The debate on poverty and inequality should include actions too

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) looks ahead to the 3rd Annual I4P Lecture on 9 February:

This year’s lecture is being given by Professor Kate Pickett (York University and co-author of The Spirit Level).

The Spirit Level addresses in a powerful and straightforward way, the causes of poverty and also inequality, not only here in the UK but across the world. The book can be read as a careful and systematic analysis of a range of data which illustrate the relationships between health, poor housing, low paid work, unemployment and poverty. But it is not merely a well argued, well informed analysis of the data. It points to the actions that governments as well as employers can take to address these structural inequalities and it argues as well, that both the non-actions of the state and those of employers represent choices to maintain inequality.

It seems to me that the value of The Spirit Level lies in the way it sets out the data and the evidence. You don’t have to agree with their recommendations for action but it is hard to dispute their analysis. And for those that agree and share the analysis and the overall set of actions, it is important to think of what we then choose to do. We can choose to agree with the analysis but say that we can’t adopt some of the recommendations (including adopting the Living Wage or looking at our procurement policies and thinking about our capacity to influence our suppliers and contractors) because we don’t have the power or we can seek to adopt the recommendations as one set of small steps that begin to change the lives and working conditions of those who are dependent on our choices.

We are involved in a funded piece of work from the Webb Memorial Trust on ‘What Makes a Good Society’ – adopting these recommendations would be a start.

Why charity trustees matter: Getting governance and accountability right

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) comments on the report on Kids Company by a Parliamentary investigation:

The details of the collapse of the charity Kids Company are likely to be subject to much debate and criticism. The likely negative impact on the lives of those young people who relied on the support of staff who worked for Kids Company cannot be underestimated.

The media fascination with the charity and the willingness of most senior political leaders to look for a photo opportunity with its founder and many of its users probably did no one any favours in the long term.

One of the key learning points in the report which is being discussed today is the role of the trustees. A really central element in keeping charities going is the role of the trustees. They have the responsibility to exercise oversight and keep an eye on the financial health of the organisation. Both require close engagement with the work of the charity and both require trustees to take their roles seriously. And it appears too as if the chair of the Kids Company trustees had been in that role for over 15 years. As a small sign of good practice you would want the chair of the board to change and certainly serve not more than 5 or 6 years.

Declaration of interest: I am chair of a small national charity and we have term limits for our chair and I will be finishing this November after 3 years in the role. Fixed term limits requires trustees to think of succession planning and making changes. Trustees (whilst needing support and training) can become over connected with the charity and of course you want them to be advocates and proud supporters, but they as well to be the critical voice or the questioning voice ensuring that the aims and values of the charity are being met. And with charities that are set up and led by strong and very committed personalities it is important to have a strong set of trustees too. They are there to protect the charity for as long as they feel able.

Getting the governance and accountability processes right is about protecting those that depend on it too. Sadly it looks as if Kids Company is going to be a case study in the failure of governance rather than in a celebration of what can be achieved by the charity and not for profit sector.

Why collaboration is necessary and learning to work across boundaries should be compulsory

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) makes the case for working across boundaries:

Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas brings together a number of shared themes and ideas. One of them – working across the different professional or discipline boundaries that can inhibit good practice, is reflected in a number of talks and workshops.

On the face of it, the invitation to work collaboratively can appear like talking common sense. Who can possibly be opposed to it?

In her new book, Gillian Tett talks about the ‘silo effect’ and the ways in which organisations can become ineffective and slow to innovate because of the ways in which boundaries between different bits of organisations or universities restrict developments or change. The question or questions are therefore about how to balance the skills and understanding that separate disciplines bring with the need to think about how their potential to limit change needs to be kept under scrutiny.

This raises important questions too about how we organise or structure organisations: do we reflect the needs of professional disciplines (in a university that would be departments), or do we also try to reflect the needs of users (students and external partners or potential collaborators)? If we privilege the needs of professional disciplines (the producers) does that reduce or restrict our potential to change or innovate? How do we organise and structure what we do so that it has that room for manoeuvre? And are all structures ultimately means of holding back innovation? Why does this matter?

Learning from and with both service users and producers, and being open to change, are new relationships based upon innovation more likely to sustain lasting change? And they suggest (but don’t ensure) that we are creating a cultural bias in favour of innovation which is a necessary but not sufficient condition of our times.

The importance of school governance and accountability

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) points to the glaring policy and practice contradictions in this recent announcement:

The news that a national academy chain is to drop its school based governing bodies and opt for a combination of centralised decision making, whilst having local school ‘ambassadors’, raises a number of really important questions.

On the one hand the whole underpinning rationale for academies was to break up the role of local education authorities and to make explicit the direct connection between school leaders and their local stakeholders (parents). The LEA was seen as inhibiting innovation and change. At the same time schools (whether as part of local chains or national ones) needed support and guidance across a range of areas (from recruitment and staffing to payroll and planning). But the question remained (and remains) can these practical management and admin functions be separate from being accountable to the different communities of interest which are reflected in schools (from parents to children and young people to local employers to local communities)?

Schools sit within their geographic localities and occupy an important role in community bonding and development. How are they and should they be accountable for this role? And if they are what are the formal mechanisms and processes for ensuring this happens (governance arrangements)? Who should be involved and with what roles and powers?

These are not abstract questions. Recently the Government have started to move away from academy chains which cut across England. The expectation is that chains should be accessible by being able to drive from one school to another during the lunch break. Even with the best will in the world that’s not going to happen in the big urban conurbations of London, Greater Manchester or the West Midlands. And as a policy aspiration seems at odds with city regions and devolution.

There are other questions too – in an increasingly technological and interdependent world we can host innovative teaching materials online in Latin America but have them accessed in Bolton. Global education developments require us to rethink the models of governance and accountability we develop and promote. But we shouldn’t drop or ignore the most profound questions of how to develop good relationships between school communities (in all its richest sense) and school leaders and teachers and the communities they are situated in.

Why all universities should consider a Festival of Ideas

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) makes the case for expanding Festivals of Ideas in Universities:

This week sees the start of the Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas – Imagining Better. It is like many such initiatives – it draws on an eclectic range of events from public lectures, to films, to drama to art and photographic exhibitions, to workshops and book signings. It’s diverse, it’s stimulating and it reflects an important objective which is to create a space in which ideas, discussion and conversation can flow and in turn stimulate reflection and thought.

They are part (almost) of the furniture across higher education institutions. And whilst they are important (really important) they are, I think, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for all the possibilities outlined above to take place.

An important aspect of the concept (and this is central for me about the Edge Hill Festival) is both that it encourages, supports and makes explicit the idea of multi-disciplinary thinking and work. Whilst there are different bits of the University hosting particular aspects we could delete the organisational home and there would be recurring and overlapping themes. And central to that is the idea of how our learning and thinking is much more flexible and curious than any one subject or department or discipline. I think that’s a huge strength of what we are offering and I hope it becomes part of the taken for granted nature of what makes a good and exciting event.

Secondly, I think these events highlight the centrality of universities acting as civil society institutions in the public space where we need to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas.

And finally, the weaknesses in this approach: we need to develop much more examples of learning from and listening to those outside the academy. And perhaps a good sign of that will not be that next year we have a fringe which is even more interesting than the main event but when the fringe is the academy and the main event is a much more creative and different set of voices and experiences from which we deliberately seek to learn with and from.

In the meantime enjoy this year’s programme.

Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas 2016 is a diverse range of events exploring culture, health and society. The main theme is Imagining Better – envisioning ways for communities, arts and healthcare to develop and flourish, even in times of austerity and inequality.

Click here for a full list of events.

The regeneration of housing estates illustrates the change in the Government’s narrative

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) argues that the announcement of funding to undertake an initial identification of housing estates which need ‘regeneration’ should not be dismissed:

I am not suggesting that there has been a change in priorities where the allocation of resources is concerned. The amounts outlined over the weekend do not go far enough, nor is the assumption that pension funds will be the primary source of money convincing. But, the announcements mark another subtle but quite important shift in the Government’s public policy narrative.

Following the 2010 and 2015 elections, first the Coalition, and then the Conservative Government made it an important part of their new approach that most of the New Labour initiatives were cut (out went Regional Development Agencies, integrated Government Offices and regeneration initiatives were regarded as old fashioned and not relevant to the new public policy  priorities or strategies).

So has everything changed? Not totally. But just as the devolution agenda (the Northern Powerhouse) is a case of taking other party’s policies and claiming as your own, so is the regeneration agenda. Does this matter? I think it does. Because in both cases to be successful there needs to a ‘public’ or civic society presence. Neither of these two developments can be undertaken by the private or not for profit sector alone. It is this reintroduction of the ‘public’ and with it the idea of the local agency facilitating or brokering changes as well as providing some element of accountability for what is done, which is the real potential shift in policy. Both of these developments need governance mechanisms to ensure that public needs are met or at least addressed. Governance is what the public agency or civic institutions provide. We need to reflect on what this means in the long term but in the short term it is another subtle but important shift in thinking and decision making at a central level.

The importance of executive education programmes for public sector managers, and why ‘silo’ thinking should be challenged

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P), reflects on the need for executive education programmes:

A key point I want to make from the outset is a declaration of interest – I am the co-editor of an international journal which is committed to publishing essays and research papers from academics and practitioners engaged in the education of public leaders and managers.

Teaching Public Administration, published by Sage, carries papers overwhelmingly from outside the UK. They highlight the shared and overlapping interests of leaders and managers in the UK, and they confirm (I think) why we need to raise the question of how we support those involved in managing complex organisations across the public sector.

That statement of interest over, I think there are three key points to make: firstly, that there are very evident shared experiences and agendas – managing change in a context of declining resources but rising expectations from users and politicians. It is not a cliché or a sound bite to say ‘you / we need to do more with less’.

Secondly, there are a group of overlapping issues which cut across public / private and not for profit – questions of governance and accountability. It seems to me that whilst we think we understand the accountability question, and I am not sure we do, there is a real issue over governance. Seeking to ensure that leaders and senior executives engage with the governance question is vital if we are to begin to address the questions raised in my first observation. I think that senior leaders need support, from external mentors or critical friends, it doesn’t matter what we call them, but what is needed are individuals who can support them in their critical self-reflection and personal learning so that they are better able (more confident as well as more reflective) in their practice to think and act strategically as well as understand the local or the domestic too.

Finally, good quality executive education is also about learning to make transitions work too. And I think that understanding that is also about connecting the internal world with the external environment and focussing on what the longer term ideas are. And that requires setting those thinking and learning activities in a set of values and principles which can be shared and recognised. I have a particular interest in how we encourage individuals and organisations to work across their institutional boundaries and silos. These are themes I will return to.

Making Devolution work – cities and regions in England are next

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One of the surprising developments (for some) regarding the changes facing those who want to devolve and democratise services has been the Government’s push to create city regions in England as a way of demonstrating their commitment to further decentralisation.

These proposals have had a mixed reaction from some: there is serious doubt as to whether the economic gains cited by the Government are achievable and as the proposals have been set out (in an apparently random fashion) it is difficult to see how coherent or connected they are.

At the same time for cities to take advantage of the offer, they have to commit to changes in the way the new structures and processes will be governed.

The requirement to have an elected mayor is being resisted in many quarters. The proposals are, also, not uniform across those English authorities who have either opted to be included or who are exploring the possibility.

The 10 authorities that make up Greater Manchester are seen to be the flagship of the changes. And whilst the 10 councils have agreed on their mayor (the present Police and Crime Commissioner) the potential impact of the changes is still difficult to assess: the current package includes the usual suspects (infrastructure, economic development) but also childrens’ services, health and social care as well as skills and training.

But not all of these initiatives will sit together even in Greater Manchester.

So we can expect a patchwork quilt of services some co-existing alongside others and some being configured and managed across the new combined authority.

Why does this matter ? I think it is important for three reasons: firstly , we are a provider of education and training for a whole generation of individuals who want to work in these professional settings – thus the organisation, structure and governance of these services matters to them and it should matter to us; secondly,we know that the short to medium term funding of these services is undergoing profound reductions and cost cutting – it should matter to us because of the impact these changes taken together will have on communities and individuals – there is a whole research agenda here; and finally , it matters because there is a potential space being created (in my opinion) which is also about local democracy and decision making and given that we work within a highly centralised system the opening up of spaces to speculate on different ways of doing things is something we should be interested in.

This is a key policy, practice and political set of questions we will return to in 2016.

What do we learn from the Comprehensive Spending Review?

There are three lessons from the Comprehensive Spending Review.

First, don’t believe the spin before the statement;

Two, don’t believe the spin after the statement;

And three, look at the trends in spending and their impact.

Whilst the headlines are saying it wasn’t all bad and the cuts weren’t in the order of 30 per cent, but in some cases 20 per cent, and there is investment in some areas that wasn’t anticipated (sport especially) we can look at the trends.

One lesson immediately is that the revision of growth means that the Government has more flexibility than they thought and we can assume (even though the next election is just under five years away) that this will help prepare for 2020.

The second immediate lesson is that the percentage of spending by the state as a proportion of national income is heading downwards past European levels and moving towards US levels.

This is significant and profound. It means that some of the financial and policy changes introduced over the last five years or so are going to be irreversible without significant investment through taxes should a new (non-Conservative government) wish.

The third lesson is what is happening at the local level: since the late 1970s successive governments have shifted the share of money spent at the local level from taxes raised by city hall to money allocated from Westminster. Now the move is the other way. But it is happening in a context of cuts and social and political change.

The responsibility for spending is being devolved (the shift to city regions or combined authorities) but the resources are not following. Hence closures of many local services which are regarded as non-essential (libraries and children’s services) but at the same time statutory services are bring squeezed – especially adult social care.

We can expect more closures of services for the elderly and these cuts are likely to lead to more localised resistance and opposition. As part of our role we will be monitoring these changes and will post updates and briefing papers too over the next twelve months.

Find out more about I4P and its calendar of events here. 

After the election: What next ?

The General Election result will, for those fascinated by the intricacies of such events, provide much fertile ground for endless speculations and interpretations.

And there is a risk that these conversations crowd out some important questions as once again the daily media return their gaze to the succession competitions in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the up coming leadership campaign in the Conservative Party (given Cameron’s decision not to seek a ‘third term’).

The important questions which remain after the results were announced last Friday still remain:

What are the immediate consequences of the planned austerity cuts?

Where are the cuts coming to fund the reductions in welfare spending?

Where will the funds come to meet the crisis in the Health Service?

We know that there are planned cuts in public spending and we know that some of these planned cuts have factored into them a failure to keep pace with increases in utility costs.

As a consequences for those managing budgets across the public sector (education, health, social care and all locally provided services) the real reductions in funding are likely to have more impact than has been assumed or expected.

We know too that those responsible for managing local government services are talking about not being able to meet their statutory duties and services. One of the known (but often unappreciated by the wider public) ways in which some social and welfare services are provided at the local level is through the voluntary and community sector. What might appear to be small scale operations (good neighbour schemes or community based mentor or advocate schemes) but have a profound significance for those that use them are at risk in this context. There has been a contradiction throughout the last government’s policy and practice.

On the one hand there was a time when the Cameron-led Conservatives valued the idea of volunteering and the ‘Big Society’ on the other hand the cuts to mainstream services has pushed the provision of some of these services to the voluntary sector. So rather than providing an important added extra based on what might work locally, the Voluntary Sector has found itself looking to provide core services or in some cases through contracting out seeking to win commissions to run them.

There are also questions about those aspects of the last government’s budget which were never quantified. We can anticipate that these will be made explicit sooner rather than later. We might expect that the Government will want to get these cuts announced and implemented within the next three to four years to give themselves a chance of preparing for 2020.

And yet, there is still the impact of these changes at the local level. We can expect that as the cuts result in still further and major reductions in services there is likely to be more campaigning and opposition. One of the unintended consequences (perhaps) of last week is that the political context is ‘clearer and cleaner’ than it was in 2010. The Government no longer has the political advantage of being in coalition (that advantage enabled them to see their partners punished last week) and the opposition (whilst not united at all) might yet begin to articulate a shared critique.

The other potential base from which we might see opposition developing is at the local level. We are moving, I expect, to more direct cuts in services and so those who are local councillors or those who are school governors or members of hospital trusts will find themselves either defending their decisions to cut services or sack staff or they will be joining a broad network of opposition.

It is this period of unpredictability which we need to watch and engage with.