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, 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.

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