Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Effective online learning: what have we learned?

Here in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York we have been developing and delivering wholly online postgraduate programmes of study for public service practitioners since 2003.

As demand for online learning grows, and with many institutions now embarking on offering study choices of this kind, it may be a good moment to reflect on what we have learned about delivering an effective online programme, from the student’s point of view.

Based on our experience and on wider research, the following factors appear to be of key importance:

Programme design that balances flexibility with structure
For many people the flexibility that online study offers is one of the major reasons for embarking on this mode of study. Our experience suggests, however, that this flexibility needs to be balanced with an explicit structure which provides participants with a clear route-map, both in respect of their programme as a whole and their week by week activity. Our students are all in demanding roles in the workplace, and so it is very important that there is a policy of ‘no surprises’, and that activities, deadlines and expectations are all clear. A mix of structure, clarity and flexibility enables students to plot a way forward to a successful conclusion.

Flexibility is also important in terms of modes of communication. Students can choose to contact their tutor and personal supervisor by email, phone or Skype – according to their preferred style and what they wish to discuss, so that they get the most from the encounter. The weekly tutor-led group discussions are conducted ‘a-synchronously’, which means that students never have to be online at the same time as each other.

A sense of community
When students are studying at a distance, often in widely-dispersed locations, it’s important that their studies are designed to enable and embed a sense of community. Research suggests that this brings three key benefits, from the student’s point of view:

  • First, many of our students are looking for opportunities, through their studies, to share and compare experiences with other practitioners who are working in different contexts but with similar public service motivations. It’s therefore very important that opportunities for interaction and mutual learning are built in throughout the programme. As one of our alumni put it: “I expected that my study time would be rather solitary. In actual fact, the weekly online discussions gave a great deal of staff-student and student-student interaction. A great benefit of the course was that many of the students were mid-career people from around the world and were able to draw on a wide range of experience in topic discussions. It was a privilege to hear their experiences being shared in a confidential and supportive environment.”
  • Secondly, research suggests that this kind of mutual learning and enquiry fosters deeper learning, as it helps students to acquire a more rounded and advanced understanding of complex topics.
  • Thirdly, a sense of community also provides for social cohesion and helps to sustain motivation. Distance learning requires considerable commitment, especially when it is being undertaken concurrently with a demanding professional role, and so the importance of this social ‘glue’ can’t be overstated.

Tutor ‘presence’
The role of the tutor is closely linked to the previous factor, as research repeatedly demonstrates the important role in online learning of tutor ‘presence’, and the impact that this has on developing trust, enabling learning and sustaining the all-important sense of community. In practice, and as demonstrated in our own research, ‘tutor presence’ means that tutors are available and present within the virtual learning environment; that they actively lead and facilitate the learning process; that they support individual learners and the group as a whole; and that they are responsive and ‘visible’.
It’s been observed that online tutors act as teachers, designers and counsellors, and our experience bears this out.

Joined up communication
Both of the previous factors involve effective communication, and this comes to the fore in this next factor, which concerns a holistic approach to managing communication with students and building relationships with them.

Typically, organisational structures in universities often separate the ‘academic’ from the ‘administrative’, but our experience has been that a holistic approach is needed, with the student and their experience at the centre. In practice, this means using a team-based approach, so that plans can be drawn up and information shared between all those who are involved in the delivery of the programme. This approach also ensures that processes are well thought out from the student’s point of view. Handled this way, administrative staff also become an important part of building and maintaining relationships with students.

Communications also need to be ‘joined up’ with the university more widely, so that university-level services, be they careers or welfare-related, are all accessible and meaningful for online students. At York, we have recently established an online college where students can connect and learn about all the support available from the University for their studies and beyond, into life after graduation.

Invisible technology
It’s important from the student’s point of view that the technology which supports the programme is accessible, easy to use and intuitive. It also needs to be designed with the needs of the students in mind. In our case, that means ensuring that the virtual learning environment, and all the material in it, can be readily accessed even by students in very remote locations. Above all though, the technology should be ‘invisible’; while it’s a key enabler, it isn’t an end in itself, and should quickly become so taken for granted that students don’t have to think about it.

Making the most of the benefits of online learning
Finally, designing effective online learning involves recognising the distinctive advantages that this mode of study brings, and making the most of them:

Collaborative learning. One key advantage is the opportunity that online study brings for collaborative learning within an international network of peers. This underlines the importance of building in the kind of mutual enquiry and learning mentioned above, and this again points to the central theme of ‘community’.
Reflection and ongoing debate. The fact that discussion takes place through a-synchronous, week-long discussion forums means that there are much greater opportunities for reflection and ongoing debate than in real-time classrooms which prioritise immediate responses. This emphasis on reflection and debate is very appropriate and useful for the professional development objectives that most online programmes share.
Simultaneous immersion in study and work. This mode of study also brings a benefit that has perhaps been less well-recognised in the discourse about online learning: the opportunity for simultaneous and ongoing immersion in study and work. Unlike courses that take place at a distance from the workplace, in terms of both location and time, online study joins the two, and so learning and insights can be immediately applied. Our research into the ‘simultaneous immersion’ that online study makes possible identifies clear benefits for professional development which go well beyond the actual period of study.

This final point indicates a common factor across all of those noted above:  the importance of thinking programme design through from the perspective of the student. In terms of content, tutoring, learning outcomes and communications, the students’ needs should drive the programme design.

Ellen Roberts - Director of the Online MA programmes in Public Policy and Management

For more information about our programmes, or to enquire about applying for entry in September 2017, please see our web pages here, or contact spsw-online@york.ac.uk

Monday, 21 November 2016

Brexit – ‘crafting strategy’ instead of rigidity or chaos

Concern is mounting both in the UK and in Europe about what seems to be a lack of clarity concerning the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union (EU). This concern is well illustrated by the Italian Economics Minister, who commented recently that: “Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense”. The Confederation of British Industry has also now joined in calls for the government to put forward a clear plan, in order to avoid “further crippling uncertainty”.

The government has insisted that a coherent approach is being devised, but that details cannot be shared in advance of the negotiations. Yet some senior officials have indicated that there isn’t yet a clear plan, and this seems to be backed up by a leaked report, albeit disowned by the government, which indicates that Whitehall is struggling to cope, that there are splits between Ministers and that large numbers of additional civil servants need to be drafted in.

There are of course a number of valid reasons for the government to be wary about sharing a plan:

·   First, the breadth and scope of the issues, and the sheer volume of intricate detail involved, indicates that a period of careful analysis is certainly needed. There are sound arguments for taking good time over this initial analysis stage, although some might argue that five months has already provided a reasonable initial window.
·   Secondly, it could be argued that the government should be careful not to show its hand within the EU in advance of the start of formal negotiations, so as not to weaken its position. This stance is itself weakened though by the extent to which initial pronouncements by the Prime Minister, about the importance of prioritising immigration control, are now shaping the positions that are being taken vis-à-vis Brexit from within the EU.
·   A third, and potentially weighty, reason for the government to be cautious about setting out its stall is that the Prime Minister will know that any indications of the government’s formal position is open to political attack internally, not least from within her own party, which has been described as a ticking time bomb in relation to Brexit. Continuing reports of splits on the strategy for Brexit between key Ministers underline the scope for internal political turmoil.

So, on the face of it there are plausible justifications, linked to careful analysis, negotiating tactics and internal political pressures, for the government to be wary about showing its hand. However, it is possible that the current situation is in danger of delivering the worst of all worlds. On the one hand, there is a deliberate refusal to set out a ‘plan’, which is being presented as a negotiating tactic and yet is leading to claims about uncertainty and confusion. On the other hand, the government has in fact indicated some sticking points – such as the absolute necessity of being able to limit free movement – which are setting off a chain of comments and reactions within the EU and so possibly limiting the government’s room for manoeuvre.

Since the words ‘strategy’ and ‘plan’ are being so frequently used in connection with Brexit, what insights does theory about strategic planning and management in the public domain provide for interpreting this confusing situation?

Informed by work on complexity theory, current thinking in this field highlights the benefits of an ‘emergent’ approach to strategic management. Within this perspective, carefully prescribed, formal plans that commit organisations and governments some way into the future are increasingly being seen as too rigid and inflexible for an environment of uncertainty and change. This type of thinking points to a more ’emergent’ style of planning in which flexibility, responsiveness and improvisation are the order of the day. Recent statements by the Prime Minster seem to take this tack, suggesting for example that the UK needs to “adapt to the moment and evolve its thinking”, in response to anti-globalisation and protectionist rhetoric from the US President-elect Trump. Indeed, some in the government may be hoping that the seismic-scale discontinuity caused by Trump’s election may create openings for negotiation in Europe that weren’t there before.

Recent thinking about strategic planning also suggests, though, that a wholly emergent approach is highly risky: without a sense of overall direction, it is all too easy for clarity to be replaced by confusion and a lack of coordination. As Rose and Cray (2010, p. 456) put it, in their exploration of strategy formulation in the public domain, “the lack of a shared plan can give rise to confusion, wasted resources and internal conflicts” – all of which seem to be clear risks in the current situation. They point to the value of a two-part, ‘hybrid’ process, in which a strategic framework sets out parameters and goals, articulated in sufficient detail to provide a guide for action, whilst retaining flexibility to respond to the changing environment.

Achieving this balance between clarity and flexibility is of course a hugely demanding and quite subtle task, calling for attention to the process of crafting strategy as a skill in its own right. Alongside all the current demands for ‘hard’ skills in Whitehall in areas such as trade negotiations, it is just as important that this ‘meta-skill’ gets the attention that it deserves. As the Institute for Government put it back in September, “when it comes to Brexit, silence is not a strategy”.

Ellen Roberts – follow me on Twitter

Rose, W. and Cray, D. (2010) ‘Public-sector strategy formulation’, Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp.453-466.

Friday, 14 October 2016

‘Go getters’ who go get lunch – Vulnerable self-employment and social policy

The ‘gig economy’, ‘uberisation’, ’portfolio careers’ – these are just three of the buzzwords or phrases that are used to capture a profound change in how people work, build a career (or: develop a profession, for those who baulk at the idea of having ‘a career’), develop a sense of self and personal identity, and gain the income to buy all the goods and services on which depends and appears to depend a good living standard.

Despite all differences between these and other labels, they share the assumption that the traditional form of employment, encapsulated in the idea of a long working life in the profession for which one was educated and trained, with a comfortable retirement as final phase, is bound to become a rarity, both longed for by some thanks to the stability it offers, and dreaded by others because of the ‘iron cage’ of a narrow, predetermined path through life it represents.

It matters little in this context that this ‘traditional form of employment’ (that has had its undeniable shortcomings and that should not be glorified too much as part of a general nostalgia for the so-called ‘golden age’ of the three post-war decades) is a very young invention, strongly tied to the model of industrial and post-industrial welfare capitalism that dominated the second half of the 20th century; an invention that therefore not surprisingly runs out of steam at precisely the moment when, on the one hand, the post-war approach to social protection is more and more undermined and questioned, while on the other hand the sustainability of a globalised capitalist order appears as increasingly doubtful, not only because of the enormous social and environmental damages it causes but also because it fails to produce the gains for the many on which its legitimacy is built.

In this particular setting, enter the idealised personality type of our current period: the entrepreneurial self (Bröckling, 2016), the person who understands that to have a ‘good life’, it takes continued individual efforts, constant mobilisation, personal investment and high flexibility, in order to deal with all the challenges and to seek all the opportunities that life offers. In other words, a person who relies primarily on themselves to succeed, ignoring the core insight from any introductory sociology course that humans are intrinsically social beings that are defined by their surroundings, and thrive most within a collective.

While this ideal serves as beacon and goal for everyone, its demands are particularly challenging for an increasing share of the working population: To juggle different (more or less paid) jobs and projects and hence manage a ‘portfolio career’, to be presentable and attractive to new clients in the ‘gig economy’, and to secure a decent income from ‘uberised’ jobs, in other words jobs that have none of the protections that ‘traditional’ full-time employment offered and still offers, being highly active in such an individualised sense is a core requirement. It no longer suffices to sell one’s labour force and to be competent, it now is essential to sell one’s entire personality, to show prospective buyers not just professional skills but also the right attitude of a proper ‘go getter’ – even if one just goes to get someone their lunch by driving around on a bike through a polluted city.

Legally, many of these ‘new’ jobs (that could also be called ‘old’ jobs, harking back to the times of day labour) fall into the realm of self-employment, even though this categorisation can be and is contested, like in the case of Deliveroo, purveyor of a fashionable form of ‘meals on wheels’ for the busy urbanite. Being self-employed conveys a sense of autonomy, but also the risk of self-exploitation and weak or non-existent social protection or benefits, such as sick pay or paid leave. In the context of a steep rise in self-employment in the UK over the last years, we can observe an increased share of those who either just get by (as indicated by the median income having fallen much steeper for the self-employed than for employees) or are bogusly self-employed (because they have only one client, often their former employer who found a neat way of liberating themselves from any responsibility of the employee’s or worker’s well-being and the reproduction of their labour force). It is these self-employed, who are living under precarious material conditions while being asked to take full personal responsibility for their fate, that my colleague Kevin Caraher and I have defined as most vulnerable.

But beyond the personal circumstances of the vulnerable self-employed, one essential question emerges: Given that all markets are inevitably social constructs, developing out of legal, cultural and political arrangements, and considering that the labour market is one of the most complex and hence most heavily regulated markets, what is the role of social policy in determining the contours of the outlined employment context? What kind of support is provided to the vulnerable self-employed, and to what extent do welfare agencies encourage or even push unemployed persons into self-employment, either by providing incentives or by creating a punitive environment (as it is so powerfully depicted in the latest masterpiece by Ken Loach ‘I, Daniel Blake’) from which the status of self-employment is seen as a viable escape route. In short, how is self-employment structured by social policy interventions and how do these interact with economic changes?

A vast research agenda, but one worth pursuing, as it will help to shed light not only onto the ‘nature’ of work in the 21st century, but also onto how state power is used to protect, support and emancipate as well as to discipline, guide and penalise individuals.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter @ReuterEnrico

Broeckling, U. (2016). The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject. London: Sage.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Implementing Brexit: Challenges for the Civil Service

In these early weeks after the UK’s ‘Brexit’ decision, most of the attention has understandably been focused on the chaotically unfolding political scene. Beneath these swirling mists, however, discussions are beginning to surface about the role and importance of the civil service in implementing this historic decision. This huge task – of working out how this agenda is going to be implemented and then putting in place the means to achieve it – has been made even more intriguing and urgent by  the fact that the civil service was apparently expressly instructed not to embark on contingency planning to prepare for the outcome of the referendum.

Against this turbulent background it will be vital that the next steps are “clear, honest and considered” as Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, has noted.

What, then, are the key challenges that the civil service will face?

First, there is the structural issue of working out who will do this work, and in what relationship with the rest of the government machinery. A new central unit, located in the Cabinet Office, is now established to lead the work involved in withdrawal, but questions to consider here will include to what extent this unit will be undertaking some of the heavy lifting itself, or undertaking more of a coordinating role across departments. This will in turn help to shape where resources are targeted.

Secondly, there will be an issue of ensuring that the necessary skills are in place, and particularly with respect to negotiation and contract management skills. There is a long-standing concern, voiced by the NAO (2014) among others, about the extent to which Whitehall is equipped in this respect. As the former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office put it very recently in the context of Brexit: "I doubt there are more than between a dozen and 20 serving British officials who have real experience of trade negotiations."

Alongside these issues of structures and skills, though, ways of working are likely to be just as important. As Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, pointed out at a recent Institute for Government seminar about the implications of Brexit for Whitehall, we now need a collective approach in which resources and skills are shared across departments. Yet the history of Whitehall demonstrates the strength of the pull in precisely the opposite direction, with the culture of departmental competition for resources firmly embedded in the DNA.  Now is the time to make a collaborative approach a reality, however hard that may be. Lessons about collaborative partnership working seem useful here, including the importance of setting a framework for the management of governance, for performance measurement, for escalation and for communication.

Then there are the leadership skills to drive this work forward. Political leadership will of course be fundamental. For leaders within Whitehall, though, there will also be a host of challenges. One such will be how to manage priorities. Civil service staffing is currently at its lowest level since the Second World War, with a reduction of 15% since 2010, and yet it will now be necessary, somehow, to take forward this huge programme of change while at the same time not losing sight of other domestic priorities.

Another fundamental challenge for the leadership in Whitehall will be working out a way to take these changes forward while the overall sense of direction is still emerging. The mission is clear (Brexit) , but the sense of direction – exactly what form of change we are working towards and what shape it will take on – is still opaque, and there are some big questions to tackle. For example, as powers and resources are handed back by Brussels, how far will they feed into greater devolution, or to increased centralisation? There are opportunities for the former certainly, harnessed to the important work that is needed to rebuild trust within local communities. Taking devolution further forward will however require considerable input from the civil service, at a time when they have their hands extremely full on other fronts. Fashioning a way forward while the big picture slowly unfolds is likely to call for particularly sensitive and finely-judged leadership. In an emergent situation of this kind, a collaborative style of working is likely to be particular relevant.

Two of the most successful teams in the early stages of the European Cup – Iceland and Wales – voiced strikingly similar and simple views about the ‘recipe’ for their success: have a plan and be a team. Both of these messages seem highly relevant to the current post-Referendum situation, and should be taken very much to heart in Whitehall.

Ellen Roberts - follow me on Twitter 

Monday, 23 May 2016

How the British political elite has done the groundwork for Brexit

In one month from now, on 23rd June, the British electorate (or rather those who are registered as voters and can be bothered to cast a ballot) will decide on the future of the United Kingdom (UK) either inside or outside of the European Union (EU).

While the referendum campaign has heated up considerably over the last few weeks, including the inevitable references to Hitler and bendy bananas, and the media’s eyes are turned towards the divisions of the Conservative Party, there is no clear indication as to what the likely outcome is, at least not if we trust in polls. Despite some variation, the ‘poll of polls’ that captures the average of all surveys has for a long time hovered around an even 50/50 split between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ – which is further proof that opinion polls can be as insightful as asking Auntie Agatha or Uncle Albert.

With often polemical debates running high, and everyone expressing their opinions, I think it is not too preposterous to add my own views as a long-term resident of the UK and one of those pesky immigrants who have come to this beautiful country.

If Britain chose to leave the EU, it would be fair to say that this is the outcome of the long-term relationship that British political and economic elites have had with the project of European integration. In other words, many of those who now argue for ‘remain’ would be at least indirectly responsible for a success of ‘leave’. Here is why, in four steps:

  1.  The vote to withdraw from the EU has multiple drivers and is inspired by different, sometimes opposing political views, but it seems reasonable to say that it was primarily high levels of net immigration, notably from Eastern European countries after 2004, that have fuelled the anger and frustration of substantive shares of the population towards the EU.
  2. At the same time, over the course of the last years, it has become clear even to the most naïve that economic globalisation, free trade and the financialisation of the world economy, linked to weakened welfare states and ever more competition between states, industries, organisations and individuals, produces a great deal of despair, tension and unrest. With centre-left and centre-right governments equally unwilling and incapable of addressing these issues head-on, it is not surprising that the public support to all representatives of what is seen as the establishment runs low – to put it mildly.
  3. Both factors, immigration and the dark underbelly of a globalised world, are well aligned to the long-term preferences of British political elites regarding the EU. Always a strong proponent of an EU that is as large and at the same time as little integrated as possible, the UK was one of the most vocal advocates of admitting Eastern and Central European countries as quickly as possible – and together with Sweden the only EU member state that in 2004 didn’t impose any transitory labour market restrictions on citizens from these states. While the historical responsibility of uniting Europe should not be understated, there is no reason to assume that a slower process, involving an institutionalised partnership between East and West beyond the EU (as it was proposed among others by the French President Mitterrand after the German unification), would have been impossible.
  4. When it comes to the negative impact of ‘globalisation’ (to use this as a shorthand for more complex problems), the hopes of the centre-left to turn the EU into some sort of bulwark against the most damaging forms of economic competition while developing a common framework for addressing humanity’s challenges such as climate change or global insecurity, have been crushed, often by the same parties of the centre-left whose ideology consisted of delivering neoliberal policies with a ‘human face’ – an aim that was so largely missed that social-democratic parties across Europe have become an almost negligible force.

To summarise, the orientation of British politics in the last two decades has laid the groundwork for the UK leaving the EU becoming a serious possibility.

This is not to imply that the UK alone is to be blamed for the woes of Europe, given that other countries have been on the same page. Germany for example shares Britain’s basic views, mainly because it has managed so well to turn Eastern Europe into its own backyard factory, with low paid workers assembling goods for export on which German companies only need to put the sticker ‘Made in Germany’. That Britain has proceeded differently by mainly importing the labour force, is hardly more than a variation on the same theme.

This does also not imply that a better integrated EU would be an intrinsically benign project. The recent treatment of Greece and Malta, the obvious lack of democratic accountability, and the one-sided orientation of its economic policy towards ever more competition, as exemplified by the TTIP negotiations, have shown that the EU is in need of profound reform (if it is not long too late for this, as it increasingly appears) – reforms that may have to be negotiated without input from the UK, within an EU under shock from losing one of its key members.

Enrico Reuter - follow me on Twitter: @ReuterEnrico 

Monday, 25 April 2016

They come and go… and come back: Theoretical concepts in social policy research, and why they matter

Social policy research, much as the wider discipline of social sciences, is characterised by the ebb and flow of theoretical concepts, which fluctuate in popularity, can disappear and later reappear (perhaps in slightly different shape), or emerge as fresh new ways of reflecting upon and making sense of our complex social world.

Whether it is old classics such as ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’, or more recent manifestations such as ‘social exclusion’ or ‘vulnerability’, two features appear to be universal: On the one hand, there is usually a tension, if not outright conflict, between academic conceptualisations and the way in which political activists or policy-makers use such terms. On the other, there can be lively debates within the research community itself as to which concepts (and which interpretation of any given concept) are the most appropriate and useful to analyse social phenomena.

When I was working on my PhD a few years ago, investigating social policies against exclusion, I was often struck by the extent to which theoretical work that I considered to be deeply insightful and intelligent was simplified, distorted and twisted by politicians, leaving behind little more than some empty shells of rhetoric. At the same time, it was fascinating to observe that controversies were running high within academic circles, to discuss the merits and demerits of ‘social exclusion’ as a theoretical concept. 

Having had the fortune of reading my fair share of Pierre Bourdieu during my own studies, this was of course not surprising, given that the academic world represents one of the ‘fields’ he had written about, with their struggles for symbolic capital and reputation as well as the need to be both on the inside, by playing according to the rules, and to find one’s own niche. In more recent times, ongoing research on vulnerability, together with my colleague Kevin Caraher, has led to similar observations…

These controversies, be it within academia or in the wider realm of politics are, however, not only inevitable in an open society, but also highly beneficial. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is these debates that help to push forward the boundaries of knowledge and that challenge us intellectually – and hence lead ideally to progress. 

And they also help to engage critically with policy-making by, for example, highlighting the shortcomings or biases of social policy programmes, and by being able to understand which approaches could work better. Moreover, such controversial discussions sharpen the tools for critical reflection – something essential in any democratic society to avoid the dullness and narrow-mindedness of a ‘there is no alternative consensus’ and to foster lively debates and peaceful ways of expressing conflicting views.

Finally, it is these ‘controversies’ as well as keeping an open mind, accepting and contrasting different views, and never stopping learning what makes academic work so enriching, for teachers and students alike.

This year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, we offer two bursaries for students on our new MA in Social and Public Policy.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter: @ReuterEnrico

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Trade, sustainability and global governance

On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September 2015, came into force, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework that that shaped the international development agenda from 2000 to 2015.

So has the era of sustainability as a guiding norm for global governance arrived? As Jennifer Clapp explains, ‘governance frameworks are rarely guided by just a single normative idea, often it is the interaction of different norms that shapes policy outcomes’. Sustainability ‘shares the stage’ with another powerful norm - trade liberalisation. Increasingly, norms of trade liberalization and sustainability are presented ‘side by side’, as if mutually supportive. In the agri-food sector, for example, a liberalised trade regime is typically presented as not only compatible with but the means by which sustainability can be achieved.

The ‘trade supports sustainability’ argument relies heavily on the concept of comparative advantage, devised in 1817 by David Ricardo to explain aggregate efficiency gains realized when each country specialises in production of just those goods for which it enjoys comparative (if not absolute) advantage. What the theory assumes is that only goods, and not capital and labour, cross national borders. This is clearly not the case in a contemporary global trade regime, however, which is shaped by transnational corporations able to invest in ‘multiple locations around the world, and at numerous points along global supply chains’ undermining ‘that most basic assumption of comparative advantage, that is that capital is not mobile between countries’.

A Magna Carta for investors

While the ‘trade supports sustainability’ position broadly informed discussions at the Sustainable Development Summit, specific questions about how policies to achieve the SDGs might potentially conflict with commitments under preferential trade agreements and bilateral trade agreements (BITs) were sidelined. In particular, and unlike the SDGs, such agreements are enforceable though highly coercive ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ (ISDS) mechanisms. The inclusion of ISDS in a trade treaty or BIT enables overseas investors to sue national governments (but not the reverse) for profits lost, for example, as a result of appropriation of the company’s assets. The judgements (handed down by corporate lawyers, not judges) are binding and, it is said, irreversible.

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that the ISDS mechanism, which turned 50 last year, has a long and chequered history. The idea of ‘investor protection’ was originally conceived by European investors as a way to protect investments in former colonies. Herman Abs, then Chairman of Deutsche Bank Chairman described it, apparently without irony, as ‘a Magna Carta for private investors’.

ISDS was subsequently adopted by the World Bank, despite strong opposition from developing countries, in the belief it would ‘help the world’s poorest countries attract foreign capital.’ In 1964 the Bank set up its ‘International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes’ (ICSID), which remains the premier tribunal for hearing ISDS cases worldwide, and ISDS has since been a standard component in trade agreements with developing countries.

According to the authors of the Guardian article, a mechanism devised to protect against seizure of assets has suffered from rather an extreme case of mission creep. “The number of suits filed against countries at the ICSID is now around 500 – and that figure is growing at an average rate of one case a week.” These days multinational corporations routinely use ISDS, not only to recover money already invested, but for alleged “expected future profits”. Under this generous interpretation several governments have been sued for legislating to protect employment rights and social and environmental standards: In other words, the kind of measures that would be consistent with achieving the SDGs.

Treaty Alliance

The largest award made by an ISDS tribunal was by the Government of Ecuador, to the Occidental Petroleum Corporation in 2006, for $1.7 billion. Interestingly, while the tribunal found in the government’s favour (that the company had indeed violated Ecuadorian law) it nevertheless ruled damages be paid to the company on account of the government’s ‘disproportionate’ response of terminating the contract.

At a conference I recently attended, Maria Fernandez Espinosa, Government Minister and Ecuador ambassador to the UN outlined a series of events that have unfolded since that time. In 2007 Bolivia withdrew from the ICSID Convention, followed by Ecuador in 2009 and Venezuela in 2012. Between 2008 and 2010 Ecuador terminated nine BITS and have since declared several more to be ‘inconsistent with the country’s constitution’. The Government of Ecuador is now leading creation of an alternative, regional centre for dispute settlement under the rubric of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

In her keynote speech, Espinoza reflected on ‘why are there not also treaties to force transnational companies to respect national laws, human rights and nature?’ Ecuador has, together with South Africa and several other countries in Latin America, along with hundreds of civil society organisations, formed the ‘Treaty Alliance’ in favour of a binding regulatory treaty with respect to human rights. Despite strong opposition from developed countries, in 2014 a UN resolution was passed to establish an intergovernmental working group: 

At its 26th session, on 26 June 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/9 by which it decided “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”

Look South

Unlike the MDGs, which assumed that only developing countries were in need of ‘development’, the SDGs are indeed ‘Global Goals’ that apply to all countries. However, as Richard Jolly argues in a recent blog, ‘if the challenges are universal, so too are the lessons of experience, achievement and failures. A change of mindset will be needed – and some humility. No longer will the more developed countries be able to dispense wisdom and instructions to poorer countries about what they ought to be doing… breaking the cycle of poverty is far from easy. Which of the richer countries have done it? Not the UK, in spite of more than 200 years of growth and ‘development’. Nor the US, France, Germany or Russia’.

In a recent article in the Conversation, Ian Scoones argues that a question that is often asked; ‘what can Africa learn from Greece?’ is the wrong question. What we should be asking is: ‘What can Greece learn from Africa about effects of austerity after a debt crisis?’ Similarly, as civil society groups and citizens in the Global North grapple with implications of a raft of new trade and investment treaties (the alphabet soup that is TTIP/TAFTA, CETA, TPP and TISA) for sustainable development, surprisingly little is heard about developments in the Global South, particularly in Latin America, from where workable alternatives look most likely to emerge. So perhaps the most important lesson yet to be learned is the need to look South for lessons.

By Sally Brooks; follow her on Twitter

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Public sector outsourcing: What have we learnt and what is still unclear?

From the early 1980s onwards public sector outsourcing – the delivery of public services by private sector organisations – has become increasingly common place in the UK and internationally. While the language may have changed along the way, with Compulsory Competitive Tendering giving way to Public Private Partnerships, the underlying intention has remained consistent: to harness the power of competition in order to improve the efficiency, responsiveness and quality of public services. These aims have been reinforced by successive governments.

Since outsourcing is now so well-established, what can be learnt from this long-standing experience?

First, the impact of outsourced arrangements in terms of efficiency, quality and value for money seems to be mixed, but is also quite hard to assess. As the Institute for Government notes, one reason for this difficulty is the lack of transparency about both the terms on which contracts are let and how they perform. While there have been several high-profile failures, such as those involving Serco and G4S, it is hard to gauge how representative these are of outsourcing experience in general. It is certainly interesting to note though, that in some quarters there seems to have been a turning of the tide, with some recent examples of previously outsourced services being brought back in-house. In 2011, for example, the Conservative-led council in Cumbria decided to bring its contracted-out highways and road-works services in-house, citing rising prices and lack of flexibility, with similar decisions since being made in some other local authorities. These shifts indicate that, at the very least, the evidence about impact doesn’t all point one way.

Secondly, there is no shortage of incisive analysis pointing out the lessons that have been learnt within the public sector about the conditions for success. Reports by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2012 and by the Institute for Government and the Public Accounts Committee in 2013 and 2014 respectively, all looked in depth at the problems and challenges of public sector outsourcing. The recommendations by these reports can be grouped, broadly, into a three-part agenda, dealing with:

  • Oversight arrangements. This includes having clear rules in place to govern market-based arrangements, having a clear understanding of each particular market and, crucially, knowing whose job it is to perform these oversight functions – a point made in the Institute for Government’s report on ‘Making Public Service Markets Work’. The need for transparency also fits in here.
  • Making markets work effectively. This heading sub-divides further into demand- and supply-side measures, aimed respectively at empowering users and at enabling entry to and exit from the market.
  • Contract management and delivery. Here the emphasis is on contractors having the skills to design, manage and monitor contracts. As the Public Accounts Committee commented: “government needs a far more professional and skilled approach to managing contracts”, warning that “there are serious weaknesses in the Government’s ability to negotiate and manage contracts with private companies on our behalf.” Continuing concerns about weaknesses in this area are signalled by the recent announcement of a Cabinet Office review of £500m worth of outsourcing contracts held by Atos, following a major failure in their work on an IT contract for GPs.
There seems to be, then, a clear consensus about current problems in public sector outsourcing and how they need to be addressed.

The third point to note concerning the current state of play, though, concerns the criteria that are being used to assess the outcomes of public sector outsourcing. Almost across the board, the start and end point is that of ‘value for money’. This emphasis is echoed in, for example, the title of the NAO’s report on ‘Delivering public services through markets: principles for achieving value for money’. This is not surprising, given that value for money has been at the heart of the rhetoric that drives these arrangements.

It does lead, though, to some questions and dilemmas. Value for money has to be interpreted, and this involves deciding on the appropriate trade-offs between efficiency, economy and quality. In this complex process of decision-making, it is all too easy for the interpretation to focus solely on costs at the expense of a clear-headed view about how those costs relate to the outcomes achieved. An emphasis on value for money can also lead to a market-centric perspective in which the analysis of both the process and outcomes of outsourcing tends to focus on the workings of a particular sector or market rather than on the wider implications. This emphasis can be seen in the three-part agenda set out above.

These wider implications are important for the users of public services. As the Institute for Government points out, service users may have multiple needs and yet each commissioner will tend to focus on just one narrow part of these needs. There are also wider implications for providers. What happens to the strategic capacity of a local authority when it has outsourced its services to such a degree that it no longer has the capacity to take a strategic view about the future shape and pattern of services? What happens to organisational learning – both about the process of contracting-out and the outcomes achieved – when that strategic capacity degrades? What impact does this then have on public sector managers’ capacity to take the professional and skilled approach that the Public Accounts Committee has called for?

These questions about the impact of outsourcing on strategic capacity and organisational learning urgently need adding to the agenda identified above.

Ellen Roberts – follow me on Twitter

Monday, 22 February 2016

Four frameworks to understand public service reform – a proposal

Public services tend to be seen as guarantors of well-being. Whether we think of education, healthcare or essential local services, it is generally agreed that public services, funded by taxation and available to people regardless of their ability to directly pay, play a role in protecting certain minimum standards. As soon as we move however beyond these basic assumptions, debates around public services become more antagonistic, with competing arguments regarding the most efficient use of public funds, the most effective modes of delivery and the main priorities of service provision. It is thus not surprising that reform plans for public services are subject to controversial and often contradictory claims as to what should be done, can be done and why.

It is one of the tasks of social scientists to reveal what lies behind such arguments and to hence analyse the material and ideological drivers behind social transformations or policy change. To do this well, it makes sense to rely on an effective combination of empirical research and theorising, with the latter being essential to reduce the complexity of social reality and to create frameworks, models and categories that help to foster a critical understanding of the social world surrounding us.

Based on empirical research of public service reforms and having taught this topic for several years, I would argue that we can identify four distinct ideational frameworks, which represent a coherent set of beliefs guiding public service reform. In this blog post, I would like to briefly introduce these four and invite any comments, either publicly or via email:

The social-holistic framework sees public services as deeply interwoven with the integrative fabric of a society, as institutions that tie social groups, individuals and communities together by establishing bonds of collectively organised mutual support and interdependence. The importance of public services goes beyond the practical, as they represent one major expression of how a society chooses to be organised along the lines of democratic inclusiveness as well as inter-generational and inter-personal solidarity. Public services are, from this perspective and in the words of Castel and Haroche (2001), a form of social property accessible to all citizens and residents.

The political-selective framework is equally embedded in material social relations, but it is less universal and comprehensive than the previous framework, as it focuses on the conflictual interplays between social groups. The shape and generosity of public services as well as the priorities of service delivery are determined by the ability of social groups and classes to influence the policy process and to make demands for service provision.

The economic-functionalist framework defines public services negatively, as a response to perceived gaps and distortions in the functioning of markets. Wherever market failures occur, a space for legitimate government intervention opens up to address said market failures, but the scope of public services remains generally restricted to those realms where market-based approaches, according to the theoretical premises of this perspective, appear as insufficient.

The moral-residual framework takes this thinking further, by stipulating that public services ought to provide nothing more than a minimum safety net for the poorest members of society, in other words for those who do not possess the economic or social capital to protect themselves, for example by purchasing private education or health insurance. It could be argued that this framework represents a sub-set of the economic-functionalist framework, if it weren’t for one substantial difference: Similar to means-tested benefits, users of these residual public services can potentially be subjected to a moralising discourse that defines any reliance on the minimum safety net as a sign of personal failure.

These four frameworks obviously need to be fine-tuned by further empirical research in order to create proper ideal-types, but I think they can serve well as a starting point for analyses that seek to identify how advocates of public service reform, be it political parties, think tanks or NGOs, conceptualise and act upon public services.

In this way, we can gain a deeper understanding of the underpinning ideas and interests that drive policy change in this particular field. Moreover, it becomes easier to identify broader trends in public service reform and to situate specific case studies within these trends, going beyond categories such as ‘choice and competition’ that are frequently used by observers and policy-makers to describe reform processes. And finally, frameworks like these, or adjusted versions of them, should enable us to shine a brighter spotlight on the intellectual premises that underpin debates about public services. It seems to me this critical engagement is crucial in times when the neoliberal and managerial paradigms of the past, despite their obvious flaws and failures, continue to restrict policy debates.

Enrico Reuter - follow me on Twitter

Castel, R. and Haroche, C. (2001). Propriété privée, propriété sociale, propriété de soi. Paris: Librairie Artème Fayard.

Friday, 5 February 2016

COP 21 – Managing complex international negotiations

The Paris Climate Agreement, adopted by 195 States in Paris on 12 December 2015, at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) of the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is certainly a victory for its host country, France. Observing the negotiations from the side-lines, as observer organisations did not have access to the negotiation room, I found the set-up of the conference, led by its President Laurent Fabius, fascinating, in particular seeing it from the angle of change management. This article comments on what was done in Paris to bring states so divergent in their opinions to an agreement. 

The COP 21 – also called the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference – took place in Le Bourget near Paris from 30 November to 12 December 2015. The Paris Agreement was finally adopted in the early evening of the 12th. The Agreement will be deposited at the UN in New York and be opened on 22 April 2016 – Mother Earth Day – for one year (till 21 April 2017) for signatures by states. The agreement will enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

The draft agreement and decision document shared at the end of the first week of COP 21 was 43-page long and with hundreds of brackets indicating text still to be agreed. Considering the ambitious aim of finding an agreement that is legally binding, balanced and far-reaching, managing negotiations between 195 countries over two weeks seemed extremely challenging for the COP 21 Presidency and the UN.

In my view, it was a clever move of Fabius to set up at least three levels of negotiations: On the highest level, an Indaba-style meeting for parties to speak openly about their “red-lines” and trade-offs; on a technical level, a gathering of 17 ambassadors to facilitate the negotiations in different areas; and finally the COP 21 as a comprehensive process with seven meetings of the ‘Committée de Paris’, which gathered parties and observers, ensured the transparency of negotiations and promoted a common understanding of the progress made in the negotiation. During its meetings, parties could express their views on the draft text, while the COP21 President and his facilitator-ambassadors shared the information on the negotiation of the text. Keeping participants of COP21 as a whole – parties and observers – in the loop through the meetings of Committée de Paris and their presence in the same room facilitated the advance of the negotiations. It provided opportunities for parties and observer organisations to discuss key questions, and the latter could exercise advocacy through bilateral meetings as well as exercise public pressure outside of the conference halls.

It is also worth noting that to break through barriers that seemed to prevent progress during the first week, Fabius played a role as change manager to harness good will from all 195 states to advance the negotiation. The four core managerial competences that are essential for the effective management of change as proposed by Carnall (2003, as cited in Burnes, 2014) had been applied by Fabius in this context: decision-making, coalition-building, achieving action, and maintaining momentum and effort.

Decision-making: As described above, Fabius had been successful, by establishing various communication mechanisms, to advance negotiations of the draft text. Decisions were made step by step and progress was shared timely and publicly, to pave the way to reach a consensus at the end of the process.
Coalition-building: Since having taken over the presidency, Fabius had travelled and met with key governments for lobbying. More than 100 countries– including the richer ones (the ‘polluters’) and the poorer ones (the ‘vulnerable’) – had joined the ‘High Ambition Coalition’, an initiative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum. This Coalition had been formed in secret and was revealed only on the eighth day of COP 21, when it spoke out strongly in favour of an agreement. The Coalition also played an essential role in persuading parties with a recalcitrant attitude and in reducing the number of agreement-resistant states.
Achieving action: During the 2nd week of the negotiation at COP21, Fabius demonstrated confidence in achieving an agreement – and not just a mediocre agreement – and in the actions taken by the group of high-level facilitators supporting him in the process, including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which were two difficult parties to be convinced to form an agreement. By inviting them to be facilitators, they shared their responsibilities to produce results for the negotiation to move forward.
Maintaining momentum and effort: During the 2nd week, the process was full of suspense and Fabius’ skilful navigation through the negotiation, for instance by ensuring transparency regarding the advancement of the draft text and by proposing mechanisms to include not only parties but also observers, has enabled parties to engage well in negotiations and to reach a consensus. It seemed to me that the perseverance and patience of Fabius were decisive in this tricky process.

So, what has changed since the COP negotiation failure in 2009 in Copenhagen to facilitate this consensus of Paris in 2015? There may be less denial of the fact that climate is changing; decision makers and politicians might be more aware of impacts of climate change in their countries; the general public could have been awakened by catastrophic effects of climate change and may ask  for better responsibility and accountability of their public authorities; just to mention a few. Nevertheless, the organisation behind the scenes by the President of COP 21, Laurent Fabius, in addition to the efforts made by the Secretary General of the United Nations since 2010, was a key determinant of this success. 

On a personal note, I also found that the practical organisation of COP21 was of a high standard. During the two-week long conference, for example, relaxing rooms were at the disposal of delegates to rest a while after days and nights spent in negotiations; food from different regions of the world was provided to delegates far away from home; and shuttle bus services operated night and day between the conference venue and hotels. How can delegates not appreciate all the efforts made by France to reach an agreement in Paris?

Burnes, B. (2014). Managing Change. Sixth edition. Pearson Education Limited.