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, November 14, 2009

organisational narcissism

One of the issues which has puzzled me is the enormous gap between the rhetoric of management books and the organisational reality experienced by both staff and consumers. I found some answers recently in a book which came out a few years backs by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin - The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (2004). Between 1988 and 1994, Zuboff used acaemic funding “to follow a group of visionary top managers and watched each one fall prey to corporate politics (which she compares to the 18th century French court), self-interested boards and the whims of financial analysts reacting to short-term fluctuations in a company's earnings"
For Zuboff, managerial capitalism was so successful because it focused inward on the production of products. Henry Ford’s staff wanted product differentiation for the rich consumers who were able to buy cars – Ford saw the potential of economies of scale in offering only one product. The new system created great wealth but it also allowed the development of layers of management. “Organisational narcissism” is the result. Management sits at the centre of this universe and we are on the outer rim of the solar system. We are treated as transactions; we are made to conform to the rules of the organisation. We are treated with indifference and contempt both as employee and as consumer (which is seen as weak and feminine – “production” is the word and the world which matters!)
An early section of the book spells out the nature and implications of the new society of individuals the new-found wealth and technology has created - complex people who want to take control of their lives and whose needs, the authors argue, can best be described in relation to “sanctuary", "voice" and "connection". These new people have outgrown the old organisations which remain rooted in their inward product focus ("dynamic conservatism" was the wonderful phrase used by Donald Schon almost 40 years ago).
This has created a chasm or “transaction gap” between new people and old organisations. A powerful chapter of the book shows the failure of the various “waves of the future” which have swept companies in the last 2 decades – reengineering, quality management, relationship management etc The basic DNA of the “standard enterprise logic” overwhelmed them all and made consumers and staff alike even more alienated. A very powerful case she describes is that of an airline official in Rome who made it her business to "go the extra mile" but was unable to continue this by the combination of new central diktats and superior disapproval. All too often, the new systems and technologies seem basically to allow more aggressive and intrusive marketing.
“The Support Economy” tries to map out a different system – called “distributed capitalism” in which the individual (thanks to the internet) is at the centre of the universe. Eleven principles are set out – in rather obscure language, it must be said. The essence of business is to supply us – through a system of federations - with levels of support that will allow us to live our lives the way we want to live them. The providers of support will be our advocates acting as intermediaries between us and the supply federations.
This part of the argument is not as convincing – indeed the language becomes very abstract and esoteric. I also missed any references to Richard Semmler - whose Semco company tears up the management books. Companies which remain private (ie not quoted on the stock exchanges) or which are cooperatives have, presumably, more hope. Zuboff does not address this critical issue. And a minority of change endeavours do succeed – that is clearly shown in the chapter which rightly points to the general failure of the various expensive management fads and fashions of the past decades. So, clearly, if preconditions and leadership are right, change does work. Surely that is the area we should be focusing on?

What are the implications of these arguments for those involved in the reform of government systems? After all, most government reforms (certainly advice from management consultants) of the past 2 decades have been based on the assumption of the effectiveness of private management and the positive lessons which are contained in quality management, performance management etc. At one extreme, people could argue that the public sector is better placed to make a success of these ideas – since it does not have the poisonous framework of boards and shareholders expecting short-term profit. But the behaviour of ruling politicians is more and more similar to that myopic framework – and, of course, it has always been more difficult in the public sector to develop measures of performance which (a) can be agreed and (b) don’t cause counter-productive reactions (see....).

British government offers an object lesson in what not to do – control things from the centre. “Strong” local government is needed – with electoral and dialogue systems which enforce prior consultation and debate. Independent foundations should carry out the comparative assessments which act as a spur to initiative. Neither officials nor politicians can be relied upon to work for the public good – rather do we need an understanding that professional associations, voluntary groups, parties and officials are four groups with different interests and perspectives between which a balance can and should be struck.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

the scandinavian contribution

The Scandinavian contribution to public administration - at both a practical and theoretical level - is under-estimated.
Sweden, for example, pioneered Agencies and the Ombudsman.
Norway's distinctive take can be seen in the book co-authored by Tom Christensen in 2007 Organisation for the public sector – instrument, culture and myth
And Scandinavian countries as a whole blazed a trail in the lid 1980s with their “free commune experiment” – whereby municipalities were invited to make bids for being freed (on a pilot basis) from central controls. The process was monitored and evaluated and, if judged successful, led to legal changes. A real example of pilot work! Google, interestingly, hardly recognises it - so few people now will remember it. Talk about loss of institutional memory!! And in 2004, the Norwegian parliament instituted the most rigorous review of the state of democracy in their country the world has ever seen. Good article on its findings and recommendations here.

Jon Pierre is a prolific and clear write who is a contributor to Gothenburg University’s fairly new Institute on Quality of Government whose papers can be accessed here. I visited the political science people there in the late 1980s to learn about the Scandinavian “free communes experiment” and had a very friendly and lively reception as a local political reformer from another Scandinavian country. After our formal discussions, their Prof (could it have been Pierre??) took me to a night club whose bouncers took exception to a piece of dust on my coat. When the nearby police were called, I presented them with a rose which I happened to be carrying. The police were not amused – and I will never forget the frisson of recognition I had then about state totalitarianism!
The Institute papers focus on the classic values – and how they have been affected by the new public management. Trust and corruption, for example, figure in their papers. See an example here One of the recent paper by Pierre deals with the crucial issue of how the legal tradition can be reconciled with the new logic of markets -
If we accept the argument that public-sector organizations operate according to a different logic, with a multitude of objectives and with a different organizational structure and leadership compared to for-profit organizations or NGOs then it is only logical to argue that there are, or should be, rather distinct limits to what the public sector can learn from for-profit organizations (Christensen et al., 2007). If we furthermore agree with Suleiman (2003) that the public administration, and indeed the public sector as a whole, is an integral part of democratic governance, it becomes even more obvious that standards and benchmarks from the corporate world really have rather to little to offer when it comes to assess the quality of public-sector organizations. Yet, the normative point of departure of NPM was to deny any specificity of the public sector. Public management, to the extent that there was any managerial thinking, was arcane and had not adopted modern corporate philosophies. Indeed, management was believed to be a “generic” organizational task; there do not exist any significant differences between managing public or private organizations (Peters, 2001
The same philosophy was applied to reform of organizational structure, to performance measurement, to customer-provider exchanges, to efficiency improvements, and to organizational leadership and managerial autonomy. Reform only saw one of the two faces of public administration and forgot, or ignored, or circumvented, legality and the role of the public bureaucracy in enforcing the law and ensuring legal security and protection. Today, we seem to be at an impasse where the legal nature of public administration can no longer be ignored or circumvented by administrative reform, yet the architects of reform have few ideas about how to deal with legality or what could replace it. Therefore, we need to think carefully about what legality means to public administration, the extent to which is a critical feature of a public bureaucracy and the extent to which NPM, in various guises, is compatible with legality, transparency, due process, predictability and a public service ethos
The reference to Suleiman is a fascinating 2003 book about the implications of recent administrative reform – with the provocative title - Dismantling Democratic States

Friday, November 6, 2009

making sense of public sector reform

A decade ago, I had a few months to prepare for a major new assignment in central Asia – which turned into a 7 year spell in that part of the world. I used those few months to write a small book about what I thought I knew about my discipline. Some of the chapters of that book are “key papers” one, six and thirteen on my website. And what I think I learned from those 7 years is reflected in key paper 3.
Now I face another new continent – and am trying to do the same thing. Perhaps not a book – but a series of reflections. When you’re in the middle of an assignment working with a beneficiary, you have to be very practical. The last thing you want is an academic article. But – between assignments – academic journals can give you perspective; help you catch up with changing fashions (“skirt lines are falling this year”); and brief you on development in countries about which you know little.
My language and background is English/UK – so US and Commonwealth developments in public management have been easier to follow in the international journals than French and German. Low country and Scandinavian writers are more comfortable in English and their developments have, therefore, been easier to follow.
Even so, it’s obvious from looking at the back numbers of the UK journal Public Administration, for example, that I’ve missed a lot of useful writing about European developments recently. A particularly useful issue was one on traditions of government – and how they’ve changed recently under the onslaught of NPM.
The UK authors I’ve found useful are Hood, Pollitt, Stoker and Talbot (academic) and Mulgan and Peri6 (think-tanks) Today I found another - Martin Evans'Policy transfer in a global age
All countries, of course, are different - in their values, traditions and structures (see de Hofstede and Trompenaars for more) but the UK is quite exceptional in the ease (speed and extent) with which it can and does change its systems.
For the past 30 years, the country seems to have been in a never-ending process of administrative change.
It's easier to explain the "how" than the "why" of this . Despite the setting up in 1999 of a Scottish parliament and government, the country remains centralised in the worst sense of the word (it was a Conservative Minister who called the system "an elective dictatorship" – and that was in 1976 before the Thatcher and Blair regimes). What this means is that there is no effective political, ethical, social or intellectual force left to challenge the foibles of the executive. Charter 88 recognised this truth long before the rest of us – but it still seems too intellectual a point. Other countries have coalitions and constitutions to deal with.
Margaret Thatcher thought that markets were the answer - New Labour think central managers are. Although Newlabour is right-wing in its economic approach, it has compensated by the Stalinism of its social and organisational interventions. For all the talk in the 1990s of a third way, of partnerships and networks, NewLabour has not begun to understand what an organic approach to administrative change might look like. The Cabinet strategy unit has basically given rulers a new vocabulory of progressive words to use - behind which hides the old leviathan.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

some recent material on UK reform

In June, the UK Parliament's Select Committee on Public Administration published an interesting report on Good Government - complete with a separate 250 page Annex with all the exchanges they had with those who gave evidence and many of the papers which were submitted. This Committee - chaired by Tony Wright - is always good value for money - and this report reflects the thinking it has done on a variety of issues over the past 10 years. To read them, see here and here
The Annex put me on to various bodies and papers I’ve missed - such as the Institute for Government which has a useful survey of the British experience of performance management and attitudes of civil servants and local government officials to the system -

The Select Committee Report makes a simple recommendation in line with a recent pamphlet which recommended an abolition of the entire control regime which has grown up in Britain over the past 2 decades. Its title - Leading from the Front- reflects its basic argument that power should be returned to the front-line professionals - and the Stalinist measurement and control infrastructure should be dismantled. Unfortunately we have sold this model back to the central europeans. I found the monitoring culture of the young pubic manager here in Romania quite frightening...

The Institute for Government site also referred me to another useful toolkit produced by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) - on organisational development and its various tools -

And finally a Bertelsmann Foundation venture - comparing ("benchmarking") various countries on social and institutional issues. Very thought provoking - 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

reinventing public administration

Jules FeifferIn my other blog, I suggested some months back that the time was overdue for a reappraisal of public administration - and of what we have learned from all the reforms of the past few decades.
I recently discovered that the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain has set up a Public Service Trust which is encouraging just such a dialogue - which, it promises, will bring together practitioner and academic perspectives. It has published a couple of papers which you can find on its website - One is on the history of the UK reform - and the other on drivers of change.
Two things, however, make me rather suspicious of the venture. First one of the major funders is a large consultancy company - Ernest and Young. Second, its chairman is a banker! Such people should be in sackcloth and ashes in monasteries - not daring to tell us how to reform our public services!!
And my first skim of the "history" documents confirm my scepticism - it makes the fashionable suggestion that we need a "holistic" approach but then says nothing in its 65 pages to say what that might mean. And the "history" is the sort which a first year university undergraduate with no practical experience would write.
The only benefit I got from reading the document was a reminder of how fatuous the 2008 UK government strategy document of reform was. You can find it here
For those of you who want to know more of the reform experience in other administrative traditions have a look at Transcending new public management - the transformation of public sector reforms; T Christensen and Per Laegreid (2007). The book covers some of the Scandinavian experience – who always bring a freshness to the subject. I wonder why that is!
For some insights into the French and German experience see State and local government reforms in France and Germany: divergence and similarities; By Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, Hellmut Wollmann

Please note that I've updated the list of googlebook references - in the "key papers" part of my website
Another interesting paper I've just downloaded focuses on the more limited field of civil service reform - and what international experience tells us. It's produced by the British thinktank IPPR and is available on their website - or, as a short-cut,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

modern satire

I made a recent comment about how powerful an educational tool satire can be. The comment arose from my reading of Democratic Audit’s recent spoof - The Unwritten Constitution – which purported to be a draft constitution for the UK prepared by a civil servant (complete with some memos). On the basis that the document should be a formalisation of present practices, the draft mercilessly exposes the iniquitous system that is the British political system. You can find it at -

But the best satirical piece on the British system remains, for me, Anthony Jay’s priceless “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” which is some "tongue in cheek" advice from the retiring Sir Humphrey (of the famous BBC TV series "Yes Minister") to the guy we knew in the series as innocent young Bernard who, some decades later, inherits his position. Written some ten years ago, it exposes in some 6 pages all the mechanisms which ensure that politicians never challenge systems of privilege. You can access it from my website only!

And today I came across another short spoof which I can add to my library – an apparent leak of a first draft EU Directive on standards for literature. This is so well written (and so plausible) it took us some time to conclude that it was in fact a satire! Perhaps, however, it was real – and the leak killed the idea?? See for yourself at http://www.eurozine.com/pdf/2005-10-03-spiro-en.pdf

The other good modern satire I know is Susan George’s The Lugano Report – which seems to be a confidential paper prepared for some multinational businesses on the major global threats and how they might cope with them. http://books.google.com/books?q=lugano+report&btnG=Search+Books&uid=9404005052714784916 By the way, this link allows you to access the entire stock of my googlelibrary (650 books!)

I’ve spent some time in the last couple of days downloading articles from Wiley journals which are on a special free access. There are almost 2,000 journals in their stable – and many show the problems of over-specialisation. As I said in my other blog a month or so back, the British Public Administration journal seems to have fallen into the hands of post-modernists and is rapidly becoming the home of gibberish. Its US colleague - Public Administration Review – offers much better writing (although recent issues also seem to show some deterioration).
Government and Opposition remains one of the best examples of clear writing.
Governance is also interesting.