Policy theory – too “hard to handle”?

2015-04-07 11.03.32I read an article recently, by Kenneth Meier, that went by the title “Policy theory, policy theory everywhere: ravings of a deranged policy scholar” and that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment. After spending the last few weeks trying to get to grips with the beginnings of a literature review I feel totally swamped by the number, range and complexity of some of these theories. My initial trawl through the literature came up with about 20 theories of the policy process, and further exploration surfaced a good few more. Which left me feeling not just confused and overwhelmed but also having to ask the question – why do we need so many? Are they all really that different and what do they add to our understanding of how policy is made? Which of course meant I had to understand them or at least have a good go at reading up on the main ones and getting to grips with what they have to offer my research.

At about the same time I began to recall all the research methods training I’d done and the assignment I’d written on systematic reviews. This served as a useful reminder about the need to be a little more systematic about my approach to collecting literature for the review than I normally tend to be. So, my focus drifted for a while from reading theories to thinking about how to collect more literature to confuse me. I now have a comprehensive set of key search terms. I’ve established where I’ll search for information, which databases, journals and citation indices to use. I’ve pretty much decided on my exclusion and inclusion criteria and in an attempt to be extremely organised I’ve even set up a comprehensive system for logging all the information I collect throughout the months of searching and reading. And believe me when I say that this is far more organised than I’ve ever been in the past when it comes to seeking out literature. Now all I have to do is read some of it and understand it! I wrote a blog for the Bristol Doctoral College recently on “getting to grips with your subject” which explores some of these issues.

I’ve now begun the process of getting to grips with my subject and this in turn led me to the question about why we need all this theory? How much does it really add to our understanding of a process and how can it be used to inform those involved in actually taking decisions on policy? At this point I’m merely offering questions not answers!! What I’ve tried to do as part of my review is extract the main theories (selected on the basis of longstanding theories, that seem still to be often quoted; or new up and coming theories that are making something of a mark) and see what they have to offer the types of questions I am interested in. So, I’ve focused on the following theories:

  • Multiple Streams Framework
  • Punctuated Equilibrium
  • Advocacy Coalition Framework
  • Social Construction & Design Framework
  • Diffusion of Innovations Model
  • Narrative Policy Framework
  • Policy Feedback Theory
  • Institutional Analysis & Development Theory
  • Policy Regimes Theory
  • Ecology of Games Framework
  • Robustness Framework
  • Institutional Collective Action Framework

For my research I’m interested in the agenda setting aspect of the policy process. I’m interested in understanding the tactics used by different actors to move issues up (and down) the political agenda and why some issues never quite get there. I’m interested in how actors at the centre of the action perceive and respond to influence and lobbying and how politicians decide on policy priorities. My study will focus on housing policy before, during and after the Bristol mayoral election in 2016. I’m hoping it will be of interest to scholars of the policy process, to those with an interest in political change and will also help practitioners to understand how power and influence works at a local level (bold hopes for an individual research project!).

For all those policy academics out there – have I missed anything crucial? For me the obvious ones to help with my research questions are the Multiple Streams Framework, Narrative Policy Framework, Advocacy Coalition Framework, Social Construction Framework and Policy Regimes Theory – see table below (click to enlarge). The health warning attached to this is that it’s a very initial attempt to make sense of some of these theories and not the finished product by any means, I’ve a long way to go!  theories3 What it provides me with is a starting point. A core set of theories to delve into more deeply and to assess for relevance to my research interest, to spot the gaps, the areas less well developed and/or just to get a better understanding of the questions I need to be asking. Add to that a whole range of other literature that needs exploring, on levels of governance, power and influence, new models of local governance etc. and you’ll begin to see the challenge, complexity and confusion I’m currently experiencing. How will I ever get to grips with all this, in the timescale I need to, and to the level I need to? That’s one of the challenges of doing a phd.

A confusion of governance?

DSCN0141Devolution, cross border partnerships, growth deals and city region plans seem to be in the news just lately, but what does it all mean for our cities? Will these new deals and partnerships really make much difference or are they just an added confusion to the story of local governance? In Bristol the story is a particularly complicated one. With tight administrative city boundaries, Bristol is reliant on partnership working to get things done around transport, infrastructure, housing and growth. It can’t do it alone.

Some years ago, once the county of Avon was abolished, public/private partnerships were set up to work across the old county area on strategic issues. One of those, the West of England Strategic Partnership, has now been reformed into the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), to meet government requirements for partnerships focused on growth and jobs. This brings together the 4 councils that cover the old Avon area – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset. Seems there was some sense to the old County area after all? Things seem to muddle along in this partnership, despite the antipathy between the councils and the different political line ups across them. But does this level of governance really work when it is merely based on voluntary partnership? Does it work when the city of Bristol is the driving force? And can it continue to work with all the different approaches to local governance stretching across the 4 councils?

To illustrate this, just consider the challenges now Bristol has a new system with an elected mayor, but the other 3 councils don’t. South Gloucestershire has retreated to the old committee system of governance, whilst the other 2 councils retain the leader with cabinet and scrutiny split. That’s 3 different styles of local governance operating across the 4 councils. Now consider the political make up of those councils. Bristol, having lurched around from Labour to Liberal Democrat and back again, now has an Independent Mayor running the council, with Labour the largest group on the council but no longer in control. North Somerset has a deeply rooted Conservative Council, with a significant majority for a while now. Bath & NE Somerset council moves between Liberal Democrat and Conservative, with slim majorities and is currently Lib Dem controlled. South Gloucestershire is currently under Conservative control. So the political differences are also there for all to see.

Added to this complexity are the roles and responsibilities of the sub regional partnership under the guise of the LEP. It covers business growth, skills, jobs, and transport, and has a role in strategic planning for housing and employment space. As the core city, Bristol is at the centre of the discussions about growth deals, about new devolved responsibilities and a member of the core cities group that lobbies government on these issues. But on it’s own it can’t actually deliver much of the growth because it is hampered by ridiculous administrative boundaries that leave ⅓ of the urban area within the control of a different council (S.Glos). So around here we rely on informal partnership working to get things done, through an LEP that tries to be inclusive, but largely fails, and which seeks compromise in order to get agreement, reverting to the lowest common denominator all too often!

Now it seems we are adding a further complexity to this already complicated scenario. Bristol has teamed up with Cardiff and Newport in a cross border collaboration, in a new partnership called the “Great Western Cities” region. Its focus will be on improving transport infrastructure and connectivity, harnessing the energy generating potential of the Severn Estuary and marketing the area as a great place to do business. I can see the benefit of this kind of linkage but wonder quite how it sits with the West of England LEP and their plans for growth and development. Why is Bristol going it alone to seek new partnerships when we have a long standing one in place already – is it because it’s not working perhaps? Is it because Bristol has more in common with the likes of Cardiff than it could ever have with the other councils around here? Whatever the reason, it is an added level of complexity to an already complex system of local governance.

Darren Jones, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West, has outlined his views on this new partnership, suggesting it is either to do with politics and elections than anything else, or Bristol giving up on making things work in the traditional city region in favour of a new option. I have some sympathy for his analysis and discussion. Whilst I have never been entirely convinced by the LEP and its ability to deliver, we can’t afford to stop trying to get it right. Whether that is a new partnership with other areas, or more formal working structures across the West of England, something needs to change but quite what is clearly a point for debate. Indeed, one of the things that seems to be missing in all this is the public debate, where has there been a real opportunity to discuss properly what is needed and what would work best for the communities of Bristol and surrounding authorities? Is it just a decision for a handful of politicians, or does it need wider discussion?

It will be interesting to see how these informal partnerships progress and what benefits they bring to our city region. It’ll also be interesting to see if we really can compete with the more formal, structured systems being put in place elsewhere. With Manchester leading the way with its new devolution deal and metro mayor, and others such as Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham  and Newcastle following rapidly, will the Bristol city region be left behind? The story will no doubt unfold over the coming months.

The changing role of local councillors – what next?

The debate about local democracy and local governance has led us in some quite interesting directions in recent years and has generated significant change in local council political structures – or has it? On the surface, with the initial change from the committee system of local government to cabinet and scrutiny and now the introduction of directly elected Mayors in some areas, things have definitely changed. We have a very different model of local governance now than we did in the 1990s and there’s a very different way of doing things, but how have local councillors adapted to this? In a blog post in November I talked with nostalgia about the old committee system and to a point lamented its loss. I also raised the point about the changing role of councillors over the last 15 years or so which I will elaborate on further here.

There is an excellent opportunity available to us a the moment, through the Local Government Boundary Commission Review, but sadly in Bristol (and probably elsewhere) there is little or no initial public discussion on this issue. It is held for now within the political confines of the party groups and officers of the council to decide what they want to do – which in this instance may well mean very little as it could be a bit like turkeys voting for christmas. I’ll explain that one in a minute.

But first, what is the Review about? Bristol has been included in the programme of review for 2014/15 which will seek to look at the size and boundaries of electoral wards and make changes in time for the whole council elections to be held in 2016. This enables the council to consider the number of councillors it needs and the number and size of wards across the city. Whist this doesn’t address the issue of how things work it does enable some structural change to reflect new governance arrangements.

Currently there is an obvious problem of disparity in terms of the size of wards in Bristol, with some ward councillors representing 3-4,000 more people than others. The biggest disparities are seen in central areas such as Cabot, Ashley and Lawrence Hill with 20-30% more electors than the average, and in areas such as Kingsweston, Henleaze, Henbury and Whitchurch Park with 10-15% fewer electors than the average. So the first job of any response to the Boundary Review is to try and redraw ward boundaries to even this out by creating similar sized wards in terms of electorate. That’s probably the easy bit actually and one that many councillors will agree on, but it’s only part of the issue. The questions then begin to arise about whether or not we need 35 wards with 2 councillors in each ward. Given the changes mentioned above, do we really need 70 backbench councillors to keep an eye on George and to represent local communities?

So the bigger question is given the changing role of councillors, from strategic, policy development, representation, decision making to more of a local representation and scrutiny role, do we really need to hang on to 2 per ward and 70 in total? Perhaps equally important is the question about whether or not this issue is even being considered seriously. Now you can see why that might be difficult, because the very people who need to consider the idea of reducing the number of councillors are the very people who would be out of a job if they decided that was the right thing to do. Hence my turkey’s voting for christmas comment above. However, to be fair, there has actually been some debate on this with some suggestion that perhaps you could lose a few councillors but I’ve yet to see any real discussion or evidence or a serious review and debate.

If you were to take a logical approach to this and accept two main premises which I believe to be true – first that the role of councillors has now changed quite significantly and second that local people want clarity about who represents them, after all that’s one of the reasons we have an elected mayor isn’t it, people wanted a clear leadership figure that was identifiable? Shouldn’t we translate that same principle to the very local level? How does having 2 councillors per ward, sometimes from different parties, help local people? Doesn’t it just add to the confusion? So how do we address this?

Well, my proposal for debate is to go for single member wards and establish “mini-mayors” for each ward that local people can relate to and identify as their representative and their first point of contact with the council. One councillor representing a smaller area, taking on that local leadership mantle seems far more sensible to me under this new system than sticking with a structure that was developed decades ago under a very different system. The debate about quite how many wards to go for will clearly create some tension and generate some debate, but 50 is a nice round number so why not start with that as an idea! We could have 50 local ward mayors in Bristol, with a clear remit as the representative for that area, involved in local partnerships and groups, on top of local issues and the key point of contact with the City Mayor. These changes can be achieved through the Boundary Review and I hope the Elections and Democracy Commission of the council will have some interesting discussion on these issues in 2014 – their last meeting in October sets out the process in detail – worth a look if you want to know more.

But seriously this is only a small part of the debate, it’s easy to focus on this because we can tinker with maps and boundaries, argue over the number of wards, councillors and where the lines can be drawn. However, whilst this is important it ignores the bigger issue of how the role of scrutiny can be developed to be a useful function which challenges the mayor and his decisions but also has a proactive role to play in the development of policy and direction. This was one of the critical challenges when I was a councillor at the time when the change to cabinet/scrutiny was first introduced. Politicians and officers alike struggled with what it meant, neither were particularly well equipped to respond to the change in a positive way, and in the couple of years I was involved it was a real struggle to define the boundaries of scrutiny in a way that worked. Part of the problem was it pitched scrutiny chairs in a role that could potentially be in conflict and disagreement with the cabinet member, and in my day we were in the same party, so you were pitched against your own colleagues in dialogue, challenge and debate. This led to real tensions which played out in different ways depending on the personalities involved. I also found that officers didn’t quite know how to deal with this new system either – how could they work with a cabinet member and a scrutiny commission chair? Their response was to divide the officer core, the cabinet member got to work with the Director, whilst as a scrutiny chair I was left to work with the next level down! Equally, some officers did a pretty good job of playing us off against one another, so when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from the Cabinet Member, they came to me as scrutiny chair to see if I would pick the issue up. Lots of room for conflict and confusion there then.

Now I’m not sure how much things have changed, as I was only involved for the first couple of years of the new system and haven’t had much if any involvement since. But from what I can see sitting on the outside, scrutiny is still less well developed than it should be and cabinet members/Mayors are still defensive about challenge. My belief – there is a real opportunity there to develop a system that engages all councillors in critical challenge, policy development and scrutiny in a way that is collaborative and effective but we need the right officers to support that and training and development of councillors to understand these new roles and ways of working.

As an aside, if you add into the equation the introduction of things like Local Enterprise Partnerships and their impact on the role and function of local councillors and local democracy then there are a whole host of other debates that need to be had to understand how the role of a local councilor has changed.

There’s so much more to say on this issue that I may have to blog again as I have merely touched the surface of what I wanted to say here!