Monday, 27 June 2011

Street level bureaucrats and the middle classes

"I'm going to write to my councillor and complain!" This is my usual, somewaht ironic, refrain whenever anything mildly irritating crosses my path. To be honest, the last time I contacted the City of Edinburgh Council was about that listed building consent application. The thing that annoys me most if the many potholes designed to kill cyclists on Edinburgh's roads, and if I reported them my full time job would be emailing Clarence. And yet, in a lot of our work on concentrated deprivation - it's an implicit theorisation behind mixed communities and community development - we presume that middle-class professionals do more regularly contact our local service providers and are more likely to get a better service as a result. This is something I'm intrigued about...

And, after my previous post, I've now finished Street Level Bureaucrats. By the end, a few things really struck me. Firstly, was Lipsky's real sympathy for public sector workers. He paints a bloomin' horrible picture of the many structural constraints that go against public servants doing what they want to do - provide a very good level of service to all. Secondly, in producing the new edition of the book, all he did was add a new preface and a new concluding chapter. In this concluding chapter he asserts that the book has stood the test of time - and I agree. And I also agree with him is that all that has happened since his book was first published is things have got worse as the ideological attacks on the state have increased. The obsession with managerialism, efficiency and all the rest of it just produces perverse incentives and ineffective services.

Finally, and more broadly, I really liked that his category of analysis was so broad - street level bureaucrats. Those everyday people who make decisions that distribute resources that make up "policy". Not policeman, not teachers, but bureaucrats. Interestingly, I just searched Web of Knowledge for "street level bureaucrats" and the 83 results all focused on single service areas, rather than the broad sweep. I particularly like the broad category of analysis because it resonated with the literature review I'm slogging through on middle class community activism. We're trying to develop a "middle theory" of how public sector agencies and the middle-classes (people like us) engage. We're having to focus on specific policy areas, for example education (pushy parents), planning (rural NIMBYs) because that is the way policy research is broken down. But I think the broader sweep will be more interesting. Already it's quite clear that pushy parents and rural NIMBYs use similar cultural capital to exclude non-middle class people and improve things for themselves and I wouldn't be surprised if this happens across services. With the move to local authorities and other organisations using call centres, and the generic nature of staff who support elected officials, for me the greatest interest is in the general engagements between staff and the public.

Friday, 3 June 2011

History and NHS reforms

Doing something completely different and came accross this abstract:

The proposals contained in the White Paper ... have been described as an attempt to introduce competition into a non-competitive situation. Together with the introduction of practice budgets for family practitioners, the granting of self-governing status to NHS hospitals is the principal mechanism by which this aim will be achieved. Very little is known about the effects of competition on the delivery of health care. Evidence from the United Kingdom is non-existent and from the United States of America is inadequate and contradictory. Yet, despite the inconclusive nature of this evidence, the U.K. Government is implementing the most radical reforms of the NHS since its inception without any systematic attempt to monitor the extent to which the reforms achieve the desired ends. In the absence of any systematic evaluation the responsibility for monitoring the effects of self-governing status will fall to the managers and public health specialists in the purchasing authorities. A variety of methods are described which would enable the reforms to be evaluated without holding back their implementation. No radical reform of the NHS can be expected to have an unambiguously beneficial impact on the delivery of health care. If the U.K. Government is genuine in its desire to improve health services, it should be prepared to subject its proposals to the sort of evaluation described in this paper.

Guess when the paper dates from?
1991. Plus ca change...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Big Sock, Hacking, Suberversion and other stuff...

I've got research funding from the AHRC's Connected Communities programme (discussed in my last post) which is causing much brouhaha for it's links to the Big Society. Because of this, at a Connected Communities event I was at recently, people were very reticent about using the term "Big Society" (hence the Big Sock). I think the AHRC have got themselves in a right mess here. Yes, they shouldn't have mentioned the Big Society so often, but the Research Councils are going to research government policy. You just have to look at all the ESRC grants on community engagement and social exclusion during the New Labour years (most of which were quite critical of the government's agenda) to see that. And I have to say, I've not seen one Connected Communities project yet that is helping the Big Society in the way the Tories might want to.

Which leads me to subservience. I had an interesting lunch with Chris Speed from Edinburgh College of Art and his work, to summarise too bluntly, hacking and QR codes. He's beginning to work with Prospect Housing Association, linking his work to their From There to Here work. I really liked his idea of hacking because from my research the history of deprived neighbourhoods is always subversive and "hacking". In Wester Hailes case, the fight for basic improvements and better services in the 1970s and 1980s that led onto an enormous amount of community development and regeneration, was the community "hacking" a political discourse in Edinburgh that stigmatised and belittled the neighbourhood. I'm really interested (now) in using hacking to really get into the problems that residents face in Wester Hailes and give them a voice and also let them celebrate what's wonderful about their lives and community.

Which leads me onto... more clumsy writing. No, for me, my knowledge of the history of community engagement and development just shows what a disaster the Big Society will be because of this "hacking". The history of radical community development is that communities know that their problems are actually problems of wider society and they will get very angry about that. As the wonderful "Gilding the Ghetto" put it back in the 1970s: 

"Their [the CDP team’s] brief rested on three important assumptions.  Firstly that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of the ‘urban deprivation’.  Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help.  Thirdly locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.

A few month’s field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions."

So when the Tories last had a go at the Big Society in the late 1980s early 1990s, with the hideous responsibilisation agenda of Housing Action Trusts, City Challenge and New Life for Urban Scotland, the policies quickly found very organised communities that knew that the problem was inequality and poor services (in Scotland see: Hastings 1998 and Collins 1999 [£]). Community groups just shoved two-fingers up at the government. And that's what will (arguably is) happening with the Big Society. So don't worry.

One final positive thing. There's loads of really good bottom-up stuff happening in Wester Hailes now: from There to Here, the West Edinburgh Time Bank, and the Calders Community Garden for a start. This is the Big Society, and it's flippin' superb.