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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!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reflections on an intellectual network

NISPAcee has played an interesting role in monitoring and encouraging institution-building in central and eastern europe these last 18 years. Funded initially by the Ford Foundation and by the Pew Charitable Trust; then by SIGMA, LGI Soros (even The World Bank I think at one stage),its Quarterly Newsletter, annual Conferences and publications have been an important resource for those interested in administrative reform in the countries which moved out of the communist embrace in 1989. The Conference is very much a showcase – more than a hundred papers were presented – ie half of those attending were presenting. This leaves little time for thematic exploration – although hopefully the older working groups (civil service reform; and local government) manage a bit more of this. Any dialogue has therefore to take place elsewhere. And the presentations are predominantly academic – as befits an organisation which has defined itself in scholastic terms. I find it a shame that the important concern for analytical rigour is assumed to require obeisance to the narrow and soul-destroying standards of modern academia.
Of course, most authors are writing in a foreign language (English) – and feel it necessary to use all the jargon of new public management. It is the younger people who attend the Conference (they have the language) and, at this early stage in their career, it is difficult (both intellectually and politically) for them to challenge the concepts. It is a pity the Conference cannot attract more older practitioners (from both East and West) who could not only have useful exchanges between themselves – but also challenge the conventional wisdom of the theorists (and the OECD). Of course OECD itself convenes sessions with senior officials on these issues – but they are restricted events.
The theme of the Conference was supposed to be Public Administration of the Future – but got lost a bit in the proliferation of papers and working groups and rather passed me by, distracted as I was by my own presentation. I did, however, catch a panel discussion on the American perspective whose 4 wizened members, understandably, did not seem to be able to move away from the job haemmorrage which is taking place there in the public sector generally and also in university. One of the few interesting comments made by the panel was that American Public Admin scholars have traditionally had a strong link with government practice – and that this was perhaps something which should be taken up by central and east european PA scholars. Certainly it is not very evident in West Europe

As I write this in an empty Sofia (yet another 2 day pubic holiday!) I am listening to the great World Music programme and heard some very touching harp and vocals from the Scottish bard, Robin Williamson, who many decades ago was part of The Incredible String band. It can be heard for the next 4 days here - you’ll find it about half way through.
NISPAcee is at a bit of a crossroads – not least because a major source of funding dries up shortly. In 2007/2008, it carried out a major strategic review and produced a strategy for 2009-12 from which I have pulled this mission statement
The strategic goals of NISPAcee are to:
• define itself as a network-oriented organisation towards the improvement of PA education and training standards in the region
• provide an orientation in multi- and trans-disciplinarity in curriculum development of PA programmes, paying special attention to the connection to, for example, sociology, developmental studies, etc.
• transform itself as a research organisation increasingly oriented towards public administration reforms, and problems of significant importance and high priority in the modernisation of public administrative systems
• measure up to international standards of research and to be competitive with Western Europe and the US
• strengthen the relationship between research, education and consultancy,
• strengthen the role of a bridge between academia and practice, inside the NISPAcee region and between the NISPAcee region and the Euro-Atlantic world.
My only comment (as a sympathetic outsider who only recently took out individual membership) is that there is not much evidence of the strengthening of the relationship with consultancy; and I would love to see the evidence for success in building a wider curriculum. Although quite how relevant that is for undergraduates I doubt. It is by no means obvious that PA graduates are any better recruits to state bodies than others; indeed some would argue that the breadth of their studies makes them intellectually less suitable! Of course the French ENA tradition has had an influence on the region on this point - but I could never understand how, for example, the Presidential Academy of PA in Azerbaijan could justify its existence when virtually none of its graduates were subsequently recruited to state bodies!
Romania is in the Francophone area of influence and inherits its intellectual tradition. Its National Political Studies and Public Admin was strongly represented at the Conference (just down the road) and their papers were quite incredible in their remoteness from reality.
There were some moments at the Conference when its potential was evident - such a range of countries (Afghanistan made its first appearance with quite a strong delegation) and mix of ages and disciplinary interests. But the potential is not being focussed.

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