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!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why is public management so boring?

In the last three years I have apparently written almost 700 posts. The right-hand column indicates the most popular posts – alternately of past 7 or 30 days (less often of all time).
I wish I understood what this tells me about the interests and (internet) behaviour of my readers. And I get frustrated that what I consider good posts are rarely rated in these statistics. Democratic Discontents and A Citizen’s Bible are two good (and linked) examples. In the first (long) post two years ago I argued that, despite the number of publications on different aspects of British politics (many academic), there were extraordinarily few studies which actually dealt with the question of how well (or badly) the country is actually governed. I identified four such critical works - most written some years ago.
The second post (a year ago) was on similar lines but focused this time on the literature of public administration (or management) as its now called. There, of course, is revealed part of the problem - the compartmentalisation of knowledge and the amount of academic scribbling around narrow issues written not for the general public but to embellish academic reputations and careers.
For a proper understanding of how (well or badly) a government system is working you need to look at politicians AND officials and their interaction. Of course, you need to do more - you need to look at the interactions with the wider world - not least commercial and financial.
For those of you who haven't read my second post on the need for a rethink of the public management discipline, here it is again in full -
As both mainstream economics and psychology are undergoing major challenge and rethinks, it is time that the scholastic discipline of public management had this sort of overhaul and public examination.
The only popular book on the subject I can think of was Reinventing Government (1991) by David Osbourne and Ted Gaebler – which was, however, American and did not attempt an overview of the topic but rather proselytised for neo-liberalism.
Economics and psychology, of course, are subjects dear to the heart of everyone – and economists and psychologists figures of both power and ridicule. Poor old public administration and its experts are hardly in the same league! Not only does noone listen to them – the scholars are embarrassed to be caught even writing for a bureaucratic or political audience.
And yet the last two decades have seen ministries and governments everywhere embark on major upheavals of administrative and policy systems – the very stuff of public administration. But the role of the scholars has (unlike the 2 other disciplines) been simply to observe, calibrate and comment. No theory has been developed by scholars equivalent to the power of the "market”, "competitive equilibrium” or "the unconscious” – unless, that is, you count Weber’s "rational-legal bureaucracy” (1890s) or Robert Michels "iron law of oligarchy” (1911). Somehow Lindblom's "disjointed incrementalism" of the 1960s never caught on as a public phrase!
Those behind the marketising prescriptions of New Public Management (NPM) were not from the public admin stable – but rather from Public Choice Economics and from the OECD – and the role of PA scholars has been map its rise and apparent fall and (occasionally) to deflate its pretensions. At its best, this type of commentary and analysis is very useful – few have surpassed Chris Hood’s masterly dissection of NPM 20 years ago. This set out for the first time the basic features of (and arguments for) the disparate elements which had characterised the apparently ad-hoc series of measures seen in the previous 15 years in the UK, New Zealand and Australia – and then suggests that the underlying values of NPM (what he calls the sigma value of efficiency) are simply one of three clusters of administrative values – the other two being concerned with rectitude (theta value) and resilience (lamda value). Table 2 of the paper sets this out in more detail.
The trick (as with life) is to get the appropriate balance between these three. Any attempt to favour one at the expense of the others (NPM) will lead inevitably to reaction and is therefore unstable.
This emphasis on the importance of balance was the focus of a very good (but neglected) paper which Henry Mintzberg published in 2000 (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) about the Management of Government which starts with the assertion that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 but "the balanced model” ie a system in which there was some sort of balance between the power of commerce, the state and the citizen. Patently the balance has swung too far in the intervening 20 years!
Incidentally I see from Mintzbergs (rather disappointing) website that he is working on a book on this theme with the title Rebalancing Society; radical renewal beyond Smith and Marx. Mintzberg is a very sane voice in a mad world – ás is obvious from this article on managing quietly and his ten musings on management.
Hood elaborates on these three sets of values in the book he published at the same time with Michael Jackson - Administrative Argument (sadly out of print) - when he set out 99 (conflicting) proverbs used in organisational change.
In 2007, Russell Ackoff, the US strategic management guru, published a more folksy variant of this proverbs approach – The F Laws of management short version of which can be read here. We desperately need this sort of approach applied to the "reformitis” which has afflicted bureaucrats and politicians in the past 20 years.
One of the few claims I feel able to make with confidence about myself is that I am well-read (see the (admittedly out-of-date annotated bibliography for change agents on my website). But I know of no book written for the concerned citizen which gives a realistic sense BOTH of the forces which constrain political action AND of the possibilities of creating a more decent society.
A book is needed which –
• Is written for the general public
* is not associated with discredited political parties (which, by definition, sell their souls)
• Sets out the thinking which has dominated government practices of the past 20 years; where it has come from; and what results it has had (already well done in academia see the Pal paper on the role of the OECD in marketing the privatisation of government)
• Gives case studies – not of the academic sort but more fire in the belly stuff which comes, for example, from the pen of Kenneth Roy in the great crusading Emag he edits and eg the tale which should be shouted from the rooftops of the collusion of so many public figures with the activities of the cowboys who run privatised companies which are trying to muscle in on (and make profit from) public services.
Perhaps I should try to produce such a book? Various authors have already put in place some of the building blocks – eg Peter du Gay ("Come back bureaucracy"); Chris Pollitt (in The Essential Public Manager); some of the work on public value by Mark Moore and others; even Geoff Mulgan's Good and Bad Power (which, sadly, I found impossible to finish.
The painting is by Stanley Spencer 

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