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!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Gennady Rozhdestvensky - RIP

Music and books surround me in this mountain idyll – but I don’t pay enough tribute to the former. I was sufficiently moved by Leonard Cohen’s death to post an RIP - as I did earlier this year to a composer whose film scores touched me.

A conductor has just died (at the age of 84) of whom I had actually not heard - Gennady Rozhdestvensky and this video in particular tells me what I have missed …..what a mischievous and expressive face!  And how glorious his Russian sounds….

It reminds me of when I sat within touching distance of Rostropovich when he came to Baku just a few years before his death….I was the guest of a friend from the President’s Office….And I have just discovered these amazing shots of how the Azeri street musicians greeted him during his visit….it brought a smile

RIP both of you…..

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Brexit - the reality

A once-proud country slowly sinks under the waves – and the rest of the world stifles a yawn….This is the news brought back from their recent visits to what the Brits call “the continent” by two writers I value. The Brexit Blog is about the only thing worth reading on that topic and is crafted by organisational theorist Chris Grey - who was the first this week to bring back from a visit to France the news that few people in Europe find the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc of the slightest bit of interest….
We were always “semi-detached” – at least as a political class – people may regret our going but it was not a great surprise……..So “bring it on” – and sooner rather than later - is the general attitude of the European political class.
Andrew Rawsley writes a weekly column in The Observer and confirmed that with today’s piece

The last few weeks have seen quite a bit of parliamentary drama but the hard reality of Brexit (of whatever form) now looms – and the hope many had a year ago that the whole thing would go away now looks an increasingly forlorn one….Exactly a year ago, a knowledgeable (if disgraced) politician even published a book with the title Brexit – no Exit; why (in the end) Britain won’t leave the EU; (2017).
Britain’s “negotiating” tactics have been, it is widely recognised, hapless – if not offensive – reflecting not just the divided counsels inside “government” but a total lack of preparation and conviction…..And the longer the farce has continued, the more it has reminded the Europeans of what a bloody nuisance the Brits have been in the “project”. Better, they think, that we should piss far away from the tent……

Even left-wingers are recognising this – see this week’s initiative - The Full Brexit
Although this 300 page book from University College London Press - Brexit and Beyond – rethinking the futures of Europe - gives a more measured treatment..
Coincidentally this was the week Owen Hatherley (author of Landscapes of Communism) chose for his new book TransEurope Express on what the changing shape of European cities tells us about their respective visions….

Friday, June 15, 2018

A rare glimpse of Neighbours’ Affairs

For decades, tens of billions of euros have been poured each year by the EC into educational. Cultural, scientific and cross-border European projects – such as the Erasmus and Interreg programmes. Clearly these develop networks of interested individuals who – at least for the duration of the programmes – have learned how things are done in different countries.
But, as I’ve noted here several times, this hasn’t obviously produced a European public. Newspapers remain firmly national in their focus – despite the valiant efforts of Le Courrier International to encourage an interest in their neighbours’ affairs by running translated articles But no one has followed its example – although The Guardian does cooperate from time to time with a few other European papers on special features.
Perhaps insular Britain is not the best example (Die Zeit and Le Monde’s global coverage has always been better than the UK’s) but even well-educated Brits could probably tell you little more about their European neighbours other than that Finnish schools and the French health system are the best; that most European railway networks are vastly superior to the UK’s; and that German cities and society are impeccable!           

Of course, beneath the surface, there is a huge amount of European networking going on at the level of professional associations – particularly universities whose various academic disciplines still have the budgets to bring people together in Conferences, networks and Programmes.
My own field of public administration, however, has had a fairly low profile compared with, for example, the European Consortium for Political Research which boasts no fewer than 18,000 political scientists in its ranks. True, there is a European Group for Public Administration but the link hardly indicates great activity and certainly the NISPAcee Annual Conference has seemed the only place worth attending for me - with its focus on transition societies…But even that consists  more of people polishing their CVs than attempting a serious dialogue
In 2000 Chris Pollitt and Geert Bouckaert produced Public Management Reform; a comparative analysis; new public management, Governance and the neo-Weberian state which rapidly became the key reference for the subject in Europe. There was also this EC programme which also brought together some academics in PA from central and south-eastern european universities…

The problem perhaps is that public admin scholars focus, by definition, on “the state” which takes such different structures, meanings and traditions in the various European countries. And PA scholars have also tended to be pragmatic people – in the “positivist mould and slow therefore to pick up on philosophical and “constructivist” schools of thinking…. Bevir and Rhodes’ paper Traditions and Governance (2003) and Fred Thompson’s paper on The 3 faces of public management (2008) are two very rare forays into that forbidding terrain ....

Now an Italian scholar has somehow dramatically broken open what was threatening to become rather too insular a world – Edoardo Ongaro produced last year a fascinating-looking title -  Public Administration and Philosophy – an introduction (2017) – building on a comparative book he wrote in 2009 - Public Management Reform and Modernization: Trajectories of Administrative Change in Italy, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain (2009)
But he has now brought together in 63 chapters a massive and fascinating-looking collection - The Palgrave Handbook of Public Administration and Management in Europe; ed Edoardo Ongaro and Sandra van Thiel (2018)  coming in at almost 1400 pages. This Google book excerpt covers most of the first 100 odd pages…including, for the first time, linguistic issues…
...and the link on the title gives the annexes on the different continental admin traditions (40 pages) with someone from one continent reflecting on another's tradition. 
Chapter Two can also be found here

There have been other such collections – from Oxford, Routledge and Jossey-Bass I recall eg Oxford Handbook of Public Administration (2003) – but this one seems in a league of its own in not only its width and depth but the quality of the writing of at least those parts I’m able to read….It is the first really comprehensive look at different aspects of managing public services in different European countries!!

I’m sorely tempted to buy it – despite its 210 pound price tag (down from 260). These days we’re expected to pay upwards of 50 euros for a 250 page specialist book …..so it’s a bargain!! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In Praise of the Butterfly

How can I tell what I think, unless I see what I write?
EM Foster (1927)

Most serious blogs I glance at have a theme – be it British literature; Marxist Economics; paintings; Brexit; French politics; policy analysis; left politics or…Scottish mountains - which the authors stick to fairly religiously with the only relief being the occasional bit of music…(eg Boffy’s Blog; or All That’s Solid)
One of the distinctive things about “Balkan and Carpathian Musings” however is its “butterfly approach” to subjects…..That’s usually a derogatory term – used to indicate a shallow person who wanders from subject to subject. It’s true that I have a fixation about strange things such as democracy, government policy-making and institutions, turgid academic writing…. but – like a butterfly – I alight wherever my senses are attracted by a book cover; striking painting; a wine etiquette; a piece of music; or the ambiance of a town or encounter…..        

After all, the blog started as I knew I was phasing myself out of the job market……but conscious of the unusual variety of roles and places I’ve been lucky enough to work in.
After all, the blog started as I knew I was phasing myself out of the job market……but conscious of the unusual variety of roles and places I’ve been lucky enough to work in.
I was first elected to political office when I was pretty young; and focused my energies respectively on community action; municipal corporate management and multiple deprivation in the 70 and 80s; and “institutional development” in ex-communist countries in the period after 1990. 
I remember, for example, going to the 2 Universities in Glasgow in the mid 70s and challenging them to produce any research which could help us - in the newly established Strathclyde Region – establish some coherent policies on deprivation…..Result? Zilch

Each of these issues now has a huge literature - but, when I came to them, it was difficult to find reading material. For example Marris and Rein's Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) and Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals (1970) were the bibles in the early days of community action and deprivation strategies; Donald Schon's Beyond the Stable State (1971) for organisational studies; and Linz and Stepan's Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (1996) and Elster and Offe's Rebuilding the Ship at Sea - Institutional Design in post-communist Countries (1997) for transitilogy.....  

I had started at an early age this rather odd habit of writing (and publishing) papers and article trying to make sense of the experience – which I have continued for coming up for half a century. 
The blog has been my channel for my thoughts about these issues – talking with other people can often box you into a corner (particularly in Gallic cultures!) but writing forces you to pose questions about what you thought you knew. That’s why I use so often the saying about the “best way to understand an issue is to write a book about it”….and why I love the EM Foster quote which starts this post      

The most interesting question is not whether this blog will continue…..It will (Inshallah!!)!
The most interesting question is whether its focus should change – and if so, in what way?
Its three aims still seem to stand – but perhaps could do with some slight “tweaks” – eg
·         I am perhaps using posts even more deliberately these days as a means of getting inspiration to help me express better my thoughts on reform and social change issues….When I click open text I have been working on for some time, my creativity tends to freeze – but when I move my mind to the blog (or a blank piece of paper) the words come together to form a new perspective……
·         The world seems confronted with new problems which apparently require new thinking…….and make obsolete writings before (say) 1990?…Because I’ve kept a good record of my wide reading since 1960, I would dispute this and have therefore become more conscious of the importance of my role in giving annotated reading lists (and, even more passionately about the need for clarity of expression!!)
·         As I move through my “autumn days” and feel the approach of winter, the “settling of final accounts” (in the spiritual sense) becomes perhaps a more dominant theme 

Last year I wrote about my mother’s little “commonplace book” which we found amongst her possessions. It’s odd that, with the onset of the new technology, the idea of a commonplace book has not become more popular….one person’s record of favourite sayings of sages over the ages…….
Perhaps they were more laconic in those days - not feeling the need we apparently do these days to embellish the core of the wisdom with a lot of explanations? My posts of 2016 were collected and put in the logical order in The Slaves’ Chorus and came to 120 pages (the following year there were double the number of pages). Of course these are “musings”….they don’t try to compress and distil the components into a basic “essence”……which, in a sense, the tables I started to use last year have started to do……Now there’s a thought!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The future of the blog

This blog stuttered recently but has hit the 1250 post mark – a reasonable time to review its objectives and indeed it’s very future. The three objectives I gave it in 2009 are still there on the masthead –

My generation believed that political activity could improve things - but that belief is now dead and cynicism threatens civilisation. This blog will try to make sense of the organisational endeavours I've been involved in; to see if there are any lessons which can be passed on; to restore a bit of institutional memory and social history (let alone hope).

I also read a lot and wanted to pass on the results of this to those who have neither the time nor inclination - as well as my love of painting, particularly the realist 20th century schools of Bulgaria and Belgium.

A final motive for the blog is more complicated - and has to do with life and family. What have we done with our life? What is important to us?

I remember the disappointment when I went through my father’s papers after his death. He was a very well-read and travelled man who composed his weekly sermons with care; gave his time unstintingly to people with problems; latterly giving illustrated lectures throughout the country on his travels in the 1970s to off-beat places in countries such as Spain, Austria and Greece.
Surely, therefore, he would have left some diaries or comments behind to give a sense of his inner thoughts?
But there was little beyond his jottings about some books (for some lectures he gave) and a diary about a camping holiday in the 1930s with his father. The same silence when I looked at the papers of a charismatic political colleague who was struck down in his prime.
I couldn’t hold a candle to these two men – but we are all distinctive in our way. I have been very lucky in the positions I have occupied, the places I’ve been, the people met, the range and number of books read – and, not least, gifted with a reasonable facility with and love for words and language.
The least I felt in 2009 that my blog could do was to try to mix together these ingredients of experiences and insights and create a new stew which might be attractive even to those not normally inclined to eat stew?

Six years ago I went back to these objectives to explore how they compared with my original intentions – or indeed whether they were still useful for me and/or my readers. In 2012 I decided they did. It seems like only yesterday that I conducted that exercise and I got a shock when I discovered today how long it has been  
I know that quoting some of the conclusions I wrote 6 years ago in that review of the blog might be felt to be self-indulgent - but the future of the blog is an important question for me and I would therefore ask for the reader’s patience….

Lessons from my own institutional endeavours
The early part of the blog covered the Scottish policy initiatives with which I was associated between 1970-90 such as social dialogue, open-policy-making and social inclusion – which were excerpted from a long paper available on my website.
It then moved on to my concerns about the technical assistance and institutional building work I had been involved with in transition countries from 1991 – which are captured in the paper I gave at the 2011 Conference of NISPAcee.
However my more ambitious venture to bring all of this together in one paper is not yet realised. A very early draft can be seen on my website
Sharing the insights of others
………I’ve been lucky – in having had both the (academic) position and (political) incentive for more than 25 years to read across intellectual disciplines in the pursuit of tools to help the various ventures in which I’ve been engaged. I belong to a generation and time which valued sharing of knowledge – rather than secreting or mystifying it - which has become the trend in recent decades.
And I am lucky again in now having gained access to the technical facility which allows sharing (with a copy and paste) the website references of useful papers.
Most of the blogposts contain several such links – in a single year probably 1,000 links. That’s not bad!
Indeed I have realised that this feature of my writing makes it more convenient to have my papers in electronic rather than paper form.

Life’s passions
Clearly the blog has shared several of my passions – eg painting, places, reading and wine – and has given a good sense of the enjoyment from simple activities such as wandering.
Originally the Carpathian reference in the title was to location only – it did not promise any particular insights into this part of the world. But, in the past year, my musings have broadened to give some insights into life in Bulgaria…

So far, so good. But perhaps the blog objectives are no longer relevant? Or a blog no longer the appropriate format? The first two blog objectives are rather altruistic – a reasonable question might be what I get out of the effort involved in drafting a significant post. The answer is – more than you might think!
Writing is (or should be) a great discipline.
The recent Nobel prize-winner, Herta Mueller, expressed this very well in an encounter she had in Bucharest – 

“It is only when I start a sentence that I find out what it has to say. I realise as I go along. So I have to somehow make words help me and I have to keep searching until I think I have found something acceptable. Writing has its own logic and it imposes the logic of language on you. There is no more "day" and "night", "outside" and "inside". There is subject, verb, metaphor, a certain way of constructing a phrase so as to give it rhythm – these are the laws that are imposed on you. On the one hand, language is something which tortures me, doesn't give me peace, forces me to rack my brains until I can't do it any longer; and on the other hand, when I do this, it actually helps me. It is an inexplicable vicious circle……”

A daily blog makes you focus more. I’ve made the point several times that the absence of newspapers cluttering the house and (for the most part) of television over the past 20 years has been a great boon for me. It has created the quiet and space for reflection. And the requirement to put a thought or two in writing on the blog makes me think more clearly.
A second benefit is archival – I can retrieve thoughts and references so easily. I just have to punch a key word into the search engine on the blog and I retrieve everything.

OK…that’s long enough for the moment…..The next post will hopefully give a brief answer to the question of the future of the blog……..

Monday, June 11, 2018

The politics of reform

The world is an unruly place and has sometimes to be kept in order – whether by force or persuasion. And presumably because of our need for simplification - the battle is generally between two sides.  Sun versus earth; Catholicism v Protestantism; Cavaliers v Roundheads; Left v Right; Christians v Muslims. Those in the middle – whether liberals or greens – generally get ground down between such enmities…
So it has been for the past in my professional field - of what used to be called public administration and is now better known as public management
Until 1980 things were actually quite boring - with “public administration” being largely legalistic and a description of conventions governing the “machinery of government” in particular countries.
The subject had been a bit more interesting in the United States – at least at the end of the 19th century when the blatant collusion between big business and the political class made reform an explosive issue. Indeed it actually led to the founding of public administration as we know it – with none less than Woodrow Wilson leading the way….

In Britain, the politics may have been more muted - but let’s not forget that it was the infamous charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Crimean War which created the conditions which led to the creation of the British civil service system which remained intact for more than 100 years. A Royal Commission on the Civil Service (Northcote-Trevelyan) had been set up in the early 1850s but had been labouring until that military action exposed the disastrous nature of the aristocratic leadership in the country – it was the spark which led to the demands for a more meritocratic approach…..
And the early 1960s saw strong questioning again of British administrative traditions – epitomized in the establishment in 1966 of the Royal (or Fulton) Commission on the Civil Service which laid the foundations to a much more managerial approach in the 1970s which became increasingly aggressive in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Richard Chapman’s The Civil Service Commission – a bureau biography 1855-1991 (2005) is the best guide to this process – although B Guy Peters’ The Politics of Bureaucracy – an introduction to comparative public administration; (1978) was probably the first comparative and sociological approach to the subject. But it was probably The Private Government of Public Money; Hugh Heclo and Aaron Wildavsky (1974) which first made this subject really sexy in Britain!

Coinciding (?), however, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the phrase “New Public Management” (NPM for short) signalled that we had a new ideology on our hands. Christopher Hood is credited with having invented the term and described it very clearly in this 1995 article

New Public Management (NPM)
Typical Justification
Hands-on professional management of Public Organisations
Visible management at the top; free to manage
Accountability requires clear assignment of responsibility
Explicit standards and measures of performance
Goals and targets defined and measured as indicators of success
Accountability means clearly stated aims
Greater emphasis on output controls
Resource allocation and rewards linked to performance
Need to stress results rather than procedures
Shift to disaggregation of units
Unbundle public sector into units organised by products with devolved budgets
Make units manageable; split provision and production; use contracts
Greater competition
Move to term contracts and tendering procedures
Rivalry as the key to lower costs and better standards
Stress on private sector styles of management practice
Move away from military- style ethic to more flexible hiring, pay rules, etc
Need to apply "proven" private sector management tools
Stress on greater discipline and parsimony
Cut direct costs; raise labour discipline
Need to check resource demands; do more with less

How much is really new?
In all the excitement of new rhetoric, it is all too easy to imagine that we are confronting these issues for the first time: in fact argument about how to run government and public services goes back many centuries and the present debates are in some ways a replay, in different language, of those debates. Whilst the technology and skills have certainly presented us with new opportunities, perhaps a touch of humility or sense of history might help us in these frenetic times?

1991 saw the publication of a particularly interesting and strangely neglected book - Administrative Argument - which identified 99 different "solutions" which had been advanced at one time or another to the issue of improving administrative performance. Sadly it is out of print; not available on google books; nor accessible even in part on the internet...
If ever we needed a lesson in the need for a measure of scepticism toward the enthusiastic marketing of the latest management fashion, we have it in the brief list of these 99 solutions - many of which happily contradict one another. Sometimes the need for continuity in staffing is stressed: sometimes the need for turnover. Sometimes openness; sometimes secrecy……
Hood and Jackson suggest that we tend to use three general "stereotypes" in our thinking about organisations -
Three classic organizational stereotypes

Military Stereotype
Business Stereotype
Religious Stereotype
Run it like the army
Run it like a business
Run it like a monastic order
Work force
Limited career
Hired and fired
Service for life
Fear of punishment
Hope of honours
Fear of dismissal
Hope for money
Fear of damnation
Hope for salvation
Audit of war
Faith; social acceptance
Objective setting
Orders of day
Worked out at length in discussion and reflection
Obedience to leadership brings efficiency
Incentives to reduce waste and search for innovations
Lifetime internal commitment limits rash selfish ideas
Hood and Jackson  (1991)

The third column actually anticipates the various efforts which have been made in the past decade to find a new synthesis to PA and NPM

To be continued…..

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Microcosm of a post-industrial town

It was exactly 50 years ago I ran my first successful election campaign in what was then a shipbuilding town (in its heyday, the yards kept 10,000 souls employed - if and when, that is, there were enough orders) and still remember the scorn with which my remarks at one meeting - about education being the future core of work in the town - were greeted. 
In 1968 it was only those of us who kept an eye on the United States who had a glimmering of the world that lay ahead. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock may not have been published until 1970 and Daniels Bell’s The Coming of Post-industrial Society until 1973 – but Warren Bennis had written his “Coming Death of Post-Bureaucracy” in 1966

I’ve just looked at the latest employment statistics for this Scottish District which tell me that by far and away the largest source of employment in the area I was raised in - and represented politically for 22 years - is that of ……health!!! (and social work) - with a figure of….. 7,000 (no less than 23% of the total). 
Next, perhaps surprisingly, is the retail trade (at 4,500) – with education coming in at what I find is a surprisingly low figure of 2,500. I made that 1968 prediction in a room of what was then the town’s new Further Education College – clearly having a sense of what was to be the phenomenal (and global) rise of the further and higher education industry… 

Only 1750 people are still working in manufacturing industry……That’s 5.8% compared with about 70% in the 1950s. The town was selected by IBM as the location for an industrial plant which opened in 1954 to great ceremony; grew in its heyday to about 3000 employees – but now employs precisely zero!!! There is a fascinating video here which starts with that opening before suddenly cutting to the desolation on the site when it completely closed a few years ago
“Public administration” has its own separate category (basically the town hall and social security office) and also has a surprisingly low statistic of 1500 people – although there are 3500 jobs in another curious category of “administrative and support services. Significantly only two thirds of the 30,000 jobs are full-time......

I know that these days talk of “real jobs” and “dependency” is old hat – if not politically incorrect. But there is not a single job in the agricultural sector (the area used to have some farms) – and electricity, gas, water and sewage have only 90 workers.
This is simply not sustainable! The talk about “resilient towns” needs to get louder – particularly with the frightening picture which is emerging of the effects of automation…..

Tales of journeys around Britain have attracted readers since at least Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). The 1980s and 1990s saw that interest grow – think Bill Brysen and Jonathan Raban (by boat) to which the most recent addition was JD Taylor’s superb tale of a bike tour – Island Story - whose political commentary takes us back to the writings of Cobbett’s Rural Rides. George Borrow and George Orwell…
Writers such as Owen Hatherley have added a new dimension which builds on the architectural writings of Ian Nairn. I am just waiting for his New Kind of Bleak – journeys through Urban Britain (2012) which does not, however, include Greenock  

Those interested in tracing the rise and fall of a typical Scottish town should have a look at - 
- this collection of photos of the town in the 1960s (by a Frenchman)
- the collections here of the municipal museum (art and photographic)
- a rather grainy black and white of the town in 1959 
- a collection of old photos here; and here
- a short video montage of the town in the 1960s  
- a drone view of the contemporary town