Saturday, 31 October 2009

Unacceptable behaviour – Ministerial sackings

The rules in the UK which govern how and when Ministers can sack officials and advisors need to be changed. Two dreadful decisions have been made in recent times which undermine the credibility of government and Parliament – the sacking of a local authority Director of Children’s Services by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and the sacking yesterday of Prof. David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary.

Of course, Ministers should have the right, in the appropriate circumstances, to sack the people they have appointed. This is not in question. It is the criteria for deciding when the circumstances are appropriate that we need to get right – and they are clearly not right at the moment.

Let us take the two cases in turn. The sacking of a top local government officer by a Secretary of State, for behaviour in office in that local authority, should not be acceptable. If the behaviour of that officer had serious consequences in other agencies, in other areas or for the country as a whole, then there is indeed a case for a Secretary of State to step in. However, this was not the case. Their mistakes, if indeed they are properly found to have made mistakes, should have been dealt with by their own agency. If that agency is generically mismanaged, then there are indeed powers for the Secretary of State to step in and arrange for the management of such an agency to be supplemented or even replaced. But picking on one Director, on the grounds that the Secretary of State can tell more appropriately than the local politicians who should be employed and who shouldn’t, is patent nonsense. That way, madness lies. It is necessary to change the rules so that Ministers cannot again intervene in this way in the affairs of a local authority.

Turning to David Nutt and the Home Secretary, it is NOT in question that Ministers have the right to disagree with the advice given to them by scientists and other expert advisors – and indeed, sometimes it is essential for them to do so. Scientists and experts don’t know everything. Politicians bring different expertise to the decision making process – in particular, they bring a value system which has been legitimated by their election to Parliament and their appointment to Ministerial posts. However, we need to be clearer as to when it is appropriate for Ministers to exercise these powers to countermand expert advice. When it is in the public interest, and Ministers clearly have an understanding of certain public interests to a greater degree than their expert advisors, we should celebrate that we have a system which protects us from the narrow perspectives of ‘experts’. This particularly applies when there is a moral dimension to a decision or when choices have to be made between the interests of different groups in society which are in fundamental conflict. No way do I want ‘experts’ to get their way on such decisions – here, all politicians, but especially Ministers, must be up front and brave in challenging the ‘expert’ advice they get and making sure the policies recommended to Parliament take into account the public interest.

Inserting a moral dimension? Resolving fundamental conflicts between groups in society? Were these the grounds on which Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, intervened to regrade cannabis as a drug more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, when her advisors have unambiguously told her the opposite? No, it does not seem so. Sheer party political interest, driven by ill-informed and hysterical commentary in the national media, appeared to drive her decision. Not acceptable grounds for overturning scientific advice.

And Alan Johnson’s decision now to sack the Chair of his Advisory Council? He writes in his letter of dismissal: “When you wrote previously around the relative harms of drugs comparing ecstasy to horse riding my predecessor made it clear that it is not the job of the chair of the government’s Advisory Council to comment or initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs”. Yet, actually, it is precisely the job of that Advisory Council to advise on the evidence for the relative harms of drugs. To do so in a way which makes the issues clear to the public (albeit embarrassing to the government) would seem especially praiseworthy (and, of course, particularly unusual).

Then Alan Johnson goes on to write: “It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.” Well, I think we would all drink to that. (Sorry, ‘agree’ to that).

So, have David Nutt’s recent statements in the press “undermined public understanding” of the government’s messages on drugs? In no way. In fact, quite the opposite – they have significantly increased the public’s understanding that the government has acted to regrade cannabis, not because of its likely harms to the public, but for party political advantage. Here, it is clearly the government which is behaving unacceptably, not its advisor.

And can we justify Alan Johnson’s decision by using the general principles of public interest? For example, has he injected moral values into the debate, on behalf of those who have elected him? No, the government claims it is simply reacting to the evidence given to it on relative ‘harms’. Or is Alan Johnson claiming that his intervention is to resolve fundamental conflicts between the interests of different groups in society? No, the government claims that there is a general public interest in reducing the harms from drugs – so that both those groups who argue for utterly draconian penalties on drug takers and dealers, and those who argue for complete legalisation of (unadulterated non-lethally-poisonous) substances have got it wrong – both groups will have their interests best served if the government acts to reduce the harms arising from drug misuse.

Conclusion? Ministers are currently taking significant decisions on the appointments of public figures without any reference to the public interest and with clear intention to secure party political advantage. This may not be surprising. It may not be unprecedented. It may not be easy to eradicate. But it IS unacceptable. We should launch a search for new rules which make it harder and less likely in the future. Parliament should debate this immediately and set this search for new rules in motion.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

'Opinion' elevated over 'expertise' in government 2.0?

In a recent blog, Will Davies (following Mirowski) has argued that 'government 2.0' is the final realisation of the neo-liberal state. “No auditors, no experts, no objective knowledge, no sense of the common good, just maximum freedom for individuals to form opinions and privately process information.” He goes on to argue that siding with perspective over expertise cannot be the basis for legitimacy (

While these concerns are understandable, Will Davies in this post does a disservice to the government 2.0 debate. He is actually talking about ‘non-government 2.0’ and sets up a straw-man-opponent in which hardly anyone could possibly believe, then demonstrates convincingly how to knock this opponent over. Most of those involved in the government 2.0 debate want much richer interactions between citizens, service users, professionals, managers and politicians. Few want the views of citizens and service users to trump the views of the others. They just want those views to have much greater weight in the future - not a lot to ask, given how little weight they have had up to now.

A long way down the line, we are going to have to face up to the issues which Will Davies raises here, deciding where the proper balance lies between expertise and 'perspective' (better characterised as 'formally-validated expertise' and 'experience-based experience'). And we will certainly wish to ensure that BOTH play major roles in decision making on public services and issues. But it is wholly implausible for Will Davies to suggest that we are now reaching the point where 'expertise' is being swamped, so that the legitimacy of current governmental decision making structures and systems is threatened by ill-informed, non-expert 'opinion'-peddlars.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Press Complaints Commission, the Daily Mail and Jan Moir

I submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the Daily Mail article by Jan Moir ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death …’ on 16 October 2009. My complaint, under clauses 1, 3, 5 and 12 of the Code of Practice ran as follows:

“This article is speculative without any attempt to find out the facts, intrusive into private issues and a family grief without any relevance to issues which are in the public interest, and outrageously homophobic in both content and tone. If this kind of abusive and ill-informed comment is allowed to proliferate, we will have a press full of insinuations against anyone in the public eye, full of poisonous innuendo, pretending to preach warnings and caution to a public intended to be terrified, but based on absolutely no research, knowledge or intention to inform. It is not sufficient to sanction the author, who appears to be simply a big mouth looking for attention. A national newspaper which publishes such material, without any attempt to verify its insinuations and without any regard to the insult which it gives to the gay community which it belittles and demonises, should be publicly upbraided for its shockingly low standards of taste and banned from carrying any advertising for a period of at least a month, to ensure that it suffers an economic sanction for its lapse of standards.”

I very quickly received the following reply:

“Dear Tony Bovaird

Thank you for sending us your complaint about the Daily Mail article on the subject of the death of Stephen Gately. We have received numerous complaints about this matter.

I should first make clear that the Commission generally requires the involvement of directly affected parties before it can begin an investigation into an article. On this occasion, it may be a matter for the family of Mr Gately to raise a complaint about how his death has been treated by the Daily Mail. I can inform you that we have made ourselves available to the family and Mr Gately's bandmates, in order that they can use our services if they wish.

We require the direct involvement of affected parties because the PCC process can have a public outcome and it would be discourteous for the Commission to publish information relating to individuals without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, doing so might unwittingly add to any intrusion. Additionally, one of the PCC's roles is dispute resolution, and we would need contact with the affected party in order to determine what would be an acceptable means of settling a complaint.

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Press Complaints Commission”

Somehow, this doesn’t seem very convincing, does it? I find it hard to believe that this very weak response has anything to do with the fact that the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is Paul Dacre, who is editor of the Daily Mail. However, I’m thinking about what else might explain it and haven’t managed to come with anything very plausible just yet. Can you help?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

From self-organising of services to co-production

David Gale, in a post to a blogsite on which Martin Ferguson of SOCITM is asking for ideas on issues to raise at a forthcoming PSI event on service delivery, suggests that the posts made say nothing at all about taking a few steps back and starting by putting the customer at the centre of service delivery and information management ( This note is based on my reply to that post.

Actually, most users are already at the centre of what public sector professionals and managers would see as 'the service', since they are already doing lots of things that either make the service unnecessary (core preventative activity, e.g. eating better, exercising more, taking more stuff to recycling centres, locking their houses and cars more carefully, etc.) or are undertaking some of the core problem-alleviating service activity for themselves or with friends and neighbours (e.g. caring for a loved one, learning a new skill, taking a course of non-prescribed medicine, cleaning up a dirty corner of the local pond, intervening to ask local kids to stop making such a racket around the local bus stop late into the evening, etc.).

The big and embarrassing issue is this - users and citizens DON'T see this as 'co-production of public services' - and quite rightly. That's because they very often see themselves as pretty well producing the improvements ALONE and without help from professional staff, whether from the public sector or third sector (never mind the private sector). 'Co-production my arse', you can probably hear them mumbling. So actually, it's not really a question of 'us' (public service professionals) putting 'them' (users and citizens) at the centre of service delivery and information - no, the challenge is to find ways for US to get to the centre, alongside users and engaged citizens. And if we are to ask their permission to get in there with them, and make use of their energy, commitment, expertise and time – and get them to recognize and make good us of OUR expertise and other resources - well, then, we're going to have to do something to improve our credibility, which in many cases is pretty shot through in the eyes of these 'everyday' makers of real improvements in the life of our communities.

I think that such an approach (‘from self-organising to co-production’) is directly tackling David Gale's point, but it suggests that we need to step back and see things from a very different perspective. Good news, bad news - bad news first: it's a humbler perspective, which is a bit hard for many professionals to take; good news - it often doesn't involve trying to create something that doesn't exist, rather it's about asking service users and citizens for permission to join them in their everyday mission to improve their own lives and those of the people around them. In other words, co-production would often be easy - if we weren't always trying so hard to see it and sell it as something WE have to convince THEM to do!

Role of user and community co-production in service transformation

Martin Ferguson of SOCITM has been asking for issues to raise at a forthcoming PSI event on service delivery, which would interest colleagues from Cabinet Office and other Whitehall departments. The following suggestions are mainly taken from my reply. You can add your own comments here - or at his blog (

A key element in service transformation in the next decade will be intensifying and systematising the co-production of services by users and other citizens - expert patients in health, recycling champions in local environmental services, neighbourhood watch convenors, peer support in social wellbeing, 'street champions' in neighbourhood service commissioning, 'job buddies' for NEETs, etc.

SOCITM members, and others working in social media, can help in several ways - one is just in improving the content and availability of information on WHAT co-production is happening and HOW to support it, but another key role is in connecting up all the users and citizens who already do a lot and want to do more, with professionals who can find ways of making use of their contribution.

Building up the role of co-production is a two-way process - in the public services, it's about helping professionals to understand and to access the huge contribution which users and other citizens can make to improving services; for users and citizens it's about helping them to use the expertise of professional service providers so that their largely self-organising activities become more effective, more widely spread, and less burdensome to them.

Of course, many local authorities (and probably most of Whitehall) will be especially interested in the potential efficiency savings arising from user and community co-production. We're currently researching this for LARCI (the Local Authorities Research Council Initiative). Ideas, examples and case studies gratefully received!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Seminar on Co-production of Services, Co-creation of value




Seminar on the shaping the research agenda

In the last few years, an enormous groundswell of interest has arisen in the potential of ‘co-production’ and ‘co-creation’, working with users and citizens.

Lots of different terms are used to describe what's going on here. They include working with users and citizens on:
• Co-production of services (e.g. expert patients) and products (e.g. software)
• Co-design of services
• Co-planning of public policies
• Co-creation of value
• Co-evaluation of public programmes and policies

A number of staff in Birmingham University are working on these themes. So far, many of these efforts have been unconnected. We think that it might be good to see if we could productively join up some of these research streams.

So we invite you to a seminar to explore what we are all doing, and potential links. And, if some links are found, we hope to have a few follow-up events.

Tentatively, we have pencilled the seminar in for 10 December (probably from 10.30 – 12.30). But let us know if that doesn’t suit – we may have to change it. In any case, you may catch us at some of the follow-up events.

To make sure something happens, we’re seeding the seminar. The people whose names are at the end of this email are committing to say something about their own research – but add your name, too, if you’re going to come along and say something. We’ll find someappropriate format, however many (or few) agree to come along!

And let’s co-produce this flyer like a wiki. Feel free to edit it (don’t bother with tracking mode) and send it out (to all the people who were copied into the email you got it from) with a short note of what changes you made – so feel free to improve the scope, the content and the process as best you can.

One other thing, we’ve invited a few people from outside the Uni Bham community to come along, too, as they have some really interesting things to contribute – if you want to do the same, feel free and add their name to the list (but only if they have agreed to come!) – but do please make it clear that you've done that in your subsequent emails, so that we keep a handle on the potential room and refreshment implications!

Tony Bovaird, INLOGOV and Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham
Elke Löffler, Chief Executive, Governance International
Graham Hill, Strategyn UK and Customers and More