The world is an unequal place. This much we already know.
Opportunities are not spread evenly – access to health care, education or economic opportunity is often still influenced by the colour of your skin or where you happen to be born.
Having reliable technology that allows you interact with others, disposable income that affords you a comfortable life and transport infrastructure that gets you to work and back are all simple indicators of how inequality varies between citizens.
Inequality exists between people and between regions. It crosses borders, nations and continents, but it also lives in the space between one city and the next. It is obvious that no country is immune.
Unfortunately, tackling inequality is complex and difficult. There isn’t a single magic answer.
In the UK, one of the government’s major policy priorities is its “levelling up” strategy. Here, conversations about inequality most often centre around the ‘north-south’ divide, where London and the south-east of England have traditionally enjoyed higher investment and greater opportunities than the north of the country.
But city-regions around the world have also been delivering their own policies to overcome local examples of social and economic inequalities. This month, we published our major report, “Investing in Equality – lessons from four cities”, developed with the University of Birmingham. We researched cities around the world that have embarked on their own journeys to level up and address inequality.
The cities featured in the report include Cleveland in the US, Leipzig in Germany, Fukuoka in Japan and Nantes in France. The report investigates and analyses the different approaches they have taken and identifies common themes between them. The aim is to compile an evidence-based approach to inform future government policies designed to tackle regional inequality and make them as impactful and targeted as possible.
Throughout the report, we ask what do we want our cities to look like and feel like to live in? What makes one region different to the next? And how do we get to where we want to be? These are simple questions with complex answers.
The public sector is of course uniquely positioned to, and I would add has a responsibility to, answer some of these difficult questions. One of the key findings in the report is that for policies to be most effective, governments must have a commitment to long-term and consistent funding. This was evident in all of the case study cities.
All too often, we see policies introduced with one government, only to be swept away or kicked into the long grass with the next. This party-political game of football stops policies from ever having a chance to become truly effective, with politicians prioritising short term vote-winning priorities at the expense of long-term investment which often has uncertain returns. If we are to address inequalities, playing party politics needs to stop.
As well as designing long-term strategies and having the political will to see them through, the report also identifies the importance of tailoring policies to local communities. Recognising how to adapt national strategies to better suit a local or regional landscape can encourage innovation and investment. We found that despite Japan’s national conservative outlook towards immigration and its ageing population, the city of Fukuoka actively encourages immigration of young people and skilled migrants to the city in order to maintain the city’s success as the tech start-up capital of Japan.
But how do you know if these policies are having the desired effect, and are more than just positive headlines? How can we be sure that those in need of intervention and equality are receiving it? The research in the report shows the importance of constant measurement and evaluation. Designing clearly defined objectives that can be monitored and evaluated in a transparent and meaningful way should help to course-correct policies if they veer off path. A rigorous, evidence-based approach to public policy will ensure that funds and policies are targeted, effective and deliver value for money.
Let us also not forget the glue that holds all of these approaches together: Public finance professionals. Managing finances in the public sector is about far more than just accounting. Ensuring public funds are well spent, decisions are sound and investments deliver value for money are all crucial objectives.
Unfortunately, funding is not always secure or in plentiful supply. A focus on equality for all, efficiency of delivery, effectiveness of policies and the local economy can be good guides for finance professionals to best allocate often limited funding where it is most needed.
The returns on any investment must also be considered. Returns can be measured in many ways and should be looked at holistically. Better public transport, higher quality housing, more job opportunities, increased access to technology and new hospitals and schools can all be meaningful returns that increase opportunities and the quality of life for communities.
More people employed and a healthier and better educated population with improved digital skills will inevitably deliver financial benefits for the community further down the line.
While the answers to ending inequality are many and often complicated, the role of the public finance professional will be at the centre of any solution. They are at the junction where policy, funding, allocation and need all meet. Although addressing inequality will require substantial investment, I think we need ask ourselves can we really afford not to?