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!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Part VIII - All you need to know about capacity development and administrative reform in 5 easy stages

My initial feeling after yesterday’s attempt to summarise the previous week’s thoughts about training in this part of the world was one of quiet satisfaction. I felt I had made a coherent and reasonable summary – all the better for having started, I felt, with the short (and memorable?) statement about “wrong focus and theory"; "context"; and "leadership”. I had made the link not only with the capacity development literature but also with the (very different and more academic) literature which has been following administrative reform in ex-communist countries. I had given a practical example which had come to me as I was wrestling with the question of how one was supposed to make any progress in regimes I had designated, in my paper at this year’s NISPAcee Conference, “impervious regimes” (impervious, that is, to public opinion). And I ended with a word of advice to those who head the various Training Institutes for public servants in the Region – effectively “courage, mon vieux, think big and reach out” – but had also recognised how difficult such cooperation is in the Region. My next step, I felt, was to look at examples of how individuals have achieved in the face of such difficulties and write an inspiring piece around that – drawing on the burgeoning literature of social innovation.

But I hadn’t quite finished with capacity development – after all this was the basic framework which, I had argued, all interventions to improve public services in the Region should have. True, Bulgaria and Romania are exceptional in having Administrative capacity as one of the strands for their Structural Funds – but most new member states would readily agree they have a long way to go before their state bodies are operating as well as they might wish. What, I wondered, does the capacity development literature say about the process of building administrative capacity? Is it different from what the literature of public management (with which I am more familiar) has been saying?

It is at this point that alarm bells started to ring in my head. One of the important points in my NISPAcee paper was that we have a lot of different disciplines looking at the same issues from different perspectives (which is fine), with different names (eg state-building; fragile states; administrative reform; anti-corruption; capacity development; democracy assistance) and each apparently oblivious to and/or careless about the other disciplines(which is not fine). Was this perhaps simply an example of different people coming to the same conclusion using different words? Was it all verbal gymnastics? I began to think so when I stumbled across a free download Deconstructing Development Discourse – buzzwords and fuzzwords which was published in 2010 by Oxfam and which makes a nice complement to my Just Words – a sceptic’s glossary
But, as I puzzled over the two approaches, I began to see some interesting differences. Bear with me as I try to explore some of them.

Those who have been writing about capacity development for the past 2 decades (but particularly in the last 5 years since OECD got into the act) seem to be in the development field and working in NGOs, International bodies or development think tanks. They draw from (and try to contribute to) field experiences. I discovered a good history about capacity development only this morning – written as far back as 1997. Its concerns and focus seem to have been social - rather than institutional - development. Peter Morgan is the most coherent writer on the subject and has an excellent paper here on it. There is an excellent learning network for capacity development which published in January a very useful paper which spells out in details what the approach means in practice . I get the sense that it is change management for social development people. That is to say, they emphasise context and process - the HOW and say llittle about the WHAT.

Those who write about administrative reform focus, on the other hand and by definition, on state bodies rather than social groups (although the anti-corruption literature considers social groups critical); are usually from academia; draw on the classic literature of public administration, management and (to a lesser extent) public choice theory. They are (with the exception of the latter school) more voyeurs than actors. One of the top names is Chris Pollitt whose recent paper Thirty Years of Public Management reform – has there been a pattern? gives an excellent flavour of the topic.
An obvious question then is - If the key writers are voyeurs, who has been behind the explosion of adminisitrative reform of the past 30 years which Pollitt is writing about? The answer would seem to be practitioners, government units and consultancy companies – some of whom have subsequently written up good experiences as models of good practice. The key books are generally American eg the one which started it all off in 1992 - Reinventing Government (see also here for update on its influence in UK) - but also Mark Moore’s Public value. However the main proselytiser of change over the past 20 years has been the OECD Secretariat based in Paris – as Professor Leslie Pal has well described in this paper; a sequel he presented to this year’s NISPAcee Conference; and chapter three of this book. The significance of this is that there is, perhaps, underneath the technical words, an ideological agenda – shrinking the state. Certainly one writer suggests today there is.
At a practical level, the European Institute of Public Administration published an interesting overview of reform efforts recently - Taking the pulse of European Public Administration

So far, so good…..Give me time to look at these various references in more detail and come back to you on the question of the relationship between the two bodies of work. Clearly the latter body of work focuses more on the WHAT than the HOW - and is indeed as guilty as management generally of fads and fashions. At the moment the capacity development stream seems to be the more thoughtful…..

Culture cornerFor those who think I have been neglecting my cultural activities, let me assure that I have not been. On Tuesday I paid an interesting visit to the imposing edifice which houses the National Bank of Bulgaria – to see whether I could access their painting collection. I knew they had one because the Classica Gallery I had visited last week had a beautiful catalogue from the bank which had celebrated its 130 years with 130 superb reproductions from its collection of Bulgarian painters. You ascend a formidable flight of stairs, passing a guard and entering what I could only designate as an alternative cathedral – a design on a scale calculated to put you in awe of those who manage money! Ironically, there seemed to be an exhibition about the euro! I was met with some bemusement by the staff – but, after a wait, I was rewarded with a complementary copy of the catalogue but told that the paintings regretfully were not on public display.

The It’s About Time blog continues to delight - with its rediscoveries of (to us) unknown European (women) painters from the early part of the last century generally – for example a Finn/Belge Helene Schjerbeck and Lotte Laserstein.
And BBC’s Through the Night continues to excel – for example the Romania Radio Concert Orchestra playing Sarasate, Pablo de [1844-1908] Zigeunerweisen for violin and orchestra (Op.20) (you have to move the timing to 4 hours 20 minutes to get the piece – and only for another 5 days!)
For those intrigued by the title (changed from this morning's rather negative one), I am experimenting since I see that I have not so many hits today - and yet it is, for my money, one of the most useful posts for some time (with all these references). I still don't understand what we need to do to get more hits - people tell me I should twitter - but I don't have a good voice. So I'm now trying a more positive title - with some key words.
And the painting is heavily symbolic - Moutafov's "Rescue at Sea" from the National Bank's collection - and chosen with cunning reference to British political philospher Michael Oakeshott's famous metaphor of politics/government as a sea journey. The rescuers are, of course, the consultants. You certainly get your money's worth on this station!

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