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 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
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The reference to Suleiman is a fascinating 2003 book about the implications of recent administrative reform – with the provocative title - Dismantling Democratic States

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