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!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Structures, systems and skills - demand and supply again

As I said, I had a dream about deliberative structures - which got me thinking about the various mechanisms which those in think-tanks and consultancies have pushed on unsuspecting governments in the past few decades – both in developed and transition countries. But let me start with the dream - which took me back to two periods in my political life. First – 40 years ago (!!) – when I was operating in a highly charged atmosphere of political conflict with a group of Liberal councillors who had just wrested power from the Labour establishment which had ruled a small shipbuilding town for about 25 years. At the age of 26 years I had been elected (in a bye-election) to represent a poor part of the town – and, facing a re-election within 12 months, had to forge a distinctive identity for myself before I faced again the 4,000 odd voters of the “ward” I had been elected to. (There were 9 such wards – each with 3 councillors - one of whom was subject to election each year. The system was discontinued in 1974 and – with all the current concern about democracy – its restoration might perhaps be considered). It was 1968 and not surprising that the distinguishing feature I developed was a strong participative (and community action) impulse which threatened not only the Liberals but my own political colleagues. But, within three years, I had managed to manoeuvre myself to the Chairmanship of an important new committee (Social Work) which was a joint one with a neighbouring town still within Labour control. The Social Work legislation passed for Scotland by the Wilson Labour Government of 1964-70 invited these new committees to “promote social welfare” and I was therefore able to use that position to develop community conference processes.
That stood me in very good stead a few years later when a giant new Region was formed – and the reputation I had gained propelled me to a central position in the new ruling Labour group.
Section 3.4 of this paper on my website describes how some of us quickly invented an inclusive process of policy deliberation. I was quite hostile to the committee structure which was then the mechanism used for political decision-making. I saw and called it strongly as a front for officer power. Our new system (called “member-officer groups”) embraced members of the opposition parties and junior officials – and the groups were invited to look critically at services which fell between the cracks of departments. Our experience attracted wide interest and was in the vanguard of a wider rethink about the process of decision-making in local government which took place more than a decade later in England – which culminated in legislation encouraging municipalities to set up cabinets and a directly-elected mayoral system. A good picture of this can be found here.

This experience gave me an insight into the role of various stakeholders – ruling party, opposition, senior officers, junior officials, citizens – which few consultants are lucky enough to obtain. It showed me how the structures we use so often pervert the potential insights each of these parties possess (one of the reasons perhaps to explain why I am disposed to the “balance” theory I offered recently). There had to be a better way of making decisions!

When I was a politician, I put the emphasis on new structures – but my more recent experience helps me understand that structures are only part of the picture. A lot of recent technical assistance in which I am involved has required the drafting of (and training in) policy analysis processes and skills - but these are not much use if they are inputed to a political process which does not operate on “rational” lines (I put this word in inverted commas simply because politics at its best has its own rationality from that of the pretensions of administrative rationality!). Effective technical assistance (TA) should to be based on a systems philosophy – bit is trapped in a project management (logframe) ideology. Of course the latter is supposed to be firmly based in the former – but never is! A nod is given in the drafting of Terms of Reference to “General and specific objectives”; but the role of the project in achieving the objective (and the other factors influencing policy outcomes) are never discussed).

A real systems approach to policy analysis in TA would (a) craft a map of the entire system – in this case
• The locus and system (formal and informal) of policy analysis and proposals
• The structure and protocols (formal and informal) of decision-taking
• The interaction between the two

And then (b) demonstrate exactly how the selected mechanism (new or amended structure, process or legal regulation; training etc) could act as a catalyst for positive change.

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