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!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

reinventing the broken wheel



Ilia Beshkov (1901-1958 Bg)

In 1970, SM Miller published a short article - "Reinventing the Broken Wheel" - Lesson-Drawing in Social Policy" - which drew from experience of a variety of Government programmes supposedly aimed at dealing with poverty and inequality. The points should be pinned up in every Cabinet Office throughout the world - viz

· How a programme starts is important: what it promises, the expectations that it raises. The poor are frequently both suspicious and deceivable - expectations can rise very rapidly and collapse suddenly.

· Social Policy cannot substitute for economic policy and actions. Many poverty programmes have attempted to avoid this issue - only to stumble late on this finding.


· General economic expansion may not present jobs for the low trained, particularly when dual or segmented labour markets exist. They made need additional help to get and keep jobs or to raise their inadequate incomes.

· If social policies do not control major resources in their areas - eg financing in housing - they will be severely limited in what they do

· The task is not to integrate the poor and unequal into existing structures eg schools. These structures have gross inadequacies and defects. They must be changed as well - frequently also benefiting the non-poor.

· Programmes should be aware of this danger of building up dependencies - and look for ways in which their users can assume responsibility for the programme and themselves.

· One-shot, one-time programmes will have limited affects. While the complaint is often made that the poor are handicapped by a short time-span, they who are more frequently handicapped by the short time-span of public policies as policy attention wanders from one issue to another.

· Organisation is fateful. How programmes are organised affects what happens to those who deal with them. Where programmes are aimed at the short-run, have uncertain funding, high staff turnover and poor planning and organisation, it will be difficult for people to accept or benefit from them.

· People live in communities, in groups, in families. Programmes cannot successfully help them if they are treated as atomistic individuals.

· Ambitious, conflicting programme goals and activities lead to trouble. Most programmes have this problem.

· A programme is what it does; not what it would like to do or was established to do. The distribution of funds and staff time are good indicators of what an organisation actually does rather than what it believes it does or tries to convince others that it does

Local authority services were designed to deal with individuals - pupils, clients, miscreants - and do not have the perspectives, mechanisms or policies to deal with community malfunctioning. For that, structures are needed which have a "neighbourhood-focus" and "problem focus".
The Strathclyde strategy did in fact develop them - in the neighbourhood structures which allowed officers, residents and councillors to take a comprehensive view of the needs of their area and the operation of local services: and in the member-officer groups.

But we did not follow through the logic - and reduce the role of committee system which sustains so much of the policy perversities. That would have required a battle royal! After all, it took another decade before the issue of an alternative to the Committee system came on the national agenda - to be fiercely resisted by local authorities. Even now, the furthest they seem to go in their thinking is the "Cabinet system" - which has been offered as an option several times over the past 30 years (Wheatley; Stewart) but never, until now, considered worthy of even debate. The system of directly elected mayors - which serves other countries well - still does not command favour. One of the great marketing tricks of the English is to have persuaded the world of our long traditions of democracy. The truth is that our forefathers so mistrusted the dangers of unacceptable lay voices controlling the council chambers that they invented a range of traditions such as the one creating a system of dual professional and political leadership in local government. As the powers of local government increased in the post-war period - this became a recipe for confusion and irresponsibility. Little wonder that local government was called "The Headless State" (Regan). Chairmen of Committees have been able to blame Directors; and Directors, Chairmen.

In the 1990s it was interesting to see some local authorities now organised on the basis that was beginning to appear obvious to some of us in the late 1970s. The more progressive councils now have three different political structures -
· One for thinking and monitoring - ie across traditional boundaries of hierarchy, department and agency (our Member-Officer review groups)
· One for ensuring that it is performing its legal requirements (the traditional committee system) · One for acting in certain fields with other agencies to achieve agreed results (Joint Ventures for geographical areas or issues)

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