Old heads on young shoulders

Now and again I fancy that I should have been an academic. As a general rule one of two things then happens; I either come across a complicated argument and remember that I’m not actually all that intelligent, or else I see an advert for an academic job while browsing and realise that they are generally rather badly paid. This is particularly true for those engaged in the study of British Politics, thanks in no small part to a research funding system which strongly rewards citations in international journals – I suspect you’re much more likely to get those writing about a particle than about participation.

Nonetheless, my fallback plan for the doomsday scenario of local government cutbacks (i.e. one in which I lose my job and can’t get a new one) is to tutor, ideally a position teaching A-Level politics at a well-to-do sixth form college, but I could be persuaded to be flexible on the specifics. If the worst comes to the worst perhaps I’ll move somewhere with a grammar school system and tutor for the 11 plus! For this reason, and because it’s very good, I find myself drawn to the Scenes from the Battleground blog, written by someone much worthier than me in that he is prepared to work in what we shall for now call challenging schools.

Recently, in a tactfully titled post – OFSTED must die – said blog set out the difficulties caused by inspection, and the extent to which the threat of inspection was used as a deus ex to solve arguments in favour of the person invoking the OFSTED-threat. This certainly resonated with me, and the feeling that Councils have been encouraged in the past to “play the Audit Commission’s game”, even when this has involved inspection of a procedure at the expense of the real outcomes involved. In the same way, there can be resource distortion caused by central priorities, meaning that while Councillors and policy staff argue for flexible decision making, fewer targets, less ringfencing of funding, etc etc, service staff in each area will often campaign for their funding to be ringfencing, and in favour of being subject to central targets, as a way of guaranteeing their share of the Council’s spending.

One potential solution to this, according to an academic paper I read recently (which is, in fairness, citing a further paper, I take back everything I said earlier, although that earlier paper is full of maths that I don’t understand), is to have more politically marginal Councils. While the merits of this seem obvious, it’s clear that there is no argument so obvious that it cannot be dressed up in quite fancy theoretical terms.  So;

Using electoral and performance data on English local authorities, [Besley and Preston] examine how patterns of districting affect electoral incentives by making jurisdictions marginal or safe for incumbents. They arue that where the incumbents need to capture the swing voters we should expect to see greater efficiency in government. Competition will enhance governmental effectiveness. Using Audit Commission data on valence issues – that is policies where virtually every voter would concur on what constitutes improvement – they show that patterns of bias within districting do seem to have an effect on local government performance as measured by Audit Commission data.

Or, to put it another way, “Council Leaders who think they’re at risk of losing their jobs will put more of the budget into getting the bins emptied on time and cutting the Council tax, and less into programmes designed to reduce youth imprisonment rates or catch more speeding motorists”. I don’t know about you but I’d say that sounds instinctively plausible…

Maybe I should be an academic after all.


One response to “Old heads on young shoulders

  1. Does sound plausable, but are inspections really so bad? In my area, SocialCare, management had for for the past few years ignored the concerns of front line workers leading to some pretty disastorous policy decisions. I’m normally highly sceptical of targets and inspections, but I was impressed by CQC’s methodology which involved talking directly to staff at all levels and service users. They managed to pick up on most concerns, the authority lost a star, have finally been forced to acknowledge their mistakes and are now being forced to address them. Its not a great situation but, certainly at local level how effective is democratic scruitiny, accountability and transparency? In the absence of an informed, engaged electorate the inspectors are needed to fill the gap.

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