Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 460 - 472)



  460.  Can I raise another issue which might come back, of course, to what Gerry was saying, and that is the measure of success? In all of these innovations and participations et cetera you are talking about how more people are getting involved at different levels rather than being councillors or whatever. How would you measure that success? Is there some touchstone? Andy mentioned a three to five point increase in turn-out at local elections. Is that a real measure or are there other measures? If there are, how would you actually make the kind of performance indicator in which you could say councillor A is performing well and councillor B is not, or whatever?
  (Professor Stoker) I am a bit tempted to say that I do not think I would be keen for it to be a sort of built-in performance indicator, partly because in some ways I think it negates the drift of the way the argument is going, which is that this is about recognising that there is potential for a more grown-up politics and that potential is out there. The public is already moving in that direction and the political system either responds or there is a real danger that people will say, "We no longer believe in this political system at all." It seems to me that the ultimate performance indicator is if people are still taking any notice of democratic process in 20 years' time. It does seem to me that another higher agency or body could do perhaps two things. One, give people a more clear and honest storyline about what is happening here. This is a broader shift in the way that we want to manage public services and the way we want to connect people. It is happening in all sorts of different ways and it is not just happening in your area, it is happening everywhere and we are all going to have to try to learn to cope with this and we are all going to have to learn the lessons. The second matter is to find ways of encouraging the spread of good practice. There is so much good practice out there. There are excellent examples that Birmingham have already given you of the kind of things they have done. What is crazy is the idea that anyone anywhere else would be asking what they need to do because there is so much good practice out there. There is a role for some agency or body to facilitate the spread of that good practice. That does not necessarily mean producing a publication but it does mean facilitating exchanges so that people can learn from one another. I think that is probably the direction I would rather go in than laying down performance indicators.

Mr White

  461.  Do you think the Cabinet Office document is a service for us? (Professor Stoker) That document is useful. I can probably identify about another six or seven, at the drop of a hat, other documents that contain lots of examples and good ideas about the way in which participation could be done. If you do not mind, at this point I will hand you over to Sue Goss because she has a very powerful point to make, and I will let her make it.
  (Dr Goss) We were talking about this outside, what single thing we think you ought to do. The role of Government in this is quite important. Doing the wrong thing can be counterproductive, in our view. There is lots of evidence. We are just doing some research for the Cabinet Office, which is not yet published, which is about how you disseminate good practice. The drift of all the evidence is that documents which outline good practice are not very effective. The reality is there are many, many such documents and they do not seem to be very effective. The way that good practice is spread is experientially by people seeing it, feeling it, tasting it, being there physically and trying it out. Trial and error is a good way of people learning how to do things. There is something about how good practice is disseminated and we were saying outside that you could send out a one word piece of guidance that said, "Why not read the following the twenty-five documents", rather than writing a new one. The knowledge is out there. What we are not doing is learning how to share it and disseminate it well. It will not happen on paper. We have talked about the irony of writing a paper about people not reading things on paper. That is in play. The other matter is making sure that we see this as a political process rather than simply a managerial process. Performance indicators imply that this is a managerial exercise. Any indicator that drove agencies towards more consultation without connecting consultation to response or result could be counterproductive. What one does not want is to drive agencies into pretending to consult or consulting at a cosmetic level or consulting in order to achieve the brownie points or consulting in order to achieve against a performance indicator at the expense of real delivery. Delivery is more important, learning from what one finds out and then acting. The only performance indicator we came up with was one that could be fitted through best value. We were keen on integrating processes and not developing new ones. A possible question might be "what ten things have you changed as a result of consultation that has been taking place in the last year?". But Sir Michael Lyons and Andy Howell were saying ten is a lot.

  462.  Is that not one of the problems, there are a number of authorities who are very good at it but the vast majority are doing it because it is the fashion to do it?
  (Dr Goss) I think everyone is learning. Everyone is on a learning curve. The people who are doing it well have been doing it for ten years. The people who only just started cannot be doing it well yet and it would be pointless to punish them until they have done some trial and error.

  463.  Why did they not start ten years ago?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Can I just turn that around, we started some time ago and I think we have particularly accelerated work since 1994 because it was seen to be an issue. In particular, can I take you through a piece of history. There was in 1993/94 a very live debate in Birmingham about the fact that the City Council had chosen to give priority to the building of a convention centre and to a series of city centre structures which now are widely applauded as visionary. At the time there was an anxiety that it was at the cost of basic services. There was a very strong feeling that the council needed to engage more closely with its community. The anxiety I have is it is not easy to know what is a successful authority in this area. We believe that we have learned some lessons. We know we have a lot further to go. We have some lessons that others might want to share in. If you look at the cold statistics, our annual MORI survey, which we have undertaken each year, shows declining satisfaction with the level of information we are giving to our citizens. What is that about? Is that because expectations are rising and maybe that we are helping to push expectations up? It may be that our experiments are wrong but they seem to show some impact case by case. It may be that noise is actually a reflection of other issues, not the efficacy of the experimentation. We are, nonetheless, taking the findings seriously and it is leading us to think about whether we should completely transform the customer/council relationship through a very advanced customer contact centre, such as that that operates in Brisbane. You take that issue completely out of the equation to experiment more clearly so as to concentrate on the issue of the governance relationship with communities.
  (Councillor Howell) Certainly the debate on the investment in the convention infrastructure in Birmingham created in the long-term has been very positive and very healthy, although it was pretty uncomfortable for people at the time. There is a real issue in there about understanding that you move forward by taking risks. That comes back to my point about the comfort blanket, if you take all of the risk out of it you will not be making quantum leaps. I think it is important to note Gerry Stoker's notion of learning through best practice rather than very narrowly drawn performance indicators. I would like to give you an example of one area where you would see a lot of that, that is the participation of young people in debates about issues as they affect their communities. We are very sure we know in Birmingham that schools that have school councils benefit from that greatly, however not all of them have councils. It is not part of the OFSTED framework but it ought to be part of Birmingham's framework, where we are putting pressure on schools to say, "Why are you not engaging young people in debates, it is part of their rights?" If we take that up a stage then we have created a young people's Parliament, which is an elected body, meeting in the chamber, debating issues which are concerns to these young people and it has been very successful. We are actually building them a permanent debating chamber as part of our millennium project. That is okay as far as we stand because that is great for those who get involved in the political process. A very cheap and powerful add-on to that is mirroring that on our website. All of the youngsters have access to the web and it has been a very cheap thing to do. For example youngsters will pick on a debate—the last one I looked at was on genetically modified food, which was introduced and chaired by Jeff Rooker, who I think was the Minister for GM food—our debate was conducted in the young people's Parliament and that was replicated on the website and youngsters from schools all over the place could add into that. That is particularly important where schools do not take a positive line on young people's councils. It was particularly important for young Muslim women, some of whom have difficulty getting parental approval for access into places. The scope and the range of that debate is much bigger. I am sure we can improve on those matters no end as we go through. That to me, that kind of activity as to how holistic it is and how many young people have access to it, is a pretty good benchmark for society. Our expectation through that is that in ten years' time those young people, if they are still in Birmingham, will have transformed relationships the council has with them. The council will be seen as somebody who not only wants to hear their views but actually helps them formulate them. The website on an issue like GM foods will point them to external resources from both sides of the argument. I hope if we keep that consistently going for a decade the next generation will have a completely different view as to how the council helps them form these views.
  (Dr Goss) What Andy Howell's point raises is it is not how you consult it is who you consult. Those authorities and other organisations that are making efforts to reach young women in ethnic minority communities and young people in general, the people who will not turn up to these boring old conventional meetings, are doing something different from the people who are only consulting the first wave that comes at them when they do something relatively straightforward or old fashioned.
  (Professor Stoker) In answer to the Chairman's question, how do you spread good practice? Let us make it public authorities rather than simply local authorities, there are some that are just beginning to step down the path and there are some the question has not even occurred to yet. How do you lead the way? It seems to me there is a way, it is to legitimise this whole process and simply say, "This is now an important part of what every part of the public service should be engaged in." That could be an important message from this Committee. It is to say, "There is a lot of good practice there, read the following twenty-five books", or whatever it is. The third option it seems to me as a possibility is taking on Sue Goss's point, which is that people learn by being alongside other people who have been through the experience to actually somehow incentivise those that are already engaged in good practice to offer their services of support to others. That might be a two-fold process whereby you identify them, reward them in some way, give them, for want of a better word, beacon status and suggest that they are path finders, in other words. I do not know where these words come from, it is amazing. That recognises that they are leaders in this area and then actually possibly seek or fund their propagation of good practice with neighbouring institutions or neighbouring authorities. That seems to me to be a way in which you could begin to grow good practice because then people can come and actually observe the schemes and in practice they can come and talk to people who have been involved in them and learn lessons on the ground. I could certainly sign up to the view that that is a much more meaningful way in which you can learn. If there is a role for the centre it seems to me it is in facilitating those sorts of exchanges and perhaps accelerating those rather than waiting for them to happen.

  464.  That is still for those who want to do it rather than for everybody, is it not?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes. In the end what you are ultimately waiting for is the electorate to take their revenge on those who chose to go down that road.

Mr Turner

  465.  It is not an elected legitimate organisation like the Health Authority.
  (Professor Stoker) They are not going to do that if we have a set of changes which are confined to public participation. They might do that if we started to change the institutions of political representation and also the electoral system as well.
  (Dr Goss) Two other useful things that could be done, one is lining up the consistency of logic about what all public agencies are expected to do so that health agencies and police authorities and quangos and RDAs are also expected to encourage the same level of engagement. That would help partnerships to align their consultation strategy. At the moment the pressures hitting some of the agencies are different from other agencies. The other thing would be to get all government agencies to model good practice so one can see it in the practice of the Benefits Agency or in government departments and in other areas, so that good practice is not simply being driven through one route, through the local authority route.

  466.  There is a problem there in the sense that an awful lot of agencies, like the health authority and local governments, are locally focused. You are dealing with issues in Birmingham, it is that one million, central government is dealing with fifty-odd million. If you are talking about the Benefits Agency, which applies benefits at the same level for the same disability or whatever, how do you roll-out the good practice you have in local government that focuses locally, which looks at citizens in the local area? How do you roll-out that so we can get that best practice on a national level? There is a big difference there in scale.
  (Councillor Howell) There are two things you can do. One is, I think committees like this have a role in highlighting where things do not work. In my own area of South Birmingham in 10 years we have seen three major hospital re-development plans, each of which has collapsed. People think that they have collapsed because of finance, and that is a largely true, however they have also collapsed because they do not engage the local population in consultation. The first time people ever hear about this is when they come to a meeting to defend their hospital. As a result of that we have not moved. The Health Authority has spent a decade wasting its time where it has not been able to secure an improvement. There is a very practical case on a local level, which is when we talk about the consultation exercise we are doing we should not see them as a local authority, so we are very keen to open space in our questionnaires with regards to the Health Authority, the Police and to get them to use our people's panel, for example. When somebody comes into my advice bureau they do not know where the Health Service finishes and where Social Service begins; why should we expect them to know that? One of the exciting things about the new technology is that it is going to make it possible on the one hand to offer services holistically in the background so that people do not have to worry too much about whether they go through the right door or not. Secondly, we can do a lot by pulling together consultation around key issues that affect people, whether it is geographical issues or whether it is an issue around health and transforms boundaries. We have done some very interesting work in the last year, led by the local authority, which records public views, which are effectively local select committees of which our other public agencies have been a key part. It has helped us establish a consensus that moves. They are grateful for the local authorities focus on being able to do that. We have been determined to consult in a more scientific way, we have learned that debate. What has been important is we are opening the opportunity of participation to others and it spreads the cost and makes all kind of sense.

  467.  That is fine. Take the CSA, how would you roll-out your experiences within local government and those other agencies, which are concentrating on areas with fairly small boundaries, into a national organisation like that? That is a big problem for central government.
  (Dr Goss) One of the things is that best practice always evolves locally and cannot be imposed centrally. What is best about it is the way it is built and created and the people involved learn how to do it. If you take that practice and impose it on other people who did not have that learning experience, it will not be best. In a sense it is rolling-out the experience of people learning how to do it rather than rolling-out standards or guidance that impose a series of processes or actions. Even if they were good processes in the first instance, if they were rolled-out and imposed, they would cease to be good because they would cease to be adapted properly. You may want to do something about the leadership of organisations in terms of what is important to them and what is valued and what is rewarded to get those organisations to start thinking differently. That is different from imposing a series of procedures that will become out-of-date very quickly.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Can I come back on the CSA, there might be some principles that are transferable here? I think the issue of recognising that there are winners and losers involved and those conflicts are a legitimate area of public debate. My memory of an introduction of the new arrangements was that there was a great frustration amongst people who were losers in the situation and felt they were not able to have their voice heard. It seems to me that is exactly the same problem that we have been tackling at a local level. The principles are the same. I agree with you, how you operationalise it is more complex on a national level.

  468.  The other problem is that it was legally imposed. The CSA had a duty to do certain things, so they did not have that kind of flexibility. That is a lesson we need to build into for Parliamentarian reasons.
  (Professor Stoker) In some ways when you look at what local authorities have done, sometimes they have broken down the challenge of consultation on a geographical basis, in a way you have suggested, that is they are themselves smaller but they themselves consult at a community or neighbourhood level. They often consult in terms of communities of interest or communities of identity with people who share the same lifestyle, circumstances or so-so economic conditions. Surely in some of the national agencies which you are talking about, similar divisions could be made that would be meaningful to them and would be highly relevant to the way in which the service was delivered, so it might be possible to get an element of smallness within their bigness by talking about communities of identity or communities of interest rather than necessarily assuming that it had to be a geographical community. That might enable you to think, that is a good group of people who share enough in common to have a conversation with us about how we could make the service better for them.

Mr Lepper

  469.  One issue that arose in an earlier session on this topic—I wonder from the experience of Birmingham whether it is something that has happened—was the various fora for consultation and participation that develop across the city, how frequently do the same faces crop-up?
  (Councillor Howell) Painfully often, is the honest answer to that.

  470.  Is that an issue? Is that a problem? I suppose what I am getting at is, are we at a stage where there is—maybe it is a very good thing—in any community a group of people who for a variety of reasons become perhaps the first generation of this new kind of representative? There is a difficulty about widening out the numbers of people, the range of people who are involved.
  (Councillor Howell) That is certainly an issue for us. This is something that I could talk for three hours on, but I will not. I think we have to be much clearer on what we are doing with a lot of our forums. I was struck by a social exclusion network run by Warwick University, where a couple of months ago we were talking about this and all of this described our devolution initiatives, our areas and communities as being tired and full of the same suspects. The reality is that once a big local issue hits—you know, somebody tries to build a dual-carriageway or a shopping centre or there is a big planning issue—hundreds of people turn up. That is the benefit for having them as standing things that can be very quickly turned into operation. There are two specifics about that that strike me as important, first of all let us be clear about why we do these things, they are safety valves, they offer a vehicle for when you have a big issue. A lot of it is about encouraging activists, which is absolutely right and proper, but we must not confuse that with a scientific representative sample. In my view a lot of my political colleagues use those as their sole sounding boards far too often. It was the point I made earlier about the local skill at local level, it is not necessarily saying this is what our people want, it is making sense of a much deeper and wider range of qualitative information. One of the things we are moving to do is to establish almost ward-like executives, our devolution issue is on a ward level. Our ward sub-committees, our open public meetings, on which the public can put things on the public agenda and do things that have become an established practice. The ward advisory boards, as we are calling them now, are effectively a group drawn from a residents' group and they make sense in that area and are increasingly going to act as smaller executives where you can actually make sure that are you getting more qualitative input from residents and where a lot of their job is us giving them the information in a serious way and allowing them to look at how they steer that debate. We must not get hung up on the fact that the usual suspects come, of course they do and they are very sad characters in many cases, just like we are. When somebody decides to build that dual-carriageway through your community you see the power of that. What we must not do is just do these things to bring up community activists, we need more people at an active level. We must not mistake that as being representation full stop.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Not only do the fora themselves need to be maintained but those community voices can have different significance at different times. Back in the 1970s there was a lot of work undertaken in industrial relations literature on the role of the shop steward—people who might enjoy very little support for most of the time—could be called on at a point of crisis. They are then seen by the community as the people, because of their strengths, who will speak for them. It is often said, "So and so was seen at every meeting", that person themselves may be a conduit for a lot of other people.

Mr White

  471.  In Milton Keynes we have used parish councils in very much the same way you have used ward committees. However, one of the problems is that I have something like thirty-odd parishes to relate to, how do you relate to a large number of these community groups, all of which have different competing and legitimate points of view?
  (Councillor Howell) It is difficult. At the moment Birmingham Democracy Commission is looking at all issues of government in the City—it is spending less time on the elected mayor issue—it is spending a lot of time looking at this because the urban power issue strikes us as a structure and is probably not right for a city as big as Birmingham. I am struck by looking at somewhere like Rotterdam, they have far smaller numbers of councils but each one of those is related to a neighbourhood structure, which is not just about consultation. My understanding is that that council holds the accountability for basic services. I think constructing a tier of very localised governments is very important to us and one of the biggest challenges we have. To pick up on something Gerry Stoker mentioned earlier, it is going to be an easier way for people to engage in political activity in an amateur form, in the best sense of the word. To change something in local government you have to spend 80 hours there a week to understand where the button is to press. That is a big issue for me and we have to solve that. That is something that our democracy committee is taking a key interest in at the moment.
  (Professor Stoker) Can I quickly elaborate slightly? It seems to me that one of the main lessons in practice is that it is the mix that matters. Certainly institutional forums do attract a certain type of people, the usual suspects, but there are other ways in which you can consult people that gets beyond the usual suspects. One of the main lessons is it is the mix that matters. The second main lesson is you always have to ask the question, how are you going to connect this form of wider participation to the process of represented elected democracies? How do you get the two connected to one another? I think there are ways in which that can be done, it is clearly one of the underlying challenges. The third broad point that seems to me to come out over and over again is—one of the worst things in the area—you mention the word "participation", you stick "community" in front of it and we are all in a rosy romantic glow. Anyone who has actually done it or thought seriously about it realises this is very hard-nosed politics. That is the perspective we have to have on it. If we still think of it in this romantic, rosy sort of way, we will keep on producing naff versions of participation which will not make any sense to the public. I think it has to be seen as part of a new style of grown-up politics, which is not always positive sum gain, it may sometimes be a zero sum gain, sometimes it can be a positive sum gain too. It has to be seen in that very hard-nosed way.
  (Dr Goss) I would argue that this is not simply about changing the amount of consultation but changing the nature of the encounter. That conventional encounter with the usual suspects is one in which the usual suspects attack and the organisation defends. A ritual is gone through which is reproduced in a number of different environments. That ritual is relatively counterproductive and relatively pointless. A different process of engagement which is structured to be fact-finding, explorational, information-sharing and shared analysis changes the roles that everyone is playing in such a way that those encounters become more productive and may invite other people into those encounters that did not like going to the boring old attack and defend meetings but might be willing to come to shared analysis.

  472.  I have one final question for Gerry Stoker. We can innovate as much as we like, and all of this participation is fine and we do it for other reasons, but it is not going to change the voting turnout, is it?
  (Professor Stoker) I think that the wider arguments for participation are about people wanting to become involved beyond the simple act of voting. If we return to the act of voting, why would you vote? The issue about voting is driven in the end about the salience of local politics. Are people being offered real choices so they feel that there are real things that they are asked to make some judgments about and is there, in some sense, a general electoral competition, which is that somebody can be kicked out and somebody else can be put in? In a way that is what electoral politics is about. At a local level we have a system perfectly designed not to deliver that. Most of the real discussion is about some national politics which is not related to local issues and there is no real sense you can kick somebody out and put somebody else in. We need to change the electoral system and the system of political representation—maybe elected mayors in some areas—in order to get that real dynamic and get voters engaged in that use of two minutes of their time to turn up and vote.
  (Councillor Howell) To emphasise that, my seat was up last year and I had the highest election turnout in the City—I would like to think it was because of the quality of candidate—and it was because in my ward I have the one last resilient Conservative councillor left in Birmingham who puts on a real good fight and there is a real choice for people and a real lively campaign.

  Mr White: One of the things we look for throughout this whole inquiry is examples of where participation works and where it does not work. If you have examples, would you like to you send them to us. Can I thank you, it has been a very interesting session. It has been a particularly interesting inquiry in terms of the different forms of participation that are going on and the breadth of discussion today shows that. I understand Sir Michael Lyons this is your second select committee of the day. Can I thank you all for coming this morning. Thank you.

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