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On the boardwalk, by Chris Skelcher

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25 February 2005

Neighbourhood boards are the latest big idea for getting the public to improve the services they use. But will this US invention work here, asks Chris Skelcher

Downing Street's new idea for improving public services is the neighbourhood board. People value their immediate area, so the argument goes, meaning active citizens will want to work through locally based organisations to make things better.

In some cases, this could involve citizens taking over responsibility for running local facilities like parks and libraries. This initiative, and others over the past two decades, have transformed the UK's local governance.

We have moved from a world of multi-purpose councils to single-purpose agencies, and from a view that elected politicians are the decision-makers to one that promotes hybrid boards composed of nominated, appointed and sometimes elected individuals, with managers as much in evidence as councillors. The single purpose body has become the default design template.

Whatever the policy problem – whether in early years provision, environmental improvement, regeneration or community safety – this is the standard governance form. Single-purpose boards now shape, provide and oversee a wide range of public services in the community.

The UK is not alone in adopting this governance design. 'Special purpose governments' or 'special districts' have been a longstanding feature in the US. They are responsible for education, airports, libraries, fire control and a host of other public services. The most common are school districts, which broadly perform the functions of our local education authorities.

But alongside them are hospital, mosquito control, community college and water districts. Consequently, driving through parts of the US involves crossing a plethora of overlapping jurisdictions of varying sizes and types – which is not unlike the position in the UK today.

But in the UK we prefer to create bodies that have no statutory or legal identity. Governance flexibility is built into the 'unincorporated association', the standard form for thousands of partnerships. They have to work through accountable bodies that take legal responsibility for financial and contractual matters. Our single-purpose bodies are created top-down to deliver objectives defined at city, regional, national or European levels. Boards are seldom selected by election, and financing is controlled through their dependence on grants from other parts of government.

But in the US, the governance template is rooted in the tradition of the constitution. Special-purpose governments are statutory and legal entities, often created to meet local needs as towns and cities grew. Election is the norm, and they often have powers to levy taxes or charges and to raise capital through bond issues subject to approval by electors.

However, special-purpose governments in the US are not completely autonomous. City or state governments can intervene, although only in exceptional circumstances. Boards are dissolved and administrators appointed when serious financial mismanagement has put the organisation on the verge of bankruptcy.

However, mayoral takeovers of school districts have increased in recent years. In Chicago, New York, Newark, Cleveland and a number of other big cities, mayors have used their powers to replace elected boards with ones to which they appoint the members.

These changes have been stimulated by two factors. School districts needed a stimulus for change, and the opportunity was provided by financial crises, poor management and irresolvable conflicts between elected board members or between members and the school superintendent (or chief executive).

Takeover has also been driven by the quality-of-life agendas set by mayors. Cleveland's mayor Jane Campbell is clear on this: 'Communities cannot work unless schools work.'

Mayors have recognised the link between good schools and healthy communities, and – as in Chicago – have incidentally widened participation in the governance of schools themselves. The jury is out on whether these takeovers have improved educational achievement.

But what has been put on the agenda is the need to reduce the independence of special-purpose governments in order to realise wider public policy goals. In the US, this requires the political weight and leadership of big city mayors.

This problem of overall co-ordination illustrates the key difference between local governance in the US and UK. The capacity for co-ordination and collective decision-making across the patchwork of single-purpose jurisdictions is much more limited in the US.

'America is in love with local control,' says Abe Feuerstein, a school governance specialist at Virginia University. Its strong tradition of citizen-initiated government results in special-purpose bodies that have little interest in collaboration.

In the UK, by contrast, local authorities have played a major role in the creation and operation of single-purpose bodies, meaning the new institutions have been located in some form of overall policy context. Managerial networks have been important facilitators of co-ordination. These have been fostered through overlapping memberships of governing boards, secondments between agencies, and the entrepreneurial ethos that has taken hold of local public servants.

US officials look to the UK with a degree of envy. While we have been busy creating single-purpose bodies alongside our large local authorities, they have been struggling with the problems of managing metropolitan areas segmented into small city councils and special-purpose governments.

But they also convey some awe at the pragmatism of governance design in the UK. Coming from a nation founded on citizen-based constitutionalism, they find it hard to fathom the flexibility of our special-purpose bodies.

What does this say for neighbourhood boards? The core question is whether these are agencies or governments. Will they come from the British tradition with its emphasis on administrative means to deliver improved public services? Or will they reflect the US tradition of bottom-up, citizen power? Should they have independent sources of revenue, or be dependent on devolved budgets and grants?

A few months ago, the elected Los Angeles school district board appeared in a televised hearing before the city council to explain why they were asking the voters to support a bond issue to fund a new school. Could this form of scrutiny happen with our neighbourhood boards?

At the heart of this choice is the question of how governance arrangements affect public service performance. In the US, the critics argue that direct mayoral control of school districts is necessary to drive up standards. Others argue that more democracy is needed, not less. They point to single-figure turnouts in school district elections as symptomatic of ineffective political control leading to a lack of drive for improvement. The solution they propose is for better-resourced candidates standing on partisan manifestos.

Special-purpose governments also tend to spend more when compared with city councils' services. This is caused either by a lack of effective voter control, or by citizens using their electoral weight to push through increased spending.

Neighbourhood boards provide a real opportunity to break the template for governance design in the UK. What remains to be seen is whether they get people voting. The US evidence is that turnout is low in elections to single-purpose boards, despite their power to tax citizens. Turnouts are higher in the UK, with those for New Deal for Community boards being on a par with local councils.

Would giving neighbourhood boards independent sources of finance make a difference? This would be a brave experiment in real citizen power, with implications to transform the resourcing of local public services. It would turn our single-purpose agencies into special purpose governments. But this challenges the local governance we have now and raises new issues about the scope for co-ordinated action to achieve wider policy objectives.

Chris Skelcher is an Economic & Social Research Council public service fellow at Birmingham University

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