Monthly Archives: April 2017

Electioneering versus Governing

The next UK General Election will be held on 8 June 2017 – just over 2 years since the last one despite the establishment of 5 year parliamentary terms under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The argument made by Prime Minister Theresa May was that this was,

“…the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead”.

Yet will this guarantee certainty? Well, one certainty seems to be the ever increasing popularity, by politicians, of elections and referendums. A quick search shows how many elections have been held across the UK since 2010 with a particular peak of elections and significant referendums since 2014.

Elections since 2010:
2010 UK General Election
2010 English Local Elections (32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 76 second-tier district authorities, 20 unitary authorities and various Mayoral posts)
2011 UK Voting System Referendum
2011 Welsh Devolution Referendum
2011 Northern Ireland Local Elections
2011 English Local Elections (36 Metropolitan boroughs, 194 Second-tier district authorities, 49 unitary authorities and various mayoral post)
2012 Scottish Local Elections
2012 Welsh Local Elections
2012 English Local Elections (28 English local authorities, three mayoral elections including the London mayoralty)
2012 London Assembly Elections
2013 English Local Elections (27 non-metropolitan county councils, eight unitary authorities and 2 mayoral elections)
2014 European Parliament Election
2014 Scottish Independence Referendum
2014 Northern Ireland Local Elections
2014 English Local Elections (32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 74 district/borough councils, 20 unitary authorities and a number of mayoral elections)
2015 UK Parliament Election
2015 English Local Elections (36 metropolitan boroughs, 194 second-tier districts, 49 unitary authorities and 6 mayoral elections)
2016 English Local Elections (124 local councils and 4 mayoral elections)
2016 Scottish Parliament Election
2016 Welsh Parliament Election
2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election
2016 London Assembly Election
2016 EU Referendum
2017 Scottish Local Elections
2017 Welsh Local Elections
2017 English Local Elections (27 county councils, 7 unitary authorities, 1 metropolitan borough, 8 mayoral elections)
2017 UK Parliament Election
NB: Also 31 by-elections between 2010-2017 and many community council elections.

It could be argued that this is a good thing. It shows the vibrancy of our democracy and the increasing voice of citizens in influencing government policy. However, it poses many significant challenges for those who work in public policy and administration: the cost of electoral administration; the opportunity cost of elections and the risk of voter fatigue.

Not only do elections involve a lot of political planning and campaigning but they also require significant administration including the training and management of polling staff and count staff. An election is not something that can easily happen on a whim. It requires a lot of planning, coordination and, importantly, investment.

A second issue with elections is that they divert attention away from the development of public policy and the delivery of public services. Since 2014 in particular there have been significant votes involving all UK Political Parties including the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the 2015 UK General Election, the 2016 EU Referendum and now the 2017 General Election. There is a huge opportunity cost involved in these major election campaigns – whilst campaigning and voting takes place our political representative, public officials and public service professionals are subject to purdah rules and must divert their energies from public service delivery to the major operational challenges of an election.

The other significant cost of this is that it risks leading to voter fatigue and apathy. The immediate reaction from many to the UK General Election announcement was fairly muted. It isn’t currently clear how the public will respond to the announcement and what the resultant turnout will be. But what is clear is that at some point the votes must be counted – and the government(s) must govern.

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Practising What We Preach

The current academic literature on public administration is full of research on collaborative governance, integrated services and community participation. This research reflects a reality where boundaries between public, private and Third Sectors are increasingly blurred and where services are being redesigned to better meet rising public expectations at the same time as facing the challenges of austerity and Brexit. These themes are all discussed in modules such as ‘International Trends in Public Administration’ on our MPA programme.

From the earliest discussions in developing the MPA programme I knew that I wanted to include the ACOSVO Leadership Exchange programme as part of our postgraduate degree. There were some important reasons for this: 1) I knew that ACOSVO was an excellent organisation that reflected many of our values; 2) I felt it was important that a public services degree has a strong link with the Third Sector; and 3) I wanted to ensure that the MPA had an appropriate blend of theoretical content and practical application.

All of this was in line with the aims of our MPA programme to enable learners to:

  • Build on their professional experience by engaging critically with, and reflecting on, themes and issues in public administration in order to better shape the public service landscape of tomorrow.
  • Critically evaluate the theories and practice of public administration as a tool for public service improvement.
  • Be critically reflective leaders who contribute to the social and economic sustainability of the communities they serve.

Having been through the first year of this programme I am delighted with the results. Firstly, it has been a pleasure to work with ACOSVO. As part of the development of the programme I went on a leadership exchange myself and found the experience invaluable. Some of my colleagues have since done the same and have reported similar valuable learning experiences.

What has been most rewarding about the experience has been the feedback I have received from students. This has been overwhelmingly positive. It has proven difficult for some to find exchange partners, particularly given that our students are conducting the Leadership Exchange as part of the MPA. However, everyone has been matched and all have really enjoyed working with their exchange partners.

Comments I have received include from one student who noted that she was reassured to see just how much the theory of our programme related to practice in different organisational contexts. Having seen public administration from both the theoretical and practical perspectives gave her a new found appreciation of the subject and the value of her learning on the programme. For another student the experience in working with his exchange partner had also proven just how much the challenges facing our public services cut across organisational boundaries. He planned to continue the exchange process beyond his studies and has set up a number of ongoing meetings with his exchange partner to continue the learning. Finally, another student had noted that he had been partnered with a senior manager within a Third Sector organisation. Coming from the public sector he had little prior experience of the Third Sector and admitted that he had previously held views of Third Sector organisations that proved to be out of step with reality. He was now open to the idea of a future career in the Third Sector thanks to his experience in the exchange programme.

My overall view is that our MPA programme could not achieve it’s aim ‘to enable students to critically evaluate the theories and practice of public administration’ without the strong industry links that have been facilitated through our partnership with ACOSVO. And so much current public administration research and practice involves collaboration – it would be a nonsense if we didn’t practise what we preach!

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MPA Visit to Brussels 2017

Brussels is seen by many as the capital of Europe and the EU. It is the location of key EU institutions such as  of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council. It is also the location for committee meetings and some plenary sessions of the European Parliament albeit the primary home of the European Parliament is Strasbourg.

What is striking about Brussels is the extent to which it has been at the centre of European affairs, almost reluctantly so, for centuries. A rather unassuming plaque on Grand Place marks the spot where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on The Communist Manifesto.

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Nearby is the house where Victor Hugo developed writings that would become his masterpiece, Les Miserables. Both Karl Marx and Victor Hugo had sought political refuge in Brussels. Other writers to have been inspired by Brussels include the Brontë sisters and our very own Sir Walter Scott. It is clear that Brussels has been a welcoming and tolerant place for centuries. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that it later became the de facto capital of Europe.

The primary purpose of our visit was to explore the European institutions and get a better sense of how the EU works and how this then affects public administration. A key highlight of the trip was our visit to the EU Parliament and the adjoining visitor centre – the Parliamentarium.

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The Parliamentarium provides an exceptional account of the development and workings of the EU institutions. The exhibition starts with some deeply moving accounts of Europe before the EU was established – plagued by war and poverty.

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These stark images were set alongside some key quotes setting out the vision of a more prosperous, peaceful and united Europe that latter became the European Union.

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Later parts of the exhibition set out how early agreements on integration of the Western European coal and steel industries later developed into the European Economic Community and eventually to the establishment of the European Union with free movement of people, a shared currency and free trade. Again the images portraying the expansion of the EU community were set alongside images of major world events such as the Fall of the Berlin Wall which influenced it’s development and expansion over time.

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The final part of the exhibition explained how the different parts of the EU work in practice. This allowed our MPA students to fully explore the nature of decision-making within the EU.

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Having completed our tour we congregated at the Parliamentarium cafe and were struck by the presence of several copies of the letter from UK Prime Minister Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk which invoked Article 50 just a few days before our trip.

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Exploring the city further during our visit it is clear that Brussels remains a tolerant and welcoming place. Today Brussels is the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic capital of Europe. It has the second highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any city in the world (62%). It remains hugely influential within Europe and indeed throughout the world. It will continue to do so without the UK being a member of the EU. Hopefully it will continue to be a tolerant and welcoming place – and perhaps parts, or the whole, of the UK will be welcomed back some day.

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I certainly think Brussels left it’s mark on our students. Visiting the EU institutions and seeing how they work has, I hope, raised their awareness and appreciation of the EU more than any book or academic journal article would. I only wish more students and more members of the public could benefit from this experience.

I now look forward to our new cohort of MPA students and hope that we may be welcomed back to Brussels next year. As for Scotland and the UK – it would seem like anyone’s guess as to what will happen next – but I look forward to finding out!

We are now accepting applications to start the MPA in September 2017. Find out more here:  http://www.qmu.ac.uk/courses/PGCourse.cfm?c_id=277

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New Module in ‘Orwellian Doublespeak for Contemporary Public Administration’

I have developed a new core module for the Edinburgh MPA which I am very excited about. ‘Orwellian Doublespeak for Contemporary Public Administration’ will offer insights into distorting the meaning of words and the use of policy-based evidence making to create alternative facts and populist fictions.

 

Previously I have noted the importance of academics connecting with the real world and that we engage with real debates on the future of public administration. Increasingly this takes the form of dismissing experts, as previously demonstrated by Michael Gove, in preference for soundbites, unsubstantiated assertions and pure gut instinct. This module has been developed not to challenge any of this but to reflect the needs and desires of the modern workplace. Therefore I have developed this new practice-based module which will start this time next year – 1 April 2018.

 

Content includes:

Brexit – How the UK will be able to retain all the benefits of EU membership and the benefits of being outside the EU without suffering any downsides.

Fake News – How to dismiss facts and evidence with two simple words.

Scottish Independence – How it’s a great idea (for Scottish students only) OR How it’s a terrible idea (all other students).

International Relations – How to build walls not bridges – and then do neither.

 

The full module descriptor can be accessed here.

 

The module will be co-taught by both academics and appropriate experts including our Honorary Professor Donald Trump. For more information on the MPA programme please see our course pages here: http://www.qmu.ac.uk/courses/PGCourse.cfm?c_id=277. Applications are now open!

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