David Madden on the Shanghai World Expo

Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010. Source: Gizmodo

“[T]he 2010 World Expo in Shanghai ... suggested that the horizon of politics lies in the development of progressively smarter solutions by an alliance of business, science, and authoritarian state and city governments. The global-urban problematic, from this perspective, is above all a question of efficiency and proper management, where political contentiousness, like pollution, is one more problem to be solved.”

— David Madden in “City Becoming World: Nancy, Lefebvre, and the Global-Urban Imagination,” 2012

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Democratic Commissioning for Urban Renewal

by Joe Penny

Brixton market traders, part of a program sponsored by Lambeth Council. Source: Young Lambeth

Most people wouldn’t call public-service commissioning exciting, if they even know it exists. Commissioning is the process of coordinating financial support based on assessment of local needs, aspirations and assets. It includes processes of contracting, procurement and outsourcing. It sounds dry and remote from our daily lives, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Commissioning is at the heart of how decisions are made about the services we rely on throughout our lives: when we are ill, when we need legal advice, when we want to do something fun in our area. As outsourcing becomes the norm, commissioning has turned into a booming industry. Each year, some $130 billion is spent on outsourced public services — all through a commissioning process of some sort. In other words, if you care about public services and how taxpayer money is spent, you care about commissioning.

Commissioning has great potential as a vehicle for local democratic engagement in urban renewal. Yet it is too often managed by public-sector employees who are too far removed from the people they serve. It doesn’t have to be this way.

At the New Economics Foundation, we’ve been working with a young people’s service-commissioning team in London’s Lambeth district to change the way they allocate funds. The aim is to co-produce the commissioning process. This means working in partnership with people who use and provide local services to decide what the council should be trying to achieve with the dwindling money it has to spend.

An early example of co-producing commissioning involved $32,000 earmarked for a service aimed at young offenders. In the past, a group of professionals would have decided what service they thought would be most effective. They would have then written up a tender that specified what the service would look like, how many people would benefit and how results would be evaluated.

The problem with this process is that it doesn’t incorporate much input from the target population. As a result, it misses out on an invaluable source of expertise. It also runs a high risk of failure because, as countless examples show, when the so-called beneficiaries of a service are not involved in its design and implementation they are far less likely to find it useful.

We did things differently in Lambeth. The first stage involved recruiting a small group of young offenders and paying them in Brixton Pounds for their time and effort. They were responsible for defining outcomes and helping to draw up a service tender. They also interviewed short-listed bidders and decided to fund a talent show organized by local youth. This was not the commissioning manager’s first choice.

What does this tell us about the future of commissioning? At a time when more and more public money is channelled to private companies, and democratic accountability is at risk, co-producing commissioning opens up the potential for inclusive decision-making at the local level.

Of course, this is far from easy. When trust is low, it’s hard at first to get people involved. When people do take part, it’s difficult to manage conflicts and ensure that the process isn’t dominated by the most vocal participants. Despite inevitable challenges, the potential benefits are too great to be ignored.

At its best, co-producing commissioning engages target populations in fair allocation of public funds. It brings people together around a common goal, fostering a sense of collective ownership over local services. In short, it can help kickstart a more democratic approach to urban renewal.

Joe Penny is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, but the views expressed here are his own. His interests include the production of urban space, security urbanism and the right to the city.

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Addressing Corruption in Urban Areas

by Dieter Zinnbauer

Creative, inclusive and just. Safe, healthy and green. Adaptive, resilient and sustainable. Urbanists frequently articulate these visions for cities, but an important element is missing: integrity.

By integrity I mean transparent governance with preventative measures for controlling corruption — a necessary condition for improving the quality of life in cities.

Source: Rodrigo Abd via the Associated Press
Corruption is not a "weapon of the weak" that greases the wheels of creaky government systems. It is also not a petty nuisance to be ignored. Corruption systemically undermines livelihoods, justice, health, resilience, safety and democracy.

Does this sound like an exaggeration? Let’s take a closer look.

Entrusted with the power to enforce laws, police who abuse their authority become a source of chronic injustice. Unfortunately, this is a common situation in cities around the world.

In a recent household survey across a representative sample of over 100 countries, 42 percent of urban residents who had interacted with the police indicated that they were coerced into paying a bribe. The figures are even more startling in rapidly urbanizing countries: 67 percent in India, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 80 percent in Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Urban justice is unattainable when law enforcement is for sale to the highest bidder.

Thoroughly documented corruption in the healthcare sector disproportionately affects low-income communities. Doctors on the public payroll don't show up for work so they can bring in extra income from private practice. Medicines are unaffordable or unavailable due to illegal sales. Hospital workers overcharge, embezzle funds and peddle off counterfeit drugs to unsuspecting patients.

Source: The Guardian

Access to safe drinking water becomes all but impossible when 20 to 40 percent of water budgets go missing due to corruption, or when water mafias work with corrupt officials to keep low-income settlements off the public water networks so that private vendors can step in. Illegal dumping of toxic waste has long been a lucrative business for organized criminal networks, exposing many communities to health hazards.

Efforts to improve public health depend largely on controlling corruption, especially in urban environments where health risks are already at crisis levels.

Urban aspirations, and the many ways that corruption impedes them, are inexhaustible. I have documented an extensive list with empirical evidence in a new Transparency International working paper on corruption in cities.

The data point to a need for cooperation between urbanists and anti-corruption practitioners. A current disconnect between these communities hinders cross-fertilization, mutual learning and collaborative advocacy.

A recent working paper on ambient accountability investigates ways for architects, planners and concerned citizens to collaborate strategically in fighting urban corruption. I plan to discuss specific strategies in a future post. Critical feedback and ideas are always welcome.

Dieter Zinnbauer is a specialist in policy and innovation for Transparency International. More of his work can be found on the Social Science Research Network and Ambient Accountability websites.

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