Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A rare case of policy success? How Kenya’s nutrition sector is on course to meet global targets

During my first term at the University of York one of the issues we discussed during weekly online discussions with students from around the globe was policy failure. It was interesting how frequent it seemed that public systems didn’t live up to citizens’ expectations, no matter which part of the world we were writing from. Policy success appeared as rather elusive.

It therefore is a pleasant surprise to sing to a slightly different tune and consider a more positive trend with regards to the nutrition sector of Kenya’s Ministry of Health. In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed a set of 6 targets that were deemed by member states as essential to comprehensively address the main nutrition concerns to be attained by 2025. Through the annual tracking of these targets, the 2015 Global nutrition report showed Kenya as the only country on track to meet all six targets. So, what can explain this positive trend in Kenya’s nutrition sector, what could we learn from it about public policy success?

Before delving into this, it is important to highlight just how complex nutrition issues can be. Malnutrition may appear simply as a food deficit and should hence easily be resolved by providing enough food to the people who lack it, when they need it. But nutrition issues are far more complex than that:

Primarily, nutrition is an outcome, not just of the food ingested, but of how the body handles it – meaning a person with illness, for example a child with diarrhoea, is likely to have a poorer nutrition status compared to a child without, even with equal food intake. Secondarily, complex dynamics affect when and how a child is fed and cared for, such as: the mother’s access to information and education; access to health services; hygiene and sanitation practices and food availability. On a tertiary level these outcomes are again affected by broader state issues: how does the culture perceive a woman’s education – is it encouraged? Does a government prioritise healthcare and facilitate optimal coverage of health services? What about policies that support livelihoods and enable communities to absorb shocks from volatile markets? And of course, there is the issue of political stability.

These factors affect the nutrition situation in complex ways, and to varying degrees. The challenge of sound nutrition policy is being able to address these diverse complex issues appropriately, and all the while in a rapidly changing environment. The interventions required to relevantly address nutrition problems require an understanding of the broader issues’ contribution to nutrition so that these issues are addressed from the three levels previously expounded, and not just at outcome level.

While many little things built up to contribute to the nutrition sector’s success, the overarching one could be strategic positioning. From 2010-2012, the Kenyan government’s nutrition sector together with nutrition-focused UN bodies and non-governmental organisations aligned all nutrition actions and strategies within one global strategy called the scaling up nutrition movement. This led to well-coordinated actions and a harmonised approach that influenced a compelling vision for change. With all actors speaking with one voice, the experience, capacity and opportunities of agencies were amplified.

The sector then sought to address the legal and policy arenas that would provide institutional legitimacy to bring on board influential actors. For example an article on the right to basic nutrition was enshrined in Kenya’s constitution. The sector also developed two guiding policies: a budgeted national nutrition action plan under control of the Ministry of Health that expounded 11 strategic objectives to be adopted and contextualised to devolved counties; and the Kenya Food and Nutrition Security Policy that was developed as a platform to engage ministries that are complementary to nutrition such as education, agriculture and food industries. These two policies are deemed to direct and streamline actions from allied agencies by highlighting government priorities.

This streamlining of actions meant two things: First, at the organisational level, agencies executing a nutrition mandate (local or international) adopted government priorities for nutrition as their priorities. Thus, an agency’s implementation plan was not guided by its resources and the organisation’s priorities but in line with the government’s priorities. Secondly, at implementation level, this reduced the redundant duplication of actors’ efforts as roles were clarified and mapped in line with the harmonised policy. Coupled with a cohesive coordination mechanism, agencies and actors regularly appraised their actions, processes and outcomes against the common sector plan, to adjust off-course actions and reinforce the on-course ones. This gradually led to the identification of actions that were appropriate for a scale-up of nutrition services with the government taking lead in the execution of the services.

So what’s next for Kenya’s nutrition sector? For one, a cautious approach to the successes gained is necessary. The sector needs to appraise the meaning of the gains by looking a little deeper. For instance, while the 2015 Global Nutrition Report revealed no increase in childhood overweight, unfortunately the same report revealed an increase in adult overweight in Kenya. There is also need for increased nuance in linking the underlying causal issues that impact nutrition outcomes, i.e. to elaborate exactly how these issues actually contribute to change. One simple example is how an increase in a woman’s workload negatively impacts on her ability to offer improved care to her child, including having an impact on the time available to feed her child (Hailey, 2015). Such nuance could rally the different sectors that engage women to do so by taking into consideration the impact of empowerment opportunities on the amount of time she spends with her child.

In summary, Kenya has made great strides in combating malnutrition based on the six global priorities. It greatly owes this first to a growing understanding of the complex issues that contribute to malnutrition and then aligning and streamlining policies, and actions, to this understanding. While this is definitely worth celebrating, maintaining a little caution and assessing more thoroughly the meaning of these successes would enable the sector to consolidate the gains made and to build on them, thus, to address the nutrition challenge not just holistically but also sustainably.

Hailey, P. (2015). Theory of Change Framework Nutrition Resilience. Centre For Humanitarian Change. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Managing public sector projects: What determines success or failure?

Over the last few years there have been several initiatives in the UK and elsewhere aimed at building the project management capacity of the public sector. In the UK, the Major Projects Authority was established in 2011 to provide independent assurance to government about the progress being made on governmental projects, and to support the development of a skilled cadre of governmental project leaders. This was followed by the establishment of a Major Projects Leadership Academy to develop leadership capability and build technical and commercial know-how. The latest version of the Civil Service Capabilities Plan (the 2014 ‘Annual Refresh’) confirms that ‘delivering successful projects and programmes’ is one of four key priorities for skills development in central government.

The backdrop to these initiatives is a well-established rhetoric concerning the likelihood of failure in public sector projects. The strength of this rhetoric can be accounted for partly by the greater public scrutiny to which governmental projects are subject and thus the high-profile nature of ‘failure’ when it occurs, and partly by a tendency in some circles to view public sector management as somehow inherently lacking.

Despite the possibly heightened tendency to look for and find failure in public sector projects, it is nevertheless valid to ask why projects fail, whether in the public or private sectors, and what could be done to increase the chances of success. This is an especially relevant question in the current climate of austerity, with extreme pressure being brought to bear on public spending and on achieving the maximum ‘value’ from resources.

How, then, to increase the likelihood that projects, whether in the public or private sector, will be successful?

The usual starting point, in answering this question, is to underline the importance of leadership, of technical and managerial skills, and of ensuring that projects are soundly based on established methodologies. This latter point can be seen in the Civil Service Capabilities Plan, which emphasises the importance of ‘drawing on project management disciplines and methodologies to achieve predictable, consistent, robust results’ so that the Government’s priorities can be delivered ‘right first time’. This emphasis on applying established methodology reflects the nature of the professional discipline of project management, which emphasises a rational, technocratic and managerial approach in which an established ‘Body of Knowledge’, representing established good practice and applicable to any project, is to be consistently applied.

This technical approach to project management, founded on a linear process for initiating, planning, executing and closing a project, provides a valuable foundation for building project success, but it only takes us so far in understanding why projects go off the rails.

A wider perspective, and some important clues about project failure, are offered by a recent study (Haji-Kazemi et al 2015) which focuses on understanding what happens when early warning signs about a project’s progress are identified. Such signs, whatever source they rise from, should be important triggers that feed into project scrutiny and, if necessary, into corrective action which in turn should help to increase the chances of project success. In practice, however, early warning signs are frequently neglected or misinterpreted. The reasons for this, as Haji-Kazemi et al discuss, are variously organisational, psychological and political. 

Organisationally, choices have to be made about what kind of project information to monitor. Decisions made at this stage can crucially affect what information gets through. Psychological factors include a well-established tendency in project management towards ‘optimism’ bias (Flyvbjerg 2009), defined as a tendency to be overly positive about the outcomes that are likely to arise from planned actions. This creates an inherent bias towards over-estimating benefits and under-estimating time, cost and risk. A further psychological tendency that can contribute to a neglect of warning signs is a tendency towards ‘normalisation of deviancy’ as problems become familiar and so begin to be accepted as part of the norm, creating ‘a perfect petri dish environment for corporate (or project) misbehaviour’ (Pinto 2013: 377). Political factors, reflected in the role that power plays, affect what type of information is allowed to influence decision-making. Taken together, these organisational, psychological and political factors can have a considerable influence on the extent to which early warning signs are detected and acted on, and thus on project success. Significantly, Haji-Kazemi et al identify that the likelihood of these factors causing distortions increases as project complexity grows. Although their work was focused on the private sector, this is a highly relevant finding for the public sector project manager, as public service projects tend to be characterised by multiple objectives and multiple stakeholders – both of which go hand in hand with a large dose of complexity.

What does this information mean, then, for project management and for governmental projects in particular?

First, there is nothing in these findings that detracts from the importance for project success of managerial capacity, technical know-how and skilled leadership. All these components of sound project management need to be brought to bear on ensuring that the barriers to recognising and acting on early warning signs are minimised. We also need to recognise, though, the importance and significance of the organisational, psychological and political factors that play into project management. While project management disciplines and methodologies provide a foundation for identifying early warning signs, they do not of themselves guarantee that these signs will be acted on. Studies by Haji-Kazemi, Pinto and others indicate that the key components in this respect go much wider than the project manager or leader, and include the nature of the organisation’s culture (especially an openness to discussion and a willingness to learn), the use of external scrutiny to provide for objective assessment that is freed from internal bias, and an approach to governance that encourages and rewards reflection and transparency.

These findings about why early warning signs may be neglected suggest that organisations need to frame the ‘problem’ of project management failure more broadly. While accepting that project management skills and capacity are part of the answer to this problem, organisations also need to understand the deeper roots of project failure, and to develop their corporate capacity for openness, learning, external scrutiny and effective governance. Otherwise, no amount of training for project managers and leaders will increase the chances of project success.

Flyvbjerg, B., Garbuio, M. and Lovallo, D. (2009). Delusion and deception in large infrastructure projects: two models for explaining and preventing executive disaster, California Management Review, Vol 51 (2), pp. 170–193.

Haji-Kazemi, S., Andersen, B. and Klakegg, O. J. (2015). Barriers against effective responses to early warning signs in projects, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 33 (5), pp. 1068-1083.

Pinto, J.K. (2013). Project management, governance and the normalisation of deviancy, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 32 (3), pp. 376-387.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Of magma and craters: The surge of the far-right in Germany

hearted and quickly aborted ‘November Revolution’ showed that Germans lack the vigour and focus of the French or Russians when it comes to revolutionary endeavours, confirming the poet Heinrich Heine’s adage that the German oak tree lends itself badly to be transformed into gallows for the wealthy and powerful. In 1923, a fascist rabble-rouser called Adolf Hitler tried to conquer power in Bavaria, unsuccessfully for the time being because he had not yet understood that he would be more successful by counting on the German electorate and the compliance of liberal and conservative elites instead of forcing his way to power with violence only. In 1938, Germany’s Jewish population was given a taste of even more horrible things to come during the pogroms of the ‘Kristallnacht’, one of the most barbaric and visible first steps towards the Holocaust. And finally, in 1989, the Berlin wall fell, marking the end of the division of Germany.

Nothing out of the ordinary could be reported for the 9th November 2015, but in the mid-sized city of Dresden this Monday bore again witness to a deeply worrying weekly spectacle: a demonstration of thousands of followers of PEGIDA, an organisation that presents itself as a collective of concerned Europeans fighting against the Islamisation of the Occident.

In recent months, events in Dresden have gained some space on the news agenda in countries like Britain, but I would argue that this attention has often been based on two misconceptions regarding first the question as to what PEGIDA represents, and secondly the equally important matter of what it actually is. Let’s look into these two points in turns.

While it may be fascinating to ask why this movement has managed to sustain its mobilisation in Dresden to an extent unseen in any other parts of Germany (and there are local factors that could explain this conundrum), asking this question implies that PEGIDA is a localised problem, something that neither other German cities nor the rest of Europe need to worry about. Instead, it makes more sense to see Dresden as the crater, the visible exit, for magma that is bubbling under the whole of German society.

This magma, to stick to the geological analogy, consists of two interconnected political forces: On the one hand, we can observe in Germany as much as in many other European countries especially of the North and East a considerable number of people whose worldview is aligned to what the sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer calls ‘group-focused enmity’, in other words a set of core beliefs that considers other human beings, because of their belonging to specific social groups such as ethnic minorities, as being inferior. On the other hand, German society has in the last years been marked by the presence of a highly violent activism of the far-right, which strangely enough usually fails to attract the attention of international media observers who are normally so quick in falling over themselves to laud the virtues of the German model, be it with regards to its economic success or its presumably consensual, mature politics. According to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, since 1990 178 people have been killed by right-wing extremists; since the beginning of this year, there have been 637 criminal acts against refugee accommodations including arson, often committed by persons who are not yet known to the security forces (even though one shouldn’t read too much into this, given that the scandal around the ‘National Socialist Underground’ has shown to what extent there is an opaque link between right-wing terrorist groups and the security apparatus).

In the magma chamber of contemporary Germany, these hitherto largely separated two strands of xenophobic racist ideology and far-right activism seem to have come together, forming a volatile brew that erupts with a foul stench from the crater that is Dresden.

If this is indeed the case, the question as to what PEGIDA is becomes important beyond academic debates, given that it may allow for insights into what is bubbling under German society. In the media, terms such as right-wing populism, ‘Wutbürger’ (angry citizens) or ‘the frustrated’ are frequently used, demonstrating a certain insecurity as to how this movement ought to be categorised. But looking at how the movement presents itself and its concerns and objectives, some key themes emerge. There is a clear focus on defending German society against an enemy from both within (political elites that PEGIDA considers to be complicit in opening the country to its outside adversaries) and the outside (Muslims, refugees, unwanted foreigners); a sense of being betrayed by those in power; an urge to keep Germany ‘pure’ to prevent its further decline and to address with strong voluntarism its presumed profound crisis.

Going through that list, it is striking that these views correspond neatly to the definition of fascism given by the historian Robert O. Paxton (2004). Therefore, things become much clearer and we can start calling a spade a spade, or in this instance a fascist a fascist, without being too cagey about offending anyone.

Now, qualifying PEGIDA as fascist is not the same as being overly alarmed. Fascist movements have only ever got to power when they found support among conservative and (to a lesser extent) liberal elites, when they confronted a dysfunctional political system that had lost the ability to regulate social conflicts and political questions in a legitimate way. Despite the profound crisis of European polity, we are not yet there. But it seems crucial to be careful and to keep an eye on these developments that seem unlikely to get better before they get worse.

Which brings me to my final point: As unpleasant as the regular sight of PEGIDA in the picturesque centre of Dresden may be, at least this crater allows us to look into the magma chamber underneath, to frequently gauge the latter’s condition. It is not much, but in a period when the far-right with its reactionary and aggressive rhetoric and worldview gains ground almost everywhere in Europe, one can’t be picky when it comes to ‘good news’.

Paxton, R.O. (2004). The Anatomy of Fascism. London: Penguin Books. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

‘Simultaneous immersion’ – the benefits of online study for applying learning in the workplace

The main benefit of distance learning is almost always seen to be the flexibility
that it brings: it puts the decisions about exactly where and when to study into the hands of the learner. As the Complete University Guide puts it, “the main advantage of distance learning is that it allows you to fit your learning around your work and home life”. Other benefits prominently cited are “the luxury of remaining in your own home while studying”, and of avoiding the hassle of visa restrictions. Hand in hand with these benefits goes the fact that there is no waste of time or money in travelling.

These practical benefits to do with fitting study in among work and home life are all very clear and important reasons for studying at a distance, and are very relevant, moreover, to both employees and employers. Our research, led by my colleague Sally Brooks, has however highlighted an additional, equally important benefit regarding the substance of the learning. It relates to the conditions that distance learning creates for ‘simultaneous immersion’ - of being able to study and work in parallel - and to the benefits that hence arise from being able to apply learning directly to the workplace. These benefits have been relatively overlooked, compared with the instrumental benefits mentioned above, but should be a crucial part of the decisions made by individuals and organisations to invest in distance learning.

Our research examined the experience of students and alumni of the University of York’s online Masters programmes in public policy and management, which bring together people from around the world who work mainly in public sector and non-profit organisations and who are seeking to develop their skills and capacity for public service policy-making, leadership and management. From this research, which involved interviews with a cross-section of students who were well-advanced in their studies or who had recently completed them, we identified the following key findings about the way that learning crosses into the workplace:

The first key finding is that studying while working creates the conditions for ‘simultaneous immersion’ which enables the learning to be immediately ‘read back into’ the workplace. This was summed up in our research by one of the interviewees, a senior civil servant in the UK, who was responsible for managing a departmental change process and who reflected on one of the analytical methods that he had employed with his team as a result of the module that he had studied on leading and managing change. He noted that:

“If you’re going to go and learn it properly, then you’ve got to immerse yourself in it. If you are very deeply into [study] at the same time as when you’re working, then it’s a real opportunity just to launch these things in a practical sense in your head rather than in a theoretical one… So you know, that’s helped me not only read into that theory but also read it back into the organisation”.

A second important result was that this process of applying learning in the workplace flowed partly from learning about and being able to choose between a wide range of models and approaches, depending on the context, rather than being presented with one set approach or ‘one best way’. One of our interviewees had recently moved from a role in a government department to a small non-governmental organisation; she summed it up like this:

“Particularly in the ‘Policy Analysis’ module, it was looking at all the different frameworks [that was beneficial]… And then, ‘Leading and Managing Change’ [another module]... it is so relevant to my role. But again, it was looking at all the different models. I could really see how that plays out in an organisation very nicely, and I have been using it in my current role quite a lot. So, I had lots of examples to show a lot of people”.

Thirdly, our research highlighted that this process of ‘simultaneous immersion’ helps to put in place an ongoing, long term integration of work and study that doesn’t end when the learner completes their studies, and which helps to propel habits of ‘reflective practice’ (Raelin 2002). One of the interviewees, who had changed role and country several times since completing his studies, spoke about how he had become a ‘lifelong learner’ continually seeking out opportunities to reinvest in work-based learning:

“I still don’t have a problem drawing back on what I studied. This online study has the potential of generating professional individuals who develop an interest in lifelong learning.”

Interestingly, several of our interviewees talked not only about their own personal and individual ‘simultaneous immersion’, but also about how working and studying in tandem had enabled them to initiate conversations with colleagues (those reporting to them or their peers) which led to new ways of conceptualising and tackling work problems. This process seems highly relevant to Raelin’s notion of ‘public reflection’, which he suggests is important for moving organisational learning forward. 

Organisations increasingly need fresh thinking, clear decision-making and a commitment to continual learning if they are to weather an increasingly complex context marked by continuous and disruptive change, global pressures and highly constrained resources. In this context, distance learning via online study offers particular benefits for workplace learning. These benefits go beyond the much-cited ‘flexibility’ of distance learning, and are much more connected to the substance of the learning. They deserve to be much more widely recognised by employers, as a contribution to developing a skilled and adaptive workforce of employees who are committed to learning for the long-term.


Brooks, S. and Roberts, E. (2015) How online postgraduate study contributes to the development of reflective practice among public service practitioners, Interactive Learning Environments. Available at http://www.york.ac.uk/media/spsw/images/books/SBile14may2015.pdf accessed 18th October 2015.

Complete University Guide (2015) Advantages and disadvantages – why choose distance learning? Available at http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/distance-learning/advantages-and-disadvantages-%E2%80%93-why-choose-distance-learning/ accessed 18th October 2015.

Raelin, J. A. (2002) “I don’t have time to think”! versus the art of reflective practice, Society for Organisational Learning and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 66-74.

UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2014) The labour market story: skills for the future, Briefing Paper, July 2014. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/344441/The_Labour_Market_Story-_Skills_for_the_Future.pdf accessed 18th October 2015.

US Journal of Academics (2015) The advantages of distance learning. Available at http://www.usjournal.com/en/students/help/distancelearning.html accessed 18th October 2015.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

So we’re all vulnerable now, or are some more vulnerable than others?

When at the 2015 UK Conservative party conference the Home Secretary
Theresa May invokes “the most vulnerable as a selling point for harsh new proposals regarding the treatment of refugees (which the Refugee Council described as “thoroughly chilling”), it isn’t to highlight the human cost of the current wave of migration originating to a greater extent from Syria and other conflict zones, rather it is an attempt to employ a vulnerability narrative to soften the harsh and draconian new asylum proposals in what can clearly be seen as a self-serving speech in her presumed bid for the Tory leadership. When however the World Health Organisation tells us that although ‘the vulnerable’ pre-exist globalisation, groups such as “the elderly, the young, and the poor [who] are already so marginalized that they cannot benefit from globalization… are increasing in numbers as globalization increases the gap between rich and poor” it suggests that vulnerability represents a substantive and long-standing problem. And when Martha Fineman, a Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University and an internationally recognized law and society scholar, argues that vulnerability is a life-long universal human ‘condition’ which has both political and policy implications, then clearly there is more to the concept than simple semantics and something which is clearly worthy of further research and investigation. Indeed it is precisely the political and policy implications of vulnerability which is the driver for research that myself and my colleague Enrico Reuter are currently engaged in. Our research examines the relationship between a specific conceptualisation of vulnerability and labour market policies, and the impact policy has on those at the margins of the labour market.

Vulnerability as the WHO suggest is not a new phenomenon, nor is it new to the social sciences. For example, it has a history as a way of conceptualising risk (Beck 1992) in contemporary society, with Beck (2009: 178) noting that vulnerability and risk were “two sides of the same coin”. Perhaps what is ‘new’ is the plethora of uses this term is applied to, clearly not with the same intent or agenda, by a range of social actors, whether that be housing, education, disability or youth justice (Levy-Vroelant, 2010; Brown, 2012; Emmel and Hughes, 2014).

In thinking about vulnerability, I want to make a distinction between what can be thought of as the generalised conceptualisations of vulnerability in popular discourse on the one hand, and a perhaps broader conceptualisation of vulnerability which can be applied to labour market relations in general and to those on the margins of the labour market in particular on the other hand. The margins are those areas of the labour market that are less secure, more informal and so at greater risk of exposure to the vagaries and the ebb and flow of the broader global economy (Savage et al, 2013). The margins also contain those who are employed on short term or ‘zero hours contracts’, those who in plain terms are more vulnerable to unemployment and at greatest risk of poverty and/or increased inequality whether that be through unemployment or as members of the working poor. In September the UK’s Office for National Statistics released figures which showed that nearly three quarter of a million people are on zero hours contracts  It is this group whom Guy Standing (2011) has defined as the precariat, which he argues is a coming class defined by its members’ relationship to a range of securities allied to the labour market.

In addressing vulnerability, the policy results of institutions, of governments and their departments can either exacerbate or ameliorate individual/shared vulnerability, and too often in the current neo-liberal political environment it is the former rather than the latter that results from social policy reforms. Too often vulnerability is linked to a spurious notion of ‘choice’, and the predominant discourse is behaviourist and seeks to impose restrictions upon, or hurdles in the way of, those deemed vulnerable as a direct result of their own action or inaction as perceived by the state. This is particularly the case when the current (and previous) UK government talk about and legislate for employment and access to the labour market, as illustrated by the work capability assessment of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Whilst not wishing to push the exact relationship between the precariat and vulnerability too far, it is those who lack some or all of the ‘seven forms of security’ (labour market, employment, job, work, skill reproduction, income, representation) identified by Standing (2011) who become the target of social policies that highlight and target the individual. This can be both a positive as well as a negative element in policy making; in the former bolstering individual resources and resilience – being identified or labelled as vulnerable can result in individuals and groups being the recipients of direct or tailored support to combat such vulnerability – and in the latter adopting a behaviourist approach through restricted and conditional access to welfare state support. The common ground for both however is that social policies which simply co-opt the vocabulary of vulnerability pursue a clear focus centred on individual accountability rather than a social and collective rights-based response (Levy-Vroelant, 2010). It is the change in the relationship between employment and citizenship which, as the determining factor in the access to social rights, has undergone significant structural change as a result of the impact of a liberal globalised economy. In the words of my colleague Kate Brown, in her excellent book ‘Vulnerability and Young People’, we need a structural approach to vulnerability, one which takes account of “institutions and their role in the provision of ‘supportive’ services… institutional factors and forces that shape the choices, views and lives of individuals which persist over time, but which can be modified by human action” (Brown, 2015: 16).

On balance, the shift from de-commodification to re-commodification of labour (Greer, 2015) can result in greater individual insecurity and vulnerability to external shocks. Allied to the hegemonic neo-liberal discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, employment and participation in the labour market became and remains more precarious for a greater number of people in a variety of economic settings – particularly the young and least skilled – which places them at greater risk of (long-term) unemployment and confines them to the margins of the labour market.

Recently Professor Peter Fleming wrote a piece for The Guardian called ‘There is nothing good about the rise of zero hour contracts – ban them now’. In the context of vulnerability, citizenship and social rights, it is difficult to find anything to disagree with in what he says.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.

Beck, U. (2009). World at Risk, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Brown, K. (2012). Remoralising ‘vulnerability’, People, Place and Policy Online, 6 (1), 41-53.

Brown, K. (2015). Vulnerability and Young People: Care and Social Control in Policy and Practice. Bristol: The Policy Press

Emmel, N. and Hughes, K. (2014). ‘Vulnerability, Inter-Generational Exchange, and the Conscience of Generations’ in J. Holland and R. Edwards (eds) Understanding Families Over Time: Research and Policy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Greer, I. (2015). Welfare reform, precarity and the re-commodification of labour, Work, Employment and Society, (available online May 13 2015).

Levy-Vroelent, C. (2010). Housing Vulnerable Groups: The Development of a New Public Action Sector, International Journal of Housing Policy, 10 (4), 443-456.

Savage, M.,Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., Yaojin, L., Hjellbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Friedman, S. and Miles, A. (2013). A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment, Sociology, 47 (2), 219-250.

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class, London Bloomsbury.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Our new Masters in Social and Public Policy: Expanding excellent distance learning at the University of York

For more than 10 years, the York Online Team has delivered excellent distance
learning programmes in the field of public policy, administration and management as well as international development. Based on these experiences and driven by our ambition to continuously improve the way we teach and support our students, we are today very proud and happy to officially launch our new MA in Social and Public Policy, which will be open to students from September 2016.

There have been two main reasons for this expansion of our programme catalogue:
  1. Since we are part of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, it seemed right to offer a programme with a strong, direct focus on social policy, to not only draw on the expertise of our own staff in this field but to also benefit from as well as contribute further to the outstanding reputation of the Department, which achieved the third place in last year’s Research Excellence Framework on research quality and is overall one of top ten social policy departments in the UK, according to the ‘Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2016’ and the Guardian University guide 2016.
  2. Establishing this new programme enables us to reach new groups of students who wish to specialise in studying the interplay between public and social policy, and who wish to dedicate a substantive part of their studies to their Masters dissertation. 
To accommodate the latter, the new MA will differ from our other online programmes by being two years long (instead of three years for our other programmes; even though there exists the option on these three-year programmes to speed up the study process) and by focusing the second year on the preparation of an 18,000 words dissertation.  

If you are interested in this programme or know of people who may be, we would invite you to have a look at the new programme website that contains all relevant information on entry requirements, taught modules and the structured support available to you.

And please do not hesitate to get in touch, via spsw-online@york.ac.uk for any queries you may have.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Why can’t government IT systems be more like supermarkets?

Despite the rapid diffusion of ICTs and the internet generally and the increasing
use of networked systems in the public sector known as eGovernment, the failure of some of these systems continues to dominate the news in the sector. Last year in the UK, the British government axed a new e-borders system, with a cost to the taxpayer of £224m. But that was small change compared to the abandoned National Health Service (NHS) patients’ record system, which in 2013 lost nearly £10 billion.
The UK government’s current IT-based benefit flagship, Universal Credit, has been beset with enough problems to keep those of us who keep a critical eye on these things tutting into our coffee for years to come and although not all the problems there are IT-related, the other problems identified by the National Audit Office (2014), including poor management and a ‘bunker mentality’, have meant that the whole project has had to be ‘reset’, which means the design and implementation of the IT system has been significantly overhauled – and you can imagine the bill for that.
So is the failure of these ambitious projects inevitable? Some studies show that the rate of total or partial failure of eGovernment systems in some economies is as high as 85% (Heeks, 2006). These failures are costly in the obvious economic sense but equally costly in terms of citizen’s trust in their governments’ ability to implement the kinds of systems that the private sector seems to have no problem with (‘if supermarkets can do it, why can’t the NHS?’ etc etc).
So what’s the problem? Why are eGovernment projects abandoned with eye-popping write-off costs with such regularity? And does anything actually go well, despite the headlines? The answer to that is of course, but success rarely makes good news copy. There are many examples of eGovernment systems in place that offer a number of benefits for citizens and governments alike. Simple examples such as the ability to apply for licences and permits or pay taxes and fees online in general work well and save citizens and agencies time and money. Efficiency gains such as removing the need to attend government offices during office hours means that citizens can navigate some forms of bureaucracy more conveniently and, in some cases, removing human interaction can even reduce mid and low-level corruption.
One could argue that these transaction-based systems compare well to private sector systems such as online shops and financial services which enjoy relatively high acceptance (take-up) rates amongst consumers; some studies show that between 50-66% of people with access to the web use it for some kind of financial transaction (Horrigan, 2008, Ofcom, 2011), with electronic cash transfers in some countries enjoying parallel success: For example, 65% of households in Kenya use a mobile phone-based cash transfer system (Jack and Suri, 2011), a pattern that is seeing similar success in other sub-Saharan countries.
But the problems occur with systems that are designed to process and manage a more complex range of variables, systems which often have to retrieve this data from existing ‘legacy’ (old) systems and which, by their very nature, require new ways of thinking about and working with this data. Business processes that worked fine on a range of unconnected electronic and paper-based systems may need to be re-engineered to fit the new world and this then becomes a project that is as much about people as it is about technology. Re-engineering these systems often means navigating complex and ever-changing hierarchies and stakeholder groups. Add to that the political drivers to outsource the work and push for an urgent roll out and you can see the iceberg ahead.
Technology is only a part of a ‘complex adaptive system’ that includes people, processes, politics and all the usual complexities of organised human life and understanding that seems to be the key to understanding eGovernment ‘success’. Only the very naïve (or pathologically optimistic neo-liberal) would suggest that government IT systems are comparable to supermarkets but I can’t help wondering why, when there is so much research in this area now, governments continue to make the same mistakes. The National Audit Office (2014) notes that the ‘reset’ Universal Credit project will be rolled out with a less ambitious timetable, with stable leadership, with more control of suppliers and with an incremental ‘test and learn’ approach to the process. I do wonder though if political ambition might thwart this promise. I will be watching with interest, coffee in hand.

Heeks, R, (2006) Implementing and Managing eGovernment: an International Text, London, Sage.
Horrigan, J, (2008) ‘Online shopping, Pew Internet and American Life Project Report’, available http://www.goldminenetwork.com/_did_you_know_online_shopping.pdf,  accessed 1st September 2015.
Jack, W and Suir, T (2011) ‘Mobile money: The economics of M-PESA’, NBER working paper No. 16721, available http://www.nber.org/papers/w16721, accessed 9th April 2015.
NAO, (2014) ‘Universal credit: progress update’, available at http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Universal-Credit-progress-update.pdf, accessed 1st September 2015.
Ofcom (2011) ‘Internet use and attitudes’, http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/media-lit11/internet_use _2011.pdf, accessed 1st September 2015.

Jane Lund teaches on the online Masters programmes in Public Policy and Management in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. She has a keen interest in eGovernment and eLearning. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

From tiger to doormat: An opinion piece on the (fatal?) crisis of social democracy

Surveying the landscape of social democratic parties in Europe is no task for the
fainthearted, given the extent of gloom that awaits any observer: In the UK, the election of a new Labour leader, initially a contest in Tory mimicry, has turned
into an exercise that seems to deeply divide the party, notably between its parliamentarians and grassroots; some German social democrats think about whether they actually should bother presenting a candidate for the Chancellery in 2017 since the Conservative chancellor Merkel appears to be doing such a great job and given that the social democrats stand no chance of winning a majority without an alliance with the more radical left (an alliance they are strictly opposed to); whereas the electoral hopes of the French centre-left appear to rest on the idea that the spectre of the extreme right and the particularities of the electoral system with its two rounds of voting may save their skin in the next presidential election. The situation in other countries seems hardly more encouraging, so that it is not surprising if one asks what has gone wrong since the end of the 1990s, when the centre-left, draped in the cloth of a new ‘Third Way’, dominated European politics and beyond.

The reasons for this malaise are multiple, engrained deeply in national
particularities, but I would argue that there are at least three cross-cutting problems that affect, admittedly to different degrees, all social democratic parties and the notion of social democracy itself.

First, social democracy suffers from a “loss of historical future [that represents] the main source of a political paralysis in the present” (Cunningham,2015, 31). In a period when humanity faces a range of immense challenges, from climate change and democratic disaffection to rising social inequalities and volatile economic conditions, it seems that social democratic forces restrict themselves to the stripped back promise of doing things a bit more socially just than their conservative counterparts. While for example the radical left attempts to reconcile social and environmental imperatives in the concept of eco-socialism, whereas conservative and liberal parties pursue a programme that profoundly alters the relationship between citizens and states, there is no meaningful contribution to these debates from the side of social democratic parties, which appear devoid of any overarching ideas as to what the future should look like, and which seem to believe that focus-group tested micro parcels of policies are sufficient to gather long-term and strong support. Moreover, this unwillingness to ‘think the future’ often goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the key ideological assumptions of their political opponents on the right, which contributes to the ideational hegemony of mind-sets that run counter to the ideals of a society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Secondly, social democracy (and the left in general) has lost the source of its power, the support from a coalition of working class and lower middle-class voters linked to an array of diverse progressive forces from all levels of society. It was this base and the strong collaboration with the trade union movement, boosted by the wide attraction of collectivist ideals, that helped to turn the three decades after the end of the Second World War into a truly social democratic moment. Since the 1980s, this support has been eroding due to two interconnected trends: On the one hand, increased levels of individualisation or even atomisation combined with profound socio-economic changes have undermined the collaborative model of post-war welfare capitalism; on the other hand social democratic parties have begun to aim more and more for the infamous ‘centre-ground’ while abandoning any serious attempts to engage with and mobilise voters from lower income strata – which contributed to ever rising levels of abstention and political disengagement from large segments of society that used to be a solid support base. To make matters worse, not many social democratic leaders seem to understand that voting is different from retail and that the involvement, mobilisation and binding of voters and supporters requires more than a friendly knock on the door or some advertisement campaigns every four or five years.

Finally, the wider institutional setting within which national policy-making occurs is no longer as amenable to social democratic principles as it was in the past. Put simply, social democracy assumes that there is a shared interest of all social classes and groups to create a stable, prosperous society, and that a form of consensus can be negotiated within the confines of a nation-state. The globalisation of the world economy and particularly its immense financialisation, combined with the dominance of competition (between states, organisations and individuals) as guiding principle of societies, have altered the parameters of political conflict. The difficulty of acknowledging this problem contributes to the intellectual vacuity of the social democratic mainstream and to the toothless approach in addressing the social conflicts of our times, at least in those instances when some form of opposition is still expressed – which is not always the case, as for example the support of most social democratic parties for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership demonstrates.

One could now say, why should we care? I would argue one should for two reasons: First, with social democratic parties as the traditionally strongest element of the left, the crisis of the former inevitably represents a crisis of the latter, not just from an electoral point of view but also regarding the legitimacy of left-wing policies. If people see social democratic parties fail repeatedly to improve living standards, it is likely that doubts regarding all forms of progressive, solidaristic policies spread. Secondly, even though the European welfare state of the post-war era, with its universal public services, was not only built by the social democratic movement but also by conservative and liberal parties, it was undoubtedly the influence and power of social democratic principles (strengthened by a good dose of fear of the communist bloc) that drove this extension of social rights. It is to be feared that with a social democracy in tatters and alternative forces of the left yet underdeveloped, the near future will be less comfortable for most of us, regardless of one’s political persuasion.

Enrico Reuter

Monday, 17 August 2015

Financing the Sustainable Development Goals - reflections on FfD3

Last month the Third ‘Financing for development’ (FfD) conference in Addis Ababa agreed on a global action agenda – known as the “Addis Ababa Action Agenda” (AAAA or the “Outcome”) - for financing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) between 2015 and 2030. Following endorsement of the AAAA by the UN General Assembly on 27 July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon hailed it as “a foundation for success at the UN summit to adopt the UN post-2015 development agenda, in New York this September, and at the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (or COP 21) in Paris in December”.

“Historic”, “groundbreaking”, “a milestone” are some of the words the UN has used to describe a blueprint that it said would forge “an enhanced global partnership that aims to foster universal, inclusive economic prosperity and improve people’s wellbeing while protecting the environment”. Erik Solheim, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) tweeted from the conference ‘I believe historians will see Addis #ffd3 as the turning point for development’. Similarly, in her speech Justine Greening, UK Secretary of State for International Development, announced ‘the FFD outcome is historic’.

Other commentators, however, have noted that while there was agreement on broad frameworks and ‘key messages’ the Outcome fell short in terms of concrete commitments. According to Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the “Action Agenda falls short of committing concrete proposals to reshape the global framework for financing development; its business as usual approach does not match the aspirations of the post 2015 Development Agenda and SDGs.” The CSO Forum of 600 civil society organisations concluded that “on more than 20 areas, the AAAA represent a step backwards or, at best, maintenance of the status quo in relation to the pre-existing Monterrey/Doha body of commitments”. In their joint statement ‘Third FfD Failing to Finance Development’, the Forum concludes the AAAA “lost the opportunity to tackle the structural injustices in the current global economic system and ensure that development finance is people-centered and protects the environment.”

This mixed picture is perhaps most strikingly reflected in the closing plenary statement of the G77 which, while applauding progress made, noted a number of issues “important to, and fully endorsed by, the Group that have not been adequately accommodated in the current text.” That this diverse group, representing 134 countries “found common ground in expressing discontent with the Outcome cannot be overemphasized."

‘Beyond aid’

‘Beyond aid’ is the refrain that has pervaded post-2015 FfD negotiations throughout. According to Justine Greening “We’re all talking about the Beyond Aid agenda…  acknowledging that while aid is still necessary it’s not sufficient either for the next development leap, either in its scale or in its nature.” Erik Solheim of DAC summed it up thus: “From now on we will walk on three legs: Aid. Business. Tax.”

However, Oxfam argues that the “the Addis Action Agenda has allowed aid commitments to dry up” and on the issue of climate change “FfD has barely dealt with the huge additional burden which will be faced by countries least responsible for causing the problem”. Meanwhile the issue of debt relief, which played a central role in the development financing agenda in the MDG era, was not even on the table. As Bhumika Muchhala of the Third World Network explains, the AAAA “explicitly ignores a landmark initiative in the UN itself to establish an international statutory legal framework for debt restructuring. Instead, it reaffirms the dominance of creditor-led mechanisms, such as the Paris Club, whose inequitable governance was criticised in the Doha Declaration of 2008.”

Furthermore, the hoped for action on international tax cooperation - a key reform needed for developing countries to be able to mobilise domestic resources for sustainable development - also failed to materialise. As Romilly Greenhill of the Overseas Development Institute observed: “The key question was whether discussions on tax cooperation should take place in the United Nations - where every country has an equal say - or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a rich-country club.” In the end OECD members blocked proposals to upgrade the UN Tax Committee to an intergovernmental body, asserting the OECD’s continued leadership role on tax issues. Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz was particularly scathing of this manoeuvre. ‘“It’s not just that they’ve failed to live up to their moral obligation, their social obligations, their own commitments,” Stiglitz told Devex on the sidelines of a debate on international tax reform, “They’re actually doing harm.”

If outcomes on aid and tax were less than was hoped for, the one ‘leg’ that was strengthened in the conference outcome was ‘business’. According to Oxfam, “the outcome document puts private finance front and centre of financing for development”. ‘Catalytic aid’ (where aid is used to ‘leverage’ private finance) and ‘blended finance’ are now the watchwords. As Aldo Caliari of the civil society group Centre of Concern explains, ‘the AAAA placed strong optimism on the role of the private sector without evidence to back it up and without parallel recognition of the developmental role of the State and commitments to safeguards States’ ability to regulate in the public interest or to protect human rights and the environment’.

These developments give new impetus to the promotion of private finance initiatives or public private partnerships (PPPs) as a preferred mechanism for development financing (particularly infrastructure development). However a recent report from Eurodad (European Network on Debt and Development) strikes a note of caution, with evidence that ‘shows that liabilities from PPPs can pose a huge risk to the public sector’Meanwhile, another point of contention is the conflict, as yet unresolved, between “States’ ability to regulate in the public interest or to protect human rights and the environment” and terms of preferential trade agreements which include Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms that are “more coercive than any review mechanism we can hope for in defence of sustainable development."

‘A shaky start’

The FFD3 summit in Addis Ababa is the first of a three landmark conferences this year, including the UN summit to adopt the UN post-2015 development agenda in New York in September and the Climate Change conference (COP 21) in Paris in December. Simon Maxwell of the Overseas Development Institute has predicted, reassuringly perhaps that “on content matters, the Post-2015 settlement will outrank the FfD document” (which begs the question why FfD3 came first…). Nevertheless, FfD3 has been a “shaky start to the three conferences of this year”. It remains to be seen how these not insignificant differences will be resolved (or not) as the year progresses.