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!

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Writer's Craft

“What is a writer? asked jesting Pilot - and would not stay for an answer”….OK I cheated, the question was actually “what is truth?” But the rest of the quotation (from one of my favourite essayists – Francis Bacon 1561-1626) is correct.
I don’t know why this quotation is so deeply engrained in what passes for my mind….although Bacon (and Lamb – I kid you not!) are probably the characters responsible for my love of good language……Charles Lamb actually came along a couple of hundred years later (1775-1835) and I remember mainly for his essay “on eating roast pig”. Joseph Addison came in between (1672-1730) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a contemporary of Lamb’s…
Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a great fan of novels – the classical essayists, to whom I was introduced in my teens at school, made their impact, I realise, for two reasons – they crafted short pieces which left a vivid impression.

That said, if I am asked to name my three favourite writers, it’s not necessarily George Orwell who comes to mind….but rather Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Sebastian Haffner – ie a Hungarian and two Germans - and all of them essentially journalists!
Arthur Koestler was a taste I acquired in my youth – and the hyperlink gives my tribute to him.
He was a prolific and powerful writer whose arguments on such varied subjects as the death penalty; and laughter and jokes I remember to this day. His memoirs give a far better sense of what it was like to be alive in the early part and middle of the 20th century far better than any novel.

I wrote an extensive post about Joseph Roth last year; until recently Roth was known in the English-speaking world basically as the author of The Radetzky March but now enjoys a reputation for his journalism and short stories thanks to the quality of his translator, Michael Hofmann, 
He was a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”

I was long a fan of Sebastian Haffner whose material on contemporary Germany I remember reading in The Observer – although he was by the 60s back in Germany. But he had made his reputation in Britain in 1940 with Germany Jekyll and Hyde – a contemporary account of Nazi Germany. In 1978/79 he produced “The Meaning of Hitler” but it was his posthumously produced "Defying Hitler – a memoir” which I found quite stunning in the picture it painted of how ordinary decent citizens reacted passively to the beatings, sackings and imprisonments…..
In the post-war period too many people fell for the argument that it was all the Nazis' fault when, in reality, it was a significant section of an entire society which was complicit…..
Reading it just a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck with the American parallels…. 

The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.
But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic “They Thought They Were Free”, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, “Defying Hitler”, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)

A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives – how ordinary Germans experienced the 20th century, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century.

What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.

The message seems to be that – in the hands of a skilful writer or journalist – the words and conversations of ordinary people can be moulded into powerful literature….
Joan Didion was another writer who had this gift of conveying conversations - Everyman's Library has a wonderful 1000 page collection of her nonfiction – We Tell Ourselves Stories in order to Live
JD Taylor is too young to warrant inclusion with such names but his recent tale of a bike tour – Island Story - has political commentary which takes us back to the writings of Cobbett’s Rural Rides. George Borrow and George Orwell……..

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Public Services are too serious to be left to.......bureaucrats and academics

A journalist friend has written making the very good point that people tend these days to live in what he called national “traumas” in which any mention of government reform is treated as just so much pointless rhetoric – if not with outright scorn and ridicule…(my words).
Of course this simply reflects the fact (as I’ve emphasised in recent posts about reform efforts) that those who write about admin reform are predominantly (95%) academics – and that they talk only to one another – or down to students – and never to the public at large ….
But every European State spends about 40% of its GNP on public services – so there must be a few informed citizens out there – even if most of us are so overwhelmed with apathy/fatalism that we don’t bother….  We mutter amongst ourselves but, otherwise, leave it to the politicians, bureaucrats, trade unionists and lobbyists!
And I know of at least one academic who did try (in 2003) to write a book about the subject for the general public – it was called The Essential Public Manager. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact….

But what effort - it might be asked - do public service professionals make to try to change the things we (and they) don’t like about the services they work in? It is, after all, real individuals who run our schools, hospitals and state infrastructure. They have received expensive training; surely they should be more active?
The idea of transferring some public services to its staff caught the imagination recently in Britain in a policy called “mutualisation” - which was indeed embraced early into the UK 2010-15 Coalition government programme. The Post Office was to be the gem in that particular policy jewel but ideological fervour beat principle and the famous PO was duly privatised in 2015…..  Despite that setback, the past couple of decades have seen a considerable growth of social enterprise (employing about 1.5 million) particularly in the field of public health and some welfare services….
But how many articles do you see about this - even in north-west europe let alone the south-east?

Indeed, looking back over the past 40 years or so, I can recall only two books by journalists about public services (in the English language at any rate) – one an American (David Osborne) who produced in 1992 what turned out to be a best-seller – Reinventing Government. The other is a Brit (Polly Toynbee) whose recent book Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state actually triggered the blog series I did last autumn…
I understand the environment in which journalists write – but still think it’s sad that so many journalists just take the PR handouts from government departments and don’t bother with even minimal some policy digging. (Needless to say, my friend doesn’t belong in this category)….

Perhaps other journalists might therefore be interested in a little book (100-odd pages) which has pictures, tables and para headings to make it all the more reader-friendly; not to mention an eye-catching title - How did Admin Reform get to be so sexy?
I readily concede that the book titles and lists which adorn the text are a bit of a turn-off but there is little I can do about that since one of the book’s intentions is to guide the interested reader through the extensive literature; and to help people identify what is actually worth reading….
 I always liked the comic-book approach – in the 70s there were a couple of good series (Writers and Readers Coop was one) which did excellent ones on figures such as Marx, Freud…even Chomsky…
Of course, cartoons should be used more often to liven up such texts. Dilbert has long shown the way…

Perhaps the subject of Government Reform needs that sort of approach?

Further Reading on mutualisation and social enterprise

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!! 

Update; a few days later, the price has risen to 300 pounds!!!! Some algorithm must have read my comment about it being a bargain! But not at this price!

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……..