“I was pleased to be able to use my learning, and the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.”

In this blog, we catch up with Flora Miles, a Bristol graduate and newly qualifed Social Worker. She was recently invited to present her dissertation at an event organised by the University of Bath to mark World Social Work Day 2022, celebrating recent developments in practice, activism and research.

Here she talks about the findings of her research along with her experiences of the masters programme:

Flora Miles

After completing my undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology, I wanted to further focus my skills and knowledge towards helping people live fulfilled and empowered lives. I was inspired by social workers who I had encountered through my voluntary experience with charities. The Masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol offered me a great opportunity, building on my previous studies and some experience which I had gained through volunteering. The course was highly rated and I was excited at the opportunity to study in Bristol, which is a city I did not know well before the course and have now become very fond of!

I found the programme varied and engaging. Teaching on a range of topics by faculty members was supplemented by interesting guest lectures. My learning was supported by the knowledgeable and generous members of the service user and carer forum who, through appearances at lectures and in small group workshops, helped us keep service users and carers at the centre of our learning. One of my favourite things about the course was my fellow social work students, who were interesting and friendly people with a breadth of experiences from which I learned a lot and gained treasured friendships.

“Work placements…expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!”

I undertook my first practice placement with Exeter Homelessness Partnership at CoLab in Exeter, where I live. I loved this experience in the voluntary sector, during which I met some brilliant people and learned so much about creativity and resilience. Unfortunately, the covid pandemic began during the early stages of this placement, leading to a change of plans in which my placement was suspended. Luckily, I gained employment as a project worker with CoLab’s Resilient Women project and as a mental health support worker with Rethink Mental Illness. The university supported me to take learning and reflection opportunities from this employment, which allowed me to progress to the second year of the Masters. This was a very challenging time requiring much flexibility and adaptation from myself and the university, but I am proud to say that we got through it and that I gained valuable experiences. A key takeaway for me was to expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!

My second placement was with Devon County Council, in an adult safeguarding team and a community health and social care team. I was pleased to have this experience in a statutory setting, following my experience in the voluntary sector in first year. This placement was invaluable for my learning regarding the principles and processes at the heart of social work in a local authority, where many social workers are employed. I was helped by committed and supportive social workers as my practice educator and supervisor, who were role models to me. This placement was very useful, especially as I have gone on to work for Devon County Council and therefore continue to directly apply context-specific learning gained while on placement.

“My dissertation has stuck with me powerfully, and opened up opportunities…”

One of my favourite parts of the Social Work Masters was writing a dissertation. It was a real challenge but I grew and learned a lot through it. My dissertation was entitled  Mental Capacity in cases of Self-Neglect: A Thematic Analysis of Safeguarding Adults Reviews in England. I became fascinated by topics of mental capacity in adults throughout my studies at Bristol. With the help of my supervisor, I identified that looking at mental capacity in cases of self-neglect would be especially interesting. Having read some Safeguarding Adults Reviews throughout my studies, I wanted to become more familiar with these documents and see what they could teach us.

Three key findings emerged from my dissertation:

  1. People at risk of self-neglect were let down when professionals failed to assess mental capacity
  2. Safeguarding processes failed to protect people who were found to have capacity to make self-care decisions
  3. Assessments needed more nuance and scope to account for the complexity of mental capacity

These findings enabled me to make recommendations for social care practitioners, team managers, policy makers, those involved in the commissioning and creation of Safeguarding Adults Reviews, and researchers.

My learning from researching for and writing my dissertation has stuck with my powerfully, and opened up opportunities. One such opportunity was being invited to speak on my findings at an event to celebrate World Social Work Day 2022 organised by the University of Bath. It was a pleasure to speak alongside other practitioners, researchers, and educators. I am proud of the presentation I gave, having received positive feedback including social work educators asking to share my findings with their students and practitioners telling me that they would use the findings to inform future work with people at risk of self-neglect. I was very pleased to be able to use my learning, and all the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.

The masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol was challenging, however I am grateful to be the social worker I am today because of it. I would recommend the course to anybody looking to learn a lot, meet passionate people, and take steps into a social work career.

Find out more about our MSc Social Work programme and what makes our joint professional and academic practice award unique.

 

The Bristol Referendum 2022: Thinking through the options

The co-authors of this contribution are members of the Bristol Civic Leadership Research Project: David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol; Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol; and Thom Oliver, Associate Lecturer, University of the West of England, Bristol.

In a referendum on 5 May 2022, the citizens of Bristol will make an important decision about the way our city is governed.

Citizens will be asked to choose between retaining the existing mayoral model of governance, which was introduced into Bristol in 2012, or to opt for a committee system of decision-making, which was last used in Bristol in 2000. In a new report, called The Bristol referendum 2022: Thinking through the options, we consider:

  • What exactly are these two ways of running a city?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two models?
  • How could the models be designed to enable Bristol to respond to the current challenges the city now faces?

This is the latest report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Project (BCLP). This project, which brings together city governance experts from our two local universities, has been examining the impact of mayoral governance on the city since 2012.

Research findings on mayoral governance and the committee system

Our research has shown that the introduction of mayoral governance has had many benefits for Bristol. Opinion research carried out by the BCLP before and after the introduction of a directly elected mayor – in 2012, 2014 and 2018 – indicates that the citizens of Bristol felt that the leadership of the city became far more visible. Civic leaders agreed that the mayoral model enhanced the visibility of the city leader, and they also felt that the mayoral model had improved the leadership of the city.

Detailed investigation over the last ten years has also revealed that civic leaders in the city, in the public, private and community sectors, as well as citizens at large, take the view that Bristol’s first two directly elected mayors, Mayor Ferguson (2012-2016) and Mayor Rees (2016-2024), have both been successful in developing a positive vision for the future of the city and that the mayoral model meant that the city was much better represented in national and international settings.

On the downside BCLP research has also shown that, following the introduction of mayoral governance, many councillors felt that their role in city governance became unnecessarily restricted. There was also concern amongst civic leaders that too much power had become concentrated in the office of the mayor. Our survey research also suggests that citizens’ views on the timeliness of, and trust in, decision-making have not been improved by the introduction of mayoral governance in Bristol.

This new report also reviews experience with the committee system used in Bristol and across local government in Britain up to 2000. Supporters of the committee system argued that it enabled local government to be both effective and democratic, and that it provided councillors with influential roles in decision-making.

However, in a report published by the Bristol Local Democracy Commission in 2001, major criticisms of the committee system were identified. The Commission found that there was no clear and accountable leadership, that important decisions were not subject to proper and effective scrutiny, and that a lot of time and effort was absorbed to no great effect in committee meetings.

Where next for city governance in Bristol?

Current legislation means that the referendum will fix the governance system of Bristol for ten years, from 2024 to 2034. It is a hugely significant decision. This new report discusses a range of issues for citizens to consider and here we highlight three important themes.

First, the literature on city leadership suggests that the way city governance is organised can have an important impact, not just on whether a city council is able to be effective in meeting the many complex issues they face, but also on the democratic vitality and inclusiveness of decision-making in their city.

It follows that all the citizens of Bristol should be encouraged to consider which of these two models of governance will help the city respond to the major challenges now facing the city. These challenges include: responding to the public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic; revitalising the economy of Bristol in the face of economic downturn; addressing the global climate emergency; and addressing increasing social, economic and racial inequality in our city.

Second, key democratic questions emerge in this debate. What are the advantages and disadvantages of enabling citizens to directly elect the city leader? What are the pros and cons of the committee system, where the council leader is selected by councillors? As part of our research on mayoral governance, we have long argued for stronger roles for councillors within the mayoral system. Adopting a committee system gives councillors clear roles in decision-making. In our report, we consider these and other matters, and include consideration of the ways that the models shape political leadership, their impacts on accountability and the ways that they affect the representation of people locally and the city externally.

Third, given the momentous significance of the May referendum for the future governance of Bristol the report recommends the establishment of an independent Bristol Governance Commission. This new commission, which would need to include representatives from across the voluntary, community, trade union, business, public and university sectors should be charged with the task of considering the best way to improve the governance of the City of Bristol.

This new commission should be set up without delay to take evidence, to consider experiences with successful city governance elsewhere in the world and to make recommendations to Bristol City Council.

The outcome of the Bristol Referendum in May 2022 is best seen not as the end of a debate about city leadership in Bristol, but the beginning of a civic conversation on how to improve the quality of city governance in our city.

Top tips from the editors of Policy & Politics for getting published

Policy & Politics is a leading international journal in the field of public and social policy. It spans the boundaries between theory and practice and links macro-scale debates with micro-scale issues. It seeks to analyse new trends and advance knowledge by publishing research at the forefront of academic debates.

Co-Editors: Oscar Berglund, University of Bristol, UK, Claire Dunlop, University of Exeter, UK, Chris Weible, University of Colorado, US

From the Policy and Politics Blog.

Developing smart cities: where are citizens’ voices? Learning from Mexico City and Bristol

Ensuring that that our research considers and promotes equality, diversity and inclusion is central to the work we do at the School for Policy Studies. Working in partnership with communities and stake holders to identify research questions that matter and ensuring that studies are co-produced wherever possible helps achieve these aims. This series of blogs looks at some of the ways what we research and how we go about it incorporates EDI principles.


In this blog, Kate Bowen-Viner (Social Policy PhD student) explores how research in the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research is making smart city innovation more inclusive.

Smart city innovation raises questions about citizens’ inclusion and participation in city governance.  The term ‘smart city’ is usually used to describe an urban area that uses digital technology to collect data (e.g. from citizens and the environment) to monitor and manage spaces. Such management may lead to environmental and social benefits in urban areas. For instance, smart city technology can be seen as a way to improve environmental sustainability and citizen’s welfare by optimising cities’ limited resources or monitoring and deterring crime. Whilst these potential benefits appear promising, smart city technology necessitates consideration of equality and inclusion issues related to urban governance, including:

  1. What role could and should citizens play in developing smart cities?
  2. What are the opportunities, risks and vulnerabilities for citizens created by increasing reliance on digital technology?
  3. What does an inclusive approach to smart city development look like?

In this blog, I set out the problem with developing smart cities without citizens’ input and explain how research from the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research is helping to make smart city innovation more inclusive and equitable.

What’s the problem?

Across the globe, cities are investing in smart infrastructure. The Covid 19 pandemic appears to have accelerated the growth and use of smart city innovations in some places. As the OECD highlighted in July 2020, “the pivotal role of digitalisation in emergency responses to the pandemic has pushed many cities to systematise the use of smart city tools more permanently, while staying alert and monitoring the risk of contagion.”  Whilst the rapid growth of digitalisation in some urban areas may provide solutions to some issues, not including citizens in decisions about smart city infrastructure could create long-term problems, including:

  1. Urban areas and citizens being ‘locked in’ to using certain types of smart city innovation

Decisions to buy digital infrastructure are likely to have long-lasting consequences. If one type of technology (e.g. from a particular company) is installed in an urban area, this may have impacts on what other forms of smart city technology can be used in the city. It may be expensive or difficult to install another type of technology in the future. Thus, not including citizens in decisions about smart city innovations could mean that citizens are forced to use and fund a type of technology that they do not want, for a long time.

  1. Smart city innovation not responding to citizens priorities and interests

If decisions are made about smart urbanism without citizens’ input, innovations may not respond to citizens’ priorities and interests. This could result in some citizens not engaging with smart city innovations and smart city innovations failing to address citizens’ needs.

  1. Individuals or groups being disadvantaged or excluded by smart urbanism

There is a risk that some citizens could be disadvantaged or excluded by smart city innovations. For example, if citizens need a certain level of digital literacy to engage with smart city technology, or if they need certain tools like smart phones, this could exclude some individuals or groups from elements of urban life.

Professor Alex Marsh from the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research is working with Dr Arturo Flores from Anáhuac University, Mexico to lead research that aims to address these issues. In collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre, Professor Marsh and Dr Flores are leading the Empowering Citizen-Orientated Smart City Innovation in Mexico (ECOSCIM) project which aims to develop a new framework to guide smart city innovation to be more inclusive, responsive and reflexive.

The ECOSCIM Project

The ECOSCIM project aims to develop a framework to guide smart city innovation in a way that pays attention to citizens’ needs and priorities. The project involves examining smart city innovations in Mexico City to see how they measure up to the new framework, as well as investigating the social and political contexts in which Smart City innovation takes place.

To achieve its aims, the ECOSCIM project involves working with citizens, community groups and policy makers in Mexico City to understand different perspectives and to build a new method to help the smart city innovation project. ECOSCIM has a particular focus on Mexico City as the city is large and its smart city innovation has not been researched in great depth. Conducting the research in Mexico City, rather than cities like Singapore or London which have more digital infrastructure, therefore means that the project can shed light on new perspectives about how smart city development can work in different contexts. Whilst the project will help citizens in Mexico City and other parts of Mexico, research findings will also support citizens all over the world who are interested in being involved in smart city innovations.

To carry out the project, the research team is collaborating with Knowle West Media Centre and using the Bristol Approach to understand more about Mexico City citizens’ priorities and to involve them in developing smart city innovation. Developed by Knowle West Media Centre, Ideas for Change and Bristol City Council, the Bristol Approach is a way of working that aims to ‘understand the issues people care about’ and how digital technology might help to address problems that citizens experience in everyday life. It involves local groups working together to identify issues that are affecting their cities and gathering information that will help to tackle those issues. The ECOSCIM project is exploring how the Bristol Approach can be used in Mexico City, as well as how Mexico City is involving citizens in smart city development. These inquiries will feed into the creation of a smart city toolkit aimed at communities.

Toolkit for taking action

The key output from the ECOSCIM project will be a toolkit that will help to make smart urbanism more inclusive and equitable. The toolkit will support citizens to get involved in smart city innovation and help them to address issues or problems that people are facing in their cities. Whilst the toolkit will be based on the research project in Mexico City, the research team intends for it to be helpful to communities across the globe.

Citizens’ voices are important

Research from the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research is helping to highlight the importance of citizen voice and the necessity for an inclusive approach to smart city innovation. In a world where digital and technological infrastructure is quickly becoming more ubiquitous in urban settings, it is vital to remember: citizens can and should be included in decisions about their cities.


 

Social differentiation in later life: the interaction between housing wealth and retirement in the UK and Japan

‘Social differentiation in later life: The 2nd UK-Japan international collaborative workshop exploring the interaction between (housing) wealth and retirement’

By Misa Izuhara, Professor of Social Policy

Who supports you in your transition to retirement? Is it the state, your employer or are you left to yourself to manage? Do you have sufficient financial resources including your own home to choose when to retire? Do you need to have paid work or will you look for different social participation such as volunteering after retirement? The process of retirement is becoming more complex and differentiated in terms of timing and financial resources. Active ageing policies in many advanced economies encourage older workers to remain in the labour market. However, the reasons and opportunities to do so depend on both market and institutions (e.g. retirement age, social security, attitudes of employers) as well as individual capital (e.g. health, skills, financial resources).

After a long break from the first workshop in Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we re-convened via an online platform to explore those questions at the second collaborative international workshop on 17th September 2021. This workshop is part of the UK-Japan collaborative project ‘Social Differentiation in Later Life: Exploring the interaction between housing wealth and retirement in Japan and the UK’ which brings together scholars and stakeholders with the different disciplinary backgrounds of social policy, economics and management to examine the relationship between housing wealth and the extending working life of ageing baby-boomers in the contrasting welfare systems of the UK and Japan.

Five papers were presented covering inter-related themes:

  • Matt Flynn (University of Hull) talked about older workers’ mid-career job change in the UK and Japan and how institutional structures like internal and external labour markets; regulations; unions and jobseeker support facilitate and/or inhibit older jobseekers in their pursuit of meaningful second careers. Using Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and illustrating his arguments using interview data of older jobseekers in the two countries, he discussed how older jobseekers were able to mobilise resources to make a successful job change. He concluded by noting that people who leave the Armed Forces after the age of 50 in order to pursue a civilian career might be a useful case study for comparing the experiences of people making mid-career job changes across different countries.
  • Jo Stokes (Community Services Manager, Age UK Bristol) highlighted the importance of a holistic approach to retirement in her presentation “What have we learnt from Post-Retirement Opportunities (PRO) programme”. PRO was a project, delivered by LinkAge Network in 2018-19, supporting people who had recently retired, were approaching retirement, or facing redundancy in later life to manage the transition from work to retirement. The programme delivered free workshops, events and work placements to help older workers explore opportunities and discover what they wanted from the next phase of their life. This presentation argued the importance of social participation and connections for older people beyond paid work in their post-retirement age and the role of the voluntary sector supporting the process.
  • Widening wealth inequalities within and between generations was the theme of the following two presentations. Drawing on the data from the Japan Household Panel Survey, Shinichiro Iwata (Kanagawa University) and Junya Hamaaki (Hosei University) examined the impact of unpredicted shocks to house prices on labour supply decisions among older homeowners. They found that Japanese older homeowners tended to remain in the labour market even when they experienced house price inflation. Instead of leaving the labour market, older workers tended to reduce their working hours. However, such practice differs by income level and employment status since reduced hours are only observed among older men in regular employment with a high income and women in non-regular employment. The presentation raised further questions regarding the use of housing wealth in later life including the availability and actual use of equity release schemes.
  • While the Japan paper discussed the impact of the economic crisis on house prices, James Smith (The Resolution Foundation) revealed the uneven impact of the COVID-19 crisis on wealth accumulation between households and between generations. The COVID-19 crisis is the first UK recession in 70 years in which wealth has increased but these gains are concentrated among households at the top of the income distribution. This partly reflects the effect on active changes in households’ savings and debt, varied by age but also by the labour market experiences and personal circumstances of individuals. For example, younger people without children were most likely to report that their savings increased during the pandemic (‘forced savings’ given the lockdown restrictions on social consumption). But changes in the value of household wealth were more affected by changing asset prices than by active changes in savings and debt. UK house prices are up around 10 per cent and equities are more than 20 per cent higher. These asset price increases drove an even larger intergenerational wedge in wealth shock. During the pandemic, adults aged 55 and older accrued 63 per cent (£559 billion) of the total increase in British household wealth (£900 billion). By contrast, those aged 20-40 accounted for just 13 per cent (£117 billion) of the total wealth rise. These large, and generationally uneven, increases in wealth mean that the picture of stalled wealth progress for younger cohorts is unlikely to come unstuck anytime soon. By way of inheritances, they are also likely to exacerbate absolute wealth gaps within younger generations, which we expect to open up in future.
  • Brian Beach from University College London (formerly International Longevity Centre, UK) presented three pieces of comparative work between Japan and the UK in relation to ageing. The first example covered work published in Ageing & Society, which included seven advanced economies and examined policies related to pensions and retirement and their relationship to labour market participation in later life. Scored across four dimensions each for early retirement and later retirement, Japan and the UK were quite similar in their scores, despite having very different rates of employment among older people. This may suggest that cultural factors related to work play a significant role, above that of policy.

The second example covered a fact-finding study in Japan in May 2017, which highlighted different initiatives to address wellbeing and healthy ageing. Genki-zukuri (health creation) stations are one community-based approach in Yokohama that helps older people set up, develop, and run health-based activities and exercises. Days BLG!, in Machida City, was also featured for its innovative approach to providing day care to people with mild and moderate dementia. With links to local businesses and organisations, the service ensures that participants are engaged according to their capacity, with the group reflecting on their activities at the end of each day.

The third example highlighted the work from the UK-Japan SWAN project (Social relationships and Wellbeing in Ageing Nations). The importance of social connections for wellbeing and other outcomes in later life cannot be underestimated, but challenges appear when conducting comparative analyses in the social realm due to the complexity of measuring social connections. The critical message from this work is that people from different groups, backgrounds, or cultures may view the exact same question differently; ignoring this potential difference risks drawing invalid conclusions from comparative work exploring best practice in policy.

The presentations brought together different issues associated with ageing and work such as work-related transitions, post-retirement opportunities, and widening wealth inequalities, which generated lively discussion among the panellists and participants. Retirement processes and decisions are often not experienced or made independently from one another. The workshop indeed highlighted the dynamic interactions between (housing) wealth and retirement trajectories and decisions. Moreover, we drew interesting comparisons by exploring the topics between Japan and the UK since institutions (social security, retirement age), the housing and labour markets as well as cultural factors related to work and home ownership combine to produce differentiated practices of late career transitions and retirements.

This international project is funded by the UK Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) UK-Japan Connections Grant. The Principal Investigator is Professor Misa Izuhara, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, UK. The project members include Professor Shinichiro Iwata (Co-I) (Kanagawa University, Japan), Professor Matthew Flynn (Hull University), Professor Junya Hamaaki (Hosei University, Japan) and Professor Atsuhiro Yamada (Keio University, Japan).

 

Contact:

Misa Izuhara, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol (E: M.Izuhara@bristol.ac.uk, T: @MisaIzuhara)

 

 

Marvin Rees: Leading a city in turbulent times

Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, was recently invited to speak to our current MSc Public Policy students on the theme of ‘Leading a City in Turbulent Times’. In this blog, student Isabella Bennett summarises the key points from the lecture.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to tear through the globe, the mainstream media focuses on what international leaders are doing. It is very rare that city governance level is analysed in response to various crises thrown up. From this backdrop, Rees suggests that leading a city in turbulent times is just as important as centralised governance.

Turbulence

Rees highlighted that when we define turbulence, it is when it affects wealthy people. Certainly, issues that throw lives into turmoil are continuing to be swept under the rug, until the white, straight, middle-to-higher class man is impacted. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted trade and finance; thus, the news cycle was dominated with stories about the turmoil caused by COVID-19 on trade. In comparison, long term themes of racism, homelessness and domestic violence (key issues spanning generations) are not considered as key points of turbulence until direct attention is paid to them. However, the effects of these issues are felt across large sways of the public.

It is from this that city governance can aid individuals in overcoming turbulence in their lives. Centralised government is increasingly not equipped to deal with these challenges, as the policy cycle is constantly moving. Rees also draws on how an institution can look strong, and resistant to tension, but will crumble when turbulence is introduced. This was the case in the 2008 financial crash, as the previously strong financial market crumbled. Certainly, disinvestment in a service increases its fragility. Indeed, we all have seen that COVID has led to instability in the NHS, as we continue to stay home; and this is felt no stronger than at the local level.

Leadership

It is from these points of turbulence, that we look at city-level leadership. Leadership, Rees commented, takes two forms: short term — responding to immediate crisis, and long-term — building a city that is resilient to future shocks. Certainly, we have seen that the world has become increasingly globalised. Goods, services, ideas and workforces are able to move across the globe at a greater speed than ever before. It is because of this that city leadership is important both nationally, but also internationally. Too often, cities are discussed, but not given an equal footing in policy discussions, yet the policy impacts how the city functions and the lived experiences of its citizens. This was certainly the case during the pandemic, as sovereignty was seated in Westminster to make decisions on lockdown restrictions and tiers.  Rees states that leadership needs to go beyond boundaries as the nature of policymaking changes.

Future planning

In times of turbulence, it is understandable that trust is diminished. Thus, Rees made a point that being clear on values brings trust, and this trust becomes an important commodity when making plans. Certainly, a loss of trust comes from politics impacting how the people respond to systems. Rees directly mentions the impact the media has on this trust, as many people’s interaction with politics is through journalistic interpretation. Thus, a key aspect of planning comes from restoring trust from the public, through the media. Future plans, when leading a city do not have to be concrete, but it is important to be adaptable to changing contexts and respond to how this may change ideas for the future. Rees draws on the One City Plan for 2050, and how this has been changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the stalls on industry due to lockdowns.

What can be taken from this?

From Rees’ points above, we can see that city leadership takes a back seat in the discussions on key points of turbulence in our lives. This is despite the citizens living in the city, and their lives being thrown into difficulty. As a result, city leadership must focus on supplying a clear message for the citizens, to instil trust for the future. Moreover, Rees calls for city leadership to play an increased role on the international stage, citing the examples of New York’s mental health policy and Helsinki’s functional city policy on how we can learn from city governance to deal with the long-term issues facing citizens. This is coupled with a lack of trust in centralised government over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Find out more about MSc Public Policy and BSc International Social and Public Policy at the University of Bristol.

The Social Disinvestment State Unleashed

Dr Noemi Lendvai-Bainton, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Urban and Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies, discusses the recent Hungarian election and how it reflects the trend towards political populism & the rise of illiberal democracies.

After a very long and rather Kafkaesque election night in Hungary, FIDESZ secured a victory for a third term of governing with a two-thirds majority. After eight years in government, the vote for the radical right in fact increased, with both Fidesz (49% of votes) and Jobbik (a far–right party with 19% of the votes) gaining more votes than four years ago. Tellingly, Orban in his victory speech thanked ethnic Hungarians living abroad (largely dual citizens of Romania, Ukraine and Serbia with voting rights) who ‘defended Hungary’, he thanked his Polish friends and Kaczyński, and he gave thanks for all the prayers (with no end to religious references).

The campaign was a single-issue, emotively hostile and negative campaign, focusing on the migration issue and financier/philanthropist George Soros, that erased public policy as a matter for debate all together – the end of an era when negative campaigns can’t be electorally successful, it seems. A déjà vu of the Brexit campaign in which the migration issue captured the public discourse.

This Hungarian result talks to a lot of different issues. It reflects a deep division between the capital Budapest, where the opposition won by a two-thirds majority, and the ‘country’ (countryside) where Fidesz won almost outright. It reflects on the widespread and significant institutional ‘reforms’ in the country which confidently delivered votes in small towns and in villages through channels of appointed officials, public finances, and EU funds (no need for subtle pressures here – civil servants were asked to take a photo of their ballot papers and email it to a central account; Kindergarten teachers were told to hand out Easter chocolate to parents as a ‘gift’ from Fidesz). The election result also points to the fact that corruption has become normalized – despite unprecedented levels of corruption concerning both EU funds as well as public funds, the government secured its third term.

No longer can one think that populism is a short-term political project. Orban can now thrive on the basis that his legitimacy with a high turn-out (70%) at the election makes him a stronger leader than many of his counterparts in (Western) Europe. His anti-EU rhetoric is expected to intensify in the coming months and years and he is already working hard on building a new transnational coalition against ‘liberal’ Western Europe and to evict all NGOs from the country that have political missions.

Read more…

This article was first published in Social Europe on 19 April 2018.

No single food or nutrient is to blame for obesity, so what is the right balance?

Dr Laura Johnson, Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences, discusses her new paper in which she assesses the impact of dietary patterns on obesity and how modelling may help influence change in both personal habits and public policy.

No single food or nutrient is to blame for obesity. There so many routes from diet to overeating and weight gain, and in real life foods and nutrients aren’t eaten on their own. So, it’s misleading to look at foods that way in research, it’s the overall balance of diet that matters.

I realised this a while ago when I  used detailed records of food intake from children age 5 and 7 in the ALSPAC cohort to generate an overall diet score that predicted obesity later on. I thought that eating more fat, less fibre, and having a more energy dense diet (more calories in each bite) would all feature in a diet that fuels obesity (or an ‘obesogenic’ diet). I used reduced rank regression or RRR (a pimped up version of factor analysis, see excellent explanation by Andy Field here) to find the best combination of foods to capture differences in the fat, fibre and energy density of the children’s diets. RRR generates a score based on what you eat. It’s calculated by adding up the intake (grams/day) of 42 groups of foods that are weighted for importance and a higher score means your diet is more obesogenic. I showed that children with the highest pattern score at age 7 were 4 times more likely to have too much fat by the time they were 9 years old (other researchers have since seen similar associations in adolescence and adulthood).

A pretty strong result, right? But, what use is a score made up of 42 foods? Isn’t it too complicated to ever be the basis for changing behaviour? I don’t think so, not if we use computers to deal with the complex calculations. All we need to know is what foods have been eaten (by individuals or populations) and then the obesogenic score can be computed automatically. We would then have a single score indicating whether the overall balance of your diet (or the Nation’s diet if thinking in policy terms) is more or less obesogenic. A total diet score would be better than current measures which only focus on fruits and vegetables or sugar-sweetened drinks, which let’s be honest, no one believes are going to solve the obesity epidemic on their own!

In our latest paper we asked “Do the same foods make up an obesogenic diet regardless of whether you are young or old, boy or girl, rich or poor?” (Because the ALSPAC score might only matter to children living in Bristol in the late ‘90s) “Who in the UK has a more obesogenic diet?” (Because those people need the most help to change) and “Are diets getting more obesogenic over time?” (Because that might suggest national obesity policy isn’t working).

To find some answers we used diet diaries from nearly 10,000 adults and children taking part in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey between 2008 and 2014. We repeated the RRR in different groups and found it was remarkably stable – the same foods came out as most important to an obesogenic diet over and over again. So, we can feel confident that the obesogenic pattern score and that way foods are weighted by importance reflects the way everyone eats in the UK today. The most and least obesogenic foods we found were (sized and in order of importance):

In terms of whose diets are most imbalanced we found massive social gradients with those in manual jobs and households earning less than £15,000/year having the most obesogenic diets, which mirrors social inequalities in obesity prevalence. Among children, diets became more obesogenic between 2011 and 2014. Among adults a more obesogenic diet went hand in hand with more time spent watching shows on TV/Laptops/Tablets, less physical activity, and eating takeaways more frequently.

All these trends are a starting point for targeting and testing interventions designed to make small changes across a range of foods to shift the balance of diet. By using our score, it could be possible to gauge how multiple changes to policy or what we eat adds up to a less obesogenic diet and with luck prevent obesity in future.

Shaping successful smart cities

Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the Centre for Urban and Policy Studies (School for Policy Studies) and Co-Investigator for the ESRC/AHRC/JRF Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, responds to the report produced by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities.

Last month the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smart Cities launched a report entitled Top Tips for City Mayors. The report collated tips provided by members of the group offering key insights, priorities and issues to consider when approaching Smart City development, policy and practice. The APPG report offers more than 50 tips provided by 17 member organisations.

Stephen Hilton and I have taken a look at the tips presented in the report and provided an overview of its key messages. We take the opportunity reflect on some of the points made in the report, note some of the tensions, and highlight issues that deserve greater attention. This analysis is available in our own report: Shaping successful smart cities.

Quite a lot of the Smart City conversation can get bogged down in the digital technologies quite quickly. One of the APPG report’s headline messages is that the Tipsters give a much higher profile to citizens – focus on how smart technologies can meet needs and deliver benefits. The report thus aligns with the more citizen-centred approach that is very much at the centre of Smart City debate right now.

Stephen and I summarize the key messages from the APPG report under five headings: citizens; resources to do the job; priorities for action; data; and partnerships. We then give a flavour for the sorts of arguments being made by the Tipsters under each heading. Download our report to find out more.

In our subsequent reflections we highlight a number of issues that the APPG report does not dwell on but which, in our view, are absolutely vital.

We note that while the rhetoric of the Smart City has embraced the importance of citizens that is not the same as ensuring that citizens are meaningfully involved in practice. Plenty of effort will be needed to make ‘citizen-centred’ development a reality rather than a slogan.

The issues of leadership and governance of the Smart City are increasingly recognised as important, but there is much hard thinking still to do about effective leadership styles and appropriate governance structures and processes.

Smart City approaches are pursued at local level for a variety of reasons: embracing digital is perceived to offer a diverse range of potential benefits. Local smart city policy often has a mix of objectives. Yet these objectives are not necessarily entirely complementary. Hence, we would argue the potential for conflicting priorities needs to be acknowledged and managed.

There is currently much advocacy in favour of Smart City approaches. There is, we submit, an element of hype and hyperbole. The benefits claimed for such approaches run quite a long way ahead of the benefits that have so far been demonstrated. As one Tipster observed, “most potential applications are not yet commercially proven”. That doesn’t mean that benefits are not there to be derived from smart. But it is important to look beyond the hype to probe the when, how and for whom value will be generated. Similarly, there are hard questions to be asked about sustainable business models: who is going to be paying to keep infrastructure and services operational?

Finally, privacy and security are a key component of public debate about our digitally-saturated world. They are equally important in thinking about the Smart City. Applications typically make use of big and open data, which can be gathered from sensors or captured as a byproduct of citizens’ day-to-day online activities. How to we ensure our uses of such data are viewed as legitimate? And how can we ensure that Smart City infrastructures and the data derived from them are secure?

These are not necessarily new questions, and they are not questions to which are no answers. But they need to be kept front and centre of the Smart City conversation.

The APPG Top Tips report offers a quick route to gaining a flavour of current thinking on the Smart City. Our message is to that we need to make sure we keep out eyes on some broader issues of fundamental importance, alongside the specifics of how smart might be put to work for the benefit of citizens.

Policy makers do not need to introduce formal structures to achieve political innovation

Drawing on a case study of English Devolution in the UK, Dr Sarah Ayres, Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, examines the role played by ‘informal governance’ in shaping political innovation.

Informal governance can be defined as a means of decision-making that is un-codified, non-institutional and where social relationships play crucial roles. Research evidence suggests that an analysis of informal governance is essential if we are to fully understand how political innovation occurs.

The issue of informality in policy-making is particularly timely as public managers seek to manage multifaceted policy problems within contested and uncertain environments. One view is that political decision-making has increasingly moved away from the national level of government to a more spatially diverse, temporal and fluid set of arrangements. From this perspective, policy-making is increasingly taking place in arenas where there is no generally accepted rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted. Some argue that it is the surge of ‘wicked problems’ that have prompted this type of leadership, as multiple actors come together to solve complex policy problems. These developments raise important questions about how informal governance operates in this transforming policy landscape and the impact it has on political innovation. Yet, there is comparatively little research on the role of informality in policy-making, partly because of the complexity of studying it.

The case of English devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between formal and informal policy making. In the case of English devolution, evidence confirms that informal governance has created an ‘innovative space’ to explore new possibilities and develop trust between critical actors. Elected politicians had a pivotal role in creating an ‘innovative space’ for senior administrators to develop new high trust relationships and working practices. Back stage, administrators were using informal governance to (re)configure institutional arrangements.

Evidence also confirms that informal governance was used to enhance the autonomy and discretion of administrators, leading to an ‘innovative oriented culture’. This shaped both the intention to be innovative and the creation of a permissive environment for change. Informal governance was used by a closely-knit group of well positioned and highly skilled boundary spanners who were motivated to use it in pursuit of securing government objectives. It was used as a tool to break deadlocks, promote political momentum and complement a weak formal bureaucracy. The ‘formalisation’ of informal working at critical points was utilised to secure political innovations that had traction.

Finally, research data confirmed that informal governance led to more responsive problem solving and a shared commitment to new policy goals. Central-local relationships were viewed as more collaborative and there was enhanced diversity and creativity in local policy outcomes. However, while informal working was viewed as a route to policy innovation, some respondents acknowledged the negative impacts regards transparency and accountability. Whitehall officials could be accused of using soft power to enforce the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ in nebulous ways, thus undermining the ability of local actors to secure real influence.

This research tells us that when formal structures and procedures are weak, political innovation can still thrive. Indeed, operating ‘back stage’ offers a number of distinct advantages for political innovation, although these must be mitigated against the pitfalls associated with increased informality if policy effectiveness is to be achieved without undermining democratic legitimacy.

This post is taken from a recent article by Dr Sarah Ayres entitled ‘Assessing the impact of informal governance on political innovation’ published in Public Management Review. This was written as part of a Special Issue on ‘Political Innovation’ and edited by Professor Eva Sorensen (Roskilde University, Denmark).

Dr Sarah Ayres has also co-edited a number of other reports on the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities, including ‘Policy-making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage: Assessing the implications for effectiveness and democracy’ and ‘Territory, Power, Statecraft: Understanding English Devolution’.