42. Best practice

Everything we do, or are responsible for, should aim at adopting ‘best practice’. This is easier said than done! We need knowledge, capability and capacity. Then maybe there are three categories through which we can seek best practice: (1) from ‘already in practice’ elsewhere; (2) could be in practice somewhere but isn’t: the research has been done but hasn’t been transferred; (3) problem identified, but research needed.

How do we acquire the knowledge? Through reading, networking, cpe courses, visits. Capability is about training, experience, acquiring skills. Capacity is about the availability of capability – access to it – for the services (let us say) that need it. Medicine provides an obvious example; local government another. How do each of 164 local authorities in England acquire best practice? Dissemination strategies are obviously important. We should also note that there may be central government responsibilities. We can expect markets to deliver skills, capabilities and capacities – through colleges, universities and, in a broad sense, industry itself (in its most refined way through ‘corporate universities’). But in many cases, there will be a market failure and government intervention becomes essential. In a field such as medicine, which is heavily regulated, the Government takes much of the responsibility for ensuring supply of capability and capacity. There are other fields, where in early stage development, consultants provide the capacity until it becomes mainstream – GMAP in relation to retailing being an example from my own experience. (See the two ‘spin-out blogs.)

How does all this work for cities, and in particular, for urban analytics? Good analytics provide a better base for decision making, planning and problem solving in city government. This needs a comprehensive information system which can be effectively interrogated. This can be topped with a high-level ‘dashboard’ with a hierarchy of rich underpinning levels. Warning lights might flash at the top to highlight problems lower down the hierarchy for further investigation. It needs a simulation (modelling) capacity for exploring the consequences of alternative plans. Neither of these needs are typically met. In some specific areas, it is potentially, and sometimes actually, OK: in transport planning in government; in network optimisation for retailers for example. A small number of consultants can and do provide skills and capability. But in general, these needs are not met, often not even recognised. This seems to be a good example of a market failure. There is central government funding and action – through research councils and particularly perhaps, Innovate UK. The ‘best practice’ material exists – so we are somewhere in between categories 1 and 2 of the introductory paragraph above. This tempts me to offer as a conjecture the obvious ‘solution’: what is needed are top-class demonstrators. If the benefits were evident, then dissemination mechanisms would follow!

Alan Wilson
June 2016

30: Sledgehammers for wicked problems

There are many definitions of ‘wicked problems’ – first characterised by Rittel and Webber in the 1970s – try googling to explore. However, essentially, they are problems that are well known, difficult and that governments of all colours have attempted to solve. My own list, relating to cities in the UK, would be something like:

  • social
    • social disparities
    • welfare – unemployment, pensions,……
    • housing
  • services
    • health services – elements of post-code lottery, poor performance, resources
    • education – a long tail of poor performance – for individuals and schools
    • prisons – high levels of recidivism
  • economics
    • productivity outside the Greater South East
    • ‘poor’ towns – seaside towns for example
  • global, with local impacts – sustainability
    • responding to the globalisation of the economy
    • responding to climate change
    • food security
    • energy security
    • indeed security in general

There are lots of ways of doing this and much more detail could be added. See for example the book edited by Charles Clarke titled The too difficult box.

Even at this broad level of presentation, the issues all connect and this is one of the arguments, continually put, for joined-up government. It is almost certainly the case, for example, that the social list has to be tackled through the education system. Stating this, however, is insufficient. Children from deprived families arrive at school relatively ill-prepared – in terms of vocabulary for example and so start – it has been estimated – two years ‘behind’ and in a conventional system, there is a good chance that they never catch up. There are extremes of this. Children who have been in care for example rarely progress to higher education; and it then turns out that quite a high percentage of the prison population have at some stage in their lives been in care. Something fundamental is wrong there.

We can conjecture that there is another chain of causal links associated with housing issues. Consider not the overall numbers issue – that as a country we build 100,000 houses a year when the ‘need’ is estimated at 200,000 or more – but the fact that there are areas of very poor housing, usually associated with deprived families. I would argue that this is not a housing problem but an income problem – not enough resource for the families to maintain the housing. It is an income problem because it is an employment problem. It is an employment problem because it is a skills problem. It is a skills problem because it is an education problem. Hence the root, as implied earlier, lies in education. So a first step in seeking to tackle the issues on the list of to identify the causal chain and to begin with the roots.

What, then, is the ‘sledgehammer’ argument? If the problem can be articulated and analysed, then it should be possible to see ‘what can be done about it’. The investigation of feasibility then kicks in of course: solutions are usually expensive. However, we don’t usually manage to do the cost-benefit analysis at a broad scale. If we could be more effective in providing education for children in care, and for the rehabilitation of prisoners, expensive schemes could be paid for by savings in the welfare and prison budgets: invest to save.

Let’s start with education. There are some successful schools in potentially deprived areas – so examples are available. (This may not pick up the child care issues but we return to that later.) There are many studies that say that the critical factor in education is the quality of the teachers – so enhancing the status of the teaching profession and building on schemes such as Teach First will be very important. Much is being done, not quite enough. Above all, there must be a way of not accepting ‘failure’ in any individual cases. With contemporary technology, tracking is surely feasible, though the follow-up might involve lots of 1-1 work and that is expensive. Finally, there is a legacy issue: those from earlier cohorts who have been failed by the system will be part of the current welfare and unemployment challenge, and so again some kind of tracking, some joining up of social services, employment services and education, should provide strong incentives to engage in life-long learning programmes – serious catch up. The tracking and joining up part of this programme should also deal with children in care as a special case, and a component of the legacy programme should come to grips with the prison education and rehabilitation agenda. There is then an important add-on: it may be necessary for the state to provide employment in some cases. Consider people released from prison as one case. They are potentially unattractive to employers (though some are creative in this respect) and so employment through let’s say a Remploy type of scheme – maybe as a licence condition of (early?) release becomes a partial solution. This might help to take the UK back down the league table of prison population per capita. This could all in principle be done and paid for out of savings – though there may be an element of no pain ‘no gain’ at the start. There are examples where it is being done: let’s see how they could be scaled up.

Similar analyses could be brought to bear on other issues. Housing is at the moment driven by builders’ and developers’ business models; and as with teacher supply, there is a capacity issue. As we have noted, in part it needs to be driven by education, employment and welfare reforms as a contribution to affordability challenges. And it needs to be driven by planners who can switch from a development control agenda to a place-making one.

The rest of the list, for now, is, very unfairly, left as an exercise for the reader!! In all cases, radical thinking is required, but realistic solutions are available!! We can offer a Michael Barber check list for tackling problems – from his book How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy – very delivery-focused, as is his wont. For a problem:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • How do you know you will be on track?
  • if not on track, what will you do?

All good advice!

Alan Wilson

18: Against oblivion

I was at school in the 1950s – Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Darlington – with Ian Hamilton. He went on to Oxford and became a significant and distinguished poet, critic, writer and editor – notable, perhaps, for shunning academia and running his editorial affairs from the Pillar of Hercules in Greek Street in Soho. I can probably claim to be the first publisher of his poetry as Editor of the School Magazine – poems that, to my knowledge, have never been ‘properly’ published. We lost touch after school. He went on to national service and Oxford; I deferred national service and went to Cambridge. Continue reading

13: ‘Research on’ versus ‘research for’

Let us begin by asserting that any piece of research is concerned with a ‘system of interest’ – henceforth ‘the system’ (cf. Systems thinking). We can then make a distinction between the ‘science of the system’ and the ‘applied science relating to the system’. In the second case, the implication is that the system offers challenges and problems that the science (of that system or possibly also with ‘associated’ systems) might help with. In research terms, this distinction can be roughly classified as ‘research on’ the system and ‘research for’ the system. This might be physics on the one hand, and engineering on the other; or biological sciences and medicine. Continue reading

11: Real challenges

One route into urban research is to reflect on the well known and very real challenges that cities face. The most obvious ones can be classified as ‘wicked problems’ in that they have been known for a long time, usually decades, and governments of all colours have made honourable attempts to ‘solve’ them. Given the limited resources of most academic researchers it could be seen as wishful thinking to take these issues on to a research agenda, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. And we need to bear in mind the PDA framework (cf.’systems thinking’): policy, design, analysis. Good analysis will demonstrate the nature of the challenge; policy is usually to make progress with meeting it; the hard part is the ‘design – inventing possible solutions. The analysis comes into play again to evaluate the options. If we focus on the UK context, what is a sample of the issues? Let’s structure the argument in terms of half a dozen headings, and then take examples under each. Continue reading