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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!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cowboys, bodyshops and backbone


I’m on the home strait now for the paper I shall be presenting (insallah) to the Conference of the Network of Institutes of Schools of Public Administration in Central and East Europe (NISPACee) on the Black Sea coast here in Varna 19-22 May. It’s now in two parts – with the first part dealing with the EC’s recent attempt (The Backbone strategy) to make its Technical Assistance more effective. The second part explores the absence of any theoretical basis to its institution-building efforts in those countries with regimes which share the feature I have decided to call “impervious power”. In 2006 I had made a critique at the same Conference which was mainly concerned with the procedural aspects of how the EC found experts for its institution-building work in “transition” countries – but which ended by suggesting that neither the EC nor the experts really had much of a clue about the process of administrative reform in such contexts. This new paper is a much more solid version which takes account of what the EC itself has been doing in the intervening period to sharpen up its act – what it calls its Backbone strategy.
I find it significant that that 2008 strategy failed to give any analysis of the commercial companies and the (freelance) consultants on which the entire multi-billion euros EC system of Technical Assistance hinges. Companies (but not experts) are scrutinised by the EC before they are allowed to tender but only for the volume of their business – not for the quality of their work. The result is that many „cowboy” companies are in operation – who skilfully manipulate the rather simple evaluation system used for the competition for projects. There are two basic tricks. The first is to have a few excellent project writers at HQ – and to name as experts high-quality people who just happen to be ill when it comes to taking up their appointment! The second is to slip a few thousand euros into the hands of some locals.
And, as far as experts are concerned, the only thing that counts for companies is the extent to which the experience shown in the CV matches the particular job requirements. The quality of the work done by the experts in the past is irrelevant. During my 20 years in this game, a company has interviewed me just once - BMB Arcadis (now Mott MacDonald).
Working on this paper has made me realise that the continuity which capacity development requires cannot be provided by a procurement system which tries to carve knowledge and skills into commodifiable products and which allows in companies which are little more than "body-shops". Profit-oriented companies simply take the money and run. I can name the number of companies who have a serious interest in knowledge development and transfer on the fingers of one hand. And twinning isn’t the answer – nor the latest wheeze of „south-to-south” institutional links.
The Americans have an interesting model which has allowed a high-quality think-tank (The Urban Institute) to win a long-term contract within which it has the flexibility to negotiate adjustments from time to time.
The sketch is by Alexander Bozhinov whose house next door here in the heart of Sofia is still kept in his memory

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