I’ve written before about my search for the holy grail and it was in that spirit that I was eager to read Colin Talbot’s latest book onTheories of Performance – organisational and service improvement in the public sector which, hot off the press, winged its way to me this week. Although an academic, he does consultancy, writes in a clear and stimulating way about public management, makes no secret of his youthful Marxism (indeed Trotskysm) and has a blogIt was therefore with some impatience that I galloped through the book and now pause to make sense of it. It is indeed an impressive tour de force – which surveys both the very extensive academic literature and also the global government endeavours in this field over the past few decades. As befits an academic, he roots his contribution conceptually before moving on to survey the field – and this is an important contribution in what is all too often a shamefully theoretically-lite field. For the first time I read a reasonably analytical treatment of the various quality measures which have developed in the last decade such as The Common Assessment Framework. His references to the literature are invaluable (I have, for example, now two new acronyms to set against NPM – PSM (public service motivationand new PSL – public service leadership
I am also grateful to him for introduction to the concept of clumsy solutions – which uses culture theory to help develop a better way of dealing with public problems.
On the downside, however, I found the basic focus frustrating – I had hoped (the title notwithstanding) that it would be on the senior manager charged to make things happen. After all, his equally academic colleague Chris Pollit gave us The Essential Public Manager– so it would be nice to have someone with Talbot’s experience, reading and coherence write something for senior managers – and for different cultures. Those trying to design improvement systems in Germany, Romania, China, Estonia, Scotland and France, for example, all confront very different contexts.
And, despite, his introductory references to his consultancy work, the few references he makes are apologetic ("it's not research"). I appreciated his critical comments about the suggestions about gaming responses to the target regime – but was disappointed to find no reference to Gerry Stoker’s important article about the deficiencies of New Labour’s target regime; a paragraph about Michael Barber’s Deliverology book which gives no sense of the dubious assumptions behind his approach; and, finally, really surprised to find no reference to John Seddon’s systems critiques
However, it will (I am sure) quickly become the best book on the subject.