Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of the year - the blog

I'm doing these two posts the wrong way round mainly because this is the easier one to right. The premise of these two posts are it's a year since I started in my present job and I started this blog at pretty much the same time. The second post will reflect on my academic development and interests, but this will focus on the blog itself.

In numbers, the popularity of this humble, and rather mediocre, blog has been beyond my wildest dreams. As I'm writing this on the 31 December the blog has had a total of 3,148 hits on its 35 posts. Nearly a third of that traffice has been in the last month with 1,039 hits. It says a lot that the number one generator of traffic has been Twitter. I've luckily had the opportunity to use my twitter account (@urbaneprofessor) to build a strong network over the past year and this means that the links to my blog I tweet quickly get picked up and retweeted by others. For example, my most viewed post is my cyclists' rant on "Child Murder"  which was retweeted by the psychology researcher and specialist on bike helmets at the University of Bath, Ian Walker. It must've touched a nerve with many cyclists groups as it was quickly retweeted and made it back to some other writers who knew a lot more about the "Stop Child Murder" campaign (see comments below). It was also retweeted by cyclists groups in Edinburgh attracting a local audience.

I don't actually understand why my second most-read post is the most read, my most recent post: Why the National Performance Framework is not boring and we should obsess about it and critique it (224 hits and growing by the second). The Blogger stats don't give me much detail about where the traffic is coming from, although I have my suspicions. I mentioned it to a Civil Servant I was chatting to and when the big peak in traffic to the post happened it was mainly from Internet Explorer. Left-wingers and academics being who they are most of my traffic comes from Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and I know the Scottish Government uses IExplorer so I suspect the traffic came from there. If you have read it, can you let me know, as am intrigued. Given I still get fairly small amounts of traffic from Russia and India, I'm presuming it's not bots reading it.

Anyway, given it was the sort of post that I wanted to write when I set up this blog I'm actually quite chuffed that it has been so well read. The other reason I thought I'd get value out of blogging was engaging with other academics. One of the most rewarding examples of this recently was my discussion about a possible final paper I'm thinking of extracting from my PhD thesis, here. If you look at the one comment, it was the productive Twitter exchange afterwards that I really valued. I'm going to make time to write this paper in the New Year. In a similar vein was my third most read post, my hexperiment in crowd-sourcing my Pathways to Impact Statement for my ESRC Future Leaders bid (212 views) which was picked up by the LSE Impact blog (and made a lot less of an impact over there!)

During the year I was also glad that STV Edinburgh picked up on my tweets about the project management farce that is the Edinburgh Tram and led to this comment piece for their website that signally failed to elicit the comments of any anti-tram interwebs trolls. And anyway, it's a high speed light rail system, not a tram.

So, all in all I'm glad I started this blog. I know really understand the power of Twitter in promoting academic blogging and I'm hoping in the New Year that I will still have time to Tweet and blog. It seems the road to academic Hell is littered with the remains of blogs of good intentions. What does the New Year have in store for you, the reader? Well, my PI Annette Hastings and myself submitted our realist synthesis of middle class community activism in time to the AHRC on time. We're just waiting for them to publish our short report online and then I'll probably start blogging about that a lot more. Similarly, if the Gods are looking favourably and my ESRC Future Leaders bid on middle class citizen-initiated contacting is successful then you'll hear more about that. I'm also part of two AHRC Connected Communities follow-on projects, and the project focused on Wester Hailes will definitely be making an appearance on these pages. Finally, I'm teaching two courses this coming semester, so expect some random posts on topics as diverse as equalities, environmental justice and waste management tagged SocSus and UrbanIM that I will be using as teaching material.

We also have some important news stories on the agenda for me that I'll try to mention on here. The most important of which is the 2012 local government elections in Scotland. Two things of specific interest here - will the LibDems be destroyed as a political force in Scotland, even with an electoral system (STV) that favours them? And will the SNP win the major cities (Glasgow in particular) and become the dominant force in Scotttish politics for the next decade. At the moment I suspect the answer to both is yes and yes. As the economy slides into recession again and the coffers run even drier at Westminster and Holyrood, the other big question is how this translates spatially and whether the positive outcomes of devolution, regional policy and regeneration policy will slide backwards to the dark days of 1981-1995?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Why the National Performance Framework is not boring and we should obsess about it and critique it

The Scottish Government’s been busy in its first few months of office. As well as the Anti-Sectarianism Act, which has even made the news in Engerland, we’ve had a budget, this week’s Regeneration Strategy and the Cities Strategy is on its way. However, the Big Thing for me was the announcement on Wednesday of a refreshed National Performance Framework (NPF). This hasn’t received much attention; in fact as one of my Twitter followers put it: “ooh National Indicators *squeee*”

The NPF was launched as part of the SNP minority Scottish Government’s first budget in 2007. I heard the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth (to give him his full title) John Swinney MSP describe it as his “greatest achievement”. It didn’t receive much attention then, but it really matters. To give an idea of this, the central “Purpose” of the NPF is:
“To focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.

My emphasis added. Why? Because this is about all public services. Community Planning Partnerships, led by local authorities, including health boards, the Police, Fire and Rescue Service, third sector and private sector have to agree Single OutcomeAgreements with the Scottish Government describing how they will work to achieve the NPF and their priorities within it.  All QUANGOs, NDPBs and other agencies have to include how they will meet national outcomes in their business plans and other strategies.

I worked on the outcome focus a lot in my time as a Civil Servant with the Scottish Government. The “outcome focus” in public management came from experience in America (usually at State level) and New Zealand in the 1990s, where the output focus was making government activity measureable but still wasn’t producing effects on society. The idea now has evangelists; in global organisations like the World Bank; and also policy entrepreneurs like Mark Friedman, who made a big impact in services for children and young peoplein the last Labour UK Government. Scotland itself did the policy transfer from the Commonwealth Virginia and the “Virginia Performs” site; we have the “ScotlandPerforms” scorecard. I understand why it’s so beguiling. As Mark Friedman points out, if you set out your aims in a clear and obvious way, linked to indicators then you will make a difference. Especially as you can measure it. Scotland has actually been at it for years. 

The old Scottish Executive took to using outcome agreements to performance manage ring-fence funding streams, including the BetterNeighbourhood Services Fund (2001), the Community Regeneration Fund (2005-8), and Community Safety Fund. The NPF was being drafted by Civil Servants in Saint Andrew’s House from autumn 2006, before the SNP victory in May 2007. The original just had 14 outcomes (didn’t have the one on national identity), each of which was linked to a target and an indicator.

I have three problems with the outcomes approach. Firstly, it doesn’t work on many levels. For example, in New Zealand the focus on marginal budget changes to fund swanky projects that might produce an outcome led to Government departments forgetting to do things like run schools and hospitals. The move to performance budgeting, or outcome budgeting, was the Holy Grail for the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee, among others, kept asking for it. The basic intellectual challenge was how do you buy one “we live longer healthier lives”? It seems, by building an enormous measurement bureaucracy. Scotland kind of went down this line with the vast amounts of time and effort spent on the local indicators project. There’s also a lot of waffle in the evangelists’ literature about how outcomes matter because people understand them. This is why we should have scorecards to engage people. The fact that nobody outside certain groups of public sector workers and politicians in Scotland knows about, or fully understands, the NPF and outcome approach shows what complete and utter bollocks this is. This is still managerialism of the worst sort. 

Secondly, in classic NPM way, it depoliticises policy making. It takes “what matters is what works” to a terrifying conclusion. What matters is meeting the outcome. For example, the outcome “We have tackled the significant inequalities in Scottish society” is meant to be predominantly met by meeting the Solidarity Purpose Target of increasing the proportion of income earned by the lowest three deciles. However, Alex Salmond believes we can do this without redistributive taxation. The limits to Holyrood’s power also mean that the way we’re going to meet many of the outcomes is through “early intervention” which I’ve already expressed my discomfort at. Technically if you have an outcomes approach you don’t actually need policies and strategies. You just work towards your outcomes. They are your strategy. This has kind of come true in Scotland with the three social policy frameworks, Achieving OurPotential, The Early Years Framework and Equally Well. These are just vague guides as to how the Scottish Government and it's "partners" will go about meeting their outcomes forever more and day. You can’t disagree with an outcome, so you can’t have political debate about them. And what’s worrying is this is why, I think, Civil Servants in Victoria Quay and Saint Andrew’s House like them so much. I also think it's no accident that the biggest governmental supporters of the outcomes approach are Republican Governors in the US and right wing governments elsewhere in the world.

Finally is a lazy Foucauldian argument. Come on, look at it, the Scottish Government want to change the whole country no matter what. In terms of governmentality the critique writes itself. I did some work on national outcome 8: “We have improved the life chances for children, young people and families at risk” (N.B. you’re not supposed to number them, as they’re all equally important) and used to joke with colleagues that we don’t have “NEETs” or “NEDs” but “national outcome 8s”. All policy Civil Servants in the Scottish Government would turn up to meetings with their A4 laminated copy of the NPF to make sure they were meeting outcomes. This is a lazy argument, but it also highlights why it’s difficult to implement – although it is supposed to elide politics, since it is combined with the Council Tax freeze it’s actually acerbating national-local tensions. Basically, if you sorted out health outcomes in Glasgow you’d solve Scotland’s problem with “longer healthier lives”, but Glasgow Council are more interested in a good start for their kids. If you taxed the oil magnates of Aberdeen, Scotland wouldn’t have “significant inequalities” to be tackled. Orkney doesn’t have crime; the local newspaper leads on stories like “local man falls off wall” (can't find the original article, but it did exist). Their SOA entry for the national outcome “We live our lives safe from crime, disorder and danger” just makes me laugh.

Having said all this, I do really like the new, sixteenth national outcome: “Our people are able to maintain their independence as they get older and are able to access appropriate support when they need it”.

This is basically a cut-down version of a paper I wrote earlier this year for a special issue of a journal on Scottish social policy after devolution. It got rejected because I don’t know enough of the “theory” (I wasn’t referencing the most up-to-the-minute articles on the subject) and the reviewers took issue with my “ethnography” of reporting as a former Civil Servant. But I do feel the NPF and the outcome-approach in Scotland does need critiquing from academe. It cannot just be dismissed as “performance management” or another boring incarnation of the NPM. If we’re not careful then the will to “meet outcomes” could become state injustice and violence against individuals and families because it meets Scotland’s ambitions to “flourish”.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Plus ca change?

I popped through to Glasgow this morning to the launch of Scotland’s new regeneration strategy Achieving a Sustainable Future. They got the Cabinet Secretary of Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil MSP to present it. So here’s my initial thoughts. Bear in mind I’m writing this 20 minutes after I left the event and I’ve not read the dotted I’s and crossed T’s.

The good things

Scotland has a regeneration strategy. As my post on my academic existential crisis pointed out, the fact that regeneration is not the flavour du jour in austerity Britain was a concern for me. But Scotland still has the urban problems that regeneration policy, from the launch of the Paisley Community Development Project in 1972 onwards, have attempted to tackle – long-term unemployment, concentrations of poverty and deprivation in poor housing, vacant and derelict land. Chatting to a couple of people afterwards there was disappointment that it wasn’t a strategy – it doesn’t seem to contain much. But I’d argue it is a strategy – it highlights how the other Scottish Government policies, policy frameworks and strategies are contributing to regeneration and focuses the public services and investment on regeneration defined as “the holistic process of reversing the economic, physical and social decline of places where market forces alone won’t suffice.”

And not only do we have a strategy, but we have some money too. Not very much (more of that later) but we do. Another nice thing, although they rationalised the funding streams for regeneration, they have clearly demarcated hat some of that is for “People and Communities” (revenue) and some (most) of it is for capital investment.

The Minister’s speech and response to questions was very positive too. He argued that the present economic difficulties made regeneration even more important, as trickle-down (he didn’t say that, but said the “drip drip down”) doesn’t work and there was a need to get good job into our most deprived communities. In line with this he also highlighted how the coalitions benefit “reforms” (cuts) are going to make things a lot more difficult as they reduce investment in communities without providing the jobs needed for people. The aim of the Scottish Government was to fill the resulting funding gap by helping to create work through infrastructure investment.

In the text of the document there’s some very positive language about not talking about “problem” places as well. However, the Minister explained that he didn’t want to “repeat the mistakes of the past”.  As with Alasdair Rae, and many others, I agree that most of the mistakes of the past have been about very poor definition of the problem to be tackled by regeneration policy.

There was an interesting rhetorical flourish used to define the problem on a national basis. In a typical SNP way, the Minister highlighted that if we can successful “turn around” the communities then all of Scotland’s indicators will be improved.

The bad points

It’s not very much money. It’s been a long-term criticism of regeneration that the relatively small amounts of regeneration funding were never large enough to make sustained, dramatic change. Even the old Scottish Executive Community Regeneration Fund was £345 millions over three years, which was a whopping 0.5% of the Executive’s total managed expenditure for the spending review period. The funding announced today was: £7.9 millions for the People and Communities Fund (combining Wider Role funding and others) although I’m not sure if this is per annum, but I suspect not; £75 million for the Capital Investment Fund over three years, of which £48 millions has been allocated to the Urban Regeneration Companies (including £3 millions found for Irvine Bay and Riverside Inverclyde to stop them becoming complete disasters). Overall, it’s not very much at all, but the strategy contains the usual comments about partnership working and targeted services and investment. We’re in a better place now than we were 20 or 30 years ago in tailoring services to match needs, but we still have a long way to go. And this is in a context where the Scottish Government is estimating £600 millions will be lost to the Scottish economy from the UK Government benefit changes.

There was also something that was deeply problematic for me in the Minister’s speech. He emphasised how the money was going to communities and essentially set up an antagonism between communities, local authorities and the “consultants” – this was the key mistake of the past. I can imagine a lot of people in Scotland thinking this is utterly fantastic news. This was problematic for me as it burdens communities with their own problems. He highlighted how the Government saw Community Development Trusts as a key way to regenerate communities and I presume the new Amber Spruce investment fund is meant to facilitate these. Yet these and similar models require a great deal of skill and resources to get going. They’re not going to help a chaotic drug user to stabilise their lives. We need the big bureaucracies of the public services to deliver the everyday services in deprived neighbourhoods that are desperately needed. My soon to be revealed review highlighted how effective the middle classes are at capturing the state’s resources for themselves. I suspect the likes of community development trusts are going to be of greatest benefit to communities that can benefit most from them.

This brings me back to the Minister’s appeal to national identity to drive regeneration. As with the “Closing the Gap” strategy of the former Scottish Executive, the focus on the most deprived neighbourhoods places blame and burden on them. It ignores our role, in affluent neighbourhoods in producing concentrations of deprivation.

My other issue is the Scottish Government’s focus on early intervention. The Minister cited the work of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns on how the stress of poverty affects long term outcomes for children from a very young age – well to be precise about what the Minister was saying, from before birth – and so this is where we need investment. This is very laudable, but like the previous UK Labour government’s focus on child poverty, it avoids the fact that these foetuses being discussed are actually inside a woman. Are to expect women in Scotland to report to their local “Early Intervention” centre when they’re vaguely thinking about getting pregnant? I’d say we need investment in lives throughout their course so the families that these children are part of are stable and supportive environments.

It's interesting as well that there will be a Scottish Cities Strategy launched this year too. I'd like to think this represented the Scottish Government taking urban problems very seriously indeed. However, the political cynic just thinks it's the SNP wanting to win control of Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and possibly even Edinburgh council's in next year's election to shore up their vote prior to the independence referendum.
A final thought – the launch was proceeded by  a networking event. There must’ve been half a dozen women among the crowd of middle-aged, white Scottish men and most of these were Scottish Government staff. And of course all the men knew each other. It was a threatening environment. I’d forgotten this aspect of Scottish regeneration community. One thing has changed in five years since I started my research on Scottish regeneration, these men aren’t all talking about “the match” (usually in deeply, if not implicitly, sectarian terms)  when I entered the room.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Strategic partnership working

Well my post on vulnerable road users is now my most viewed, with 235 hits in three days. Thanks to all who retweeted.

My post on academic navel-gazing was *ahem*, less popular.

But that post was cathartic for me and it got me thinking about a possible last paper from my doctoral research. So, people, would you be interested in this?:

The governance and governmentality of strategic partnership working: interpreting local knowledge of modern local government


It is widely acknowledged that we have now moved to a networked polity where governance networks are required for all levels of government to achieve their aims. One of the key aims of governments now is to develop strategic partnerships solve wicked issues. This paper presents an interpretive policy analysis of strategic partnership working in Scotland – Community Planning Partnerships – to address three issues. Firstly, to demonstrate the historical contingency of “joined-up government”; secondly to explore the practices and meanings used by policy actors to understand strategic and partnerships. Finally the article problematises this culture, suggesting the presumption that joined-up working is part of what we do is actually a barrier to effective partnership working.

The paper would fit into the work on the interpretive stance in political science and policy analysis of Dvora Yanow and (my new favourites) Bevir and Rhodes.

Taking a historical stance would involve me highlighting the continuity and changes between the "corporate approach" of the 1970s, the "strategic approach" of the 1980s and "strategic partnership working" in the 2000s.

The policy actors bit is my empirical stuff about how policy-makers conceive of "partnership" and "strategic" through meanings and some very bizarre practices at meetings. And this would segue onto a critique, drawing in my other two articles in press, as to how this disengages local communities and actually papers over the cracks in the logic of partnership working.

Or has the stable-door been well and truly bolted in these days of austerity, community budgeting, single outcome agreements and outcome budgeting?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Child murder

I've avoided ranting too much about my life as a vulnerable road user - I commute using my bike. Part of this is because I'm scared that the hatred I experience from drivers on the roads will be transferred into trolling on my blog if I'm ever honest about how I feel. When I'm feeling pretty crappy as a road user I basically assume that if I continue to use my bike to commute I will be severely disabled or killed with an "accident" with a car. That my two worst accidents to date have been caused by pedestrians has been fluke.

This post was going around my head on Saturday night as I drifted off to sleep. I was going to avoid writing it today. But this morning the BBC News website posted this map of a decade's worth of road casualties on Britain's roads. Our roads are relatively safe, but still "a total of 36,371 people were killed on Britain's roads between 1999 and 2010". A similar map was posted by the Guardian a month-or-so back. This included the age of the victim as well as what they were doing. It turned out that the slaughter in my neighbourhood of Edinburgh was of elderly women and young people. We regularly allow the most vulnerable in our society to be killed and this is not a national scandal.

The reason I've decided to write this blog post was this story about a seven-year-old in Dalkeith, south of Edinburgh. More of that later.

A wee while back, this Youtube video, on how the Dutch got their bike infrastructure was doing the rounds of the cycling forums and Twitter

The whole video is quite interesting. I'd like to get the inside story from a Dutch transport researcher, but it's an inspiring tale of the campaigning of vulnerable road users creating a very positive outcome for transport policy. What particularly caught my eye was one of the banners a parent is holding a 2'34" "Stop Kinder Moord"; "Stop Child Murder". You can't get much more matter of fact than that?

It's similar to the famous, "Kill Your Speed, Not a Child" road safety adverts in the UK:

Except, it's not. Watching these public information films, if I was a parent I would think "Well, I drive at 35mph to get my child to school on time, so it's not as if I can trust any other driver. I must put my child in the car, so they are safe". Or even, "well, it's the stupid child's fault for running out in the road". So, I don't think these adverts have the right impact. They just make us all scared of the car and run to the car for safety.

It doesn't work for a second reason. "Kill your speed, not a child" avoids blame. I ate a chicken for my dinner yesterday that had to be killed for me to eat it. I didn't kill the chicken. The weasel verb "kill" without a pronoun avoids blame. Anyone/thing can kill by accident. "Stop Child Murder" puts the blame somewhere else - on cars. It is cars that are murdering children. Not their speed. Or an "accident".

And this brings me back to the poor seven-year-old in Dalkeith. The BBC report that he "he ran out in front of a car". If you look at where the accident happened on Google Streetview I don't blame the boy at all. It's a suburban street, surrounded by houses, with a 20mph speed limit, by a bus stop.He was seven. I've seen enough adults walk out in a much busier main road not looking at oncoming traffic, let alone a child who's at the age where if he hit someone so badly they were injured he would find himself in front of a very concerned Children's Panel wondering what had gone wrong with his upbringing. 

Yet it was an "accident". This is what I find inspiring about the Dutch case and the message of "Stop child murder" - it seems to have disrupted and changed the whole discourse around transport policy and stopped it being a car-centric discourse of "accidents" that just happen. No, cars kill people. That's the policy problem we need to solve.

6 December edit:  Well, this is fast becoming my most read post. Thanks all! And do check out David Hembrow's blog and his links in his comment below about the "Stop Child Murder" campaign in the Netherlands.

Friday, 2 December 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front? Academic navel-gazing

Oops, I've not posted for nearly a month. One thing I've noticed as I've ventured into this world of academic blogging is that there is definitely a genre that people (myself included) follow - basically academic insights on current issues, usually reporting some research findings, usually a little bit political and seeking "impact". You very rarely get academic blogs that go for other blog discourse genres, such as humour, or what I'm going to do here - the confessional. For years I kept a blog up-to-date over at the old skool blogging tool Livejournal, which was pretty much set up for the confessional blog.

But that say's a lot about what this post is going to be about - my last post was all about regeneration policy and the CLG Committee report. Since then I've been busy wrapping up my middle-class community activism project and attended a couple of interesting conferences (Urban Geography Research Group in Edinburgh, and a Regional Studies event on strategic housing supply at the University of Manchester).

And I'm left in a bit of an existential crisis. I've spent the past two months bashing out course notes for distance learning and have probably written more (some of which is of dubious quality) over the past few months than I've ever done in my life. I've had two papers rejected. I've got two papers I'm waiting to hear back about. And I've got three research council proposals and a government grant I'm waiting to hear back about. I'm in limbo, but the CLG committee report, the latest stuff in academic journals, and the conferences have left me thinking that my particularly topic of greatest research strength, urban regeneration (specifically programmes like the New Deal for Communities) is dead. In fact, this was why I did my doctoral research on it and a point I make in a paper I have actually had accepted. Government no longer has the money, nor wishes, to invest in programmes like this any more. I'm sure in a few years time when the spatial concentrations of unemployment that the current coalition is creating become unmanageable we will see the return of area-based initiatives, and the likes of me and other academics will do what us academics have done since 1975 (at least) and point out they don't work.

So, what to do with myself? Part of this is due to having my confidence knocked by the paper rejections. I do just have to find the time to rework these and submit them to a couple of other journals. I also think I need to do one more article from my PhD; this would untangle what is meant by "strategic" and "partnership" from a governance and governmentality perspective (Mark Bevir [my new favourite] recent paper has helped inspire this). I also need to keep banging my drum and keep the ball rolling on focusing our research gaze on concentrations of affluence as well as deprivation. I'm also increasingly interested in marine renewables and marine spatial planning, and transport policy and discourses and meanings within that. But to get up to speed on these areas I'm going to have to read a helluva lot more and I just don't have the time.

So here ends my confessional. Like all good confessionals I actually feel better for having emptied my mind onto the page. By the way, if you like the paper idea above please let me know, it'll will encourage me to start writing again. So, to return to my original point, why don't we get confessional academic blogs? I've just been doing a piece of coursework - my reflections on teaching practice - for my postgraduate certificate in academic practice. In it I highlight how modern, managerial discourses of higher education frame our approach to teaching and learning even though we actively resist them. And I think the same insight applies here. The discourse of academia is the heroic early-career researcher working 18 hour days to carve their niche, never admitting that they've actually just not got the time to do things, or that they want to have a life outside of academia. Being honest that "I don't care if you've got more research grant income or more citations than me" isn't really the done thing in academia, is it?