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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!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can political and academic leopards change their spots?


Tempus fugit! It's time already to think about a paper for the 2012 NISPAcee Conference - which,again, will be held nearby - at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.
The two previous papers I have presented at NISPAcee Conferences (in 2007 and 2010) were about the role of Technical Assistance in building the capacity of public bodies in transition countries. They basically argued that –
• Technical Assistance based on the logframe approach and competitive tendering is fatally flawed - assuming that a series of “products” procured by competitive company bidding for discrete projects can develop the sort of trust, networking and knowledge on which lasting change depends
• The EC's 2008 "Backbone Strategy" has not improved matters – the audit which led to the review was narrowly focused on procedural issues in the procurement process and the Backbone strategy continues with this bias.
• Few comparative and longitudinal studies have been carried out of administrative reform in transition countries – and in particular of the effectiveness of the various tools in the technical assistance cupboard of administrative reform. The myriad evaluations which the EC commissions of its institution building projects in the Region are formalistic and difficult to find – largely because of the commercial basis on which most technical assistance in this field is carried out.
• we are, to put it mildly, rather hypocritical in our expection that tools which we have not found easy to implement in our own countries will work in the more politicised contexts of East Europe and Central Asia.

At the 2012 Conference, I propose to elaborate the latter part of this critique; with respect to three issues -

a. Can the leopard change its spots?
One common thread in those few assessments which have faced honestly the crumbling of reform in the Region is the need to force the politicians to grow up and stop behaving like petulant and thieving magpies. Nick Manning and Sorin Ionitsa both emphasise the need for transparency and external pressures. Cardona and Tony Verheijen talk of the establishment of structures bringing politicians, officials, academics etc together to develop a consensus (see section 10.4 of this paper on my website). As Ionitsa put it succinctly –
The first openings must be made at the political level – the supply can be generated fairly rapidly, especially in ex-communist countries, with their well-educated manpower. But if the demand is lacking, then the supply will be irrelevant.
This seems to imply an emphasis on civil society and democratisation – rather than institutional development.

b. Over-specialisation and lack of dialogueDepartmental silos are one of the recurring themes in the literature of public administration and reform – but it is often academia which lies behind this problem with its overspecialisation. For example, “Fragile states” and “Statebuilding” are two new subject specialisms which have grown up only in the last few years – and “capacity development” has now become a more high-profile activity. But the specialists in these fields rarely talk to one another – not least because of the professional advantages in pretending that theirs is a new field, with new insights and skills.

c. The superficiality of public managementInstitutions grow – and noone really understands that process. Administrative reform has little basis in scientific evidence (See the 99 contradictory proverbs underlying it which Hood and Jackson identified in their (out of print) 1999 book. The discipline of public administration from which it springs is promiscuous in its multi-disciplinary borrowing; new public management (still alive and well) is based on a mixture of dubious managerialism and theoretical eccentricities. Traditional PA was at least aware of politics and history. Technocratic NPM denies both.

My ambitious proposal for the 2012 NISPAcee Conference is to present a paper which will explore these issues through–
• A literature review of comparative assessments of administrative reform in the Region – and of the experience and lessons of the specific tools used
• A tentative exploration of the basis and contribution of the various “disciplines” to our understanding of institutional development

The painting is of St Joan Church on Lake Ohrid - by the esteemed Bulgarian Atanas Mihov (1879-1974)

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