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!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Plain text; and the 21st Century Public Manager

Readers will have noticed my growing impatience with the opacity of the “academic turn” in the writings of those who purport to be explaining what has been happening to our public services in the past 30-40 years. About the only writer I exempted was Chris Pollitt whose The Essential Public Manager (2003) is, by far and away, the best book to help the intelligent citizen make sense of this field. It’s friendly; brings in individuals to play roles illustrating contemporary debates; clearly summarises different schools of thought on the key issues; and leaves the reader with guidance for further reading….
Most authors in this field, however, are writing for other academics (to impress them), for students (to give them copy for passing exams); or for potential customers in senior government positions (to persuade them to offer contracts) – they are never writing for citizens. As a result, they develop some very bad habits in writing – which is why this new book should be in their family’s Xmas stocking this year. It offers priceless advice, including -   
1." Bait the hook“ When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of. Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it.
Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?
This is what Aristotle, talking about rhetoric, called ethos, or the question of how your audience sees you. And the best way for them to see you is either as one of them, or someone on their side. As the speech theorist Kenneth Burke wrote – another line I never tire of quoting – “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, identifying your ways with his.” 
2. Be clear A lot of style guides, with good reason, tell their readers to write Plain English. There’s even a Plain English Campaign that does its nut, year-round and vocationally, about examples of baffling officialese, pompous lawyer-speak and soul-shrivelling business jargon.Plain English (the simplest word that does the job; straightforward sentences; nice active verbs etc) is far from the only style you should have at your command. But if you depart from it, you should have a reason, be it aesthetic or professional.
The plainer the language, the easier the reader finds it; and the easier the reader finds it, the more likely they’ll take in what you’re saying and continue reading. Surveys of the average reading age of British adults routinely put it between nine and 13. Trim your style accordingly. Steven Pinker talks about “classic style” (he borrows the notion from the literary critics Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner). This, as he sees it, is a variation on Plain English that compliments the reader’s intelligence and talks to him or her as an equal.
He gives a cute example. “The early bird gets the worm” is plain style, he says. “The second mouse gets the cheese” is classic. I half-buy the distinction; though much of what Pinker credits to the classic style is exactly what’s asked of any good instance of the plain. And the examples he offers convey quite different thoughts, and (a bit unfairly) attribute a cliche to the plain style and a good joke to the classic. 
3. Prefer right-branching sentences Standard-issue sentences, in English, have subject-verb-object order: dog (subject) bites (verb) man (object). There are any number of elaborations on this, but the spine of your sentence, no matter how many limbs it grows, consists of those three things.
If you have a huge series of modifying clauses before you reach the subject of the sentence, the reader’s brain is working harder; likewise, if you have a vast parenthesis between subject and verb or even verb and object. The reader’s brain has registered the subject (dog) and it is waiting for a verb so it can make sense of the sentence. Meanwhile, you’re distracting it by cramming ever more material into its working memory. “My dog, which I got last week because I’ve always wanted a dog and I heard from Fred – you know, Fred who works in the chip shop and had that injury last year three days after coming home from his holidays – that he was getting rid of his because his hours had changed and he couldn’t walk it as much as it wanted (very thoughtful, is Fred), bit me ...” 
4. Read it aloud Reading something aloud is a good way of stress-testing it: you’ll notice very abruptly if your sentences are tangled up: that overfilling-the-working-memory thing can be heard in your voice. The American speechwriter Peggy Noonan advises that once you have a draft, “Stand up and speak it aloud. Where you falter, alter.”

I was about to write to Chris Pollitt to encourage him to produce a new edition of his book (which is 14 years old) but, magically, came across The Twenty First Century Public Manager scheduled for publication at the end of the week!
Which took me in turn to The Twenty First Century Public Servant - a short report which came out in 2014……and reminded me of a book which has been lying on my shelves for all too long – Public Value – theory and practice ed John Benington and Mark Moore (2011) which is put in context by a very useful article Appraising public value 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What If???

As I suspected, I’m still worrying away at some of the issues raised by the series of posts about the massive changes to our public services in recent decades – and how they have been covered in “the literature”. I realize that I left out an important strand of thinking – and that the series leaves the impression of inevitability….
The last post paid tribute to some of the people who, in the 1960s, most clearly articulated the demand for a major shake-up of Britain’s public institutions – the “modernization” agenda which initially brought us huge local authorities and merged Ministries with well-paid managers operating with performance targets.
Scale and management were key words – and I readily confess to being one of the cheerleaders for this. The small municipalities I knew were “parochial” and lacked any strategic sense but – of course – they could easily have developed it……

Were the changes inevitable?
I have a feeling that quite a few of the early voices who argued for “reform” might now have major reservations about where their institutional critique has taken us all – although it was a global discontent which was being channeled in those days…..
However not all voices sang from the same hymn sheet……The main complaint may then have been that of “amateurism” but it was by no means accepted that “managerialism” was the answer.
1968, after all, had been an expression of people power. And the writings of Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich – let alone British activists Colin Ward and Tony Gibson; and sociologists such as Jon Davies and Norman Dennis – were, in the 70s, celebrating citizen voices against bureaucratic power.
The therapist Carl Rogers was at the height of his global influence. And voices such as Alain Touraine’s were also giving hope in France…..

The managerialism which started to infect the public sector from the 70s expressed hierarchical values which sat badly with the egalitarian spirit which had been released the previous decade….
But, somehow, all that energy and optimism seemed to evaporate fairly quickly – certainly in the British “winter of discontent” and Thatcher rule of the 80s. What started as a simple expression of the need for some (private) “managerial discipline” in the public sector was quickly absorbed into a wider and more malevolent agenda of privatization and contracting out…..And, somehow, in the UK at any rate, progressive forces just rolled over….  Our constitutional system, as Lord Hailsham once starkly put it, is an “elective dictatorship”.
The core European systems were, however, different – with legal and constitutional safeguards, PR systems and coalition governments – although the EC technocracy has been chipping away at much of this.

Just why and how the British adopted what came to be called New Public Management is a story which is usually told in a fatalistic way – as if there were no human agency involved. The story is superbly told here - as the fatal combination of Ministerial frustration with civil service “dynamic conservatism” with a theory (enshrined in Public Choice economics) for that inertia….  A politico-organisational problem was redefined as an economic one and, heh presto, NPM went global 

In the approach to the New Labour victory of 1997, there was a brief period when elements of the party seemed to remember that centralist “Morrisonian” bureaucracy had not been the only option – that British socialism had in the 1930s been open to things such as cooperatives and “guild socialism”. For just a year or so there was (thanks to people such as Paul Hirst and Will Hutton) talk of “stakeholding”. But the bitter memories of the party infighting in the early 80s over the left-wing’s alternative economic strategy were perhaps too close to make that a serious option – and the window quickly closed…..Thatcher’s spirit of “dog eat dog” lived on – despite the talk of “Joined Up Government” (JUG), words like “trust” and “cooperation”  were suspect to New Labour ears.
Holistic Governance made a brief appearance at the start of the New Labour reign in 1997 but was quickly shown the door a few years later.…

“What if?,,,,,”
The trouble with the massive literature on public management reform (which touches the separate literatures of political science, public administration, development, organizational sociology, management….even philosophy) is that it is so compllcated that only a handful of experts can hope to understand it all – and few of them can or want to explain it to us in simple terms.
I’ve hinted in this post at what I regard as a couple of junctures when it might have been possible to stop the momentum….I know the notion of counterfactual history is treated with some disdain but the victors do sometimes lose and we ignore the discussion about “junctures” at our peril.

The UNDP recently published a good summary of what it called the three types of public management we have seen in the past half century. There are different ways of describing the final column but this one gives a sense of how we have been moving..

Old Public Admin
New Public Service
Theoretical foundation
Political theory
Economic theory
Democratic theory

Model of behaviour
Public interest
Citizen interest
Concept of public interest
Political, enshrined in law
Aggregation of individual interests
Dialogue about shared values
To whom civil servants responsive
Role of government
Serving, negotiating
Mechanism for achieving policy
Building coalitions
Approach to accountability
Public servants within law, professional ethics, values
Admin discretion
Assumed organisational structure
Top down
Assumed motivation of officials
Conditions of service
Entrepreneurial, drive to reduce scope of government
Public service, desire to contribute

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Those who Went Before

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been trying to compress the thoughts I (and many others!!) have had over the past few decades about administrative reform into a table whose columns list core questions; narratives; and key texts …..
It was all sparked off by the book published earlier this year on Dismembering (the State) – although the subject has been a lot in my thoughts this year

There may now be hundreds of thousands of academics and consultants in this field but, when I started to challenge the local bureaucracy in Scotland in the late 60s there were, astonishingly, only a handful of people challenging public bureaucracies – basically in the UK and the US.
In the US they were following (or part of) Johnston’s Anti-Poverty programmes and included people such as Peter Marris and Martin Rein whose Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) was one of the first narratives to make an impact on me. 
In the UK it was those associated with the 1964-66 Fulton Royal Commission on the Civil Service; with the Redcliffe-Maud and Wheatley Royal Commissions on Local Government; and. those such as Kay Carmichael who, as a member of the Kilbrandon Committee, was the inspiration for the Scottish Social Work system set up in 1969.
In the 70s, people like John Stewart of INLOGOV inspired a new vision of local government…my ex-tutor John MacIntosh focused on devolution; even the conservative politician Michael Heseltine had a vision of a new metropolitan politics…..

It was people like this that set the ball of organizational change rolling in the public sector…. tracked by such British academics as Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and Rod Rhodes – and who have supplied a living first for thousands of European academics who started to follow the various reforms of the 1970s in the civil service and local government; and then the privatization and agencification of the 1980s. Consultants then got on the bandwagon when british administrative reform took off globally in the 1990s.

Working on the tables incorporated in the past few posts has involved a lot of googling - and shuffling of books from the shelves of my glorious oak bookcase here in the mountains to the generous oak table which looks out on the snow which now caps those mountains……
Hundreds of books on public management reform (if you count the virtual ones in the library) – but, for me, there are only a handful of names whose writing makes the effort worthwhile. They are the 2 Chris’s – Chris Hood and Chris Pollitt; Guy Peters; and Rod Rhodes. With Chris Pollitt way out in front……Here’s a sense of how he has been writing in recent years - 
There have been many failures in the history of public management reform – even in what might be thought of as the bestequipped countries.
 Six of the most common seems to have been:
 · Prescription before diagnosis.  No good doctor would ever do this, but politicians, civil servants and management consultants do it frequently.  A proper diagnosis means much more than just having a general impression of inefficiency or ineffectiveness (or whatever).  It means a thorough analysis of what mechanisms, processes and attitudes are producing the undesirable features of the status quo and an identification of how these mechanisms can be altered or replaced.  Such an analysis constitutes a model of the problem.  This kind of modelling is probably far more useful to practical reformers than the highly abstract discussions of alternative models of governance with which some academics have been more concerned (e.g. Osborne, 2010).   [For a full exposition of this realist approach to programme logic, see Pawson, 2013.  For an explanation of why very general models of governance, are of limited value in practical analysis see Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011, pp1125 and 208221]
 · Failure to build a sufficient coalition for reform, so that the reform is seen as just the project of a small elite.  This is particularly dangerous in countries where governments change rapidly, as in some parts of the CEE.  Once a government falls or an elite is ousted, the reform has no roots and dies.
 · Launching reforms without ensuring sufficient implementation capacity.  For example, it is very risky to launch a programme of contracting out public services unless and until there exists a cadre of civil servants who are trained and skilled in contract design, negotiation and monitoring. Equally, it is dangerous to impose a sophisticated performance management regime upon an organization which has little or no previous experience of performance measurement.   And it is also hazardous to run down the government’s inhouse IT capacity 6 and rely too much on external expertise (Dunleavy et al, 2006).  In each of these cases in house capacity can be improved, but not overnight.
 · Haste and lack of sustained application.  Most major management reforms take years fully to be implemented. Laws must be passed, regulations rewritten, staff retrained, new organizational structures set up, appointments made, new procedures run and refined, and so on.  This extended implementation may seem frustrating to politicians who want action (or at least announcements) now, but without proper preparation reforms will more likely fail.  Endless reforms or ’continuous revolution’ is not a recipe for a wellfunctioning administration
 · Overreliance on external experts rather than experienced locals.  As management reform has become an international business, international bodies such as the OECD or the major management consultancies have become major players.  A fashion has developed in some countries to ’call in the external experts’, as both a badge of legitimacy and a quick way of accessing international ’best practice’  Equally, there is perhaps a tendency to ignore local, less clearly articulated knowledge and experience.  Yet the locals usually know much more about contextual factors than the visiting (and temporary) experts.  .
 · Ignoring local cultural factors. For example, a reform that will work in a relatively high trust and low corruption culture such as, say, Denmark’s, is far less likely to succeed in a low trust/higher corruption environment such as prevails in, say, some parts of the Italian public sector.  In the EU there are quite large cultural variations between different countries and sectors……………
I would suggest a number of ‘lessons’ which could be drawn from the foregoing analysis:
1.      Big models, such as NPM or ‘good governance’ or ‘partnership working’, often do not take one very far.  The art of reform lies in their adaptation (often very extensive) to fit local contexts.  And anyway, these models are seldom entirely well-defined or consistent in themselves.  Applying the big models or even standardized techniques (benchmarking, business process re-engineering, lean) in a formulaic, tick-box manner can be highly counterproductive.
2.     As many scholars and some practitioners have been observing for decades, there is no ‘one best way’.  The whole exercise of reform should begin with a careful diagnosis of the local situation, not with the proclamation of a model (or technique) which is to be applied, top down.  ‘No prescription without careful diagnosis’ is not a bad motto for reformers.
3.     Another, related point is that task differences really do matter.  A market-type mechanism may work quite well when applied to refuse collection but not when applied to hospital care.  Sectoral and task differences are important, and reformers should be wary of situations where their advisory team lacks substantial expertise in the particular tasks and activities that are the targets for reform.
4.     Public Management Reform (PMR) is always political as well as managerial/organizational.  Any prescription or diagnosis which does not take into account the ‘way politics works around here’ is inadequate and incomplete.  Some kernel of active support from among the political elite is usually indispensable.
5.     PMR is usually saturated with vested interests, including those of the consultants/advisors, and the existing public service staff.  To conceptualise it as a purely technical exercise would be naïve. 
6.     Successful PMR is frequently an iterative exercise, over considerable periods of time.  Reformers must adapt and also take advantage of ‘windows of opportunity’.  This implies a locally knowledgable presence over time, not a one-shot ‘quick fix’ by visiting consultants.
7.     It does work sometimes!  But, as indicated at the outset, humility is not a bad starting point.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why have we allowed academics to blind-side us all?? The state of the State - part 6

This is the last part of my tabular presentation of what the commentariat have been saying in the past 50 years about the management and delivery of public services – although it’s certainly not my last word on the subject!
This is a subject to which I’ve devoted most of my life but I have to say that the result of this particular exercise leaves me with the powerful feeling that tens of thousands of academics have been wasting their lives - and the time of their students and of others hoping to get some enlightenment from the writing on the subject
“New public management”, “governance”, “public value”, “new public governance”, "public sector" or "governance" "innovation"..... the terms, strategies and debates are endless – and little wonder since the discussion is rarely about a concrete organization but, rather, about the system (of thousands of organisations) which makes up the entire public sector.

In the 1990s “the management of change” became a huge new subject in management literature – chapter 6 of my book In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) discussed the literature on management in both sectors - and the earliest book quoted is from 1987.
In the private sector, change was handled according to the perceptions of each Chief Executive and his team. But not so in the public sector – where reform was determined at the highest political level and its future (uniform) shape the subject of central edicts.
Academics dominate the writing but only as historians and classifiers…..at a very high level of abstraction….as will be seen from my summary of chapter 4 of In Transit – notes on good governance     

How it’s dealt with by the commentariat
Typical Products

11. How do states compare in quality of public services?

“Benchmarking” national policy systems has become an important activity of bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) - until 2000 The Commonwealth Fund is now the main source for a global assessment of Health systems. The OECD does a global education survey.

Occasionally efforts are made to benchmark entire systems of public admin
Peer Review” is also a widespread activity within the EC eg this recent one on the Polish educational system

12. Why do governments still continue to pay consultants vast sums of money?
Private consultants now run a global industry dispensing advice to governments which is worth at least 50 billion euros a year. Statistics are not easy to find – but the UK alone spends 1.3 billion pounds a year - see Use of consultants and temporary staff (NAO 2016) – which is actually about half of the figure ten years ago!

Some will argue that this is a small sum to pay for good, independent advice to help ensure that public services are kept up to date.
The trouble is that no one really knows whether it is good advice. It is a highly secretive industry – with reports seen only by senior civil servants and the odd Minister.
Management consultancy in the private sector has been the subject of at least two highly critical studies  (Hucynszki; Micklewait and Woolridge) – which suggest a world of senior executives subject to fads and fashions and given to imposing their will on the work force in an autocratic way. This is even more likely to happen in public bureaucracies which have the additional problem of a political layer on top.

13. Role of Think-Tanks?
A few Think Tanks have a reasonable track record in this field – generally those who draw on retired civil servants for their insights… eg The Institute of Government
The Demos Think Tank was a favourite with New Labour in its early years of the ambitious Modernising Government programme.
The Centre for Public Impact is a new body which promises great things from its use of Big Data –We will see…..

Policy-making in the Real World (Institute of Government 2011)

14. What challenges and choices does the state face in the future?
The focus of these questions has been organisational – there are a couple of important elephants in the room namely finance and technology which are dealt with in other bodies of literature

Governance in the Twenty First Century (OECD 2001) is one of the rare books which tries to deal with future challenges
15. What are the best Toolkits, manuals, roadmaps etc for people to use who want to engage in reform efforts?

I am not a fan of deliverology but…..Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015) does repay study......

To Serve and to Preserve; improving public administration in a competitive world (Asian Development Bank 2000) still offers wise words
The Essential Public Manager; by Chris Pollitt (2003) is, by far and away, the best book to help the intelligent citizen make sense of this field

Although I’m no fan of the World Bank, 2 titles (from the Development field!) offer the  best insights -