The Beacon Scheme and the Role of Central Government Departments
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The Beacon Scheme and the Role of Central Government Departments www.communities.gov.uk community, opportunity, prosperity
The Beacon Scheme and the Role of Central Government Departments Lyndsay Rashman and Zoe Radnor Institute of Governance and Public Management, Warwick Business School January 2008 Department for Communities and Local Government: London
This report has been produced by Warwick Business School under/as part of a contract placed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Any views expressed in it are not necessarily those of the Department. Department for Communities and Local Government Eland House Bressenden Place London SW1E 5DU Telephone: 020 7944 4400 Website: www.communities.gov.uk © University of Warwick, 2008 Copyright in the typographical arrangement rests with the Crown. This publication, excluding logos, may be reproduced free of charge in any format or medium for research, private study or for internal circulation within an organisation. This is subject to it being reproduced accurately and not used in a misleading context. The material must be acknowledged as University of Warwick copyright and the title of the publication specified. Any other use of the contents of this publication would require a copyright licence. Please apply for a Click-Use Licence for core material at www.opsi.gov.uk/click-use/system/online/ pLogin.asp, or by writing to the Office of Public Sector Information, Information Policy Team, St Clements House, 2-16 Colegate, Norwich, NR3 1BQ. Fax: 01603 723000 or email: HMSOlicensing@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk If you require this publication in an alternative format please email firstname.lastname@example.org Communities and Local Government Publications PO Box 236 Wetherby West Yorkshire LS23 7NB Tel: 08701 226 236 Fax: 08701 226 237 Textphone: 08701 207 405 Email: email@example.com or online via the Communities and Local Government website: www.communities.gov.uk January 2008 Product Code: 07LGSR04909
Contents | 1 Contents Chapter 1 Background to the Beacon Scheme and research 2 1.1 Research objectives 2 1.2 Research design and methods 3 Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments 5 2.1 Perceptions of key features of the Beacon Scheme 5 2.2 Ministerial involvement 6 2.3 Theme selection process 7 2.4 Beacon award winners’ involvement in other activities 8 2.5 Relationship between the department and local authorities 9 2.6 Involvement in stages of award process 10 Chapter 3 Transfer of learning 13 3.1 Through the Beacon Scheme 13 3.2 Sharing good practice from Beacons in the department 14 3.3 Beacons, departmental improvement and capacity building 16 Chapter 4 Impact of the Beacons Systems within the department 17 4.1 Impact on policy 17 4.2 Implications 17 4.3 Suggested improvements to the Beacon Scheme 18 4.4 Co-ordination of the Beacon Scheme within the departments 19 Chapter 5 Conclusions and Implications 20 5.1 Improvement of practice 21 5.2 Learning and policy development 22 Appendix 1: Interview schedule 23 Introduction 23 Section A: Background and Departments role in Beacons 24 Section B: Contact and involvement with Beacon award winners 25 Section C: Transfer of learning through the Beacon Scheme 26 Section D: Beacons and Policy Context 27
2 | Chapter 1 Background to the Beacon Scheme and research Chapter 1 Background to the Beacon Scheme and research The Beacon Scheme, first outlined in the 1998 White Paper ‘Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People’ is one of the longest-standing policy elements within the Government’s drive for improvement within local government. It is intended to raise standards and contribute to capacity- building in local government by, firstly, identifying and rewarding innovation and excellence in local authority services and partnerships, and secondly, by providing opportunities for learning in and between local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government (formerly Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) have jointly commissioned Warwick Business School to undertake a three year evaluation of the Beacon Scheme. The aims of the research are to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the Scheme for local authorities and whether the Scheme has an impact on the quality of those public services for which local government is responsible. The programme of research has included both qualitative and quantitative primary data collection, including three national surveys, as well as case studies of selected Beacon and non-Beacon authorities. The research on the role of central government departments, which is the focus of this report, is an important element of the evaluation because it sought the perceptions of representatives of central government departments about their and the departments’ engagement with the Scheme. 1.1 Research objectives The overall aim of this paper is to provide an understanding of the range of activities, relationships and contributions made by, and to, central government departments regarding local authority innovation and improvement through the Beacon Scheme. In detail, the objectives were: To understand the level of engagement of central government departments in the Beacon Scheme. The level of engagement was defined in terms of: – Support for, and development of, Beacon Scheme themes. – Contact with, and level of working with, local authority winners of the Beacon award. – Policy learning and policy transfer between central government and local government in both directions, through the Beacon Scheme.
Chapter 1 Background to the Beacon Scheme and research | 3 To identify examples of good practice which central departments have developed that illustrate how the practices, learning, improvements and innovations of Beacons could feed into the policy and practices of central government. To explore the implications for policy and practice. 1.2 Research design and methods The central government departments were divided into three types: ‘Service’ departments, e.g. Communities and Local Government, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Department for Education and Skills (DfES); ‘Corporate’ departments, e.g. Treasury and Cabinet; Internationally oriented departments e.g. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This research focused on the first group only because the Beacon Scheme has largely focused on ‘service-based’ themes. We focused on core departments not next step agencies, and the focus was on central not on regional government offices. The research team conducted summary analysis of the themes over the 7 previous rounds of the Beacon Scheme and identified the theme sponsors in terms of departments. In addition, advice was sought from external commentators to select those departments which reflect a range of levels of engagement and use of the Beacon Scheme. A systematic sample of departments was developed and 13 interviews were conducted in total through a combination of face-to-face and telephone interviews with personnel across the six departments identified (see table 1 below). All interviews followed a semi-structured interview schedule with questions geared to the aims of this particular research (see appendix 1). Interviewees were typically Theme Leads who were nominated to have a formal role in recent rounds of the Beacon Scheme (Rounds 5, 6 or 7) but a small number had been involved in earlier rounds or were just becoming engaged and intended to play a role in future rounds.
4 | Chapter 1 Background to the Beacon Scheme and research Table 1: Overview of Departments and Interviews Department Number of interviews Department for Transport (DfT) 2 Department for Culture, Media and Sport 2 (DCMS) Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2 Department of Health (DH) 3 Department for Environment, Food and Rural 2 Affairs (DEFRA) Department for Communities and Local 2 Government The team’s findings, as reported below, are organised according to the three areas investigated within the interviews: the links and role of the Beacon Scheme with central government departments; transfer of learning through the Beacon Scheme (both with, and supported by, central government departments); and the impact of the Beacon Scheme within central government departments including policy.
Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments | 5 Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments 2.1 Perceptions of key features of the Beacon Scheme Respondents identified three key aspects to the Scheme: identification and sharing of good practice; identification, implementation and sharing of innovation; and an opportunity to support policy development. “I think it is a combination of good practice, policy implementation. Certainly as far as facilitating and promoting best practice is concerned, to me that is the central feature of the Beacon Scheme. But also I think post award, there’s definitely an opportunity for Beacons to support policy development.” Departmental responses varied between slight scepticism and outright enthusiasm for the value of the Scheme as both an award and a learning mechanism and for the quality of local authority practice that it highlights. One interviewee suggested that Beacons celebrate good practice but may represent those authorities that are good at self-promotion. “I’m sure that there are lots of others out there doing equally good work and are not celebrated quite so much.” “It was instrumental in informing our thinking and developing policy about local government. It’s also crucial for learning and development for the Beacons themselves and for us.” Theme leads in general expressed a strong commitment and they perceived potential mutual benefits (i.e. for both central and local government) of learning from the Scheme: “It’s a more active, living, organic way of doing a case study – an opportunity to work alongside, get clarity about what local authorities are doing. See if we could learn anything ourselves.” In addition, some interviewees perceived the learning from the Scheme to be of benefit to the Beacons themselves. Many respondents identified the importance of interpreting policy and creating improvement at local level and stated that they felt “surprised and pleased” at both the standard and number of applications to the Beacon
6 | Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments theme. Many reported that local authorities had developed and implemented “innovative ideas that told a great story of local authority engagement (with policy).” One department highlighted the importance of the Scheme for positively encouraging improvement in services through peer support. “In the past we focused resources on authorities that were struggling in order to raise standards. What Beacons does is look at this from the other angle and show authorities that are performing really well and raises their profile... We’d like to encourage those not performing well to attend Beacon events.” There was a mix of views about the extent to which the Scheme had changed, which in part depended upon the length and recency of contact that individuals had had with the Scheme. Some respondents suggested a growing importance of local authorities as delivery agents of central government policies in specific policy areas signalled by, for example, a White Paper and ministerial changes. The longevity of the Beacon Scheme was seen as a good thing. The Scheme was seen to be more cross cutting now, with some themes involving two or more departments, which was also seen as a good development. Some perceived a shift of emphasis from excellence to innovation, which was considered to be an important aspect of improving public service practice. One interviewee suggested there was a degree of scepticism about the Scheme in their department and that the Scheme offered only one of a number of means to judge performance. In another department one of the few interviewees who had followed the Scheme from its first years described perceptions of the changes to the Scheme from starting “with a flourish” to having “flopped” a few years later but that the Scheme had recently been “revamped”. A few interviewees did not perceive a change. Those with limited contact in only one round were unable to express a view about changes. Most interviewees reported that prior to their role as theme lead they had had a quite general understanding and limited contact with Beacons. Once involved, they had contact in a specialised theme only, which suggests that for the majority of central government officers, the Scheme is not that well known. 2.2 Ministerial involvement Ministerial involvement appeared to be good in some departments with a few examples of Ministers attending Learning Exchanges and mentioning Beacons in their speeches but the pattern varied considerably across and even within departments. Respondents identified various means by which they kept ministers involved including provision of co-ordination, publications and briefings: in some cases contact appeared to be relatively formal and examples given were of contact in writing. Some interviewees were uncertain about how, when and the extent to which ministers became involved.
Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments | 7 “I’m not sure how involved ministers get until they see the submissions from the policy section. They get involved as and when the policy section involves them. They are generally interested in the Beacon Scheme.” “The minister is involved when the new Beacons are being announced through a press release or launch event... but I don’t think the ministers have the Beacon Scheme in the front of their mind when they are thinking about departmental policies.” Seniority and continuity of respondents may be amongst important factors which influence ministerial involvement. Some interviewees appeared to be on first name terms with ministers and indicated that they were quite relaxed about approaching ministers directly. For example, one respondent suggested direct influence by encouraging one minister to approach another: “The lead minister here is not [name of first minister]. It is [second minister] so the submission will go to him. But we want [first minister] to have a word with him. We want to make sure that of the nine possible themes, ours is one of them.” 2.3 Theme selection process In some departments respondents reported that they had successfully proposed themes clearly linked to that department’s strategic priorities, whereas in other departments respondents were not aware of the process of identifying themes and had not been involved. Internal departmental divisions meant that individual officers may not have been aware of Beacon themes that relate to other areas of work within the same department. “I suggested themes. I wanted to keep themes as narrow as possible for consistency in assessment and a more manageable process, but a broader theme was supported… very closely connected with one of the strategic priorities.” “If someone in [another part of department] proposes a theme, I might not know.” “I don’t recall having any involvement in the selection process. The first I heard was when I was told that this theme would be taken forward and it kind of fell into my area of work.” One respondent suggested that there would be value in departments collaborating to choose themes which would have a wider benefit by encouraging ‘joined up’ government. Several respondents appeared unclear or unaware of aspects of the process of, for example, theme selection, ministerial approval, and panel membership and they suggested that these issues could be improved by provision of better internal publicity within their department of the benefits of the Scheme and increased notice and
8 | Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments transparency (from Communities and Local Government) to allow greater opportunity for consultation. Lack of continuity and departmental co- ordination and changes of the theme lead tended to exacerbate such problems. Overall, this was an area where interviewees suggested that increased and timely information was needed. Several departments reported that they had a co-ordinator who generated and managed ideas as potential future Beacon themes, often together with policy lead officers. Once the theme had been agreed by Communities and Local Government and IDeA, the co-ordinator handed the responsibility over to a theme lead. However a respondent from one department suggested that even though there was strong commitment to the Beacon Scheme, there can be lack of continuity where different themes are handled by different parts of the department. This can be compounded by strict work allocation which limits others’ involvement: “I am committed, wanted to have influence and happy to do so – but no-one wants to do the work. Once you’ve got the theme lead, it goes along tram lines.” 2.4 Beacon award winners’ involvement in other activities Most of the departments appeared to have extended the involvement of Beacons into a wider range of policy-related activities. There was considerable variation not only between departments but within departments, which included: incorporating materials from and about Beacons on the departmental website; involving Beacons in stakeholder groups; presentation at major events that involved ministers. Beacon award winners were perceived to have credibility with local government colleagues. A range of factors appeared to influence the extent to which Beacon award winners were encouraged to participate and influence policy initiatives. These factors included: the timing of a Beacon theme to coincide with an emergent policy priority; the usefulness of a Beacon to progress a policy initiative or centrally determined target; seniority and / or influence of an individual officer; and individual commitment. “We choose when we want to be involved because of policy issues. It seemed the right time for [theme] to improve these links with local authorities and to fit in with our 2010 targets.” One interviewee expressed regret at missed opportunities in their department to build on the Beacon good practice. “After the awards, my relationship with the Beacon councils was a bit hit and miss initially. We were naïve in [department] because we didn’t jump on that wagon straight away. It was only when I flagged it up that the department realised we should be using them more with all stakeholders and disseminating this good practice”.
Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments | 9 Some theme leads from early rounds reported that they have no current contact, whereas previously they experienced considerable engagement. For example: “At the time I knew a lot and had a high level of contact… but nothing now. It was a task and was completed… I was involved afterwards with dissemination and kept in contact with the winners.” Where successful relationships had been established and the potential of Beacon winners’ knowledge perceived and exploited, there were examples of considerable further activities relating to policy and practice development in a specific theme (see vignette below: Healthy Communities). Vignette: Healthy Communities One interviewee described the Health and Equalities PSA targets as a major challenge “considered one of the hardest government targets to achieve”. The department initiated a programme for action three years ago which defined a potential role for local government, built around the shared priority for healthy communities and reducing health inequalities. “Our work with Beacon councils emanates from this.” A Shared Priority Pathfinder Programme was established working with the Local Government Association (LGA) and included a small number of local authorities which became Beacons, thus creating engagement between Beacon councils and the government department. “We were looking at other ways of engaging local government beyond this small programme and then ODPM very kindly agreed for us to have a healthy communities Beacon programme, which for us was perfect timing and gave us a very real opportunity for getting a health profile before local authorities”. The criteria for Beacon selection evolved from the programme of action and the revised design of Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), which incorporated a healthy communities domain. Some of the award winners came from the pathfinder but others were a surprise. The department was able to develop a larger base of local authorities that modelled and was able to share excellent practice. “We decided through the Choosing Health White Paper, to say some very key messages about the co-delivery role for local government. This was really built upon the confidence we got through the shared priorities programme and through the Beacon Scheme.” This White Paper was the first time that a document described the crucial delivery role for local authorities. 2.5 Relationship between the department and local authorities Government departments reported that they often do not have much access to detailed information about local government context and performance (e.g. about best practice, poorest performing authorities, local needs) so they welcomed and appreciated the benefits of identified models of ‘best’ practice from Beacons they can draw on. Beacons provide a ready resource
10 | Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments and a trusted source that help to widen central government departments’ knowledge and understanding of a variety of practices and their success factors. Beacon councils were perceived as an ‘expert panel’ for specific policy areas and the Beacon selection and dissemination process provides an opportunity to work closely with and understand local authorities better. Interviewees reported that strengthening links, gaining new contacts and new information about local authority activities through the Scheme helped to build relationships: “[The Scheme] is a good way of having a special relationship with certain authorities, in a policy area.” “The Scheme does strengthen links…it’s an important learning process for us. It’s an opportunity for local authorities to inform central government about their ideas and practice.” Respondents were keen to sustain such relationships and some have created specific service or theme based networks, which include high CPA scorers and Beacon award winners in related themes. One department described two purposes of an ‘excellence’ network, illustrative of mutual benefits: “We will talk to local authorities and take soundings of proposals and we will get ideas about what should happen next.” A number of respondents suggested that they would find it difficult to formalise the relationship with Beacons. Some said they would welcome support from Communities and Local Government and IDeA to strengthen and maintain relationships. Suggestions included increased lead-in time, sharper theme descriptions at the beginning of the process and support for increased involvement in dissemination and later stages of the Beacon year. “I think that a more formal process in terms of formalising the vertical relationship between the department and the Beacons would be difficult. It is up to each department to decide how best to engage with Beacons. If we had a bit more encouragement from IDeA, we could be more involved.” 2.6 Involvement in stages of award process Theme leads reported that they were extensively engaged at all stages of Beacon selection and some played a critical role in setting the criteria for selection and making selection decisions. There was considerable variation between departments. Interviewees explained that selection decisions may involve a huge amount of work, in particular where there are a large number of applications. Theme leads reported taking this role very seriously, so there is a need for those new to the role to be fully aware of the potential time and resource implications. “A huge job...had to read very closely to be consistent.” Clear and challenging criteria made selection easier and a rewarding experience for selectors. A number of interviewees commented
Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments | 11 positively on the role of the Beacon Independent Advisory Panel (and in particular the Chair of the IAP) which was perceived to be constructively challenging and rigorous. “Gave us a grilling, very good, made sure we had a firm basis for decision-making.” One interviewee perceived the selection process as a valuable learning experience: “I found the whole process extremely useful in terms of my own professional development and also in terms of obtaining a better understanding of the policy we are responsible for and what it means for the councils. The whole application and assessment process, from the government’s theme lead point of view, was an excellent experience.” However, it was suggested by a couple of other interviewees that the Independent Advisory Panel (IAP) should make clear in advance any specific issues that need to be taken into consideration, so that theme leads could be adequately prepared. Interviewees agreed that it was useful to have a common format for criteria but this needs to be flexible and appropriate to a specific theme. Some reported having concerns about aspects of assessment such as clarity of selection criteria at a sufficiently early stage and rigour of the assessment process. “I did the initial sift – 24 box files. It was supposed to be based on factors such as Best Value scores, CPA scores, ideas on dissemination and public satisfaction, MORI data. Almost all of that didn’t manifest itself in our case and the contribution it was supposed to make didn’t happen.” Another concern voiced by several interviewees was that local authorities that were known from experience to be very good in a given theme had either submitted a relatively poor application or had not applied to the Scheme. Respondents were also keen to achieve a good geographical spread of Beacons across the regions. A few theme leads had attended the award presentation and had found this to be valuable for supporting and promoting the theme, as well as the winners. “We were there. It felt important to celebrate alongside Beacon councils. It was a very happy process – I felt I played a part.” There were mixed views about the support theme leads received from both Communities and Local Government, and particularly the IDeA. Some felt that the support was good and informative. A number of respondents reported their commitment to the Beacon dissemination and learning processes, in which they had felt encouraged by the IDeA: “We were invited at every stage [by IDeA] and were told we’d get out of it as much as we put in.” They had engaged in providing ideas, support and contribution to dissemination events, helped to prepare open days, made key note presentations, quality assured ‘legacy documents’ – particularly in recent rounds. One interviewee said the IDeA link person had suggested speakers and provided advice and encouragement to involve the relevant Minister in
12 | Chapter 2 Links and role of the Beacon Scheme in central government departments the launch event. Motivation for participation in dissemination included ensuring linkages with relevant policy initiatives. However, others felt that the IDeA could be more involved in support to the theme development stage, selection, and the dissemination stages (to help build better relationships between the local authority and the department). Continuity of lead officer from the IDeA has been a problem for some and timescales (insufficient notice) for aspects of the selection, award and dissemination processes were recurrent issues. One interviewee expressed concern that publicity for the learning exchange was belated and that the local authorities took the lead on publicity, rather than the IDeA. Other areas which theme leads suggested could be improved included better linkage between themes. “There’s not been very much joining up between the themes. One of the other round 7 themes is delivering through partnership... and there could have been potential for joining up with this Beacon theme but it didn’t really happen.”
Chapter 3 Transfer of learning | 13 Chapter 3 Transfer of learning 3.1 Through the Beacon Scheme Interviewees identified a wide range of methods for the transfer of learning in public services, which included: networks and support mechanisms led by local authorities, Government Offices in the Regions, cross-organisation service specific networks (for example Childrens’ Services); local and national events; websites aimed at sharing good practice; and advisory groups. Most said that they encouraged use of the Beacon Scheme for this purpose. Central government officers perceived visits to Beacon authorities to be an important source of learning for themselves about local authority activities, as well as for informing other councils about best practice. “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. You can’t beat a visit for finding out what’s going on and making contacts.” A visit provided the opportunity to meet people, to explore their concerns, and help to identify aspects of government policy that require better explanation, interpretation or policy development. The views of central government interviewees were consistent with other research into the Beacon Scheme that face to face interaction was most beneficial for learning. Several interviewees attended Beacon events such as learning exchanges, open days and other types of event hosted by the Beacon authority. They perceived learning exchanges as an opportunity for central government to engage with local government but this depends to an extent on individual theme leads and the extent to which they wish to engage. Many, but not all, theme leads, members of their policy team and even Ministers went to the Learning Exchanges but only some attended the open days. Learning from events could be two-way. A number of interviewees participated in planning and delivering dissemination events, which appeared to strengthen relationships, inform internal departmental programmes and create ideas for further learning activities: “We’ve also been to the planning meetings to try and help inform these. We’ve very much used the Beacons to help inform our programmes here. In terms of trying to roll out the Communities for Health Programme, we are planning to do this on a Beacons peer support type model.”
14 | Chapter 3 Transfer of learning One interviewee suggested that they might put findings from Beacons to ministers as a way to raise issues and another arranged a meeting with the minister. “I arranged for the four Beacons to meet with our minister as part of their dissemination activities.” Other interviewees made a point of targeting specific Beacon events at colleagues and officers who worked in the same policy area: “People went to events if it was in their subject area. If I found something interesting to different people, I bombarded them with information.” There were widely varying accounts about the extent to which individuals and their departments were engaged in the learning process. Whereas some interviewees collaborated in the design and delivery of learning as well as attending a range of events, a small number of interviewees perceived learning transfer to be the province of IDeA or of inter-authority networks but not their department, except perhaps in an ad hoc fashion. Interviewees from some departments did not intend to participate in learning events. “No I haven’t. I think some people from the themes attended but it’s a job to get the minister to go. But I don’t really see it as something I need to do.” 3.2 Sharing good practice from Beacons in the department The majority of departments expressed a strong enthusiasm to build learning networks but acknowledged that government departments needed to be more proactive and set up more formal mechanisms. Individual departmental officers demonstrated a range of awareness and understanding of local authorities – some of which was extensive. One department suggested that the Beacon Scheme could help to develop relationships with specific local authorities, based on the perception that good relationships exist already. However, another department felt that ultimately the capacity building role and networking should be the responsibility of the regional offices. Respondents described a variety of methods for disseminating learning but many departments’ access to the knowledge and expertise was more informal than ‘formal’: for example gaining views and comments and invitations onto panels when relevant. “Beacons are promoted ‘within’, when appropriate, rather than brought together.” ‘Efficiency News’, distributed within one Division of Communities and Local Government has profiled Beacon winners as case studies. Within other departments, criticism was raised about the level of engagement with the
Chapter 3 Transfer of learning | 15 Scheme. It was mentioned that there was a need for better cross- departmental working, in particular with cross-cutting themes. Too often, individual government departments were stated as being quite segmented and consequently one part may not be aware of what was happening in another part of the same department. Interviewees provided examples from Beacons where learning had been applied back within the department. Beacon councils had provided evidence and case studies that encouraged a change in consumer behaviour that was “already happening at community level, bearing fruit… and provides a template of ideas that could work.” DEFRA reported that the department had set up three projects funded through Beacon Peer Support Fund: local influence on national policy development; production of toolkits for local authorities; affordable housing and energy efficiency. The Beacon Scheme had assisted in the development of a customised national scheme for green accreditation (DCMS). “One of the Beacon Councils had a Green Accreditation structure they imported from Scotland and customised. We have gradually moved towards accrediting a national Green Accreditation for Tourism.” Communities and Local Government had developed a Partnership Toolkit concerned with procurement and efficiency (Gershon) and intended to help local authorities to develop service delivery partnerships and manage them effectively. One interviewee suggested that Communities and Local Government would promote the toolkit through Regional Centres of Excellence to local authorities on a regional basis. The regional approach to dissemination reflected a growing interest in ‘place’ and a focus on “what works locally”, as part of a wider plan to share good practice. “When we get hold of these best practice examples, we have guidance on dissemination and information on our website. We also have the regional centres of excellence. They have a very large role to play in spreading best practice examples in councils and producing case studies.” Within the Health Equities policy group (DH), the policy lead and team worked closely with the Beacon winners to involve them in further dissemination and learning activity focused on supporting ‘weaker’ local authorities. Some interviewees were more sceptical about the wider role of disseminating learning from Beacons or suggested that they were at early stages and would need to find ways to develop this further. “Only really via me being the policy lead in this area.” “Hasn’t yet but we’ve got to find a way. The [theme specific] Network has potential but would need to connect better with the department – would have to be proactive and engage others”
16 | Chapter 3 Transfer of learning 3.3 Beacons, departmental improvement and capacity building Interviewees appeared to have different perceptions of the extent to which the Beacon Scheme complements their department’s improvement agenda. Views ranged from fitting very well to not at all in two departments. The two examples below illustrate the range of responses. “Fits in very well. We’re constantly trying to improve performance at local level. We are especially subject to other departments, which organise the performance framework and determine priorities. Beacon can help get into the detail.” “The Beacon Scheme would just be regarded as one very small potential means of helping implement good practice and policies together with lots of other ways and means.” There was much greater uncertainty about the relationship between Beacons and capacity building. For some departments this appeared to be due to the relatively limited role of local authorities, compared with other institutions, for service delivery. “There is not really any formal capacity building. There is much more ad-hoc work that goes on, more than formal planning. We’ve promoted the Beacons with the Government offices, who’ve got the main role for capacity building so it’s up to them whether they use the Beacon(s) in their region.” “We work with delivery partners. Not a lot of direct funding to local authorities – we work in a roundabout way.” A few interviewees highlighted the importance of Beacons for creating innovation but overall, innovation was perceived to be a ‘bonus’ rather than a main feature of the Scheme “Local authorities are seen as improvement delivery tools. The Beacon Scheme provided evidence, case studies, contacts that we didn’t have before.”
Chapter 4 Impact of the Beacons Systems within the department | 17 Chapter 4 Impact of the Beacons Systems within the department 4.1 Impact on policy Interviewees’ views were mixed about the extent to which Beacons had created an impact on policy. Some suggested that the good practice exemplars had had an impact on policy implementation. “There are very important areas where a range of councils have demonstrated good practice. All the Beacons showed very robust monitoring mechanisms and very new ways and approaches to embed and assist [theme] in government decision making.” Others expressed a degree of cynicism about the extent to which individuals from other central departments than their own were willing or able to engage with the Scheme. In one department the respondent perceived the potential for impact on policy but this appeared to be at very early stages of development. Interviewees from some departments were interested in the potential of the Scheme to help to develop local and regional approaches for transforming services. One interviewee identified the importance of reference groups that had included Beacon award winners for consultation on policy formation. Others expressed doubt whether the Beacons had had any influence within their department, which illustrated some of the difficulties of knowledge transfer in large, complex departments. “I don’t think people in the policy areas are aware of the Beacon Scheme unless they have actually been involved in it and that’s usually by a theme coming up.” 4.2 Implications The main opportunities from the Scheme included: the promotion of examples of good practice, which illustrated how to tackle problems as well as innovative work; sharing of this expert knowledge with other local authorities and with central government departments; and potential to influence policy development. For example, one department identified an innovative example of policy in action from a Beacon: an ‘integrated management approach’ in which one manager controlled a service delivered through what previously had been two separate organisations and different professions.
18 | Chapter 4 Impact of the Beacons Systems within the department “It was very exciting to go the Beacon councils and see how they were tackling problems that we thought were insurmountable.” The evidence base from Beacons is useful for government departments. It can provide supportive evidence when arguing to convince colleagues of different service delivery approaches and that local authorities can be effective delivery mechanisms for central government policy priorities. Beacon councils in one theme were perceived to both inform and support policy development, leading to local authorities being involved in helping to meet Public Service Agreements (PSA) targets. Beacons in a second theme had shown robust monitoring mechanisms that helped central government to understand “how things work at the coal face.” On balance many more constraints were cited than opportunities. One of the main constraints was the availability of dedicated time in a specific role. Respondents suggested that if activity related to Beacons was not required as part of a work task, there was limited scope for central government officers to undertake it but it was also argued that personal commitment and perception of potential benefits were important influences. Some policy leads commented that if the potential level of commitment was realised within their department then there may be opportunity to have more time ‘formally’ dedicated to Beacons. This would allow more formal support of the Scheme and its winners, both in dissemination of the practice and influence of policy. “It’s not seen as a big policy priority. The investment I put in is paying dividends now – some colleagues have not been as able or willing.” Some departments considered coincidence of timing of a Beacon theme with a policy priority to be more luck than judgement but the associated risks meant that departments could be ill-prepared. Interviewees identified that it was important to identify a departmental priority sufficiently early, involve policy officers who were able to perceive the potential benefits of engagement and at a sufficiently senior level to be able to have an influence. Theme leads need to be able to involve ministers at an early stage and engage colleagues. “Beacon coordinators within departments have to sell the Scheme to policy builders to get them interested and to see its potential. This is not always easy to do.” Another concern centred on the limited involvement of those authorities that did not apply to the Scheme but were seen or known to demonstrate good practice within a particular service or policy area. 4.3 Suggested improvements to the Beacon Scheme An area cited by most as in need of improvement was the support for the selection process from the IDeA and Communities and Local Government and co-ordination in general. Suggestions included: increased engagement with departments in selecting themes with a long-term strategic value;
Chapter 4 Impact of the Beacons Systems within the department | 19 better preparation for the assessment process; and reduction in subjectivity in assessment. Increased consistency of consultants and a greater sense of working in partnership were amongst suggestions to improve working relationships. Better communication and co-ordination between the sponsoring department, Communities and Local Government (in its Beacons policy role), IDeA and even the local authorities could allow a “smarter”, more structured approach, to policy development. Departments were keen to extend their relationship with Beacons. Some were able to develop policy networks but others perceived a conflict of roles between the sponsoring department and the IDeA. This suggests that the IDeA may need to offer increased support to those departments, or divisions of departments, which have less experience of developing policy networks and reference groups. “It has made me think that we need to start thinking how we use this current group of Beacons a bit more. I do feel that the IDeA are keeping us at arm’s length. This makes it feel likes it’s an ‘us and them’ kind of thing.” 4.4 Co-ordination of the Beacon Scheme within the departments Some departments had a central co-ordinator, whereas other departments had a more fragmented approach without a central contact. One respondent suggested that their department’s Beacon Policy team could help to promote understanding of Beacons more widely and had the potential to make better use of Beacons internally. There were some broad distinctions between departments. Interviewees in four of the departments reported that there had been continued involvement with the Scheme for a number of years but in two departments there appeared to be less involvement than in previous years or less knowledge about past involvement. Those departments with a central Beacon contact appeared to express the clearest views and were able to describe the most extensive impact of the Scheme both on internal colleagues and on policy development. In addition, in those departments with consistency in their engagement, there was a more developed understanding of the processes associated with the selection and dissemination elements of the Scheme and an appreciation of the linkages with their improvement agenda. The departments without a central contact appeared more fragmented in their internal communications and reported less knowledge transfer and internal learning through the Scheme. There were some internal differences between respondents within a single department, suggesting that the specific policy context, relative policy priority, policy team and level of seniority of a policy officer may influence engagement in a specific Beacon theme in a specific year.
20 | Chapter 5 Conclusions and Implications Chapter 5 Conclusions and Implications This short report provides some insights into inter-organisational knowledge sharing and policy development between central and local government through the Beacon Scheme. The ‘theme leads’ who were the respondents in this research had a specific role in supporting this policy initiative, which is intended to create service improvement through shared learning. Respondents perceived the Beacon Scheme to serve a number of policy related purposes. They described the Scheme as a virtuous circle, in which firstly policy priorities are identified to inform theme selection, secondly, policy knowledge as well as best practice is shared and thirdly, further policy development opportunities may emerge or may be directed (See Figure 1 below). Figure 1: Beacon Scheme and Policy Development Selection of Beacon themes for award and knowledge diffusion POLICY OBJECTIVES Identification by central Sharing of thematic government service, corporate and departments of policy knowledge POLICY PRIORITIES POLICY LEARNING Development of policy by Beacons and central government departments POLICY OUTCOMES Importantly, respondents identified the Scheme as a practical opportunity for reciprocal vertical learning between central and local government. Knowledge sharing took place across traditional organisational and professional boundaries between civil servants and local government officers in a diverse range of service themes. Often relationships were formed face to face through learning events, which signals the importance of sharing tacit knowledge and the creation of informal networks (Tacit knowledge is difficult to articulate and is rooted in action and experience). Central government officers explained that they learned a great deal about the role of local government and their good practice.
Chapter 5 Conclusions and Implications | 21 Central government theme leads varied in their ability to influence but some reported that they had helped ministers to select policy priorities. In this way they played a major role in identifying the subject matter for policy learning. Some respondents reported that they encouraged ministerial participation in learning events with the Beacon authorities, helping to bring together the different interests represented in knowledge sharing and production about an emergent policy priority. Many of the theme leads played an active role in sharing learning, working alongside Beacon authorities at events and encouraging knowledge sharing with their own departmental colleagues. They were able to describe examples of policy networks that had been established as a result of their engagement with a specific Beacon theme and examples of the continued role of award winners in policy debate and formation. Amongst the barriers to policy transfer, respondents cited discontinuity and the limitations of a relatively short-life role as a theme lead. Inconsistency of approach and lack of co-ordination within a single department were amongst barriers to building on the experience of previous Beacon years. The Scheme provides opportunities for greater inter-departmental collaboration. In those departments with a central contact and continuity between Beacon years, our research suggests mutual benefits from central-local government collaboration, and an understanding of the processes and relationships of learning as a catalyst for both service improvement and policy development. Taking into account the analysis presented above, a number of implications for practice, learning and policy development could be considered which are outlined below: 5.1 Improvement of practice Initiate engagement with departments at the earliest stage possible about policy priorities. Ideally linkage should be at the most senior level. Request the nomination of (more than one) policy leads and a central contact within each sponsoring department per theme. Suggest that policy leads from different sections within a single department create internal linkages, between Beacon years as well as themes. Suggest that policy leads retain an ongoing role to promote Beacons within their department and to support and link with policy leads in subsequent years. Clarify through a variety of media the requirements and processes for theme leads of each stage of Beacon theme selection, award selection process and dissemination process. Encourage greater cross-departmental identification of and selection of themes.
22 | Chapter 5 Conclusions and Implications 5.2 Learning and policy development Encourage early thinking about possible role for Beacons in policy development and as a network or reference group beyond the Beacon year. Increase the face to face contacts between IDeA consultants and theme leads and be prepared to provide additional support to theme leads in ‘new’ divisions. Encourage policy leads to disseminate learning from Beacons and about emergent policy related networks widely within their own team, division and across the department.
Appendix 1: Interview schedule | 23 Appendix 1: Interview schedule Long-term evaluation of the Beacon Scheme The role of central government departments in the Beacon Scheme Interviews (June/ July 2006) Date: Interviewer: Organisation: Organisation phone number: Interviewee name: Interviewee phone number: Role: Introduction Thank you for agreeing to take part in this research conducted by the Local Government Centre on behalf of the ODPM and the IDeA. I will ask you about your views on the Beacon Scheme - and the ways in which central government departments can contribute to local authority improvement and innovation through the Beacon Scheme. There are four broad areas that I’d like to discuss with you – the departments role with Beacons, contact with the award winners, learning and Beacons and the relationship of Beacons with policy. The information collected will be treated in confidence. Your comments will be put together with others to gain an understanding of how central government can and might use the Beacon Scheme both in terms of policy and practice. Our research will provide general feedback to the ODPM and IDeA but will not comment on individuals. I will be making notes as we go through. Your name and role will not be identified in the report to assure confidentiality. The discussion should take about 20 – 30 minutes.
24 | Appendix 1: Interview schedule Section A: Background and Department’s role in Beacons 1) Please would you briefly outline your role and any ways in which you are involved with the Beacon Scheme? 2) What do you know about the Beacon Scheme and how much contact do you currently have with the Scheme. Has your role changed over the last 2 years in relation to the Beacon Scheme? 3) How would you define the key features of the Beacon Scheme (e.g. policy implementation, improving local government etc..?) 4) Has the role of the Scheme changed, from your Departments perspective? 5) Could you please outline the annual themes which your department has been involved with? 6) Has your department’s approach to proposals to Minister for selection of Beacon themes changed? – process of selection of theme – type of theme proposed and selected 7) In what ways could the process of selection of Beacon themes be improved?
Appendix 1: Interview schedule | 25 Section B: Contact and involvement with Beacon award winners 8) Does your dept have any mechanisms for involvement with Beacon award winners in your department? What are these? How are you involved? 9) Thinking about each of the main stages of the award, could you tell me briefly about how the department is involved with Beacon award winners during the Beacon year? I’ll got through each of the stages with you - they are: – selection; – award presentation; – planning dissemination; – dissemination activity/delivery (attend/contribute); – sharing learning from dissemination. 10) How could the relationship between central government department and local authorities be strengthened and improved through the Beacon Scheme?
26 | Appendix 1: Interview schedule Section C: Transfer of learning through the Beacon Scheme We are interested in how learning is transferred from Beacons to central government departments and from central government departments to Beacons. 11) Does your department have any mechanisms for supporting this transfer of learning both in terms of learning from others and disseminating learning to others (e.g. encouraging ‘weaker’ authorities to attend Beacon events)? 12) Has anyone from your Department attended any Beacons event? If so, how is learning from Beacons brought back into your department? 13) Can you describe an example of good practice in learning from a Beacon…and has it had an impact on policy or practice? 14) Who do you think benefits most in your department from learning from Beacons? What potential benefits could there be that are not currently in place? 15) How could learning from Beacons feed more effectively into policy and practice of central government?
Appendix 1: Interview schedule | 27 Section D: Beacons and Policy Context (This section considers the role of the Beacons Scheme in relation to a Department’s policy process, the degree to which Beacons is integrated and influences policy development (or seen as an add-on). Also to determine how the Beacons Scheme is viewed as a policy in itself) 16) In terms of the public service policy context of your Department, would you say that changes in policy have made the Beacon Scheme more or less relevant? 17) To what extent does the Beacon Scheme fit with your department’s improvement agenda? How does it fit in? In what ways does it not fit in? 18) To what extent does the Beacon Scheme contribute to Innovation within your Department? (Ask for definition of ‘Innovation’) 19) What links, if any, are there between Beacons and the formal planning of improvement and capacity building? 20) What do you see as the main opportunities and constraints of the Scheme for your Department especially in relation to policy development?
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