what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Time to reclaim public services

I realise I’ve been muttering all these months about the importance of public services – but have been very frugal on references.
The most valuable source for me on privatization was the Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich which, very sadly, now appears to be closed? Their last publications seems to be this report on benefits, costs and processes of Public ownership of the UK Energy System – in 2016

The other important briefing source has been the Transnational Institute which, in 2017, produced a superb 250 page report Reclaiming Public Services - analyzing the way that 1500 cities throughout the world have managed to get rid of the privatized bodies which had made a mess of things.
In 2009 the same body had helped publish Hilary Wainwright’s Public Sector Reform – but not as we know it - which remains one of the very few clearly-written documents on the subject (see “recommended reading” below)

Unusually, the United Nations has now added its voice to the critique of privatization with a major report recently which details the appalling effects on poorer countries of the privatisation model which the World Bank and IMF continue to peddle. The report is 25 pages long and the English version can be read here.

Last summer I offered a crisp summary of my thinking about administrative reform – a summary which has, I think, withstood the test of time…..

-       In 1989 “the state” crumbled – at least in eastern europe…   30 years on. how do we assess the “huge efforts” to make its operations more “effective”??
-       15 question offer a key to the most interesting writing on the matter. 
-       Different parts of the world have their own very different approaches and ways of talking about reform. English language material has tended to dominate the literature; but
-       Scandinavians, Germans and French let alone South Americans, Chinese and Indians have also developed important ideas and experience - of which English-speakers tend to be blithely unaware.
-       Two very different “world views” have held us in thrall over the past 50 years….a “third” and more balanced (eg the “new public service”) has been trying to emerge
-       We seem to be overwhelmed by texts on reform experience – but most written by academics. Where are the journalists who can help the public make sense of it all ?
-       At least 8 very different groups have been active in shaping our thinking about “reform” efforts
-       These are - academics, journalists, politicians, think-tankers, global bodies, senior officials, consultants and an indeterminate group
-       each uses very different language and ideas – with academics being the most prolific (but tending to talk in jargon amongst themselves; and therefore being ignored by the rest of us)
-       Some old hands have tried to summarise the experience for us in short and clear terms. The lesson, they suggest, is that little has changed…
-       What is sad is how few “social justice” campaigners seem interesting in this issue. Hilary Wainwright being an honourable exception…..

Of course, the “huge efforts” were external (mainly EC) and financial – the “local elites” have had their own “exploitative” agendas and lack a single gram of altruism in their bodies…

Good Reads

Readable generalist books – the last 25 years have seen astonishingly few such books (in the English language)
Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state; Polly Toynbee and D Walker (2017) a clear analysis by two british journalists
How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy ; Michael Barber (2015). A clearly written toolbook by Tony Blair’s favourite consultant
The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; J Micklewaithe and A Woolridge (2015) Editors of no less a journal than The Economist give us a breathless neoliberal analysis
The Tragedy of the Private – the potential of the public; Hilary Wainwright (PSI 2014) an important little pamphlet
Public Sector Reform – but not as we know it; Hilary Wainwright (Unison and TNI 2009) A rare readable case study of a bottom-up  approach to reform
Democracy Inc – managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism; SS Wolin (2008) the doyen of American political science takes the American political system apart!
The Essential Public Manager; Chris Pollitt (2003) A critical analysis of the political and technical aspects of the search for effective public services
The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain; George Monbiot (2000) A powerful critique of the nature and scale of corporate involvement in our public services
Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000) Simply the best analysis of the process of social and organizational change
Reinventing Government; David Osborne and Graeber (1992) The book which started the New Public Management revolution.

More specialist recommended reads
Reinventing Organisations; Frederic Laloux (2014)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Plain – and translated - English

This blog tries to write in plain English about important questions – such as “the State” and the continuous efforts made globally in the past few decades to shape it so that it (better) serves the public interest.
Despite the significance of the State in our lives (for both bad and good) it is noticeable that very few journalists bother to cover the operation of public services.. And, when they do, it is either to reproduce government press releases (about good news) - or to cover a scandal which is easily filed under the “bureaucratic blunders” heading.
The best newspapers, of course, still have their “economics”, “education”, “social policy” or “science” “correspondents” for more nuanced coverage – although “affairs of state” are covered by “diplomatic”, "foreign” or “political” “correspondents…

But last year, I was so inspired by a (rare) journalistic book about state reform in the UK that I wrote a series of posts – which morphed into How did admin reform get to be so sexy?
Operating across ten countries as I have in the past 30 years, translation has been an important part of my life - which, however, all too rarely gets a mention anywhere let alone by me. I was, therefore, delighted to find that the fourth of the 63 chapters of The Palgrave Handbook of Public Administration and Management in Europe; ed Edoardo Ongaro and Sandra van Thiel (2018) deals – for almost the first time for native English speakers - with this question of translating public admin terms…. You can read  their “Languages and Public Administration in Europe” here.

Those of us who have pontificated since the 1980s in European networks rarely gave a thought to how our concepts and sentences were dealt with by the valiant translators – very few of whom had any qualifications in public administration.
I know that – whenever simultaneous translation was on offer - I was almost unique in seeking out those who would be doing the translation and spending time with them to explain my presentation….
The very word “politics” was a classic conceptual morass. “accountability” and “responsibility” not far behind….Just today, my partner and I were having an argument about the characteristics of “magistrates” – who have such different roles in the French, Romanian, UK and US traditions….
And it is not just a question of simple terms – it is also the nuances of phraseology as demonstrated by this classic translation guide.

What a pity that we can do no tests on the understanding of European politicians, senior civil servants, journalists and judges have of the concepts with which they deal.....we might indeed be shocked by how their british and american counterparts understand them......

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Is Admin Reform really Sexy?

It’s a bit eccentric, I know, to upload a book about the experience of pubic admin reform at a time when the British government and society is stuck in a crisis second in British history only to the second world war. Courtesy of the UK Parliament’s live television channel, I was able to tune in every now and then to this week’s parliamentary debate but was, for most of the time, engaged in updating the little E-book on “Reforming the State” (which I had uploaded in April last year) to take account of the additional posts on the subject.
I’m now running with the title "How did Administrative Reform get to be so Sexy?" – and I perhaps owe my readers some explanation of why I continue to be so fixated about the issue…
Quite simply I feel that the writing on the subject falls into one of two categories – it’s produced either by academics (who reify and obfuscate) or by think-tankers (who simplify and exaggerate). It’s very difficult to find material written by practitioners – or, even better, by those who straddle boundaries of discipline, nation or role

I came to full adult consciousness in the 1960s, getting my first taste of political power in 1968 and of political responsibility and innovation in 1971 when I became Chairman of a Scottish Social Work Committee.
“Reform” was very much in the air – although no one could then have imagined what an industry public administrative reform would become. Indeed, in those days, the only management author you could find in the bookstores was Peter Drucker. And the only books about reform were American….

The opening pages of How did Administrative Reform get to be so Sexy? try to convey a sense of what it was like to be an early pioneer of organisational change in the country. My position in academia encouraged me to develop a habit of publishing “think-pieces” often in the form of pamphlets in a Local Government Research Unit which I established in 1970 at Paisley College of Technology – this 1977 article gives a good example of the style. The same year I  published a little book about the experience of the new system of Scottish local government and, for the next decade, various musings on my experience of running a unique social strategy in the West of Scotland.  
In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) were the reflections which resulted from my first decade living and working in the countries of post-communist central Europe. Eight years then followed in three Central Asian countries and strengthened a feeling about the inappropriateness of the approach we “foreign experts” were using in our “technical assistance”.
In 2007 I tried to interest people in the NISPace network in a critique called "Missionaries, mercenaries or witchdoctors – is admin reform in transition countries a religion, business or a medicine?" – but to no avail.

I started blogging in 2008 with a website which is still active – publicadminreform - clearly signalling that I wanted to use it to reach out to others. Sadly that has not happened…but it has not stopped me from continuing to “talk to myself” on this blog and from trying to produce a book which does justice to the thoughts and experiences I’ve had in about 10 countries over the past 50 years….

So let me try to summarise why I persevere with this fixation of mine –
-       I’ve occupied different roles (political, academic, consultancy) in different countries and have therefore been able to develop a facility for seeing different sides to the same story
-       My knowledge of “the literature” tells me that few authors have bothered to try to explain the stratospheric and continued rise in interest in administrative reform
-       New cohorts of politicians, public servants and even academics arrive in the workforce without a good sense of history
-       Few authors in this field seem to have an interest in communicating with the public – they focus instead on students or experts in government, academia and think tanks. I know of only two books with a wider appeal

Monday, January 14, 2019

Populist – and proud of it

Since 2011, I’ve blogged about populism four or five times – mainly in a neutral definitional way. But a combination last week of a couple of articles in The Guardian and Open Democracy with my reading of R Eatwell and M Goodwin’s recent little Pelican book National Populism – the revolt against liberal democracy; (2017) got me into surfing mode on the subject and to some disturbing thoughts……

Let me start with how I saw things at the end of a couple of days
- Talk of “populism” surfaces whenever things seem to be slipping from the control of “ruling elites”
Such talk has occurred every 30 years or so in the past 150 years – the 1880s in the US and Russia; the 1930s in Europe and Latin America; the late 1960s globally; the late 1990s in Europe 
- as a professional and intellectual discipline, Political Science has adopted a rather disdainful view of democracy and a “scientist” approach to its methodology - marginalising those few academics with serious interests in notions of the “public good” being embedded in government programmes
The US tradition of populism has never died - whereas the European tradition is sceptical at best (with the exception of the French whose celebration of revolt seems part of their DNA)
But the younger contemporary American academics seem to have lost their sense of history and have produced rather aggressive celebrations of liberalism (Y Mounk)

The reader should now be warned that the next few paras represent a rather jaundiced take on academia…. As a social “scientist”, I have long had a healthy skepticism about the overconfident claims of particularly economists – and have even been known (as long ago as 2010) to challenge the political scientists for hiding their heads in the sand. Not for nothing is Social Sciences as Sorcery; Stanislaw Andreski (1972) one of my favourite books – and I was delighted to be able to download it in full yesterday……

2008, of course, should have been the death knell for economics since it had succumbed some decades earlier to a highly-simplified and unrealistic model of the economy which was then starkly revealed in all its nakedness…..Steve Keen was one of the first economists to break ranks very publicly way back in 2001 and to set out an alternative - Debunking Economics – the naked emperor dethroned.
This coincided with economics students in Paris objecting to the homogeneity of syllabi and reaching out to others – creating in the next 15 years a movement which has become global
This is a good presentation on the issues (from 2012) and I am now reading an excellent little Penguin book The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins (2017) from their experience of stirring things up on the Manchester University economics programme. The book’s sub-title says it all!
Dani Rodrik is one of the few economists with a global reputation to support them (Ha-Yoon Chang is another) and indeed published an important book recently reviewing the state of economics - Economics Rules – the rights and the wrongs of the dismal science; (2016) which was nicely reviewed here

The Financial Times recently reviewed several other such books - so the situation is not beyond repair but we have to be realistic. Academic economists have invested a lifetime’s reputation and energy in offering the courses they do - and neither can nor will easily offer programmes to satisfy future student demands for relevance and pluralism….. chances are that the next cohort will be more pliable... 

Academic Political Science  may not have quite the same level of pressure to change as in Economics but increasing questions are nonetheless being asked of it about the implications of the populist zeitgeist for the celebration of liberal democracy which masquerades as political science departments of US universities.

So what does all this mean for the present anguishing over populism?
I graduated in the 1960s as a “Labour” populist – although I never expressed it quite like that! I was schooled in the writings of RH Tawney, Ivan Illich, Paolo Freire, Saul Alinsky, Peter Marris and Martin Ryan; and inspired at various times by such distinctive and competing Labourites as Nye Bevan, John Strachey, GDH Cole, Hugh Gaitskell; RHS Crossman, Tony Crosland and John Mackintosh. The result of such a mish-mash was a pragmatic centralist with an anarchist streak…..I was one of the contributors to the famous 1975 Red Paper on Scotland and had sympathies with the alternative economic strategy and the Lucas Plan
And, despite the senior position I had reached in the 80s, I remained committed to ensuring that that the ordinary, decent citizen’s voice and collective efforts were respected and encouraged. I may not have been a Bennite but I respected the man.

I left the UK in late 1990 and therefore never knew New Labour and its insidious contribution to the current cynicism about politics – Neil Kinnock may have been the Labour Leader but John Smith was the solid leader-in-waiting…From 1978-1990 the articles of the maverick Marxism Today journal plotted the various ideas absorbing the British Left during that critical period. Gordon Brown even contributed a piece (in late 1989) which indicated if not populism a strong ideological flavor..

And Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, and always has been an ideologue – not a populist. But the fascinating 2017 British Labour Party Manifesto also has a strong populist streak…It’s a pity that so few of the chattering political and economic classes in Britain have yet been able to produce books which pick up the analysis from the point we had reached 30 years ago before New Labour seduced and traduced the Labour tradition….

Populism Resource


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Why the reluctance to seek consensus?

Few people realise the scale of money and civil service time spent on international jamborees which focus on issues such as millennium goals, migration and debt relief – let alone global warming. It amounts to tens of billions of dollars and thousand of man-years.
In stark contrast, little energy seems to be spent attempting to get consensus on the way forward for the deficiencies which have been so visible over the past decade in the economic system which we know, variously, as “globalization” or, increasingly, as “capitalism”.
·       The UN had its fingers burned when, in 2009, it organized the first and only Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis. The G77 group of 130 developing countries tried to insert text that mandated a major role for the UN in dealing with the crisis and backed a comprehensive set of reforms, but northern countries including the US and the EU played a blocking game. Joseph Stiglitz was the author of what remained a Preliminary Report (which I wrote about in 2011)
·       the OECD remains a fan club for unrestricted growth although it does occasionally allow agnostics to produce reports – see, for example, Stiglitz’s latest opus Beyond GDP Measuring what counts
·       The World Bank’s latest World Development Report is as neo-liberal a document as you could imagine

So it has been left to The Club of Rome to come up (a few weeks ago) with Come On! Capitalism, short-termism, population and the destruction of the planet; (Club of Rome 2018) - which is superbly summarized in this article in the current issue of the fascinating Cadmus journal
There’s also a video of a recent introductory presentation at Chatham House.

So the question I want to pose today is why there are so few such attempts to seek consensus on the dominant question of our age – whether at a national or international level; governmental or non-governmental??

I confess I didn’t pay much attention to Yannis Varoufakis’ recent Democracy in Europe initiative (however fascinating his writing, the man is a bit too domineering for my liking) – but I now see that it is a rare and impressive attempt to bring people together to challenge at least one of the dominant players in the economic/financial system. A short 3 page version of its manifesto is here – and the full nine page version here

Few others, it seems, dare venture down such a path – presumably because they know how easily and aggressively they would be accused of “leftism”, “populism”… and even greater crimes….

I would like to seek readers’ help in identifying other initiatives – however minor.

I am aware of The Great Transition Initiative which encourages individuals to comment on a monthly question and paper. Of course it can be criticized for catering only for nerds – but at least it is reaching out to form a network…

The Next System is also a good source of well-written material - project of the US Democracy Collaborative. It had an initial report – The Next System Report – political possibilities for the 21st Century (2015) and references to good community practice in various parts of the world. It has since followed up with a series of worthwhile papers.

Monday, January 7, 2019

How will it all end?

I have long had this naïve belief that the next non-fiction book I select will clear the fog of confusion which seems to hover in my mind. I know I’m going to be disappointed but, somehow, the hope still lingers. And so the books continue to pile up on my shelves….
Wolfgang Streeck is a modest 70 year-old German sociologist currently taking the world by storm. I had bought and thoroughly enjoyed his Buying Time – the delayed crisis of democratic capitalism (2014) and am now reading his How will Capitalism End?. (2016). He puts the rest of us to shame by being able to draft his material in English…(all but two chapters of the present book).
His quiet,unassuming manner belies his history as a Social Democrat party activist and one of the founders of (although latterly critic of) the Varieties of Capitalism school. His global profile came only in the past decade - since his book Re-forming Capitalism – institutional change in the German political economy (2009) was published by Oxford University Press and New Left Review published in 2011 what was to be the first of a series of articles from him - The Crises of Democratic Capitalism (2011).

The bottom Line
Basically he is an example of a disillusioned social democrat – who used to believe that it was possible to reform capitalism but has, at some point in the past decade, been forced to recognize that this is no longer possible…This paper is probably the easiest introduction to his arguments - complete with some good graphs - and this is an excellent summary of a discussion he took part in on the question of the future of capitalism
The introduction to his latest book is particularly enticing – first interrogating the five authors of Does Capitalism have a future? before suggesting that the totality of our responses to the global challenges we face can be summarized as one or other variant of “Coping, hoping, doping and shopping
The "endgame" he suggests will be drawn-out, disjointed and uncomfortable - although he doesn't really spend all that much space on the issue......and the book is remarkably light on the question of AI and robotisation which has been exercising a lot of people.– let alone on the environment which rates only a couple of references in the index..... 

His book does encourage me to go back to this issue of the shape of the future which beckons – it was March 2018 when I last posted on it - uploading the (short) version of Dispatches to the Next Generation. This is the only introduction I know of to the literature which has been trying to make sense of the world we live in

A Streeck Resource
The Rise of the European Consolidation State (2015) https://www.mpifg.de/pu/mpifg_dp/dp15-1.pdf
politics of public debt 2013 https://www.mpifg.de/pu/mpifg_dp/dp13-7.pdf
2011 Dem capitalism and its contradictions; https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/51554/1/670480223.pdf