Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: February, 2014

The Policy Transfer Question

When can policy makers safely apply the learning of other countries’ apparently successful policies? Why is policy transfer so common and popular within different Governments of varying hues? This post reflects on the desire to take a form of intervention in one setting and see if it will work in another.

I am interested in this because there seems to be lots of it going on in housing as well as much talk of policy transfer in the Scottish independence debate, to name but two areas. I think it raises lots of dangers for policymaking but also offers the possibility for a much more rounded and coherent assessment of ones’ own policy system. Cynics also argue that it is cheap in terms of development but it can involve lazy and uncritical thinking. Spotting policy transfer failure is of course also a popular pastime.

Policy transfer, substantively and as an academic field of study, has grown hugely since the 1970s, reflecting the growing interest in comparative work in discrete policy areas, greater access to ideas via think tanks, supranational organisations and the declining cost of international communications. Academics like Rose, Evans, Dolowitz and Marsh have worked through the general questions of lesson-learning and policy transfer, while housing specialists like Donnison, Doling, Kemeny, Whitehead, Stephens, Oxley, Turner, Maclennan and Ronald have explored comparative housing research, including the efficacy or otherwise of policy transfer of housing interventions.

It is still a rich literature with a recent special issue in Policy and Politics and the whole question generally given proper space and overage in the textbooks (such as Hudson and Lowe’s excellent book on Understanding the Policy Process for Policy Press). The big questions concern whether transfer to country B can work given its and country A’s key institutions, context, policy processes, state-market relations, welfare regimes and the like. There is also a suggestion that weaker but still useful lessons can be learnt about what makes the transfer of the idea or its exploration in country B worthwhile of further work. There is also much interest in whether national regimes and indeed policy frameworks are converging or diverging – since that has, among other things, implications for future transferability.

Policy transfer and a willingness to think in these terms and look for such opportunities can seem near ubiquitous. All the more reason to go about it very carefully, as a few illustrations from policy questions operating at different scales I am interested in, directly demonstrate.

First, work on the nature of poverty traps and the persistence of deprivation. I have a colleague who does behavioural economics and is interested in whether changing aspirations can alter the likelihood of poverty persisting. He has been doing interesting experiments involving interventions that seek to raise the aspirations of sex workers in Kolkata, India. He is now asking whether the same methods might be used to research the persistence of poverty and deprivation in Global North urban contexts like in Glasgow. He is not saying that the development settings are irrelevant, far from it. Rather he is asking whether the role of internal or endogenous poverty traps are important generally and also whether the experimental  (treatment and control group) methods might be a useful way forward.[i]

Second, can nations from the same region but vastly different scales and stages of development transfer financial policies? I have an exchange doctoral student, Min Wang, who is examining the appropriateness of the Chinese government adopting a version of the Singapore Central Provident Fund scheme as a way to finance housing through savings. It turns out that there are a number of problems with the application to China (there called the Housing Provident Fund), especially in terms of size, institutional context, clarity of objectives and design.

Third, are there housing finance innovations that can be translated from international experience (North America, Australia, Western Europe and within the UK) to different parts of the UK? In a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we wrestled with the implications of the policy transfer and comparative housing literature. We made this transferability a key criterion in intervention assessment and also took the view that some policies were simply worth further basic investigation in a UK context without in any sense committing to them.

Fourth, are housing policies converging or diverging within the UK after devolution? From a Scottish perspective, I think it is perfectly reasonable to see examples of convergence and divergence, and not just because significant parts of the system (tax, benefits, finance and public finance rules) are reserved. I looked at this in more detail in a paper in Housing Finance International[ii] but, for me, the question that is at least as interesting is the appetite for transfer in both directions between Scotland and England e.g. our National Housing Trust model or grant-funding new council housing, or, thinking about national social rent policies in Scotland?

Finally, do these transfer ideas have currency and operate at more local scales e.g. can lessons or experiences from one community planning partnership or local authority inform what might happen in another? Don’t contextual variations and nuances apply at these more local scales too?

The caution that should apply to uncritical application of ideas across boundaries and specific contexts should not prevent looking seriously at ideas from other places. If this makes us look at our own systems, what makes them tick, what the barriers and path dependencies are, this can only be good for policy making per se. The old saw that by looking at other countries we can understand ourselves better has an obvious degree of truth in it. The claims made by both sides in the Scottish independence referendum campaign might reasonably reflect on this when they make such bold or pessimistic inferences about Scandinavia, Ireland and indeed England, Scotland and the UK.

[i] For more information, see Professor Sayantan Ghosal’s paper in the Conversation:

[ii] Gibb, K (2102) ‘Is Scottish housing policy diverging from policy in England? The complexity of devolution in practice.’ Housing Finance International, Vol  26 (4), pp. 21-26.


Trying to Get Things Done

I had a catch up meeting with a dissertation student on Friday and for maybe the second or third time I met someone who also uses the time management or self-organisation system developed by David Allen – Getting Things Done.

I have been a devotee for more than 3 years now. It started simply by reading a story in the Guardian about how some of their staff had become enthusiastic followers after doing a workshop with Allen. I checked out the book of the same name and I have been hooked ever since.

Prior to going down this road, I have, for more years than I care to recall, tried different ways to organise myself better to cope with what the world flings at me, and thereby to manage my time better in essentially conventional ways. I probably bought a few too many books in airport bookshops (you know the ones) that promised simple solutions to the self-organising holy grail.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is both very simple but still quite challenging. It is an enabling framework and allows you, within a set of guidelines, to tailor and customize a GTD framework that suits you best. Assuming you have a well-functioning calendar, the key elements are a series of actively managed lists that allow you to organise and prioritise in a comprehensive way. The first of these critical lists is an in-tray of all new requests, required responses and other stuff that implies obligations on your part. Keep this up to date and out of your head and adopt a systematic way of adding these things to your system of actionable lists.

For me the key lists are projects and actions. A project is anything that is important to you and require multiple or on-going actions (at least two) to achieve outcomes important to you. I split these up into work-related and non-work related around 5 or 6 sub-headings. In parallel there are the current actions that flow from these projects (organised in the same way). Actions are the immediate focus of the prioritisation of both work and domestic tasks.

There are other lists that might be employed depending on your requirements and preferences but the other key element is the weekly review, where you spend an invaluable time working through the next week and beyond to plan and prioritise your actions and projects, set them in context and, for me, simply try to incrementally improve the whole project.

Beyond these elements it is really up to you to make this work to meet your own requirements as you see it. For instance, I distinguish between simple actions that can be done swiftly in a few minutes (quick wins) from other more substantial undertakings and I focus on keeping my email in box as near or as close to zero as I can with a document filing system in Dropbox that parallels my email sub-directories. Everything is read and far as possible actioned straightaway or at worst filed in my GTC in box for further action. When GTD is working for you it really unclutters the mind and helps focus and prioritise but the keys to its working, for me at least are threefold: being consistently comprehensive in capturing everything you do; actively managing the system on a daily basis and updating and reviewing lists; and, third, working continuously to make small improvements in the system you use that work for you. Most of the time however it is simply a great tool to manage yourself and create space, paradoxically, to work on substantive, interesting things (including leisure).

Since getting on board I have swapped between doing my list on paper in a notebook I take with me and electronically on an app that works on my smart phone/tablet and laptop. The latter sounds great and is good in some respects but I keep going back to paper. I am currently using a bespoke app for getting things done but I am sure that I will inevitably return to paper and pen.

There are challenges with this type of approach to how you fit this together. One is being a victim of its own success. There is an element of Parkinson’s Law that applies such that you fill up the spaces in your schedule with more projects and actions and you replace one form of stress (disorder) with another (congestion). Paradoxically, fitting more of your non-working time into the model may help though it may leave your partner doubting the concept of free will.

It also has to be said that this is absolutely no guarantee, from other peoples’ point of view, that you will necessarily do the things they want you to do when they want you to do it. Rather it is a system that among other things help you prioritise, rationalise, and allocate your own scarce resources.

Because it works only if you stay on top of it, you may periodically fall off the wagon. That is fine if you can get back on and it really is not hard to reinstate the system through a weekly review process. For me, though the best of many good aspects of GTD is the automatic or endogenous way it encourages me to try to improve and tinker with my own working practices to increase productivity and make life simpler. A day doesn’t go by when I am not struck by some little way of improving how I am organised or ways to think of removing impediments to some work or non-work goal.

I am convinced GTD is is part of a deeper engagement with self-organising. It was not mathematical or economics training but rather reflecting on how I try to manage myself that has led me to increasingly champion parsimony and Ockham’s razor in seeking simplicity (and recognizing those things that just are complex and multi-level). I can’t begin to enumerate the occasions in recent months when I have thought there must be a simpler more direct solution to research design, a paper’s structure, a filing system or whatever. The other complementary benefit is thinking in a GTD way helps you recognise imperfections in how things are organised and, hopefully, ways to improve.

It is a realistic reflection that this is an endless pursuit of seeking to improve one’s position but it is always better to be on the road going forward and making positive change rather than stopped or even worse letting the weeds of entropy push you backward towards disorder. I am also only too aware that a bigger and wider set of commitments makes you more exposed to exogenous shocks. I am a great believer in the old adage that ‘man plans and god laughs’ but we have to roll with the punches when our plans are knocked asunder by wider forces out of our control (I once set up a conference that was literally undone by the 2007 credit crunch decimating the conference attendees). In short: be organised, but be philosophical about it.

If any of this rambling about self-organizing is remotely interesting, do have a look for David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. There are also a number of You Tube videos by him and others about the system that could serve as an interesting introduction, A search in the internet will yield some other bits and pieces (and Allen and GTD have their own website). A video tor two to start with might be:

I am off to do my weekly review.

Coherent pricing – rents in social housing

Regular readers will know I have talked about this before but like housing taxation the issue does not and should not go away. Some observers would doubtless describe the pricing of social housing, the distribution as well as the level of gross rents, as a second order issue compared with subsidy, investment and regulation. On the other hand, I see it as a necessary condition of a durable system to have a coherent basis by linking prices to quality of housing on a basis that everyone understands and is consistently applied.

A number of contemporary housing issues are materially affected by pricing:

1. The dismantling of English formula rent-setting after more than 10 years of greater or lesser convergence and the Affordable Homes Programme driving a coach and horses through it by (a) setting new build rents at much higher (but spatially varying levels) and (b) allowing participating landlords to set the rents of relets on the same higher basis.

2. The complete absence of any approach to national or consistent rent policy in other parts of the UK – e.g. Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Glasgow alone, there are dozens of local rent policies and social/affordable rent levels. Glasgow Housing Association has its rents differentiated according to principles established in the 1970s based on the then local amenity differentials suggested by local housing managers.

3. With shallower subsidy and hence higher new build rents, affordability and public expenditure (HB) pressures may require inevitably a more coherent approach.

4. Is it rational and fair for otherwise identical tenants in similar properties to be paying wholly different rents? While one may hold that landlords should have a degree of autonomy in how they set rents ( the wider offer they can present their tenants and residents), should there not be more coherence in the interests of a better working housing system more generally?

5. Moreover, there is also the strange case of the level and inconsistent application of service charges on top of rents.

While there appears to be little appetite for this kind of policy stance in Scotland, this is not the case in Northern Ireland. The examination of the restructuring and disaggregation of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and the legacy of the province’s housing association movement basing its rents loosely (and idiosyncratically) on the NIHE’s points system, has created the policy space to  consider a harmonised rent structure across all social housing. It is also the case that the NIHE has a large annual revenue subsidy keeping its rents down, and the smaller association sector, which has been continuing to seek to develop new build social housing, has generally higher rents. Into this mix there is also the question of welfare reform – the Northern Ireland Government has used the variations in social security policy law applying there to amend how the Universal Credit will work and has delayed the introduction of the bedroom tax.

Earlier in 2013 I was part of a team that examined these issues for the Northern Ireland Department of Social Development and the NIHE. We proposed a fairly simple rents system and damped formula for converging rents over a decade that still allowed local discretion for landlords within a +/-10%  dispersion around the target rent. Nice on paper though the English experience suggests that convergence is practically very difficult to achieve and requires enduring political consensus and robustness to external shocks. Some of these issues may be less of a problem in Northern Ireland but there needs to be both an appreciation of interdependent issues (e.g. affordability, investment, financing costs and subsidy levels, the service charge regime and the wider HB implications). There is also the need for full consultation with providers, stakeholder buy-in and fundamental support for what is being proposed given the non-trivial transactions costs implied.

Policy commentary fixates, understandably, on the issues of the moment, of dealing with ‘flow’ questions such as levels of new investment, homelessness and proposed rent increases or house price inflation. But we also need to prepare the ground for longer term system-wide reforms that will address ‘stock’ issues like the way rents cohere and influence decisions and help consumers make more reasonable choices while balancing out the other requirements of a rent system (fairness, affordability, viability, etc). No-one is saying it is easy to do, far from it, but letting it slide and watching the entropy of incoherence accumulate over time should be simply unacceptable.


Young, G, Orr, A, Gibb, K, Wilcox, S and Redmond, D (2013) Review of Social Rent-setting in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Housing Executive/Department of Social Development: Belfast.

Talkin’ about housing

Not content with going to a housing economics workshop, with all of that presenting, chairing and discussing academic papers, Alex Marsh and I also ventured into the world of the podcast interview. Alex has recently started doing policy conversations and interviews around structured themes and we decided to forego an hour walking Alicante’s promenade to go and have a chat about housing policy, supply, affordable housing and a range of other related housing questions.

 There is a link to the podcast at Alex’s site below. All done in one take and yes that is the sound of waves hitting the shore that you can hear from his balcony. We hope you find it interesting.

 I am glad that media training was not (wholly) wasted.

Housing Economics Questioned

I have been at a European Network for Housing Research housing economics workshop in Spain. Among a series of more or less complete papers on microeconomics, housing finance, policy papers and the like, Alex Marsh and I presented a highly preliminary paper about the extent to which (and when) housing economists anticipated, understood and communicated the impacts of the housing market/mortgage market triggers of the Global Financial Crisis.

I don’t want to talk about the paper now – it is very early and rough (that is what workshops are for after all) but the discussion did raise a few interesting points about the sociology of academic economics and the place of the sub discipline within a wider field, and the international dimension. Moreover, it raises questions about the readiness of the academic community to support and facilitate innovation and experimentation that may be more widely beneficial.

Non economists often criticise the imperialist tendencies of mainstream economics across the wider social sciences. However, this may also pertain within the discipline in terms of how specific sub-disciplines evolve. For instance, the housing economics publishing outlets are clearly dominated by North American journals such as Real Estate Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Journal of Housing Economics and one or two others. While there are mainstream economists who also publish in more multidisciplinary places like Housing Studies, Urban Studies and Environment and Planning – it is clear that getting ahead means learning, applying and privileging a specific set of methods, assumptions, forms of knowledge at the expense of others. Of course, a more pluralistic philosophy to economics research and publishing is greatly hampered by criteria for promotion, REF panels and the like. But, I would argue, it’s long term consequence may be lessen research impact on public policy, business and society.

While there may be rigour and logic and evidence of many good pieces of useful work to support what mainstream housing economics has achieved over the decades, may it nonetheless, to use one of the phrases so beloved of US economists, be leaving something ‘on the table’ by applying this intellectual straitjacket?

To take one example, it is right that we should look closely at the links between housing markets, mortgage markets and the financial alchemy that led to the sub-prime chaos that did down the banking system – but housing economists should not simply rely on the slavish application of ideas from financial theories designed for specific financial products and imagine they apply sensibly to the very unusual commodity that is a house. While I’m sure there is much to learn (and indeed has been learnt usefully) by such approaches, even a cursory reading of the main journals suggests that there is too ready a willingness to suspend the key characteristics that set housing apart in order to shoehorn it into more orthodox financial analyses.

Both from the reading on cross-national housing economics and from simply being located in Europe and listening to differential national research papers in recent days – one cannot not be struck by the importance of different national contexts, legal and other institutional practices that filter international financial processes and suggest quite different stories and conclusions about our housing systems. In Britain, we are forever telling our students that supply inelasticity is comparatively very low compared with the USA – but while we more or less factor in key institutions like the idiosyncratic planning system and our volume house builders, many housing models still look to me, uncomfortably similar to those of their American cousins. Is there therefore an unintended danger in over homogenising our research?

I imagine many will disagree with this perspective and say plenty of good new work is forthcoming. I would not disagree but I do not think that means we are doing as well as we could. Far from it. A thousand flowers do not bloom, and, perhaps, if we do not offer a sufficiently pluralist approach to housing research to encourage the possible new hybrids, they never will see the light of day?