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 14, 2013

Lessons from Somewhere

The Brits pride themselves on being “pragmatic” if not insular – impervious to how they do things in other countries – but there is a strong case for suggesting that the British system of government has in fact, in the past 50 years or so, been swamped by the copying of (largely American) models and theorising - while inattentive to (if not insolent about) the experience of European countries such as France, Germany or Scandinavia. The entire English health system, for example, has been “re-engineered” thanks basically to a long article in The Economist in the mid-1980s by an American economist.
And the care taken by US Foundations to develop policy and social networks with Europeans but particularly the Brits is a much neglected feature of social and political history.
We are, of course, as George Bernard Shaw memorably put it, “two nations separated by a common language” – as I realised when I made presentations, all of 26 years ago in places such as Washington, Pittsburgh and Denver, of the essential features of our regional system of (big) government. Our conceptions (let alone expectations) when we used words such as "community" and "government" were just so fundamentally different.
My work in central Europe (and Asia) of the past 22 years has made me even more painfully aware of how words and phrases carry such different meanings. With English now being the lingua franca, the wonder is that we are not all at one another’s throats – as this wonderful bit of British-EU translation shows 

Despite (or perhaps because of) that, the field of “policy learning” or “policy transfer” has become in the last 20 years very influential. I can claim to have been in at the beginning since Richard Rose –the doyen of the field at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (and still going strong at 80) – interviewed me immediately after my trip to the States in 1987 as part of the major venture he was then getting underway - with his first publication on the subject I think in 1991. A recent book documents the field.
Despite my interest in it all at the time, I can't help thinking now that it is all a lot of verbiage......and that the never-ending apparent policy changes don't amount to a row of beans - and benefit only the scribblers and those who seek new reputations. Our political system is even more short-term oriented now than ever before and has no patience with the need for systems to bed down......"Action" has become a substitute for thought.....and is sexier anyway!

I had gone to the States in 1987 with some scepticism – while recognising that, in my 40s, it was a neglected part of my education. Martin Amis’ then recently published The Moronic Inferno was one of the main bits of preparatory reading I did! 
In the places I visited, I was impressed with the energy and openness. For the record, I identified nine features of the American system and community economic development process "worthy of study and replication" -
  • more pluralistic sources of Local Funding (the scale of corporate and tax-free grants to Foundations)
  • networking of people from the private and public sectors (eg Community Leadership scheme)
  • scanning for strategic work : the active, participative role played by the private sector in the process of setting the regional agenda in places like Chicago was impressive
  • coaching : the way community economic development skills were encouraged
  • marketing : of voluntary organisations
  • affirming : affirmative action in Chicago Council was handled very systematically in areas such as hiring and sub-contracting
  • negotiating : the flexibility of the planning system allowed local councils to strike deals with developers to the direct advantage of poorer areas.
  • persevering : the realism about timescale of change
  • parcelling into manageable units of action: the British mentality seemed to prefer administrative neatness to permit a "coordinated" approach. American "messiness" seemed to produce more dynamism.
Looking back, I am intrigued by the way I selected and emphasised these terms. A few years ago I did a small guide to the vocabulary so-called experts used in the consultancy field. I entitled it Just Words - a Sceptic's Guide and discovered there was an entire book devoted to this sort of debunking - which we need even more than ever.

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