Making representative democracy more representative – what can we learn from exceptions to the rule

Last week it was reported that the average age of England’s elected councillors had risen to above 60 for the first time. Whilst it’s true that we have an ageing population, the average age of the UK population is still under 40. The figures for ethnic diversity and gender are similarly out of kilter with national averages – 67% male and 97% white.


Whilst the figures have only changed slightly since the last councillors census, breaking the 60-year mark is a symbolic milestone which ought to give us cause for concern. But this is nothing new. There have been numerous debates, lots of head-scratching, various initiatives to address the lack of diversity among our elected representatives. But not much has changed.


Maybe we ought to change tack…


When I tweeted about the discrepancy between councillors’ average age and the population mean I received a number of interesting responses, including a few who were keen to highlight how young the councillors were in their wards. These included my own Ward (East Finchley in Barnet) where two of our three councillors are in their 20s and a similar story in Newham where the eldest of the three ward members was just 35.


Clearly exceptions to the national picture exist (though this also means that some areas will have significantly older councillors than the national average). What interests me is what makes these areas different to many other places? What can we learn from these ‘positive deviance’ in order to encourage greater levels of diversity in other areas? Assuming of course we are concerned about the current situation – which may well be something not everyone sees as a problem.


The idea of positive deviance is not new, but it has been gaining traction and attracting growing interest (at least that’s my observation) among public policy practitioners and researchers. Rather than looking at the norm to understand what typically happens, it suggests we look at what happens in the small number of instances where things are different. Different in a positive way. By examining the characteristics and context of these exceptions we can identify what their features are which might offer lessons to support change in other settings.


Firstly I think it’s important to take account of local demographics. Some areas – particularly some parts of London, like Newham, have younger populations than average. This ought to be taken into account when we are thinking about the make up of our councillors. I’m not clever enough to be able to overlay average ages of wards with councillors’ ages, but I would be very interested to see such a data visualisation. (If there’s anyone who would be able to produce that sort of heatmap I’d love to see it!)


But whilst I suspect that looking at the correlation between local demographics and average councillor ages might throw up some interesting insights, it’s not likely to provide any real answers to the question of councillor diversity.


So I’d suggest we need to look at the exceptions in some detail to see what characteristics they share in common (if any) and how these might differ from other areas where councillors are older (or have less gender or ethnic diversity).


What role do party members play? Clearly they have direct influence over the selection process. Is the nature of party memberships a factor? Do areas with younger councillors have younger party members?


I remember (and indeed contributed to) the Councillors Commission back in 2007 that investigated in some detail how to make our elected members more representatives. A wide range of initiatives was recommended and many of them implemented (no doubt at considerable expense). Little has changed since then. In fact it’s getting worse.


Perhaps we should start focussing on the exceptions to the rule as a way of understanding how to address the issue.


Social Value Commissioning

Yesterday Collaborate and the Transition Institute published a new report, Social Value: a commissioning framework that I have written together with my Lambeth Council colleague Anna Randle.

report cover

The report is intended to add to the growing body of thought and interest in social value and help move things forward. In the report we suggest how we think social value can be implemented in a practical way by a public body, within the context of commissioning, spending cuts and rising demand on public services. It is based on our experience, research and aspirations at Lambeth to be a Cooperative Council.

Lots has been said about social value and what it is and there is a great deal of interest in it, particularly within the public sector and the not for profit sector. There is also a great deal of confusion. Many local authorities are grappling with the practicalities of actually taking account of social, environmental and economic value in commissioning and procurement decisions, as they are now required to do under the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012.

At present too much of the debate about social value is focussed on procurement, social clauses in contracts and approaches that attach monetary value to everything. Social value is still seen by many as being an additional expense the public sector must absorb in taking account of environmental and social benefits and costs.

Whilst all these things may well be part of an effective strategy to reflect social value in investment decisions, they are by no means the whole picture. Anna and I argue that social value is far more than this narrow interpretation. For us social value is about:

  • Commissioning a broad range of outcomes
  • Recognising and responding to community assets and the needs and aspirations of local people
  • Fundamental transformation of how we work – whole system change
  • Acknowledging and understanding the connections and tensions between priorities
  • Becoming more sophisticated in how we measure the difference our investment decisions make

Fundamentally, social value is about securing maximum impact on local priorities from the use of public resources.

The implications of our interpretation of social value on how local authorities act is potentially profound. We go on to suggest a range of practical and conceptual steps that councils can adopt in order to realise this:

  • By framing social value in terms of the changes that the community and its elected representatives want to see.
  • By recognising community assets and the contribution local people can make to achieving the changes they value.
  • Developing a common outcomes framework which is applied consistently across the whole organisation.
  • Establishing an agreed sequence or priority order to corporate outcomes – acknowledging we can’t have everything we want all at once.
  • Using Theory of Change or logic models to set out the path by which we see change happening – from inputs to activities and outputs, through to outcomes and impact.
  • Using Social Value Procurement Frameworks, but only as a stepping stone towards more fundamental change.
  • Considering additionality and developing cost effective strategies to assess the degree to which demonstrable impact can be attributed directly to our own activity and investment decisions.
  • Being prepared to abandon redundant metrics that only help us measure outputs.
  • Considering the ways in which the council may need to change to support social value commissioning, recognising practice that is at odds with realis­ing local priorities and considering ways to redesign the system to be more supportive.

We are not suggesting that we yet have all the answers to realise our ambitions to deliver social value commissioning, or that it will be an easy path to achieving this. However we hope that with this report we can help expand the extent of people’s aspirations and expectation of what social value means. If we can do that, then there is a real prospect of public funds being used more efficiently to deliver outcomes that better reflect the aspiration and ambition of our communities.

If you’d like to discuss social value commissioning do get in touch

Pickles accuses councils of, errrr, acting prudently?

Alongside the publication of Local Authority finance statistics, came an Eric Pickles press release which – even by his standards – is grounds for raising an eyebrow over. In it he accused councils of “amassing secret stockpiles of taxpayer money”.


Secret? Really?

But not long ago the same Communities Secretary was celebrating the transparency of public funds that he was overseeing. Is it secret Mr Pickles? Then surely it’s because you’ve not done what you told us you were doing….which was making it all not so secret.

Personally, I feel that the careful and robust monitoring and statistical release of local authority financial information, makes things pretty much not secret. But maybe I use a different dictionary to the Secretary of State.

The figures do show that councils did increase their reserves by around 20% in 2010-2011 – just over £2.5bn more. Whilst £2bn is a lot of money in anyone’s book, this should be set against the £100bn that councils spend each year. So the increase is something like 2.5% of their spending being squirrelled away for a rainy day. That doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy to me.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these figures are from 2010 – at the very beginning of the financial tsunami sweeping over local government. Councils around the country knew it was coming but it hadn’t yet arrived. Hardly surprising they should try to insulate themselves from what lay ahead, is it?

In fact it strikes me as being entirely prudent to try and beef up your reserves when you know your income is going to reduce by around 50% over the next few years. If councils haven’t done so, I’d be more inclined to regard them as irresponsible.

Mr Pickles does acknowledge the need for “…a financial umbrella for those rainy days but keeping reserves at levels unprecedented in recent years should give local residents pause for thought.”

The reserve levels are unprecedented, much like the level of the cuts. And that should give Ministers pause for thought.

 Unfortunately, I don’t hold out much hope of that from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Should a consultant be a local government leader of tomorrow?

When the Guardian Local Government network announced that Rachel Burnham, from consultancy firm BDO, had won the Local Government Leader of the Future award, I must admit to raising an eyebrow and a tweet or two. I said I was surprised and rather depressed about the decision. Not because I don’t think Rachel is worthy of it – I have never met her and know nothing of her work – but because of the fact that the young local government leader of tomorrow doesn’t actually work in local government. From the comments and retweets I had, I was clearly not alone in feeling this.

Today Rachel published a blog post saying that she had been embarrassed and upset by the ‘barrage of criticism’ she had received – including a reference to my saying the decision was ‘depressing’.

Firstly I want to apologise for upsetting Rachel. I did point out at the time, and again today,  that my comments were not directed at her, but at the award process, but if I caused any embarrassment or upset then I am truly sorry.

Nonetheless, I do stand by my comments and I think the decision is a depressing one. Perhaps there is some blame to be directed at the Guardian Local Gov network for allowing an award for the ‘top young leader in (my emphasis) local government’ to be someone who wasn’t ‘in’ local government.

But Rachel goes on to make a number of interesting points on her blog which I want to pick up on;

1)        “We’ve been saying for years that we desperately need more commercialism in local government”

There have indeed been plenty of people saying that we need to be more ‘business like’ in the public sector and I certainly feel there are things that local government has historically not been particularly efficient in. But I am not one who accepts that commercialism in the public sector is a good thing. ‘Business-like’ has brought us global financial collapse, Enron, RBS, the BP Gulf Oil spill, Union Carbide Bhopal chemical disaster….I could go on. Forgive me, but this has given me a slightly negative outlook on being more commercial.

I believe we do need more entrepreneurialism in local government – but that’s something different. And of course, there are examples of where commercialism in local government might be a good thing (and entrepreneurs who one could cite that might be a bad influence)…but in general I’d like to see more innovation and entrepreneurialism and less aping of big (bad?) business in public service.

2)        Citing the number of non-local gov people in the LGC 50 most influential figures in local government as evidence that we are ‘happy for people to influence the sector from a number of years’.

Now I like the LGC top 50 influencers, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously – sorry Emma Maier! 🙂 But the key difference – and a sound reason for why that list is peppered with individuals from outside local gov, is that it’s about who influences local government. It’s therefore full of Ministers and Shadow Ministers, the press, policy wonks or academics. That, to me, seems sensible and legitimate. They may be influencing opinion and practice within local government, but they are not (directly) leading it. There is a difference. I’d also suggest that just because it exists, doesn’t mean we’re necessarily happy with it. I’m not saying I’m unhappy that the secretary of state for communities and local government is the most influential figure in local government – I think that’s entirely appropriate. But he is not a local government leader (at least not any more – and if you’ve not read about Eric Pickles time in local government, do check out the ‘Pickles Papers’!)

3)        “We need to change our perceptions of sector boundaries from ‘friend versus foe’ to match the current realities of local government.”

This is something I can wholeheartedly agree with. The boundaries between sectors are blurring and have been for some years and I see this as a generally good thing. As someone who has come from the voluntary and community sector, working with local government, to work in local government, I see myself as part of this process. Social enterprise and charitable entrepreneurialism blur the boundaries between the private and not for profit sectors. What’s less clear to me is what the blurring of boundaries between private and public sectors means. There are undoubtedly some positive aspects of the private sector that can benefit local government. But we also need to recognise the important differences between public service (not services, but service) and the private gain that must underpin any successful commercial company.

I do worry about the commercialisation of the public sector and the privatisation of public services – whether that’s our leaders, our service providers or our physical assets. So, if the local government leader of tomorrow is from the private sector that does concern me….particularly if it is indicative of an irreversible erosion of civic values at the expense of private profit.