Friday, 19 October 2012

Freedom of information

Back in August a mattress had been laid by the bin store outside where I live for weeks. Given that we live on the boundary of one of the five per cent most deprived datazones in Scotland, and with my colleague Annette Hastings’ work on disparities in environmental services in mind, I was sick and tired of calling the council to get fly-tipping like this cleared away. When I say a gigantic rat running down the street I figured this was the last straw and that it’d be good to know how often my local neighbourhood office:
  • Sent around environmental wardens to inspect the street for cleanliness and report fly-tipping (once in a blue moon, apparently.
  • Swept the streets.
This information was not publicly available, so I put in an FOI request. Actually, it was accepted as a request for Environmental Information under that EU Directive I need to learn about to teach next semester.
The information has arrived. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. They had to ask me to clarify my request and that reset the 20 day clock ticking. The information is actually ridiculously unhelpful and I sent an email asking for clarification, particularly why one but of information (the regularity of sweeps) was not included. Oh, and in the meantime another mattress has been dumped and has so far been there for a fortnight. The council seem to have a problematic attitude to “street furniture” in Leith.

I also popped in an FOI request to my local police force asking why cyclists riding on pavements had suddenly shot up their priorities to seemingly become the greatest criminal threat to all of Edinburgh (in ten years in Edinburgh one pedestrian has been recorded as being seriously injured by a cyclist, and from my experience I can’t imagine the cyclist was unscathed). I got an email the other day from them saying “Unfortunately due to a technical fault with our website your enquiry has only been received today.” This led to an interesting exchange on twitter as to whether the 20 day countdown starts when I hit submit or when they realise their website’s broken. The conclusion was the former.

But all this got me thinking about FOI. I’m not a serial FOI requester. These are in fact my second and third requests ever. I was working for the City of Edinburgh Council when FOI came into force on 1 January 2005. I didn’t have enough leave left so I had been in the office between Christmas and New Year and we had a bit of an information “clear out” of odd bits and pieces like old notebooks. And that’s the cynical side of FOI – public authorities deliberately thwarting the public getting access to information.
In the run up to the act coming in we had some fantastic training led by the Council Secretary at the time John Sturt – a man passionately committed to using local democratic processes to achieve positive ends. In this training two things particularly struck me:

Firstly, under the act, all requests for information given to anyone who works for a public authority, so long as it includes the name and address of the person requesting the information is a request under the FOI Act and has to be treated as such. You could give a sheet of paper to a passing street sweeper and the authority would have to respond within 20 working days. This could also be used within organisations.
Secondly, he asserted that, particularly in local government that had been subject to access to information legislation for quite a while, the Act should have little impact on day-to-day business as most information would be in the public domain anyway.

Both of these points suggest a complete change in organisational culture that would lead to a very transparent organisation. If we compare this to the reality as I have experienced it, something very different has happened indeed. The legislation has led to special units in organisations that treat each request very much by the letter of the law. They act as knowledge brokers within complex organisations that we outsiders can’t get easy access to. The general discourse is around FOI being a burden on organisations.

So how might it look different? Well for a start in the two cases I’m involved in the information could be publicly available. The Police could publish the briefing notes by which they make policing priority decisions. The Council could publish a schedule of local street sweeps. I could then ask “why didn’t the street sweeper who came by last blahday report this mattress to be collected?”

I presume we have not reached the level of transparency because of the political difficulty. A paper by Annette will shortly be being published based on her clean sweep work where she highlights those good local authorities that prioritise spending and change working patterns to ensure high levels of street cleanliness in non-affluent neighbourhoods have to do this by stealth. If affluent neighbourhoods found this was going on then they would vociferously complain and previous unequal distributions of resources would return. 

Similarly, if the police had to admit that they didn’t give a toss about cyclists on pavements because it’s not actually a problem, but people read about it in the paper and complain about it and they have to look like they’re doing something, it would be quite tricky to defend. But, as I mentioned before in my critique of the Community Empowerment agenda this can be done, it just takes bravery.

This also touches on something that is increasingly interesting me but I don’t know where to take it – the need for authoritative decision-making in democracies. My work on equalities brings this to the fore as to really drive an equalities agenda needs leadership. Similarly, leadership and authoritative decision-making is needed to counter middle-class NIMBYism. This very interesting article about the case of homeless hostel locations in Rotterdam (£) begins to unpick some of these ideas. In my PhD thesis I ended up relying on Richard Sennett’s concept of respect to argue that you could have authoritative decision-making while meeting some of the social justice outcomes of an inclusive democracy.

And if that sodding mattress is not cleared away soon then Edinburgh Council are going to get the full onslaught of my middle-class rage...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Housing benefit – a disaster waiting to happen?

I’m on the management committee of a community based housing association. We had a meeting on Wednesday at which was agreed the association would have a short five-year strategy, as well as annually reviewed triennial business plans, to get us through the tough years ahead. One of our strategic objectives for the next five years had to be to cope with the changes to Housing Benefit and introduction of Universal Credit in the next two years. In the spirit of business jargon and positivity I suggested a positive spin on this objective. In the end it was agreed that there is nothing whatsoever positive about this so the strategic objective will be something along the lines of “dealing with the benefit changes”.

With this, and the Public Accounts Committee report on “affordable rent”in mind (also so these strong words about Uncle Eric) I thought I’d do some depressing crystal-ball gazing as to where I think the welfare benefit changes are going to lead us in a couple of years. The changes I am specifically talking about are:
  • The reduction in housing benefit for under-occupiers (aka “The Bedroom Tax”);
  • The introduction of Universal Credit and the housing part of this being paid directly to tenants;
  • The cap on Universal Credit;
  • The introduction of mid-market and affordable rent; 
  •  The changes to Council Tax benefit.

I can only write based on what I’ve been told by housing managers and what I’ve read online. But here goes. 

From April next year with the introduction of the bedroom tax housing associations (HAs) will see a slow increase in rent arrears as tenants struggle to make ends meet. About a year later this will start to feed into increased levels of intentional homelessness as tenants is large amounts of arrears are evicted. Shortages of suitable smaller (one-bedded) properties in places like Edinburgh mean this will probably mostly affect young single people, throwing them into cycles of homelessness, including street homelessness.

As people are made homeless through rent arrears they will increasingly resort to the already highly pressured private rented sector for suitably sized properties and the housing benefit bill will skyrocket. For those lucky enough to be in areas where their rent will fall within the benefits cap, they should be more stable. For those in places like London, forced displacement or street homelessness probably beckon. Mid-market rent in Scotland and affordable rent in England will also put a further upward pressure on the housing benefit bill, although the ending of the right-to-buy in Scotland may reduce this marginally here (see this paper on the estimated cost of the RTB on the housing benefit bill).

HAs will increasingly struggle to finance their debt as arrears grow and I think in the next two years a large HA will go bust. We might also see more consolidation among smaller HAs that have overstretched themselves. The initial results from the Universal Credit direct paymentspilots are not brilliant, so when this is introduced we are likely to see a further uptick in arrears and more HAs struggling to keep their business afloat. In Scotland I can specifically imagine one of the fancy new financing deals going badly wrong, especially if housing for sale in developments is not sold, and what limited capital expenditure there is in housing will be swallowed up bailing out risky developments  where the sums just didn’t add up. I don't understand local authority housing revenue accounts, but I can also see some local authorities, particularly those in Scotland building a lot of new homes through debt finance, being hit hard and having to cut services to pay debt repayments.

In England, the widely underreported changes to Council Tax benefit will probably mean a lot of vulnerable households losing even more of their income and being thrown into debt. As families are plunged into fuel poverty their energy bills will be greater than their rent and they will end up in debt to energy companies as well or living in dark, cold homes. So you’ll have poor homeless people with rent arrears debt and Council Tax debt, which I’m sure everyone will want to house. 

So, that’s about it. I foresee an absolutely staggering and shocking increase in homelessness and the housing sector being utterly mangled. This is kinda why we thought we should have five year strategy to weather the storm.

Of course I could be completely wrong. Alternatively, the economy could suddenly leap up to a 3 per cent growth resulting in a massive increase in the delivery of housing, especially in pressured areas where the planning reforms have (of course) meant that NIMBYs will throw open their arms to massive housing allocations. The booming economy and benefits changes will incentivise everyone to work, the lame will walk thanks to ATOS, and the new Britain will emerge.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Managerialism and the bonfire of the QUANGOS

I’m in an odd mood today. I woke up and got out of the wrong side of bed and was in a horrendous mood, but my nice followers on Twitter have cheered me up with dormice and baby otters. And coffee and chocolate have helped. But, I figure some writing will help too. Make me feel I’ve done something...And let's me rant.

Yesterday the news in Scotland was full of the open letter from a number of leading lights of the Scottish arts world condemning the new body Creative Scotland. A wonderful tweeting academic I know, Dr Dave O’Brien, is very interested in cultural value, managerialism and economism (the use of economic theory to justify decisions) in cultural policy so I pointed him in the direction just before I went swimming. After I got out the pool I discovered I had spawned quite a Twitter debate – some of it is storified here. The debate in the press is continuing today.

In all of this debate, it was this tweet, linking the bonfire of the QUANGOs to managerialism that got me thinking. It got me thinking especially because RCAHMs are a partner with me and Heriot-Watt on this project and they’re going to cease to exist in April next year along with the sixteen Police Forces and Fire and Rescue Services in Scotland. RCAHMS do amazing work, and as repondees to the Scottish Government consultation pointed out, when the equivalent English body was merged into English Heritage a lot of its work vanished and their archives are in no way as accessible as RCAHMS.

I’ve talked on here before, at length, on the rise of managerialism in Scotland with the National Performance Framework; for example in this post which went oddly viral among Scottish Government employees. I’d not made the mental link between this and the bonfire of the QUANGOs but it is obvious and was obvious to me when I worked for the Scottish Government. The bonfire of the QUANGOs which the SNP Scottish Government announced when they first came to power in 2007 was actually a national target.

Housing and regeneration was one of the first areas to be affected by this. Communities Scotland, created in 2001 (I think) to take over from Scottish Homes and bring in the Scottish Executive’s regeneration function was one of the first to go. This is even though it was increasingly winning plaudits within the sector for some of the work it was doing. The housing regulation role was brought into the Scottish Government. Then, I believe, it was pointed out that you cannot have a government department regulating another government department, especially when they’re next door to each other in an open-plan office. So, lo and behold, a new QUANGO was created, the Scottish Housing Regulator. And in classic bureau-shaping, they’re exploding the role of regulation of landlords so the sector is feeling very much over-regulated right now. Never mind the fact that housing associations now cannot have their own complaints policies because the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman has decided this for us.

This was all fine, of course. Nobody likes QUANGOS. It’s an ugly word. They’re unaccountable. They just waste taxpayers money – right? And what matters in the New Scotland is outcomes, not who delivers them. But now the QUANGOS have burnt, they’re turning to other organisations, with the Police and Fire and Rescue Services going, all in the name of efficiency in delivering outcomes. And the Public Services Reform Act gives Scottish ministers astounding powers to get rid of public bodies or meddle in their running (that's why the SPSO are telling housing associations what to do). And next on the bonfire is local government. It doesn’t matter if Scots are the least represented people by local government in Europe, all these Chief Execs and HR departments are clearly a waste of money and the outcomes we want to create in Glasgow are exactly the same as those we want to create in Wick – never mind the local context, or God forbid, the local politics. Politics? This is all about management and improving outcomes.

As Andy Wightman so forcibly argues we need more local government in Scotland, not less. Outcomes need to be coproduced and for that to happen people need to feel empowered by democratic structures, not managed by a gigantic technocracy that waves the National Performance Framework in your face every time you make any criticism. The sort of managerialism that "we must meet outcomes" produces leads to the poor engagement and communication that the artists complain about with Creative Scotland. If you enter a debate with the attitude "this meets outcomes therefore it is right" then you will treat anyone who questions you as a naysayer who doesn't know how to meet outcomes, or usually the fob-off of "they don't understand the outcomes approach". 

Yes I do understand the outcomes approach, but I care about how we get there as much as getting there. Killing lots of poor people would help us meet outcomes, but let's not be doing it, alright?

Just to get Political a bit more on this, I also have to link this to the present discussion on independence in Scotland. To nail my colours to the mast, I think Scotland should have much greater fiscal devolution, but in a World of global capital flows, independence will make as much difference as a chocolate fire guard. I really could not give two-hoots. But I do get concerned about the debate we’re having. In the draft of Johann Lamont’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference she made this point (it’s now vanished) that it seems that any attack on the SNP and their policies is taken, or reformed in public discourse, as an attack on Scotland itself, which is very worrying indeed. But it also allows, I believe, for national institutions, and the Scottish Government, to erode the power of subordinate government or QUANGOS that actually do a very good job because it’s in “Scotland’s interest”, never mind that Scotland is actually a very diverse place.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Reflections on teaching practice - intercultural learning

So, over the summer, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I pulled myself together and completed my next assignment for my Postgraduate Certificate of Academic Practice. This had to be a research project. A key issue I was interested in, and is of interest to many academics in the UK, is the increasingly diverse student cohort, especially international sojourning students at postgraduate level. The appalling experience of students at London Metropolitan University at the start of this academic year shows what a political hot potato this is. It cannot be ignored that by mecause these students pay the full fee for their course we do need to attract more overseas students to balance the books. And this puts pressure on staff. Occassionaly the response to this is almost racist. So, these were the sort of issues I thought I'd deal with in my assignment.

So you can read the marker's comments I've converted it into a PDF you can download from my Google Drive here. The other part of the assignment I had to do was an annotated bibliography. I'd never done one before and actually found it really useful. I'm now recommending my dissertation students do it as a step on the way to having a literature review. In the spirit of sharing, you can all have a look at this as well, here.