Think-tanks enjoy a mixed reputation – originating in the USA where, for the most part, they have become little more than lobbyists for big money and being increasingly seen in the UK as part of an unrepresentative social elite which exercises too much influence over current policy debates and supplies too many of the country’s politicians. Far from bridging the gap between academia and government, they are often seen in the UK as undermining democracy. A good (and more objective) paper on the patterns and traditions in various countries was recently published as part of an exchange with China.
For those, however, like myself in the international consultancy business, British think-tanks and their reports have been a god-send in the past decade or so. Well-written and comprehensive in their analyses and data (increasingly comparative), they have allowed us to pontificate with authority in places such as Baku, Bishkek, Sofia and Tashkent about the latest experiences with improving public management. Academic texts are so boring and out-of-date compared with the endless flow of pamphlets from the Think-Tanks.
Look for example at this 2007 report on Innovations in Government – an international perspective on civil service reform produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research – a centrist British think tank. Or this 2009 review of the state of the British Civil Service produced by the independent British Institute for Government which also recently published a fascinating case-study of the failure of the UK’s Centre for Management and Policy Studies 1999-2005 which had been (for about 20 years) the Civil Service College and which transmogrified after 2005 into the National School of Government – before itself being abolished this year. The failure of the shortly-lived CMPS is attributable , in the report, to –
- confusion about the main role of the Centre – policy or management focus
- inappropriate (academic) leadership
- loss of Prime Ministerial interest
- the number of other parallel initiatives
British government has, of course, become notorious for its non-stop programmatic,policy and institutional changes. New Labour launched a blitzkrieg on the administrative machine with its Modernising Government programmeof 1999 – an official output of which you can find here.
Right now I’m not sure where you can find the coolest assessment of the lessons from a decade’s frenetic energy of targets, increased choice, organisational and personnel change.
But one thing is clear – political discontent with civil service performance is as great as it ever was – and in June the UK government announced its reform plan for the civil service accompanied by a powerpoint presentation. A useful independent website on the British Civil Service has provided a useful summary. The plan was the subject of a fairly positive Institute of Government assessment.
And this week the Government has also announced a short study into lessons from other civil service systems