisations operate.

Because of the nature of the organisations involved, what the third sector needs is a regulatory body which is able to effectively set out standards and rules of practice, and explicitly state what is expected of charities in terms of accountability where public funds are concerned, but is not a police force. Too much regulation and scrutiny over charities’ practices would make for a sector which was reluctant to contribute to public services and would reduce their focus on the task of delivering effective public services.

This regulatory challenge is something which needs to be addressed if charities and social enterprises are to continue to be part of the public service delivery structure in the UK.


Want to know more about what we do? Our article Celebrating a different kind of library describes our membership service.

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Want to know more about inequality or digital public services? So do our members!

Photograph: James CarsonPhotograph: James Carson

One of the big attractions of the Idox Information Service is the wide range of subjects covered by our database.  From economic development to crime prevention, social care to urban planning, the breadth of coverage is impressive.  To offer a flavour of that diversity, here we take a snapshot of some recent journal articles that have been especially popular among our member organisations.

Britain: richer, but more unequal

An article in Poverty (A divided Britain) reviewed the evidence on economic inequality in the UK, drawing on four large-scale surveys between 1983 and 2012. These surveys measured public views on what constituted an unacceptable standard of living, and the basic necessities of everyday life, in Britain at the time. There was a rise in poverty over time among those in paid employment, those with children, lone parents, and those in families with disabilities. The article also explored the socio-economic and political changes over the last 30 years that have contributed to a society that is described as richer overall, yet more unequal. And it outlined measures to tackle growing economic inequality, focusing on structural factors including pay, educational opportunities, childcare, tax avoidance and universal welfare.

Copenhagen: digital city

The redevelopment of the Danish capital’s public service through digitalisation was highlighted in an article from Agenda NI (‘Digital public services’). Copenhagen has invested 30 million euro in developing a digitalisation scheme that enables citizens to access most public services online, including applications for passports and driving licences, wedding registrations and social security payments. The article explains that efficiency and cost-cutting was at the heart of the improvements, and as a result the city has made annual savings equating to 20 million euro. Getting city centre managers to buy into the changes was especially important, and one unusual incentive is to offer bonuses to managers taking risks, even if they make mistakes. The approach is certainly forward-thinking, and the article suggest that the Copenhagen model could be applied in other cities.

Olympics and Commonwealth Games: looking back, looking ahead

It’s been a year since Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games, and three years since the London Olympics. Two different articles have taken a look at the impact of these major sporting events.

In ‘Going for bronze’, The Economist describes the redevelopment of the Olympic Park. It reports that new housing has revived an area that previously felt like a ghost town, but notes that politicians in the area are unhappy that too little social and affordable housing has been built on the site. Much of the redevelopment would have taken place anyway, says the article, but the Olympics sped up the process. However, the full impact may still take another 15 years to be felt. As one academic tells The Economist: “Creating an ‘Olympic legacy’ is still more of a marathon than a sprint.”

The same might be said of the economic impact of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. One year on, Holyrood magazine has reflected on the effect of the Games in terms of tourism, infrastructure investment and employment. It finds that, while the Games generated new business for the host country, the real challenge is to build on that success. The article reports that agencies such as Scottish Development International (SDI) hope to capitalise on increased awareness of Scotland in areas such as food and drink. But, as Anne MacColl, chief executive of SDI tells Holyrood, Scotland needs to punch above its weight in the global marketplace: “We can only do that by ensuring our international propositions are seen and heard on the world stage.”


 

Want to know more about what we do? Our article Celebrating a different kind of library describes our membership service.

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

Further reading

A divided Britain (economic inequality in the UK)

Digital public services (digital delivery of public services in Copenhagen)

Going for bronze (impact of the 2012 Olympics on east London)

Gold rush (economic impact of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games)

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

community sign

by Laura Dobie

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was finally passed by the Scottish Parliament after a debate and vote late on Wednesday evening. In this article we look at the background to the Bill, the reforms that it proposes and its potential to strengthen community planning.

Background

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 11th June 2014, and the Stage 2 debate took place in March 2015. The Bill has its origins in the 2011 Scottish National Party election manifesto (where it was referred to as the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill). This was followed by two Scottish Government consultations. The Bill is part of a broader programme for public service reform in Scotland which was introduced by the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, which stressed the need to ensure that public services are built around people and communities.

The Bill sets out reforms in areas including community planning, community right to buy land, involving communities in the delivery of public services and the acquisition of public assets by communities.

Community planning provisions

The Bill gives community planning partnerships (CPPs) a statutory basis and extends the range of public bodies which are defined as community planning partners beyond those set out in the 2003 Local Government in Scotland Act, which introduced community planning. It sets out a legal obligation for local authorities and their partners to participate with each other and to participate with any community bodies which the partnership considers likely to be able to contribute to community planning.

There is a particular focus on involving organisations which represent disadvantaged groups, and CPPs are required to “act with a view to reducing inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage unless the partnership considers that it would be inappropriate to do so.”

CPPs are also required to prepare and publish a local outcomes improvement plan and to review whether they are making progress in achieving these outcomes. They must also publish progress reports for each reporting year.

Will the reforms strengthen community planning?

A number of reports have been critical of community planning since its inception, in particular with respect to its involvement of, and impact on, local communities. The Christie Commission highlighted “variations in the effectiveness of community planning partnerships,” while an Audit Scotland report found that barriers such as the lack of a clear accountability framework have prevented CPPs from operating as intended. It argued that all community planning partners need to work together to address these barriers.

A SPICe briefing on the Bill noted that “putting community planning on a statutory basis, and requiring participation from all partners, not just local authorities, has long been considered a way in which community planning could be improved.” The general duty on all partners to participate, and specific responsibilities conferred on some partners to ensure the efficient and effective operation of the partnerships, may help to address some of the previous shortcomings of CPPs.

However, the Local Government and Regeneration Committee does not consider that a statutory duty is sufficient to ensure the effective participation of all public bodies in community planning. Some stakeholders have also highlighted issues with how outcomes will be selected and prioritised by CPPs, while others have voiced concerns that the process will remain top down, and will not give communities much of an opportunity to contribute to determining outcomes.

While the proposed reforms place clear responsibilities on CPPs to involve relevant bodies in community planning, and contain provisions which aim to address previous problems with CPPs, we will need to see how they are applied in practice in order to determine whether they will bring about improvements in community planning, and ultimately lead to improved outcomes for communities.


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

Further reading*

Changing gear (Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill), IN Holyrood, No 327 10 Nov 2014, pp35-36

Empowering communities: putting people at the heart of their place, IN Scottish Planner, No 159 Sep 2014, pp4-5

Improving community planning in Scotland

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

Involving young people in local political systems and decision-making

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Image from Flickr user UK Parliament via Creative Commons

Our latest briefing focuses on the involvement of young people in political processes and decision-making. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

While the media was focused on young people’s participation in politics at the national level during the recent General Election campaign, in this briefing we take a step back and look at the involvement of young people in local political processes and decision-making.

Research by the IPPR in 2013 found that alongside those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, young people are the group least likely to vote at elections. At the local level, research by the National Centre for Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that young voters are even less likely to turn out for local (and European) elections.

Our briefing highlights a range of reasons suggested by existing evidence as to why young people have low levels of engagement with political systems and decision-making. These include:

  • A lack of trust in politicians and their parties.
  • A focus on policies that do not directly impact on their lives.
  • Today’s generation of young people do not see voting as a civic duty.

Also highlighted are the reasons why it is so important that more is done to encourage young people to engage with political and decision-making processes. These range from legal factors (children and young people have the legal right to have a say in all matters that affect them, according to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to examples of positive contributions that children and young people have made in the shaping of local services.

The briefing includes advice on how organisations including councils can help to encourage and facilitate young people to become more involved in formal decision-making processes. This includes tips on practical considerations (e.g. venues, timing of meetings), safeguarding issues and how best to communicate with young people.

A number of examples of good practice are identified, including Dorset County Council’s Youth Inspectors scheme. Established in 2009, the project aims to enable young people to learn about and influence local services in their area.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To gain an insight into the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

What is “the right approach” to public service website design?

socitim finger pointSocitm have recently reported on their 17th survey of local authority websites, Better Connected 2015, and the picture still isn’t great. Although rising expectations are said to be driving improvement, there are still significant gaps in performance. The key highlights from the report illustrate this:

  •    Slow and intermittent progress in improving their websites in the past year.
  •    Advances in accessibility – 43% providing satisfactory features for the disabled.
  •    Increases in number of responsive sites – increasing to nearly 50% (easy reading and navigation).
  •    8% now reach the 4 star ranking.
  •    Public satisfaction fell by 30%.
  •    The gap has narrowed by over 9%, between satisfied and dissatisfied.
  •    Slow progress in mobile performance experience – only 1/3 passing the assessment, especially customer journeys for top tasks.
  •    Only 37% of councils passed the top tasks standard, a slight improvement on last year.
  •    Nearly 50% of new sites launched didn’t improve the 1 or 2 star ranking.

Martin Greenwood (Socitm’s Insight Programme Manager) said shortcomings are due to councils having limited resources and not taking the right approach to designing websites. He highlights key barriers to improvements:

  •    Lack of resources and skills.
  •    The need to simplify.
  •    Focus on mobile, getting this right helps with the website as a whole.
  •    Addressing what makes the website poor, such as standards, digital governance, and management of content, before making the same mistakes.
  •    Not having strong editorial control, to ensure consistency.
  •    Not having a national structure for budgets, third party software and information sharing.

So what is the right approach? Information on how individual councils perform is available in the full report, but 34 councils achieve the maximum 4 star. In the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of councils that have implemented a responsive site, up from 107 (26%) to 198 (49%). Many of the issues highlighted are the same for all websites, and ownership, clarity of purpose, clear user journeys are key to all websites. So how can all websites be improved?

  •    Have clear editorial processes and accountability.
  •    Really focus on the customer journey and remove any distraction.
  •    Make the information architecture clear and consistent, prioritise top tasks.
  •    Design for mobile devices first.
  •    Keep content relevant.
  •    Make sure all forms have context, such as the process or service which can be expected.

and specifically for local authorities Socitm highlights:

Should local authority websites be a priority in today’s efficiency saving climate? Ipsos Mori shows that 85% of the adult population now use the internet, while Ofcom found that half of internet users use government websites, including local authority ones, and this is growing rapidly. With 45.3m visits each month to council websites already, this will continue to grow, but will sites be resilient enough to cope? 30% of visits end in failure, even the best performing sites have 15% failures, and most failures lead to other modes of contact, such as calls to already busy call centres. DCLG found that 65% of local authorities said they had made savings as a result of implementing digital services, with an average saving of £1.4m, and also the added value of greater efficiency and transparency. The digital trends which are emerging across the public sector are driven by technological solutions to create efficiencies, as well as a better use experience, for a more digitally aware customer. Part of the solution to this efficiency is strategic use of content, simplified and used across the whole organisation. Technology will be used more and more in service delivery, better use of call centre information and feedback, and improved searching functions for information. The results of Better Connected, although promising, have some way to go. Although failure to meet, what are essentially customer service standards, may not be having a direct monetary impact currently, it will in the future if local authorities do not keep pace with the principles of user-centred design. Idox agrees with the report’s findings, especially that user-centred design is key to online services. As a company we are taking this forward within our business strategy. We have found that there is a an eagerness to develop and improve web experience, but with constraints on financial budgets, public sector clients are prioritising the improvements which are absolutely necessary. The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on digital service delivery, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us. An example of other resources we can offer to meet the challenge facing the public sector: Better Connected 2015 (Press Release) Local Digital Today Digital Trends in the public sector Digitally positive: an essay collection Technology Manifesto Internet Citizens 2013: use of citizen-related online content and services

Grey men dreaming of vibrant cities?

Image by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

Image of MediaCity, Manchester by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

They control combined budgets of over £10bn, deliver 24.4% of the combined economic output of England, Scotland and Wales, and are home to over 21 million people. What are they? The Core Cities of the UK – and as pre-election lobbying ramps up a gear they are at the forefront of the devolution debate.

Last week I attended the Core Cities Devolution Summit. This event, hosted in Glasgow, marked the launch of a modern charter for local freedom. It also gave those interested in the current cities agenda a chance to hear from the city leaders on the potential benefits of reform.

I won’t summarise the charter, or the main recommendations of a new report from ResPublica which argues for the fullest possible devolution of public spending and tax raising powers to the UK’s largest cities and city regions. Instead, here are a few reflections on the day.

Bespoke devolution

The hype over Manchester’s recent devolution agreement with the Treasury shouldn’t distract from the fact that devolution is not a one-size-fits-all model. The idea isn’t to try and mimic Manchester’s journey – what’s on the cards is an approach that takes account of local circumstances.

I’m not sure that the end result of this – potentially radically different priorities in revenue generation, service delivery and spending between neighbouring metropolitan areas – is being communicated in a transparent way. Ben Page from IpsosMori shared some interesting survey results which suggest that public opinion also lags behind the political agenda:

ipsos survey 1

ipsos survey 2Leadership not bureaucracy

Mention devolution and one of the immediate responses of naysayers is to complain it’s just yet another layer of governance – more costs, more staff, more vested interests. This was raised during Q&A and the panel responded by saying that what they are proposing doesn’t require massive reorganisation – it’s about effective leadership. The same pots of money are used but funds can be accessed in different ways for different purposes.

This was only half-convincing. Repeated reference to place-based decision-making (breaking down functional /organisational silos to ensure services are focused on outcomes and those residents with complex needs) didn’t really explain how you build the trust and political capacity that’s needed to roll out transformation across multiple agencies/workforces at the same speed and scale.

Equalities

Presenting a different perspective on the day was Professor Lesley Sawers, who highlighted the risks of unintended consequences from devolution in terms of social justice and inequalities. She argued that so far localism has led to an approach to investment that has not been particularly effective in tackling equalities issues.

Cities should be great agents of social reform but the rhetoric around growth has a tendency to focus on infrastructure and macroeconomics – ignoring social challenges such as skills, poverty and under-achievement. And it may seem an easy point to score, but running an event with only 3 female speakers out of 25, didn’t really send a great message to observers. Don’t even mention the lack of ethnic diversity on the platform.

What now?

The devolution agenda may be the ‘only show in town’ but whether the core cities can take advantage of this to benefit and engage their own populations remains to be seen.


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on governance and city regions. Members receive regular briefings as well as access to our Ask a Researcher enquiry service.

Knowledge insider…. a Q & A with Jonathan Breckon

jonathan_breckon_150x150In the latest of our series of Q&As with leading advocates of the use of evidence in policymaking and practice, we talk to Jonathan Breckon. Jonathan is Head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence – a partnership which champions the need for useful evidence, providing a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK.

Jonathan, what led you to a role about promoting and improving knowledge development? 

There are two ways in which I am interested in knowledge development; professionally I have always worked around universities, loved doing and finding out new research and working within research in UK. I have always been conscious however, of the gap between research and front line services, even when research is relevant to the service, and felt this was a great loss and disadvantage to public services.

My personal interest, as a user of public services, with my kids going through services such as schools, health and sports, I have been desperately aware that things are business as usual rather than continuously striving for innovation and change. The debate is now all about money and reductions when it should be about improvement and future proofing.

We don’t always know what it takes to bridge the gap between what we need, and what services can provide; research can actually help that. The What Works approach is really important but very hard, as it’s difficult to stop doing things we have already invested in. An evidence-based research approach can challenge and support this evaluation and we have a moral duty to do it and not continue to invest in services which don’t work.

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

The challenge of seeing if things work or not, why they work, where they work and who they work for – developing your knowledge is the critical aspect of improving how you do things.

It’s also important for a whole host of other benefits. I particularly like Carol Weiss’ work, which is instrumental – this ‘enlightment’ operational research should not be dismissed. This approach can support the ideas of learning continuously through research; it implies a continuous review of theory, methods, practice and we should always be striving to improve our methods and outcomes.

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

The most common one is that investing in evidence is just rhetoric; politicians, charities, parties etc will never really be informed by the research agenda, and I agree. We aren’t in a super-rational culture, it’s about our wider culture, values and beliefs as well. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding that research trumps anything. It is part of the mix, part of the overall democratic and rational approach to doing anything.

The Behavioural Insights Team has a massive role to play in understanding the biases in how we make decisions, whether in prisons, police, policy etc. We don’t work rationally all the time and evidence can help us understand the messiness of policy making. We just need it to be a bigger part of the mix.

Everybody has this view that they use evidence but we don’t really understand how effectively they use it.

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

The main one is that not all evidence is equal; that you have to make judgements about it. This is hard for those writing the research – it’s not about the quality of the research, and it’s about the point of view from demand. They need some things and not others.

The big challenge, if you are looking at impact, is you need different approaches, experiments, systematic reviews – one study is not enough. Such as when you see studies reported in newspapers – until replicated we don’t really know if it is robust. You need to avoid literature reviews where you cherry pick, go to something which is transparent and is systematic. This is true of both policy makers and researchers’ point of view; we underestimate the challenges facing both sides.

Need more about impact. We are very good at qualitative – world class – but we are behind in quantitative methods. It is being addressed but it will need to filter through.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

What Works Centres will, I hope, be a key part of the evidence ecosystem, in the way that NICE have done, helping providers and policy makers make decisions. Although it doesn’t do research itself it sucks in research and uses it well.

There will always be critics of them, even of just the name, but they will change the system. Some have been around for a while and are well established, but others are new and are just about to be. As well as synthesising research they will commission new work. For instance in wellbeing, we know a lot about the correlation with health and wellbeing but don’t know a lot about what will work in improving it.

Technology makes it very difficult to guess about the future, who would have predicted the work in social media research? Big data is emerging now and in 5 years’ time might be a standard tool. The fundamental principles like statistics will be there but we will have to adapt to the possibilities offered by technology

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

Just because you have done a social science masters and PhD, does not make you an expert in evidence, partly because people over-specialise. People need open their minds to different methods and how people do it in other places. The Department for International Development have an amazing range of techniques, nothing like anything you have seen, with a database of all the research they have funded or delivered.

Emerging opportunities such as social media research – still early days and fundamentally new, and could have a huge impact. Most people’s default though is to go to an expert and be frightened off journals and academics; I don’t think you always have to commission something new, it’s about variety, breadth and developing your understanding in as many ways as possible.


 

You can also read Q&As with Tim Allen, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Sarah Jennings of the Knowledge Hub; and Kim Ryley, recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.