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

big was not bad



This is now what the area looks like - about one metre of snow at my level - more at higher reaches.
But Revenons aux moutons! Let's pick up the story line
I supported the reorganisation of local government – which, in 1974, not only literally decimated the number of municipalities[1] but created the massive Strathclyde Region[2].
I had gained visibility from the workshops held by my Local Government Unit on the various management, community and structural challenges and changes facing local government – and this, I think, was the main reason I found myself elected as Secretary of the ruling Labour Group[3] of that Region. Even at my young age (32) I was reasonably well-known – with an open, energetic and, perhaps most importantly, non-partisan look to me.
And in the same year, a Labour Government returned to power – and was to remain there until 1979.
In the 12 “shadow” months we had to prepare for our new responsibilities, we set up new-style policy groups to try to produce relevant solutions to the massive socio-economic problems faced by the West of Scotland[4].

Lessons about Leadership
The first elections of 1974 gave Labour a handsome majority in Strathclyde Region - 72 of the 103 seats. And on the first Sunday of May 1974, the newly-elected came together to choose the leadership of what was the largest unit of local government in Europe (with a staff of 100,000 responsible for services for half of Scotland's population: an annual budget of 3 million dollars).
The powers of the new Region had attracted a good calibre of politician - the experienced leadership of the old counties and a good mix of younger, qualified people (despite the obvious full-time nature of the job, we were expected to do it for a daily allowance of about 15 dollars. Clearly the only people who could contemplate that were the retired, the self-employed or those coming from occupations traditionally supportive of civic service - eg railwaymen and educationalists)
With a strong sense of heading into the unknown, a dual leadership was created - with the public persona (the President and Policy Leader) being someone fairly new to politics, a Presbyterian Minister (without a church) who had made his name in "urban ministry" working with the poor. Geoff Shaw inspired great respect - particularly in the world outside normal politics - and brought a new approach. He was determined to have more open and less complacent policy-making: particularly with respect to social inequalities([5]
Appointed as the Leader of the Majority Group (and therefore holding the patronage powers) was an older and politically much more experienced man - an ex-miner. Dick Stewart may not have had the formal education and eloquence of Geoff but he commanded respect (and fear!) amongst both politicians and officials of the Council for his ability to get to the heart of any matter and for his honesty. He readily grasped the key elements in any issue: and would not easily deviate from policy. To persuade him to change, you had to have very strong arguments or forces on your side - and a great deal of patience. This made for policy stability: occasionally frustrating but so much more acceptable than the vacillation and fudge which passes for so much policy-making! Geoff stood for moral direction: Dick for order.
Both had a deep sense of justice: and utter integrity to their principles. And the new political structures unusually adopted for this most unusual of local authorities gave them both an equal share in policy leadership.
The difference in perspectives and styles occasionally caused problems: but both approaches were very much needed in the early years. In some ways one saw the same dynamic in the early years of the Czech Republic - between Havel and Klaus. It raises interesting questions about whether - and how - such dualism could be institutionalised in local government.
Sadly, when in 1978, the Convener died, the tensions led to a rethink of the concept: and all power concentrated in the hands of the Leader.
changing the balance of power
In 1975 I gained some prominence by being one of the contributors to the Red Paper on Scotland edited by Gordon Brown - who was even then being talked about as a future Prime Minister. In that paper[6] I exposed the narrowness of vision of Labour groups controlling then so many Scottish municipalities – and in various lectures to professional associations I challenged the way they treated the public. Ironically, by then, I was part of the leadership of an organisation which managed the largest collection of professionals in the British Isles!
Influenced by John Stewart of INLOGOV, I became a big critic of the committee basis of local government – accusing it of being a legitimiser of officer control. We developed a more independent tool for policy development - member-officer groups. Being of more analytical than political stock and without leadership ambitions, I saw (and learned from close quarters about) various styles of leadership[7] - both political and administrative. These were the years of the “Yes Minister” BBC Programme - which exposed the machinations of civil servants in the British political system and I could see the same processes at work in our large Region. I became an early fan of elected mayors which I saw as redressing the balance of power better toward the electorate. My theory of change in those days was best summed up in the phrase – “pincer-strategy” ie a combination of reformers inside government and pressure from outside might produce change. All this was before the vast literature on change management....

a strategy for reform
I was lucky (to put it mildly) in having a job as lecturer in liberal studies. The Polytechnic had aspirations to Degree work but this required many years of careful preparations and, for 10 years I was required only to arouse the interest of various diploma students in current affairs. I read widely – particularly in public management - but, particularly from 1975, my full-time job was effectively the political one. And the task into which I threw myself was that of dealing with the problems of “multiple deprivation”[8] which had been vividly exposed in a 1973 national report and which our Council accepted as its prime challenge in 1975 and developed in 1978 into a coherent strategy. It was this strategy I reviewed – with the help of 6 major Community Conferences – and reformulated as the Council’s key policy document - Social Strategy for the 80s. I will talk about this in the next instalment.....

We were trying to change both an organisational system and a social condition and were very much feeling our way. Social inclusion has now – 30 years on - developed a huge literature but there was little to guide us in those days. I therefore drafted and published reflective pieces about our work, assumptions and learning in various national journals and books[9] – and was heartened with the invitations I received from other local authorities to speak to them.
The Tavistock Institute[10] also included the Region in a research project on inter-organisational relations and invited me to serve on the steering committee. This encouraged my interest in organisational development. And the dissertation for the policy analysis MSc I took in 1983 was on “organisational learning”. So, in a way, I was already preparing the ground for my subsequent move into consultancy.

[1] Changing a 4 tier system of 650 local authorities to a 2 tier system of 65.
[2] Covering half of Scotland’s population and employing staff of 100,000 (we were the Education, Police and Social Work authority)
[3] A position which allowed me to participate in the informal meetings which would decide key issues ahead of the weekly cabinet meetings. This position was voted in 2 yearly elections of Labour councillors – and I held the position successfully for 18 years by virtue of not belonging to any political clique. There were four of us in various key leadership roles and we were known as “the gang of four” – an allusion to the Chinese leadership of that time!
[4] Helped by the work of the West Central Scotland Planning group – but the publication in 1973 of the national study “Born to Fail?” was the catalyst to action.
[5] See Geoff by Ron Ferguson.
[6] “The Red paper” was seminal in raising radical political and economic issues about Scottish governance. It appeared in the middle of an active political debate about devolution of powers to a Scottish parliament and questions about how the new Regions would fit with a Scottish parliament. The title of my paper - “What sort of Overgovernment?” – was trying to suggest that a more profound issue was how those with power treated the powerless.
[7] Leadership was all the rage in management books – but the best book, for me, remains The Leaders we deserve Alaister Mant (Blackwell 1985).
[8] Now known as “social exclusion”
[9] The first 2 major articles (10,000 words apiece on multiple deprivation and how to tackle it; and second on the different strands of community development!) appeared in Social Work Today in November 1976 and February 1977 - thanks to the perspective of its new editor Des Wilson whose “Cathy come Home” documentary had exposed the scale of homelessness in UK. In both pieces, I showed the importance of “policy framing”. The second paper was subsequently reproduced in the book Readings in Community Development ed Thomas
[10] Influenced by people such as Fred Emery and Trist – and Walter Bion

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