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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, March 29, 2011

The mask of reform


A rereading of yesterday’s questions for a Skype discussion today was quite salutary – particularly the first one – “What were the forces which helped reform the state system of the various EU member countries?” Talk about begging the question! In what sense can we actually say the British or French state system has actually reformed in the past 40 years – let alone in a “better” direction?? Of course the rhetoric of reform is in place – which it certainly wasn’t 40 years ago. I vividly remember the writing of organisational analysts such as Charles Lindblom in the 1970s who invented phrases such as “disjointed incrementalism” to demonstrate the impossibility of modern public oganisations being able to change radically. Suddenly in the late 1980s, the language changed and everything seemed possible – “Total Quality Management” was a typical phrase. Thatcher has a lot to answer for – in creating the illusion that private management (concepts and people) had the answer. And, perversely, the greater the chaos it caused, the greater the need for management.
After several waves of major public sector reforms in Britain, a lot of people would say that things have gone backward – or, more nuanced, that any improvements are down to technological and financial rather than managerial developments. And “managerial” covers elements of both macro structures (like Agencies) and management hierarchy and behaviour - which has certainly got worse as the ethic of public service has disappeared. But who is best placed to make such judgements? Using what criteria? Do we rely on public surveys? But survey work is so profoundly influenced by the sorts of questions asked – and interpretations. Politicians, managers and professionals all have their vested interest in the stance they take – although the older “coalface” professional is perhaps in the best position to judge.
We have a lot of comparative indicators these days about both individual public services (France regularly tops the league tables for health; Finland for education) and governance systems. But they don’t seem to have much link with the experiences of ordinary people. This is where the efforts of a small journal like Scottish Review are so important – in putting spotlight on the greed and incompetence of leaders of public services in Scotland. Today its indefatigable editor watched the behaviour of the 2 most senior people of Glasgow University (my alma mater) during a at a public meeting of students trying to understand the heavy-handed police raid (which included a helicopter) on students occupying a building. Last Tuesday, 15 students were occupying the Hetherington Club, the police despatched to the scene between 40 and 80 officers (the number varies from account to account), up to 18 vehicles and the Strathclyde helicopter. As Kenneth Roy writes "What was all that about? The police made themselves look more than a little foolish". A combination of education and media exposure has made the british public lose its traditional deference to those with authority. But increasingly those in public positions are exposed for lacking the basic character (let alone competence)for the job. And, increasingly, managerialism (and the salaries which go to the top echelons)seems to be at the root of the problem. I therefore return to the question I posed in my 2006 paper to the NISPAcee Conference - how can those of us who come from such culture dare to give advise to those struggling in "transition" countries? And should these countries bother anyway about transition to such systems? They were in the neo-liberal heaven (everything for sale) long before us - in the mid 1990s when their taxation systems collapsed and their elites realised what a great legitimisation for their corruption the new Western Weltanschaung gave them!
Either the University Principal knew and approved what was about to happen, in which case he showed extremely poor judgement; or he was unaware of the invitation to the police until the helicopter was buzzing overhead, in which case he had lost control of his own staff. Either way there is an issue of personal responsibility. In the meeting in Bute Hall, we saw a microcosm of the more general failings of Scottish public life: the largely meaningless incantation of a duty of care; the feebleness of non-executives even, as in this case, an elected one; the reluctance of those in power to acknowledge their own errors; the tendency in a crisis to consolidate the crumbling position of the strong while failing to protect the vulnerable; the absence of wit and forensic ability

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