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Topic: Public services

Basic Income – Have Austerity’s Chickens Come Home to Roost?

📥  Basic income, Public services, Welfare and social security

Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is Policy Fellow at the IPR and Political Economy Research Fellow at the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF).

In the space of a mere five years, the idea of granting each citizen – or long-term resident in some proposals – an individual, universal and above all unconditional basic income has taken off like a rocket in established policy circles. The phrase “basic income’s time has come” is no longer the hallmark of the quasi-delusional battle cry of the seasoned utopian but can be heard – albeit perhaps with some trepidation – in the corridors of power across Europe and beyond.[1] Of course, talk is often cheap, and political talk is no exception. Expressions of support from stakeholders and decision-makers in previous years mostly took the form of cheap support: political statements not backed by commitments to expending political resources (time, money, political capital) and therefore of little value to furthering basic income policy.[2]



However, it would appear that “the times are a changin’”, as the famous Dylan song would have it. Surely, the recent policy interest in piloting basic income experiments across the world represents a serious political commitment to exploring the potential of basic income as a key component of the next stage of welfare reform? Finland has already embarked on the basic income train by paying out an unconditional basic income of €560 to 2,000 unemployed test subjects currently receiving basic unemployment benefits for the next two years.[3] Several municipalities in the Netherlands (Utrecht, Tilburg, Wageningen and Groningen, amongst others) and the Canadian province of Ontario are to follow suit in a few months, while local, regional and national governments across Europe are exploring similar options (e.g. Fife and Glasgow in Scotland; Barcelona in Spain).

What to make of this recent interest in basic income? What explains the surge in interest in universal and unconditional cash transfers across the ideological spectrum, including a willingness of some government actors to proceed with pilot schemes? Explanatory variables are no doubt manifold. One fashionable answer is to refer to the “rise of the robots”, where automation is said to irrevocably change labour markets including rendering vast numbers of jobs obsolete.[4] The threat of automation-driven technological unemployment at a scale we haven’t witnessed before is driving much of the tech-industry interest in basic income. However, the automation debate is in its infancy and the predictions of the labour market equivalent to a mass extinction event remain controversial.[5] In addition, as an explanation for the policy interest in basic income, time works against the automation argument. The rise of the robots is predicted to take another couple of decades to fully manifest, and politicians are not exactly famous for considering public policy in the long-term!

It is hard to avoid the observation that the recent “elevation” of basic income coincides with the occurrence of the financial crisis in 2007-2008, especially the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009, and the austerity response that followed suit. In a nutshell, austerity is a mechanism of kick-starting growth and recovery by means of drastically cutting public spending. Mark Blyth calls it “the austerity delusion”, a dangerous idea because it clearly doesn’t work – as evidenced by significantly increased debt-to-GDP ratios across European economies – while the idea itself remains stubbornly immune to rational refutation.[6] The idea is not just dangerous because it stubbornly fails, but in large part because the burden of failure is unequally distributed across the population and its social effects disproportionally felt by those at the bottom of the income distribution. Austerity increases risk of unemployment, poverty, social exclusion – even morbidity and mortality rates[7] – for a growing number of citizens.

The resulting division between insiders and outsiders is affecting both people’s wellbeing and the capability of government to institute policies aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in society.[8] At this point it is worth noting that austerity is nothing new when viewed from the perspective of welfare state development. Paul Pierson, almost two decades ago, referred to the new politics of the welfare state under conditions of “permanent austerity”, arguing that welfare state retrenchment employed a different logic from the expanding welfare state of the post-war decades.[9] From the Pierson perspective, austerity and welfare state retrenchment is mostly about changing political dynamics and finding ways to avoid (or shift) blame for unpopular reforms. Post-crisis austerity politics is partly a continuation of this welfare reform agenda but at the same time constitutes a break with governments having been granted a “license to cut” much deeper across a wider range of social programmes. Recent comparative research shows that while austerity had relatively little effect on social assistance budgets the impact on minimum income schemes is nevertheless serious and the tightening of minimum income schemes is at odds with the goal of “active inclusion” as mandated, for instance, by the 2008 European Commission Recommendation on active inclusion of people excluded from the labour market.[10]

The picture that is emerging after several years of austerity politics is one of European societies becoming increasingly socially, economically and politically divided – enter populism! – and governments apparently unable to turn the tide. The overall result of these recent policy developments has been increased pressure on the most vulnerable in society – the long-term unemployed, young labour market entrants, those operating at the margins of the labour market (the “precariat”), but increasingly as well, many who are poor while in work. Policymakers are becoming aware of the limits of increased conditionality and restrictions imposed on minimum income schemes. In this context, the interest in basic income could be seen as an attempt to square the austerity circle: the need for a policy that combines robust minimum income protection with the modernisation of welfare programme complexity, while retaining a strong focus on labour market activation and human capital-building as per the “social investment” agenda.[11] Instead of focusing on the de-commodifying effect of basic income – separating income from work – policymakers are emphasising its ability to combat poverty, unemployment and bureaucracy traps. In this perspective, basic income is not viewed as a utopian alternative to the welfare state, but to the contrary, a key instrument in its long-term survival by allowing the minimum income floor to be mainstreamed and modernised. Of course, squaring circles is hard work and in the first instance we need to know that basic income can deliver; hence, the focus on piloting and experimenting with basic income schemes in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and so on as part of a broader approach to evidence-based policymaking.

It is early days so perhaps making an assessment as to whether the many experiments will generate results that support the basic income policy would be premature. It is moreover impossible to predict whether positive piloting experiences will lead to robust policy implementation. At this point we need serious political science research examining the conditions under which basic income can build up a robust constituency (for more on this, see Luke Martinelli's excellent blog on the subject), as well as long-lasting coalitions amongst decision-makers across the ideological spectrum.[12] However, even if – paradoxically – austerity has caused policymakers to conceive of basic income as a valid instrument in their “activation toolbox”, the resulting programme may still fall short of the more progressive aims, for which most basic income advocates push. This is serious cause for concern among those who insist that basic income is primarily an instrument of freedom and equality.[13] The answer to this worry is twofold, in my view. First, we should appreciate what even a modest basic income may accomplish given the dire prospects of continuing along the road we currently travel. Second, once anchored in our policy environment, political forces can focus on upgrading the modest (almost residual) basic income model to something more progressive, emancipatory and liberating. If successful – and, granted, for now it remains a big “if” – such a political strategy would certainly make sure that austerity’s chickens finally come home to roost!

This blog originally appeared in ISRF Bulletin Issue XIII: Today's Future - Challenges & Opportunities Across the Social Sciences. It builds on research conducted jointly by Dr De Wispeleare and Dr Luke Martinelli on the political economy of basic income in European welfare states. You can find out more about the IPR's work on basic income here.

[1] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “Basic Income in Our Time: Improving Political Prospects Through Policy Learning?” Journal of Social Policy 45(4): 617-634.
[2] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[3] Olli Kangas, Miska Simanainen, and Pertti Honkanen (2017) “Basic Income in the Finnish Context.” Intereconomics 52(2): 87–91; Laura Kalliomaa-Puha, Anna-Kaisa Tuovinen, and Olli E Kangas (2016) “The Basic Income Experiment in Finland.” Journal of Social Security Law 23(2): 75–88.
[4] Martin Ford (2016) Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. New York: Basic Books; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2016) The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. W.W Norton; Jerry Kaplan (2015) Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Yale University Press.
[5] Labour economist David Autor, for instance, insists firms and employees will adapt to the anticipated automation by shifting tasks within jobs; this argument offers an important antidote to the most pessimistic forecasts about layoffs. David H. Autor (2015) “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 29(3): 3–30.
[6] Mark Blyth (2013) “The Austerity Delusion: Why a Bad Idea Won Over the West.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013.
[7] Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler (2014) “Economic Suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 205(3): 246–47.
[8] Johannes Lindvall and David Rueda (2013) “The Insider–Outsider Dilemma.” British Journal of Political Science 44(02): 460–75.
[9] Paul Pierson (2001) “Coping with Permanent Austerity: Welfare State Restructuring in Affluent Democracies.” In: P. Pierson (Ed.), The New Politics of the Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[10] Sarah Marchal, Ive Marx, and Natascha van Mechelen (2016) “Minimum Income Protection in the Austerity Tide.” IZA Journal of European Labor Studies: 1–20.
[11] Anton Hemerijck (2015) “The Quiet Paradigm Revolution of Social Investment.” Social Politics 22(2): 242–56.
[12] Joe Chrisp (2017) “Basic Income: Beyond Left and Right?” Juncture, 23: 266–270; Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[13] Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (2017) Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. Harvard University Press.


Kerbside recycling: does it deliver?

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Public services

Dr Lucy O'Shea is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Bath's Department of Economics

At first glance, recycling figures in this country seem overwhelmingly positive; the recycling rate for UK household waste, for example, has increased from 0.8% in the 1980s to 43.9% in 2015.[1] The figure steadily rose until 2011, but has since levelled off – and the 2015 figure is now 0.9% lower than it was in 2014 (Defra, 2017).

This apparently meteoric rise masks a considerable variation in recycling across different UK local authorities. The recycling rate can vary from 15% to 67% by area (Defra, 2017), and this variation has been persistent over time.



In a 2011 study, my colleagues – Dr Shasikanta Nandeibam (University of Bath) and Professor Andrew Abbott (University of Hull) – and I identified a key factor responsible for the dramatic rise in recycling: the introduction and expansion of kerbside recycling (Abbott et al., 2011). We therefore set about trying to explain the reasons for regional variation in recycling by looking at aspects of kerbside collection and socioeconomic characteristics. We found that differences in the frequency of collections, types and sizes of containers and population density go some way to explaining the variation in household recycling rates. In a further paper (Abbott et al., 2013) we found evidence for the existence of a social norm for recycling. In that paper we categorised the reference group along different dimensions: age, education, income, ethnicity and proximity. We were able to demonstrate a social norm effect, showing that recycling habits were influenced by age, ethnicity and proximity to other recyclers. This effect is also present in Defra’s 2017 Digest of Waste Statistics (Defra 2017), where local authorities close to each other have a tendency to have similar recycling rates. Thus, despite a dramatic improvement in overall household recycling performance, there are some aspects of recycling that have remained persistent over time.

Prior to kerbside recycling, the main outlets for recycling were recycling centres and ‘bring sites’. Bring sites cover dedicated containers usually located in supermarket car parks, whereas recycling centres receive a variety of waste and recycling and cover much larger areas. By providing kerbside collections, the local authorities increase the convenience of recycling – and there is a consensus that by increasing the convenience of recycling behaviour, individuals are more likely to engage in it (e.g. see Ando and Gosselin, 2005, Saphores et al., 2012).[2] However, the question that arises is whether the increase in recycling at the kerbside has occurred at the expense of recycling through other outlets such as recycling centres and bring sites. On the one hand, if (as has been the case) waste arising from households has been fairly stable, the physical limit on the amount that can be recycled is relatively fixed.[3] On the other hand, increased opportunities to recycle may act as a spur to further recycling as households become more aware of what can be recycled and develop the recycling habit.

The policy question that arises, therefore, is whether kerbside recycling has been as successful in driving up recycling rates as at first appears. If households merely switch to kerbside from other recycling outlets, then the impact on recycling behaviour is less positive than if households continue to use previously available recycling methods as well.[4]

This question gains added importance when the current stalling in the overall recycling rate is considered. The target for household recycling is 50% by 2020. We already observe that securing gains above 40% is becoming increasingly difficult; thus, local authorities have to think carefully about what activities will contribute most to closing the gap between current recycling levels and the EU target of 50%. In contributing to this question, my colleagues and I have recently published a new study asking the question of how households view different policy instruments, such as kerbside recycling and recycling centres, provided by the government to encourage them to recycle. Do they view them as complementary or as substitutes for each other? The more households view kerbside as a substitute for going to the recycling centre to recycle their paper, card, plastic etc., the less successful kerbside collections will be in securing additional gains in recycling performance towards the 50% target. Although the focus of this research is on policy instruments related to recycling, there is a wider message: regardless of the domain of policy, potential trade-offs between policies should be explicitly considered, as new interventions can offset the contribution of pre-existing measures.

We can look at the policy question in more detail. In our new paper we show that the decision to recycle at the kerb and/or at the recycling centre will depend on the time saved in doing so. Characteristics of the kerbside collection scheme can affect this time saving, such as frequency of collection, number of materials collected and size of containers. Factors that determine the time taken to bring material to the recycling centres will include distance to the recycling centre. Thus, local government decisions regarding the provision of kerbside and siting of recycling centres will affect the time taken to carry out recycling using different outlets and hence the interaction between them. The general conclusions that emerge from the study are that there is a trade-off when it comes to green recycling (compost waste) but that there is no trade-off when we consider dry recycling (paper, card, glass, aluminium, plastic). Thus, improving access to kerbside collection, providing larger receptacles or arranging more frequent recycling collections can benefit kerbside recycling of dry materials without any measurable loss in returns of dry materials to recycling centres. If we relate back to our earlier discussion of the reasons why such a trade-off might exist then, in the case of green recycling, we deduce that the nature of the activity – occurring infrequently and at specific times, together with relatively fixed nature of the production of such waste – means that households view recycling at the kerbside or at the recycling centre as substitutes for each other. On the other hand, we find that households view dry recycling differently, and the two methods of recycling are seen as complementary – with enhanced kerbside provision promoting recycling at the kerb while not significantly reducing recycling at the recycling centre.

It should be noted that our findings for the UK differ to those found in other contexts. For example, Beatty et al., (2007) find that there is a trade-off between beverage can (glass and plastics) recycling at the kerbside and at the recycling centre, although not for aluminium. Their study, which is based on Californian data, is set against the backdrop of a deposit-refund scheme; such monetary schemes are as yet not permitted in the UK. Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from the difference in the findings as the two studies differ in many respects, the trade-off in the Beatty study occurs for those materials that are heavier. Thus, the convenience of recycling heavier materials at the kerb offsets the loss in the refund which is redeemable at the recycling centre. If a similar deposit refund scheme were to be introduced in the UK it would appear at first glance not to substantially change our results.

This blog post is based on a recent paper published by Dr Lucy O'Shea and her colleagues Dr Shasikanta Nandeibam (University of Bath) and Professor Andrew Abbott (University of Hull).



[1] It should be noted that the definition has changed from ‘household waste’ to ‘waste from household’ in 2014. The latter is a slightly narrower category which excludes street waste.
[2] https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/recycle-challenge/ideas/make-recycling-more-convenient (Accessed 5/5/2017).
[3] This assumes that the composition of consumption and technical aspects related to packaging and the capacity of local authorities to recycle these remains the same.
[4] There may be other benefits from kerbside recycling in terms of time saved by households by recycling at the kerb as well as fuel savings and avoided pollution that arise by replacing many individual trips to the recycling centre with local authority/private contractor collection and disposal.


Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2011. Explaining the variation in recycling rates across the UK. Ecological Economics 70, 2214-2223.

Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2013. Recycling: social norms and warm-glow revisited. Ecological Economics 90, 10-18.

Abbott, A., Nandeibam, S., O’Shea, L., 2017. The displacement effect of convenience: the case of recycling, Ecological Economics 136, 159-168.

Ando, A.W., Gosselin, A.Y., 2005. Recycling in multifamily dwellings: does convenience matter? Economic Inquiry 43, 426-438.

Beatty, T.K.M., Berck, P., Shimshack, J.P., 2007. Curbside recycling in the presence of alternatives. Economic Inquiry 45, 739-755.

Defra 2017. Digest of Waste Statistics, March 2017 Edition.

Saphores, J.D.M., Ogunseitan, O.A., Shapiro, A.A., 2012. Willingness to engage in a pro-environmental behaviour: an analysis of e-waste recycling based on a national survey of US households, Resources Conservation and Recycling 60, 49-63.


The Right to an Opinion: Measuring the Subjective Wellbeing of Children in Care

📥  Public services, Welfare and social security

Marsha Wood is Research Assistant at the IPR. This post draws, in part, on her work on children in care, which was also recently published in Sage's journal Adoption & Fostering

There are around 70,000 children and young people in care in England, mainly because of abuse and neglect. The impact of maltreatment can be long lasting and the quality of substitute care the child receives has a significant impact on their developmental recovery. Whilst some young people will have a positive experience during their time in care and will go on to flourish as adults, there are also many young people whose experiences are less positive, who leave care without having had opportunities for recovery and who remain unprepared for independent adult lives. Yet, we know very little about the factors which influence positive care experiences.



Whilst there is much rhetoric around wellbeing for adults and children in the general population, there is little understanding of how wellbeing measures translate for children who may have more specific needs, such as children in care – leaving huge gaps in our understanding of the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting their lives – yet it seems that that the opinions of the most vulnerable groups are not always heard.

Different lives

Most children in care have had very different lives to the general population both before entering care and throughout their care journey. Children in care may identify broad aspects of importance similar to the general child population such as ‘family’, but their lived experiences of ‘family’ can be very different to those of the general child population – and, accordingly, their needs in relation to maintaining or developing positive family relationships may vary. For example, children in care do not live with their birth parents, and may or may not live with their siblings. Whilst some may not desire any contact with their birth family, many others will still feel strong bonds and ties, and desire contact with birth family members. Many will have a strong desire to live with their siblings, although this is not always possible, and regular contact can be key.

A further area of difference for children in care, as compared with the general child population, is around relationships with professionals. All children in care have a social worker whom they should know and have contact with, and many will have a range of other professionals in their lives. Children in care will have a foster carer or a key worker if they live in a residential home. Many will have had multiple carers and will have moved placements multiple times, or will have moved in and out of care – between the family home and foster or residential care. When children leave the care system as they enter adulthood, they often have to adjust to independent living far more rapidly than children in the general population. It is the role of children’s services to ensure that despite these complexities, children and young people have a positive care experience which counters any previous maltreatment and enables them to flourish into adulthood. But what factors need to be in place to ensure that children in care have positive lives, and how can we know when things are going wrong?

Subjective wellbeing

It is increasingly recognised that understanding subjective wellbeing – or asking people how they feel about their own lives – is key to developing policy that supports our quality of life, and we cannot just rely on objective wellbeing measures such as educational results or the number of teen pregnancies. The Measuring What Matters programme (Office of National Statistics, 2011), which began in England in 2010, concluded that people’s objective circumstances can improve, but this does not necessarily translate into feeling that life is improving. For example, crime can go down, but people may not necessarily feel more secure. Children in care may have more stable foster care placements, but does this actually mean that they feel more secure? There have been substantial efforts to identify what makes a good life and to find ways to measure it recently. The New Economic Foundation (NEF) has developed a model for measuring subjective wellbeing which identifies the key areas of wellbeing (e.g. happiness, life having meaning), and how personal resources (e.g. self-esteem, optimism) play a key role in maintaining wellbeing. The NEF model is useful, but may not go far enough for children in care who often have very limited personal resources upon which they can draw.

Measuring the wellbeing of children in care

Research (Ungar, 2013) highlights how children who have been subjected to traumatic experiences are less able to use their own resources and rely much more on external factors to maintain wellbeing. For children in care, the role of children’s services are key in supporting young people to develop the resources that they need to affect their well-being. Yet how we understand and measure the effectiveness of children’s services in ensuring a positive experience for children in care is barely thought through. Unicef (2016) have recommended that children’s voices should always be built into data collection processes, stating that children need to be able to shape the questions asked in surveys of their own lives and wellbeing.

Important work has been undertaken to create national surveys to measure the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population. For example, researchers from the Children’s Society and the University of York consulted with 8,000 children, asking what they thought were the most important ingredients for good life. Children identified a common set of domains: relationships (family and friends), environment (home, school, neighbourhood, possessions) satisfaction (with appearance, life overall), happiness (current, sense of a future and life worthwhile), safety (free form bullying) and choice (a say in decision-making, opportunities). These domains have informed various subjective wellbeing measures for children such as the international Children’s Worlds survey and those developed by the ONS in their work on national wellbeing in England. However, although the evidence base for children’s subjective wellbeing has improved overall, little is known about whether the domains identified for the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population apply to more specific groups of children – such as children in care.

Recent investigations

I recently worked on a research study conducted by the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, delivered in collaboration with the children’s rights charity Coram Voice, which has sought to address this gap. Alongside a participation worker from Coram Voice, I conducted focus groups with 140 children in care to identify what they thought were the key factors to a good care journey; the key messages that came from the young people were then used to develop a subjective wellbeing measure for looked-after children. The views and experiences expressed by the young people in the study illustrate factors that can support positive care experiences. Having opportunities to do things that they had never done before, like go-karting or horse riding, for example – or engaging in participation sessions with other young people in care, or going to parliament to represent people in care.

These positive experiences helped to build confidence and to reduce the feelings of stigma associated with being a child in care by enabling the young people to speak positively about their lives. The young people also talked about how much they valued having positive relationships with adults whom they could trust and whom they could rely on to be a consistent, long-term, committed person in their lives. Some spoke of the positive role models their carers had been and how they valued being given the chance to learn to be independent; some of being trusted with responsibilities, and being given second, third, fourth and even fifth chances when they made a mistake, proving understanding and commitment from care givers. Some also talked about the positive relationship they had with their social workers, valuing those in particular who did not judge them negatively and who showed an understanding of their previous experiences and how their behaviours might be linked to those experiences.

Unfortunately, not all of the children and young people who spoke in the focus groups for the study were able to talk about such positive experiences. The young people spoke about their need to be involved in the discussions and decisions being made about their lives and at least to be informed about key changes. For example, one five-year-old spoke about how scared he felt when he was picked up from school by his social worker and, instead of being driven the normal route home, found that he was being taken on a totally different journey, ending up at a house that was going to be his new home. He had no prior warning until he arrived at the house that he was moving to a new home.

Several young people talked about the many different social workers they had had, how sometimes they did not even know who their social worker was, or how every time they rang to speak to their social worker they would end up talking to a different staff member and would have to re-tell their story, making them feel misunderstood and judged. The word trust came up over and over again in the focus groups, yet often seemed to be something lacking in the relationships that the young people had, or – where they did have trusting relationships, for example with a sibling – something that wasn’t always recognised and supported by carers and professionals in terms of assisting the young person to keep in touch with that person.

The children and young people also spoke about the need for consistent support services. For example, one young person spoke about her feeling of devastation when she found out that she would lose the long-term support she had received from a mental health professional, whom she had worked with for years and who was the only person she felt she could open up to about past traumatic experiences, simply because she turned 18 and was suddenly no longer entitled to receive support from that person.

Many young people spoke of experiences where they felt that unnecessary attention was drawn to their status as a child in care – for example, being pulled out of class to go and see their social worker, or being seen out and about with a professional who wears their ID badge.

Addressing concerns

Some of the problems identified above might be easily solved; for example, informing professionals not to wear their ID badges when out in public with the children and young people could alleviate their embarrassment. Reminding social workers to inform the children and young people who they support about their annual leave arrangements and whom they should speak to in their absence would also be a simple but effective measure. Other problems are harder to address, however; the high turnover of social workers in many areas, for example, will be related to the high pressures and caseloads faced by many social workers in children’s services, and needs to be tackled primarily through better funding of social work services. High caseloads also affect the opportunities that social workers have to spend time with children and young people, to build the trust and understanding which help them ensure that the right supports can be put in place to aid recovery from past traumatic experiences. Although difficult to resolve, these problems cannot be ignored.

The long-term costs, to both the young people themselves and to society as a whole, of a negative experience in the care system far outweigh the costs associated with putting things right for the young whilst they are still in care. Yet, we need to know what is going wrong and where in order to put things right. We also need to know what is going right, and within which local authorities, in order to share good practice examples with other areas.

From the focus groups with the young people, the University of Bristol and Coram Voice developed three age- and length-appropriate surveys (4-7 year olds, 8-11 year olds and 11+) focusing on four domains: relationship, rights, recovery and resilience. The aim of the surveys is to alert local authorities to areas where they may be failing children in their care, and also where they are doing well, to support young people and to identify the practices in place that have a positive influence on children and young people’s wellbeing – and, from this, to share the learning with other authorities and influence national policy to drive improvements in children and young people’s wellbeing. The surveys have been piloted with 6 local authorities and this year are being used by another 17.

More work to do

This work, of course, only addresses part of the problem; there are groups within groups. Care leavers may have more specific needs relating to loneliness and independent living; young parents’ wellbeing needs will centre more around support to bring up their children and access to affordable childcare; refugees and asylum-seeking children and young people may have specific concerns around the complex rights and entitlements landscape they must navigate; and there remain questions as to how we understand the wellbeing of children in care who are under the age of four. It may be that further separate measures need to be developed to capture the needs of other groups of vulnerable young people. Coram Voice have recently secured money to develop a care leavers survey, which is a positive step forward in addressing the needs of more specific groups of vulnerable young people.

Findings from the current surveys are also beginning to illuminate potential questions for the care system. For example, initial findings indicate lower wellbeing scores for girls in care compared to boys, and raise questions over how the care system should operate in relation to different groups of young people. It may be that, as more local authorities take up the survey, other pictures start to emerge. For example, wellbeing experiences may differ for other groups also – such as those from minority ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, or those from certain age groups. As more local authorities take part, we can identify the problems that are locally specific as well as those that are cross cutting, in order to develop both local policy and target national developments.

Looking to the future

Children’s services are so financially constrained that they often feel they are only able to scratch the surface in their work with children and young people, and are unable to reach and therefore tackle the problems that lie beneath. Social workers’ cries for help to improve services are largely ignored. Instead ensues a rhetoric of blame towards social workers, who are working under severe resource constraints. Crisis points often materialise after children leave care. Although there is recognition of the need to support care-leavers, services are currently insufficient. Ofsted report that two-thirds of care-leaving services were judged to either require improvement or to be inadequate (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2015). A recent report by the Children’s Society (2016) highlighted the problems of financial exclusion faced by care-leavers, with many young people falling into debt and financial difficulty and nearly 4,000 receiving benefit sanctions in 2015. In the year ending March 2015, 39% of care-leavers aged 19 to 21 were not in education, employment or training. Within two years of leaving the care system, a third of young care-leavers become homeless (Stein, 2010). Research also consistently shows that care-leavers are over-represented in studies on people in custody.

Returning to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting them. It is hoped that through measuring the subjective wellbeing of children in care using measures identified by the young people themselves, the most vulnerable young people in our society have more of an opportunity to voice their opinions – opinions that, by right, must not be ignored.


For more information about the research, please see Marsha's published paper or the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care studies' brochure on the project.



Office of National Statistics (2011) Measuring What Matters. London. Office for National Statistics.

House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. (2015) Care leavers’ transition to adulthood: Fifth Report of Session 2015-16. London. The House of Commons Library.

The Children’s Society (2016) The cost of being care free: The impact of poor financial education and removal of support on care leavers. London. The Children’s Society.

Ungar, M. (2013). Resilience after maltreatment: The importance of social services as facilitators of positive adaptation. Child abuse & neglect, 37(2), 110-115.

United Nations (1990) Convention on the Rights of the Child

Unicef (2016) Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries. Unicef.

Wade, J & Dixon, J. (2006,) Making a home, finding a job: investigating early housing and employment outcomes for young people leaving care, Child & Family Social Work, vol 11, no 3, pp 199–208.


Is reform of social care doomed?

📥  Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security

For people who have worked in UK public policy in recent decades, whether as civil servants, politicians or advisers, there is something wearily familiar, and depressing, about the current debate on the reform of social care. A fair chunk of the period I worked in No10 Downing Street, between 2007 and 2010, was spent on social care policy: on reports commissioned from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, papers drafted by committees of civil servants working up options for cabinet sub-committees, notes for political discussions between ministers, party conference announcements, and even legislation. None of it went anywhere. Cross-party talks were scuppered by the Conservatives, the Treasury dug in against reforms considered fiscally unsustainable, and Labour malcontents in the House of Lords blocked legislation that they thought was partial and incoherent. Nor did it get much better after 2010 – Andrew Dilnot was commissioned to review social care funding, but his recommendations were kicked into the long grass, while local government spending on care services fell under the heaviest of axes.



Why has social care remained unreformed, when other public services have been subject to extensive, often unrelenting change? It is not simply lack of political will, though that has played a part. Nor can it be that the funding and organisation of social care is more complex and difficult to reform than other areas of public policy; pensions’ policy, for example, has been successfully reformed, on a largely consensual basis, in the last decade. The concepts of mainstream public policy analysis – punctuated equilibria, multiple streams analysis, or narrative policy frameworks through which policymakers make sense of the world – do not seem to provide much explanatory help. Instead, we should look to the political economy of welfare states.

The social care system (here taken to refer primarily to social care in England) is staffed by low-wage, largely non-unionised, predominately female employees working for private companies. There are no high-status, powerful professionals, like NHS hospital consultants, in social care – nor strong trade unions organising a high proportion of care staff. The workforce is heavily dependent on EU migrant labour. Services are mostly commissioned from private companies by local government, rather than provided by the public sector itself. Social care was kept separate from healthcare in the 1948 settlement, meaning that it has never benefited from the popular support and protective institutional aura of the NHS. Social care consequently does not generate institutional interests that are capable of powerful political expression: the labour voice is weak; professional vested interests are marginal; there is no national public sector body responsible for the service; and the business interest is uncoordinated.

Older people using social care are not politically mobilised, like parents of school children or NHS patients. Most of us are myopic about our future care needs; we tend not to plan ahead for the care we will need. For those suffering long-term conditions, like dementia, care will be needed for a long time – but for many of us, care services will be limited to end-of-life support of relatively limited duration. We know that we will need a pension for retirement, and health services throughout our lives, but not whether we will require social care. This means that the state is under limited pressure properly to fund and improve care services. In recent months, much of the political concern about social care has been generated by the knock-on impact that cuts to local government services have had on the NHS.

The social care systems of so-called liberal welfare states like the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA, share many features. They are residual, relying heavily on limited means-tested safety nets, rather than providing universal coverage. Low levels of expenditure on means-tested assistance are funded from general taxation. At the same time, private care insurance is limited (non-existent in the UK case), but nor is there comprehensive social insurance or a compulsory care saving, as is typical of countries like Germany, France, Japan and Korea. Social care systems therefore tend to typify the welfare states of which they are a part: individualised, means-tested and general-taxation-funded liberal systems; universal, tax-funded Nordic systems in which care needs are decommodified; continental care systems that have developed from tripartite-funded (employer, employee and the state) social insurance systems; and East Asian systems in developed economies that have expanded compulsory care insurance coverage as their populations have aged, based on co-funded mechanisms.

Social care has also tended not to feature in Social Investment State (SIS) strategies that have dominated welfare state reform discourses in the UK and elsewhere since the 1990s. SIS conceptual frameworks prioritise employment and human capital investment, and privilege childcare and support for parental employment, over care of the elderly and adults with disabilities.

What then are the prospects for successful reform of social care in this latest round of policy debate? Substantively, the UK is unlikely to pursue the compulsory/social insurance or universal tax-funded reform options that have been developed in other welfare states – we lack the political economic foundations and politically mobilised social group interests for those kinds of reforms. More likely, ministers will tilt towards co-payment models or tax-incentivised private savings vehicles, with a floor of means-tested support. These will be partial and inegalitarian, however, since they do not pool risk across the population, and they tend to squeeze those who have income and assets just above the threshold for means-tests, while enabling those higher up the income and wealth distribution to buy better services, and forcing low-income families to rely on low-quality services – poor services for poor people. Meanwhile, ministers will put just enough funding into social care services to stave off collateral damage to the NHS, as the Chancellor did with an extra £2 billion over three years in his budget.

Pressure for change may depend on the politics of ageing. Turnout in UK elections is heavily skewed towards older voters, who currently form a solid bloc of support for the Conservative government. This demographic political inequality is commonly thought to explain why pensions and benefits for older people have received relative protection in the era of austerity, while inheritance tax is cut and wealth levies (the so-called "death tax") are abjured. Academic research into the politics of age is unfortunately more limited than that into social class or occupational groups (although it is a growing field and interest from think-tanks has been developing). The politics of social care may come to turn on whether the collective interests of older people and their families in the provision of properly-funded, comprehensive services, integrated with the NHS, can trump both the social class differences between them and the lack of broad coalitions of support that currently inhibit progressive social care reforms. For now, Whitehall watchers will not be holding their breath.


Doing more with less: the challenges of public sector leadership

📥  Public services

Marcial Boo, Chief Executive of The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Once upon a time, we were prepared to wait – and to make do. No longer. We all now expect immediate access to anything we want, and to same-day deliveries. If we get poor customer service, we’re straight onto Twitter to tell our friends, and we expect an instant response from the company concerned.



It’s all very well that we want this from Amazon and Uber. But should we expect these same standards from the NHS, the police and other public services too? In fact, our demands are even greater; we expect that public service leaders will demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and value for money, and be subject to public criticism if they are thought to fail. Not only this, but we ask that all this is accomplished without raising taxes. This is what we expect of public services today – and rightly so.

In this demanding world, public sector managers need new skills – and this was the theme of an Institute for Policy Research (IPR) research seminar that I participated in last week, along with IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce and the Dean of the University of Bath School of Management Professor Veronica Hope Hailey.

One of the recurring motifs of our discussion was the sheer breadth of skills required by public sector managers. It is no longer enough to be good at strategy-making, planning and financial management. The modern public sector manager must also know how to manage contracts, to communicate through new media channels, and to draw on the expertise of a wide range of people and organisations. And with constantly reducing budgets. It’s not at all easy.

As a result, public sector managers need to learn resilience (to deal with the flak and keep going despite the odds), and to keep a healthy perspective by taking time out to see things from others’ points of view. They have to take a breather sometimes too. Perhaps most importantly, they need to retain their commitment to making our society a better place – something that was sometimes forgotten in the drive for central performance targets.

In our book, The Public Sector Fox, Alexander Stevenson and I describe how modern public sector managers from local and central government, the NHS, police and elsewhere – including academia – can learn the skills they need to survive in this demanding modern world for public services. The advice and tips in the book draw on our decades of experience, ranging from managing counter-terrorism programmes to regulating MPs’ expenses.

Work in the public sector is demanding. But it can be immensely rewarding too. To make our public services more successful, we must ensure that its managers have the skills they need to work effectively with limited budgets, high expectations, a sceptical media, and multiple interested parties, while meeting the needs of everyone who wants to live in a safe, clean and healthy society. It could hardly be more important.

Marcial Boo's book The Public Sector Fox is available here.

If you missed this IPR Research Seminar, you can sign up for our next one – a discussion of former COO of HM Government Stephen Kelly's experience rewiring the civil service – here.