Saturday, 23 January 2016

Athena SWAN, academic practices and regimes of audit

As I’ve previously blogged about, I’m involved in the Athena SWAN process. I’m co-leading the process at my School and I’ve now been a panellist assessing departmental Athena SWAN submissions. Both activities are a lot of hard work (and not quite fully acknowledged in workload allocations) but excellent, interesting and rewarding. It has made me consider my own practices as an academic in a different light and also made me quite angry at a lot of the unquestioned practices and behaviours in academic practice.

I’ve begun to talk about academic practice and practices a lot. It started from my work on the AHRC Connected Communities project Connecting Epistemologies where I worked with an artist for the summer who would discuss their arts practice. I understand academic practices to be things like: lecturing, supervision, facilitating group discussion, marking, various writing practices, resource coordination and management etc.

One thing I like about thinking through academic work as practices in this way is it helps me focus on what it is in a particular context that means that a practice is carried out in a certain way, and whether that is a question of individual agency, or a wider structural issue. For example, when I think through academic practices (such as the list above) I’m always amazed at how many you can be trained to do better, but how rarely that training is systematically offered to academics. Take lecturing (I now disownthis blog post to an extent): it takes certain skills to talk persuasively through a topic for a set period of time and engage an audience. There are some pretty basic skills here: breathing techniques; ensuring your voice is well-supported by your diaphragm; using modulation and pauses to keep the audience engaged. An actor would expect this as part of this training. If we are lecturing to large classes, we should be given this training (luckily I did get it, from the Edinburgh Beltane).

Athena SWAN focuses me on the wider structural issues. For example, producing papers for academic journals is one of the key academic practices. In the social sciences, single-authored pieces are seen to be more likely to be highly-ranked in the Research Excellence Framework. There is subsequently, among some bits of social science, to push early-career researchers to get individual fellowships, to build up this REF-worthy track record. This particularly negatively impacts on women: they are more likely to take career breaks at this stage of their career for maternity leave and caring, so group projects might make more sense; across many fellowship schemes they are also less likely to be awarded the fellowships.

Another example comes from my role as an editor and peer-review. An academic practice is citation, we are expected to cite the latest literature in support of an argument we are making. This is a shared cultural practice. Yet, it is often quite striking that due to global structural barriers, many scholars in the majority world simply cannot access these resources.

Athena SWAN is interesting because it puts a lot of these practices to work to a positive end – challenging gender divides within academia and encouraging women’s progression. Specifically it uses the skills that academics and associated professionals have in making complex judgement based on set criteria, and also peer review. These were the skills I used when I assessed applications and that were used in the Athena SWAN panel I was a member of.

These academic practices take place in contexts with specific incentive structures. I’ve already mentioned the REF and this is probably one of the key incentive structures: it shapes the ways universities are organised and their strategic priorities; it affects the way academics adjust their communication practices to deliver “impact” – more prosaically, to get their research findings understood and used by a wider audience. They mean our writing practices are focused at the four 4* papers. Like Athena SWAN, the REF uses academic practices, particularly peer review.

Athena SWAN has also benefited from similar incentive mechanisms. Recognising the widespread problems that women faced in STEM subjects, the research councils adjusted their criteria to be more favourable to departments that had Athena SWAN awards – the award stopped being something that a few forward-thinking departments had, to something all departments worked positively towards.

I’m a bit of an evangelist for Athena SWAN – I know it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and when it’s done properly (as my main experience has been) it does lead to dramatic change. But thinking about it in terms of how I’ve laid out this post before, I could not have ruminate as I was assessing applications: what if Athena SWAN became part of the criteria that were assessed in the REF? I imagine we’d see a lot of change fairly quickly. I imagine the Equality Challenge Unit would be fairly busy in the run-up to 2020 as well. Of course, we’d no doubt end-up with the double-bind that I think Athena SWAN accidentally creates – in trying to do good, it just adds another task to academic’s overflowing to-do lists and puts women under pressure. To anyone pulling together an Athena SWAN application, note that the criteria state that workload models should give a time allocation to being a member of the Self-Assessment Team!

When I mentioned this idea to one of the staff at the ECU they mentioned that HEFCE had done some work, that remains unpublished, that demonstrated that departments with greater collegiality and gender diversity achieved better in research metrics. They added that it would be interesting, also, to see how Athena SWAN also related to this.

There’s a widespread view in academic that metrics and audit are bad things. But from a perspective of policy analysis, and also from my experience governing an organisation, I can also see the positive sides of these regimes: audit is design to make issues transparent and make people accountable. In the case of Athena SWAN it makes institutions accountable for the processes and behaviours that systematically stop women advancing in their academic careers and reaching their potential.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion, the raging resistance to regimes of audit is, I think, sometimes misguided. These processes have the effects (and affects) they do because they are powerful tools. But that means they can be used powerfully to positive ends. This might make me a sell-out to global Neil Librulism. I think it makes me someone who wants to deliver positive change for the marginalised and disadvantaged in society now. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What am I

I was teaching policy analysis this afternoon and developed a wee activity on "framing" of policy issues. I'll repeat it here - it's just a series of statements about a mythical "something". A smug feeling of satisfaction to the first person who can guess what it is:
  • It killed 3,409 people in 2000 and this fell to 1,713 in the UK in 2014
  • In 2014 it injured 192,000 people in UK, 22,807 of them seriously
  • In 2012-13 there was a 12% increase in the number of the most vulnerable people in the UK killed by this.
  • WHO estimates it kills approximately 1.24 million people worldwide a year.
  • Not doing this and doing something else can add 3-7 years to your life expectancy.
  • Not doing this and doing something else can add six months to your life expectancy.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Book Review - Good Times, Bad Times: The Myth of Them and Us

I reviewed this book for Housing Studies.

Good Times Bad Times – the welfare myth of them and us

John Hills

Bristol, Policy Press, 2015, 334+xviii pp. £12.99 (pbk)

ISBN 9781447320036

The election of a Conservative majority government in the UK in May 2015, with their manifesto commitment to cut the ‘welfare bill’ by £12 billion, has meant that the public debate within the UK on the costs of the social insurance system has remained high profile. In this tour de force, Professor John Hills provides a forensic account of social policy and socio-economic inequality in the UK, trying to provide evidence to inform what is often a ‘post evidence’ political debate (see, for example: Macdonald et al., 2014: on ‘hunting the yeti’ of the policy trope of households with three generations of unemployment).

The book is based on exhaustive analysis of administrative and survey data-sets across the UK. As a structuring device, the book returns to a television programme shown on ITV in the UK in 1989—Beat the Taxman. In this original programme, Hills’ colleague Julian Le Grand showed how through taxation and benefits from universal services an affluent family—the Osbornes—actually did far better from UK government expenditure than the worse off Ackroyd family.

The device of comparing the two families, now with grandchildren, is used throughout the book, and particularly in pen portraits that start each chapter, to compare the income and assets of the households involved, the proportion of household income each family pays in tax and what benefits in cash and services each household receives. At its core, the book returns to a key insight about the role of the welfare state stated in the original Beveridge report, that its role is more about redistributing resources over an individuals’ life course than redistributing resources between individuals (Figures 3.1–3.3, pp. 50–51). One of the interesting early points also made is that compared to other welfare systems around the world, the UK state does the most ‘work’ in redistributing income; we might have a very economically unequal society, but it is even more unequal before the state has done its work redistributing.

The book will hold particular interest for housing scholars in its consideration of the way the housing market, taxation and the benefits system interact in the UK. While this is not a central focus of the book, it includes important new analysis that will be of interest. For example, Chapter 6 ‘The long wave’ focuses on retirement and wealth. With many older people now being home owners outright, and supported by good pensions, the intergenerational divide between ‘baby boomers’ and younger people is another common trope of current social policy public discourse. Through his analysis of wealth in the UK, Professor Hills clearly demonstrates that it is inequalities within generations between the extremely wealthy and those with few assets or debts that are of greatest concern at all age ranges. These inequities are far greater than those between generations. Furthermore, policy in the UK clearly supports and exacerbates these inequalities: wealth is very lightly taxed, with home ownership barely taxed at all. For those receiving out-of-work benefits, levels of marginal taxation are actually a disincentive for lower income households to save.

Professor Hills also uses extensive new analysis on the UK benefits system, including the work of his colleagues at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE, to highlight the weaknesses around the housing benefits system in the UK. Using analysis of longitudinal data in Chapter 4, he demonstrates the normality of ‘high frequency’ living in the contemporary UK—that is, for most households, income varies dramatically across the year as members move into and out of insecure work. The benefits system, and particularly housing benefits and tax credits, serve to exaggerate rather than (as might be expected) smooth these swings in household income.

This is an excellent and competitively priced book that will be of interest to a wide audience and is accessible enough to be a core text on undergraduate reading lists. A possible weakness of the book relates directly to its intellectual strength: its core messages and use of a wealth of data are intellectual hard work. Though it no doubt acts as an intellectual bulwark against anti-welfare policy arguments, one does wonder if it will succeed in more widely challenging the ‘myths’ around welfare that it intends to.

As critical analysis suggests (Jensen & Tyler, 2015) current tropes and myths of policy discourse—three generations unemployed, benefits broods, households receiving over £100,000 a year in benefits—are enormously powerful in shaping policy and political discourse. These emotive images cannot easily be countered through analysis that shows that they are non-existent, or are extreme and explicable cases. Similarly, individual examples of the hardships caused by welfare reform are very emotive—such as the widely shared story of a man who had to bathe in an inflatable children’s paddling pool in his new living room after being evicted from his adapted home due to rent arrears caused by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ (see The Liverpool Echo 22 August 2015). But ultimately, these stories appear unable to change UK public attitudes in favour of cutting welfare benefits to the poorest in society, as shown in Chapter 9. As a reader, I cannot offer any answers regarding what would more effectively counter such public attitudes, but unfortunately, I doubt this book will be the solution.

Jensen, T. & Tyler, I. (2015) “Benefits broods”: The cultural and political crafting of anti-welfare commonsense, Critical Social Policy. 

Macdonald, R., Shildrick, T., & Furlong, A. (2014) In search of ‘intergenerational cultures of worklessness’: Hunting the Yeti and shooting zombies, Critical Social Policy, 34(2), pp. 199–220. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

ABI n* – return of the ABI

I did my doctoral research on area-based initiatives, or ABIs. Even when I was doing the research the writing was on the wall for them – the focus of my research had been the former Scottish Executive Community Regeneration Fund administered through Single Outcome Agreements. This ceased to be just as I was going into the field following the first SNP victory in 2007, so it ended up being about the “ending” of meaningful regeneration for residents. Following the 2010 election and the coalition government it looked like any form of regeneration was off the cards under the excuse of “austerity”. I’ve co-edited a book – After Regeneration­that argues this very point. My research had turned to broader questions of inequality in our cities, particularly what the increasing focus on community engagement and involvement in service delivery might mean for inequalities in service delivery.

And then David Cameron goes and announces a new ABI on the Andrew Marr show. Thanks. I’m back in business; or am I? First of all, as many have pointed out, the amount of funding for this ABI is pitifully small. It’s the same as the former Community Regeneration Fund in Scotland spent in one year – and that was in 2006 when the money was worth more and in a country ten times smaller. But it looks like it’s just enough money to prompt a private-sector to “regenerate” some of the neighbourhoods concerned; to remove the risk of having to get rid of pesky tenants or asbestos. This is the continuation of the processes happening in numerous estates in London that do not deserve the title of “regeneration”. It is state-funded removal of low-income households from our cities.

Secondly – as any human geographer, economic geographer, planner or policy analyst worth their salt will point out, ABIs don’t work; or at least they’re very bad at doing what David Cameron thinks they are good at. In terms of the causes of neighbourhood deprivation, I can’t bang on about this enough. Saying deprived neighbourhoods cause deprivation is like calling a bucket you have filled with apples an apple tree. Deprived neighbourhoods exist because, either, we put all our social housing in one place (something Scotland is particularly good at doing and is repeating), or wider macro-economic forces mean that a neighbourhood is a risky investment proposition so property values and rents fall, so it becomes somewhere where households with a low income end up living. There is some evidence in some circumstances that “neighbourhood effects” exist – that is, living with lots of other people in poverty decreases your chances of escaping poverty. But that evidence is very scant, and as Tom Slater highlights, it is macro-economic processes, still, that cause the concentrations of deprivation in the first place.

So, ABIs don’t work because they misidentify the policy problem – they look to solve a problem in neighbourhoods that isn’t there. They also don’t work because, well we just know they don’t work. As this blog from the RSA highlights, the biggest ABI ever, the New Deal for Communities, achieved some change in some indicators, and some of this was caused by broader processes of gentrification in London. As a lot of evaluations of ABIs have shown, and was picked up in my own research, ABIs are very good at changing physical things in neighbourhoods – building new housing, refurbishing housing, building new schools, doctors surgeries, libraries etc. But these rarely cause long term change in the outcomes for the residents. That occurs through enhancing services in the neighbourhoods – more resources for schools; public health interventions; employability projects – and the gains from these often leak out of the neighbourhood and cease pretty shortly after the ABI has ended.

But, as has been recognised from the 1990s, politicians like ABIs because it makes it looks like they’re doing something about something. Also, communities often like ABIs and the physical renewal they produce because it makes them feel like something is being done about something. And, much as I criticise ABIs, I do agree with the broader premise of them that if you invest in deprived neighbourhoods they will get better. The trouble with ABIs is the “boot-strap” approach – that this is a one-time fix. It is not, and the investment needs to continue in perpetuity. I would welcome a return to a proper regeneration policy as England had until the Treasury Sub-National Review: prioritised neighbourhood spending delivered through local authorities, nested within city-wide economic policies, nested within regional policies that sought to encourage economic development and rebalance growth. If you slapped a layer of national planning on top of that it would have been grand. You also probably would’ve been called a Communist.

Cameron’s regeneration policy is not this. As a piece coming out in the journal I’m on the editorial team of, Local Government Studies, highlights, the ending of the Revenue Support Grant for local authorities in England is leading us in into terrifying and uncharted territory. Local authorities, or the wider city region authorities being created, will be entirely responsible for raising their own revenue, no matter how flimsy their tax base is. As Michael Lord Heseltine laughably suggested on BBC Radio 4’s PM last October when this was announced, the idea is that if a local authority like Sunderland wants the tax base of Westminster, then it just has to drop its taxes to attract in new business and households. If only urban policy was as simple as it is in Sim City.

Under the guise of localism, this government is locking the UK into a framework of the spatial distribution of economic growth last seen for a brief period in the UK between 1848 and 1870 – when the Corn Laws stopped artificially supporting the agricultural economy of the south and before central government grants to local government started. When central government expenditure does have a spatial impact it is the inverse of what might be considered progressive: the cuts to welfare benefits, as analysed by CRESR which massively effect the north of England, Scotland and Wales; the infrastructure expenditure as analysed by CRESC which massively benefits the south of England and London; the billions cut from the budgets of the most deprived local authorities, as analysed by research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. By 2020, I’d be interested to know if there was any country that did less fiscal work spatially redistributing the benefits of economic development than the UK.

So, David Cameron has launched an ABI. To say he’s launched a regeneration policy is an insult to the thousands of people who have created and implemented regeneration policies since 1968. Given the pitiful sums involved, I doubt we can even call it state-led gentrification. But in broader policy changes this government is creating a tidal wave that will lead to the UK being a massively spatially unequal country. Deprived neighbourhoods will be like baby turtles being tossed around on the massive outflows of capital from towns and regions. This expenditure will distract a shark from eating them for a few seconds; it definitely isn’t a life line.

* I’d give the title a number, but there’s been so many ABIs over the years I couldn’t possibly count them.  

Friday, 8 January 2016

Book reviews - Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities

Inspired by Paul Cairney, I thought I'd start making my book reviews more widely available. So first off this one, which I did for Town Planning Review.

Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities
Routledge, 2014
1317930983, 9781317930983
346 pages

I live in a slowly gentrifying neighbourhood of Edinburgh, Scotland – of the sort that typifies many of the case studies in this book (Doucet 2009). The main road to the city centre from the neighbourhood is currently being upgraded and there was a local campaign to get it redesigned in what this book, and readers based in North America, would call “complete streets” style – wide pavements, segregated cycle lanes and vastly reduced space for vehicular traffic, with speeds reduced to 20mph. The battle was lost, and non-segregated, advisory cycle lanes were installed which are now predominantly used a car-parking places for businesses on the road. Meanwhile, in the more affluent south of the city, an extensive segregated network of cycle paths is emerging. In the suburban south-west of the city, a non-affluent community I work with extensively have poor quality public realm and a streetscape designed in the 1960s which is hostile to pedestrians and cyclists.

This collection of essays edited by Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman illuminates these issues of equity and road infrastructure design in fascinating detail. The book focuses on the “complete streets” movement (living streets in the UK; standard road design in the Netherlands and Denmark) highlighting through various critical approaches that in societies with high levels of socio-economic inequality ‘when implemented incrementally, Complete Streets will inevitably benefit certain people in certain urban spaces and not others’ (p.7). The book is broken into three sections: processes, practices and possibilities.

The processes section essentially takes us through stories to tell us “where are we now?”, starting off with Peter Norton’s beguiling chapter on the role of the motor industry PR in the US in forming motor-vehicle oriented road design standards, a theme developed further by Aaron Golub. The chapters by Chronopolous and Lee then critically engage with the intersection of sustainability policies – such as complete streets design and congestion charging – and various policies that could be labelled “neoliberal”. Chronopolous, in particular highlights how congestion charging is a regressive tax. The section ends with Mehta using an evocative description of street life in India to describe what a complete street might be like if it was truly inclusive.

The sections on practices and possibilities were less clearly delineated in terms of content. They were mainly case-studies of various cities in the US and how they have implemented various Complete Streets policies, or related policies such as pavement/sidewalk food vending, or community stewardship schemes. Particular highlights in these last two sections were Langegger’s account of the racially-driven removal of Hispanic “lowriders” from the streets of Denver; and Vallianatos' account of the illegal street vendors making the sidewalks of Los Angeles their space.

However, in their introduction Zavestoski and Agyeman rhetorically suggest that ‘this volume initiates the kind of dialogue and future research that can help answer these questions’ – and the trouble, as they allude to in their conclusion, is that many of the chapters signally do not answer questions. Over many of the chapters the bogeyman of gentrification looms large – essentially (and the evidence presented in the volume is compelling in this regard) complete streets as an urban design practice in the USA goes hand-in-hand with gentrification and the displacement of poor People of Color by richer white hipsters on fixed-gear bikes.

I find this troubling, because it leaves the planner with a Hobson’s choice – design safe streets and create a tidal wave of gentrification; or leave things as a status-quo. As a researcher interested in delivering socially just urban renewal I find this troubling – do less affluent communities have to stay in neighbourhoods with poor quality public-realm that endangers their safety and their health just in case improving them leads to some displacement? Obviously, the answer is no; we can do things such as ensure levels of affordable rented housing remain high; but that the logic of their argument ends at this point does not seem to have been fully grappled by many of the authors.

The chapters that get nearest to this are Cadji and Hope Alkon in their chapter on North Oakland farmers market and Goodling and Herrington writing about the Portland Community Watershed Program. Both these chapters offer fascinating accounts of community organisers and workers wrestling with the challenges of trying to deliver environmental equity without exacerbating socio-economic injustice through their work. A frustratingly short chapter was that by Chapple – this highlights that in the US context Complete Streets policies are regressive because most lower-skilled, lower-paid workers have to drive to their suburban work locations. This is an argument and issue that could have been explored in much greater depth throughout the book.

A major weakness of the book was its parochial focus on the USA and this weakened the argument overall. An engagement with practice from northern European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands could have offered real opportunities to learn how to deliver environmentally sustainable street design without exacerbating socio-economic injustices. Parallels could also have been made with UK practice which seems to be following the US trend.

This notwithstanding, I would recommend this book be read by anyone involved in urban design, transport planning and cycling advocacy – it raises thorny issues and questions that stick with you a long time. I wish traffic engineers would read it to realise their engineering solutions have social impacts. As a cycling advocate myself, it has made me rethink what my priorities are for the city in which I live as it expands its provision for active travel.

Doucet, B. (2009). "Living through gentrification: subjective experiences of local, non-gentrifying residents in Leith, Edinburgh." Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 24(3): 299-315.