The End of a Journey (almost)

Finally, after nearly 5 years I have submitted my thesis. It was never meant to take this long and it has been quite a challenge. But I’m on the final stage of the journey now, waiting and preparing for my viva (Feb next year), whilst also taking some time out to do other things. There’s a lot about doing a PhD that is fun and interesting, I enjoyed most of it. I love writing and making sense of information, talking to people, finding out what is happening and why, and then crafting that information into something that is understandable and readable. It was a challenge for me because I’m more of a practitioner than an academic, I came into this after 25 years of doing policy and strategy for different charities and business organisations. I spent a lot of that time writing, but for non academic audiences, so moving into the academic world was a whole different discipline with a different language to understand. I met some great people along the way, who gave up their time for me during my research, to be part of it and to help me with it. I was lucky that so many people were willing to participate and support me for so long.

When I first started my PhD people used to ask what my research was about, now the question I get asked is – what did you find out, what does your research say? That’s always the trickiest question to answer. I found out so much throughout the process – about myself, about other people, about doing research, about what others have written, about different theories – and only some of it found its way into the thesis. it would be impossible to cover everything!

My research questions were as follows:

How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?

  • How are political manifestos developed and how are priorities decided?
  • How do candidates prioritise their engagement with different actors?
  • Who do they listen to and why?

Who is trying to influence the agenda and how?

  • Who are the main actors trying to influence the election agenda?
  • What tactics and strategies do those actors use to get attention?
  • What keeps issues on the candidate’s agenda or raises them up/down that agenda?

My research used Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF) to explore the issues and develop my findings. I used housing policy as the basis for discussion and developed the MSF to provide an understanding of how mayoral candidates set their priorities pre- and post-election. The impetus for the study came from an interest in why some issues grab policy makers’ attention whilst others do not and how priorities are set during an election process. It stemmed from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections play in framing policy agendas, the role and impact of different influencers, as well as how politicians make decisions about priorities when time is limited.

The research rests on three basic premises. Firstly, using housing policy as the focus for attention was justified as it was widely acknowledged thatthere was a housing crisis in the UK generally and at a local level in Bristol more specifically. It was also a time of constant, ad hoc policy change at national, sub national and local level.

The second basic premise of the research was that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only core city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor in the city referendums held across England in 2012. Bristol it seemed had a particular set of local circumstances that led to this vote, including perceptions of unstable local leadership with constant changes in political control and leaders, and a lack of visibility, with the council frequently criticised for being inward looking.

Thirdly, an understanding of how issues get onto, and move up and down, the policy agenda during a period of political change at a local level is an area of research that has not received particularly extensive attention over the years. The focus of much agenda setting research is either at a national level or is historically focused, looking back at how a decision was taken or a policy change generated over a longer time period. My research looked at local agenda setting as it happened, at a moment in time, and sought to understand why it was happening, who or what was influencing the process and how those under influence responded and reacted. It focused on an election period where there was a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness were likely to be greater than at most other times.

The research considered how, in Kingdon’s terms, a predictable window opened in the politics stream as the election began, and how the streams came together as party agendas were produced and diverged again once the election was over, as a new, smaller window opened before the new mayoral decision agenda was set. The research identified how mayoral candidates operated across the streams, seeking ideas and solutions, from within and outside of the party system. It also highlighted the strategies and tactics used by policy entrepreneurs to bring their issues to the attention of the candidates. It identified key stages in the process where the opportunities for influence were greatest and where agendas were set.

I came up with my own diagram to highlight the process, it’s a combination of the MSF and the stages model of the policy process. I may do a more detailed blog on what this all means:

Final Drawing Discussion Final.jpg

My research drew conclusions on who and what influences the agenda before, during and after an election and demonstrated the role local political parties and policy entrepreneurs play in party and decision agendas. It illustrated how coalitions and networks bring opportunities for greater influence to the individuals and groups involved in them. The research also demonstrated the benefit of bringing solutions alongside problems, as local actors displayed a willingness to work with the council to achieve more desirable outcomes in the delivery of affordable housing in Bristol.

I identified the types of strategies and tactics people and organisations used to try and influence the candidates, using the work of Cairney (2018) and Aviram et al (2019) as a framework:

  • Positive engagement: get to know the candidates and decision makers, use existing connections, professional credibility and reputation, demonstrate willingness to work in partnership;
  • Framing a problem: understand how best to position an issue, use emotional connections and stories from real people to demonstrate impacts;
  • Indicators and evidence: provide clear, accurate data to demonstrate the extent of a problem. Use simple visuals to highlight a problem. Simplify research information into short briefings. Suggest targets for candidates to include. Engage with others to present the extent of a problem.
  • Providing solutions: understand the cause of a problem and provide a range of solutions, and offer to be part of the solution;
  • Networking: join with others, coalitions of interest, policy communities, network of interests inside and outside of government;
  • Triggering events: use crises and events to focus attention. The election itself provided that opportunity;
  • Media attention: tap into the public mood, maximize size of audience, use media to promote policy and attract attention to an issue. Use of publicity stunts, visuals and stories attract media and public attention;
  • Salami Tactics: divide policy into stages, provide less risky steps towards policy change, simply the problem and the solution to make it more accessible and acceptable.

I plan to write a more detailed briefing note to send out to all those involved in my research, highlighting the more practical elements of my findings.

The challenge and complexity of cities

The Bristol Festival of the Future City presented the opportunity to learn more about the complex and challenging issues facing our cities. It was a week long event with many talks, discussions and presentations about a whole range of topics, some familiar, others less so. It was a week where Bristol was bursting at the seams with eminent speakers from across the globe, including academics, journalists, politicians, novelists, poets and commentators, all with something different to contribute.

I attended a number of events during the week, all of which provided insight, interest and challenge. I deliberately chose a mix of events to go to, to broaden my own horizons. I also chose to go and listen to some speakers I hadn’t heard before as well as some I was far more familiar with. There was certainly a lot of choice and on many an occasion I found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at the same time.

Rather than writing about one specific talk, I thought I’d draw out some of the themes that seemed to crop up across discussions and debates around the social policy issues relevant to cities. There were many more talks, covering many other issues about future cities, smart cities and technology, environmental and health issues, which I won’t cover here, as I didn’t attend those events. The themes I draw out are consistent themes that will inevitably be raised when discussing the challenges we face in our cities – the need for vision, city governance, housing and homelessness, and social mobility. I’ll touch on each of these briefly to explore some of the issues that came up and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

When it comes to vision there appears to be an increasing need for policy makers and politicians to think short, medium and long term, in a coherent and coordinated manner. However, whilst we seem well able to think in the moment and make short-term decisions, this is all too frequently done without any reference to the future impact or consequences of those decisions. What is lacking is a process of forward planning and thinking, like the visionaries of the past, who often thought about our cities and urban areas in a more creative and innovative way. As Sir Mark Walport put it in his presentation at the Launch event for the Festival, “thinking about the future can shape the future”. Without that future thinking we risk leaving the growth and development of our cities to an ad hoc, messy process of short termism and disjointed thinking, which leaves us well short of the creativity and innovation that is both needed and possible. The question is, do we have the ability, desire and bravery to unleash the potential of our cities?

The discussion around city governance was perhaps inevitable, particularly given the recent introduction of the Mayoral model in Bristol and recent announcements in other cities of devolution deals with metro mayors and combined authorities being established as the norm. City governance is undoubtedly changing at quite a pace, pushed along by central government to a central agenda, which according to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is driven by the need to reverse a century of centralisation to ‘return power to every part of our nation’.

IMG_0058

He talked about the devolution deals as having ‘swept away required uniformity’, about a dynamic, competitive process to allow local strengths and local priorities to shine through. Despite this several commentators referred to the similarities and common ground found in many of the deals, with only small differences being identified around local projects amongst an overall uniformity of approach. This suggests, perhaps, that the vision, ambition and big ideas that need to be generated in our cities are not quite there yet. The reality of government processes and bureaucracy appears to be a long way short of some of the rhetoric? What did come across very clear was the notion that English local government structures are becoming very messy. Imagine a process of trying to explain to a group of foreign politicians or students how local government works, what the structure is and who takes decisions, and you might find it takes a very long time. We have unitary, country and district authorities; we have combined authorities with metro mayors to come; we have directly elected mayors running some councils, whilst others are run by leaders and cabinets, others still have reverted to the ‘old style’ committee system. It’s an ad hoc picture with seemingly no real coherence or commitment to a future uniformity.

IMG_0060

Whilst housing is becoming one of the most important issues for our cities to deal with, the changing government agenda is perhaps providing greater restrictions on the options and opportunities for local government to tackle local housing problems, as the emphasis is pushed further and further towards the ultimate goal of home ownership. Despite this, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces of dysfunctional housing markets, and the lack of affordability, lack of supply and lack of choice this creates. In Bristol, and elsewhere, much of the conversation about housing quickly focuses in on a small number of issues that perhaps local government can do something about. Indeed, the Mayor of Bristol, in his State of the City address delivered at the end of the Festival, made reference to Bristol’s housing problem, with solutions based around releasing public land for housing and the increasing problem of homelessness in the city. There are of course many more housing issues that need tackling and a range of solutions that are required to provide decent, affordable homes for those that need them. Solutions that provide real choices, rather than forcing people down a particular route they may not wish to travel. Much of this process of providing solutions and choices is however seemingly out of the hands of local government and instead rests with central government, where social housing for rent is fast becoming a thing of the past, and affordable housing means ‘affordable’ to buy. The question remains about what local government can do to address the very real problems faced in their areas and what scope they have to be creative and innovative about housing solutions.

IMG_0045

A final theme running through many of the debates, as well as the focus of some particular talks, is the issue of social mobility, or social immobility as one speaker termed it. Perhaps unusually, one of the discussions on this issue began with comments about redefining the issue, of the need to talk about social mobility alongside planning, design and transport with an understanding that how poverty is distributed around a city makes a real difference to the functioning of that city. All too often, the people with the least economic stability, living in the greatest poverty, are pushed to the edges of our cities, into peripheral estates, isolated from the wealth of the city. Our perceptions of cities and the way we feel about them are shaped by how we experience them. If our experience is one of isolation, exclusion and poverty, then our perception of the city is likely to be a negative one, where our desire is likely to be one of ‘escaping’ rather than staying. The focus soon shifted to the debate about barriers to social mobility not just being physical or economic, but also psychological, where ‘glass walls’ in people’s own heads stop them making progress. Marvin Rees made the point that to talk about social immobility means we have to talk about the people at the top as well as the people at the bottom, only then can we understand what the problem really is. Social mobility issues were discussed not as an accidental fallout of ‘the system’ but more as a manufactured, institutional part of a system that is needed to make it work, where there are the inevitable winners and losers, but where the starting position is anything but equal. The depressing conclusion to much this discussion was that the lack of social mobility in the UK is a problem that never goes away as the relationship between class and place hasn’t and won’t change, indeed if anything, it’s getting worse.

I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and discussions throughout the week that drew out the challenge and complexity of cities, which sought to provide linkages between and across issues and disciplines, looking to the future for solutions and ideas. The challenge is there to decision makers, policy makers and politicians to have the vision, creativity and bravery to grapple with the issues and develop big ideas and bold visions for the future of our cities.

What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.

Mayors, Elections and Voters!

The issue of how to improve local leadership and reinvigorate local democracy has been on the political agenda for some time. Both Conservative and Labour politicians have promoted the idea of directly elected mayors as part of the solution to the perceived problems of the more traditional committee system of local government. The mayoral model is premised on the assumption that local councils need a figurehead, to provide clear, accountable local leadership. The debate about mayors can be firmly located within the debate about the modernisation of local government and the role of local politicians in reconnecting local government to local communities. The rationale for elected mayors is about clarity of decision making, visibility and profile.

In May 2002 the first elections for mayors were held in seven urban areas including Doncaster, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. Subsequent efforts have been made over the last 10 years by different governments to introduce more directly elected mayors in cities and urban areas. In reality, however, the introduction of directly elected mayors seems to have had little impact on political attitudes or voter turnout and overall the general public seem less than interested in the whole notion of elected mayors. The mayoral referendums themselves and the actual mayoral elections have averaged a voter turnout figure of just 29%, not exactly a ringing endorsement for their success in revitalising local democracy.

In terms of the 50 mayoral referendums that have been held, between 2001 and 2012, only 15 resulted in a ‘yes’ vote. A further round of referendums were held in the 10 core cities in England in 2012, with only one city (Bristol) voting to have an elected mayor, and then only by a small margin and with a turnout of only 24%.

Source: Fenwick & Elcock (2014)

However, there are signs that where sitting mayors come to the end of their first term of office, voter turnout in subsequent elections increases significantly. Which given one of the primary objectives of the mayoral model, as promoted by government, is to increase voter participation, there could be seen to be a positive impact if this trend continues. 

In the early elections for mayors in 2002/03, the majority of those elected were independent candidates, with only 4 out of 12 representing the same party as that in control of the council. However, the trend is changing, with 8 of the 15 directly elected mayors (excluding London) representing the Labour Party and only 4 independents. Evidence from existing mayoral elections also suggests that the incumbent mayors are re-elected with a higher vote than originally achieved. An illustration perhaps of the existing visibility and profile of mayors giving them an edge over competitors?

So what’s next? There will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford next year (2016), which should provide an interesting insight into whether or not the mayoral model is beginning to take hold and make a difference in England. It will also help to inform us about whether or not people are more engaged with politics and democracy in these areas. Will voter turnout be higher in areas where there are mayoral elections as well as local council elections? It remains to be seen, but the general trend is going in that direction.

In Bristol it will be interesting to see if the current independent mayor, George Ferguson, holds onto the role, or if Labour can stage a comeback after losing out last time. There may also be a continuation of the increased support seen in this years local elections for the Green Party. So we could see a 3-way fight to become the next mayor of Bristol. At the very least, with all 70 councillors as well as the mayor up for election, we should see a high profile election campaign. But will we see an increase in public engagement and more people voting? Let’s hope so!