Friday, 26 August 2011

Social Impact Bonds: Some Questions

There is some fanfare today about the announcement of a small number of further social impact bond pilots.  The idea is now coupled with the notion of introducing more extensive private funding through what have been termed rather speculatively 'social ISAs'.

There are some cheerleaders and some naysayers. Its not surprising: the idea has attractions but it also makes many suspicious that this could become another complex 'conjuring trick' (courtesy PFI) from which the winners will seldom be public sector institutions. More significantly, if PFI was largely about building things; SIBs are about services for some of the most vulnerable or troubled in our society at a time when many services are suffering very significant reductions in funding and when the pressure on our preventative and rehabilitative programmes is more intense than ever in the wake of the recent wide spread disorder in our major cities (I appreciate that I will already have annoyed some by uttering the phrase PFI in the same breath as SIB).

Having watched the development of the SIB idea by the Young Foundation and then the initial application in Peterborough here are six questions which are worth asking about SIBs:

- would we be interested in this in the absence of the cuts in public expenditure? There is a world of difference between  SIBs as a substitute rather than a supplement to public spending. The recent damning report on PFI suggested that from now on in every case where that mechanism is being considered the public expenditure option should be fully appraised.  The Allen report on early intervention where some of these ideas were proposed a  few months back also suggested that there were now some opportunities to re-develop a local government bond market. In short are SIBs to be considered against the full variety of other opportunities in terms of their costs and their benefits so that they are horses for courses rather than a one trick pony

- will SIBs really transfer risk? As ever the key is good design. The PFI experience is largely bad, but not entirely so. The big question is whether the interests of investors in securing the return of their capital with some gain can genuinely be married up with the interests of the public sector in securing real improvements in outcome without massive complexity or introducing false incentives (see below) and how widely such an approach can be applied across different outcomes and services.

- who will decide on when and how SIBs should be used? Despite a long and generally laudable tradition of charitable trusts which have chosen specific aims for their investment, many people remain concerned that it should not be for philanthropists to decide on which services or groups in society are funded. That is a job for politicians. But this concern becomes even more pressing an issue if the baton is passed to instituional investors - if the notion of moving to a more undustrial scale of operation were ever achieved via social ISAs and the like. For many people, picking investment either on moral grounds or on the basis of returns - rather than need -  is not attractive.

- will SIBs really stimulate innovation and doing things differently? This is where social entrepreneurs start salivating with excitement and we all know that innovation needs some incubation. But the question on SIBs is whether any innovation is down to the SIB and payment by results or whether better working between organisations (which is largely what is needed) could be achieved in the absence of a different financing vehicle. So in short have SIBs and PBRs required some things to happen which could have happened through other means, including through pooling of budgets to recycle up front savings across a wider range of organisations as an incentive to greater integration

- are the potential costs and complexity justified - the more so when what is measured as outputs or outcomes can be a huge problem if they are wrongly idenitfied or measured? This takes us right back into the whole  imbroglio  of the target culture. The fear for some will be that the targets used to gauge success will encourage gaming or a focus on what can be measured rather than what is important

- can mechanisms of this kind possibly be deveoped sufficiently quickly and have wide enough application given that SIBs are a small pilot but massive reductions in services are happening now? The question about whether the technical issues can be overcome and then whether the mechanism is suitable for more than a relatively small number of situations will take some time or may prompt what might be little more than a stab in the dark. But the loss of services and the loss of opportunities for more integration and prevention are being felt now.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Speed Cameras: a loss of perspective

The obsession with speed camera data continues with further announcements today on a central repository of information on the siting of cameras and on their 'effectiveness' .

The inclusion of data on speed cameras on the single data list was always highly questionable. Surely these are properly decisions to be taken by local authorities and police forces. Yet Government effectively requires the publication and then compilation of data on the siting of cameras. We all know that this responds to the visceral, irrational hatred of some motorists about having their ability to drive at whatever speed they choose curbed. The argument that cameras are used as cash cows covers this with a veneer of respectability. But lets leave that to one side.

The interesting point about the notion of effectiveness is that it is apparently to be gauged entirely in terms of the number of prosecutions, offences and penalties.

There is some sense in looking at numbers of offences. Clearly tooo it is important that cameras provide information that can be used to prosecute successfully. I hope that is the intention. But to be clearer it should really be examining the issue of whether prosecutions failed because of technical problems with siting or visibility or reliability.

That's all the more important because, of course, the real point of cameras is about compliance with speed limits and prevention of accidents. True effectiveness would be no prosecutions because drivers were actually obeying the law and sticking to the speed limit.

Hopefully we are not glimpsing the rather bizarre prospect of the effectiveness of cameras being judged by the numbers of people still driving too fast. Indeed, is a camera to be judged less effective if the numbers of prosecutions go down from one year to the next?

Its all passing strange. Perhaps just acknowledging that there is a need for enforcement of the law on speeding might be enough in other circumstances. Its hard to see the same debate about effectiveness going on about CCTV or other mechanisms which apparently can be deployed with impunity. But then it all depends on who are judged to be the victims and the perpetrators. In the case of speed cameras one can sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the main victims are those who are breaking the law.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Policing in your pocket

Surrey police today announced a new mobile phone app (apparently only available for iphones so tough if like me you are an android user!) called 'policing in your pocket'

It builds on the website which has been up and running for a few months providing detailed crime mapping statistics on line allowing citizens to look at the latest available data for their area for a variety of types of offence.

In large part the new app simply makes this data available on mobile devices but the point which really struck me in the press release and in the short explanatory film clip from a very avuncular Surrey policeman was the phrase 'there is also the opportunity ... to vote on local policing priorities'.

Is this really a good idea?

There has been much debate about the merits and shortcomings of the initiative. There are concerns (almost inevitable in any exercise of this kind) about accuracy, about how those viewing the data will choose to label areas (in worst case scenarios almost back to the highly moralistic judgements inherent in late 19th century mapping of communities in London by Charles Booth) and just how meaningful the data can be when there is no context about the nature of the crimes concerned.

There has also been some excellent debate about the effectiveness of the initiative in terms of the very good question - just what is it intended to achieve? A very good piece on this is on the Open Rights Group blog

If you put together the concerns about the data mapping itself; the unanswered question about what it is intended to achieve and the recent experience of public reaction to the major disorder suffered in many part of our largest cities and conurbations, have we really thought through the implications of encouraging people down the local pub or at dinner parties to use the new app to identify priorities? 

Clearly, people are already able and indeed encouraged to attend meetings at which local policing priorities are discussed and the app can be seen as making that sort of process far more accessible. Clearly too, the ultimate decision rests with the officers concerned. But am I alone in feeling nervous that this is likely to result in populist pressure for solutions without the benefit of having heard the debate that would take place at a meeting; without the opportunity to engage the beat team and others in more dialogue about particular problems in specific places rather than a generic response; and with the most likely reactions almost inevitably likely to focus on understandable fears about violent crime and burglary?

To go back to the termnology used in a previous post - better to think about using the app for crowdsourcing on solutions and dialogue rather than using it for purported decision making on priorities?

Or am I just a died in the wool classical republican (and former bureaucrat) with a deep rooted horror of anything that smacks of the arbitrary in decision making?!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Co-ordinating Council

A striking title and the subject of a stimulating event convened by the London Borough of Enfield in June (summarised recently in this article

The central 'who decides' question underpins most of the issues which were considered. Ultimately there are only a few options which have been the basis of much discussion in public policy circles in recent years: the politician, the professional, the community or the individual. A very sophisticated discussion of the role of each is set out in Barry Quirk's recent book (see presentation at

Accountability in the sphere which one would anticipate as being properly the province of the politician - choices between competing outcomes and the allocation of resources to meet them - is currently fractured between national and local and between different organisations at local or sub-regional level.

This fragmentation in what should be political decision making seems a critical problem for attempts to address the role and opportunities of a 'co-ordinating council'. One proposition which I made at the Enfield conference but which was largely side stepped in the discussion is for the development of a council executive which is a more genuinely multi-functional public service board.

This would involve directly or indirectly elected council executives with cross sector portfolios (health and social care, community safety and policing, education and employment etc). It moves the executive into being much more clearly an assembly for their area, avoids further silo accountability of the kind that is engendered by separately electing commissioners and the like and offers the possibility of giving effect to the underlying vision of more integrated and effective use of public resources that have underpinned the incremental movement through LSPs, LAAs, Total Place and Community Budgets but doing so in a way that goes beyond just managerialist or professional approaches.

Ideas of this kind are not new. Some huge questions have to be addressed. But for democratic localists surely this has to be considered as a way of making sense of the contradictions within the approaches currently being promoted.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Do 'people know better than politicians'?

The recent Open Public Services White Paper is, according to its authors, not based on ideology but driven by 'a belief that people know better than politicians'. Given public outrage over MPs expenses and phone hacking one might be tempted to nod in agreement. Politicians ethical compass has been very wonky indeed in recent years. 

But one can go further. This sort of claim or assertion has become increasingly commonplace across the political spectrum not just out of some self abasement to public concern about ethics but also from  arguments about the role and need for the apparatus of the state itself. 

So such a thoroughgoing statement  deserves a lot more scrutiny. Taken to its logical conclusion it would support huge changes in the way that we govern ourselves. Our politicians may have a lot to be ashamed about but that is mainly about how they have played their role rather than what they are there to do in a representative democracy.

With apologies for a quick diversion into classical antiquity, Western democracies still derive some of their ideals from the reforms introduced by Cleisthenes in 6th century Athens intended to break up the power of the old aristocratic families and subject the boule (the council of 50) to the supreme authority of the ecclesia (the assembly of all the citizens). The notion was that the ecclesia would meet sufficiently frequently to deal with any important state matter.

Since then much time and effort has been spent on the arguments about the roles of more representative and more participative forms of democracy. Modern democracies strike the balance in a rather different way to the ideals proposed in 6th century Athens. Most of us would view that as a necessary thing if only as a matter of scale but whether it is a good thing has become subject to more debate in recent years (referendums being an issue that arouses particular passions).

There have also been various modish (not to say faddish) ideas about the 'wisdom of crowds' and 'crowdsourcing' which have generated interest among (elected) politicians. At the risk of misrepresenting what each of these mean my twopenneth is that the wisdom of crowds suggests that the aggregation of independent individual views will produce a better outcome than leaving it up to experts; crowdsourcing on the other hand suggests a rather more practically based approach that it is possible for decision makers and others to tap into a wider pool of knowledge and secure a better outcome as a result.

The seductive attractions of the wisdom of crowds is clear for those seeking to argue that the formal apparatus of decision making, experts, bureaucracies and, yes, politicians can be slimmed down (or indeed removed). Free individuals can do it themselves provided that those pesky interruptions to the free play of ideas don't corrupt the process thereby, one is tempted to say, crowding out the crowd.

There are well acknowledged isues about how well participative techniques can move on from more practical solution orientated crowdsourcing to more deliberative decision making. Councils up and down the land have arrangements ranging from citizen panels to participatory budgeting in place. But they still need politicians however strong the input from their communities.

The reason why it is more complicated than the view of the people being better than that of the politicians arises from the simple fact that different people think different things. The reason that we elect people is to make decisions where there is a need to make choices between competing interests, whether those are the interests of individuals or of sections of the community. That is the very stuff of politics. We expect decision making to be done properly and we have rules in place to ensure that it is free from corruption and undue influence. But we need decision makers.

Certainly, decisions should be subject to proper scrutiny and be improved by informed analysis. 'Which' is expert at presenting the perspective of the consumer and many of us have a good deal of sympathy with much of what it says. But it is self selecting. It has no wider legitimacy. Nor do any of the other organisations which have been touted as having a role to play in holding public bodies to account. They hold sectional viewpoints, many of which are far more capable of being disputed than the views expressed by 'Which'.

But there is a role for a modern form of the ecclesia. It is captured well in the recent proposal from Compass and NEF for a People's Jury at the national scale to help 'tame the feral elites' (one suspects Cleisthenes is nodding in sympathy). The aim is to help put the public interest ahead of sectional interests. The output from the Jury would be a clear statement of the tests that could be applied when judgements are being made about what are at root ethical decisions which should be made by the politicians without fear or favour in terms of the media, financial or other interests. This seems to me to place responsibilty correctly. Decisions are still being made by politicians but with a clear grounding in a considered, researched and properly discussed view from people drawn from across Britain to help guide them and gird them.

This is the ecclesia working with politicians to keep in check the sectional interests that always seek more and more power. That Cleisthenes knew a thing or two.