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!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stalking the Big Beasts

For the past few days, as I’ve commuted between the mountains and the plain, I’ve been considering starting a(nother) series of posts – this time on the lessons I feel I’ve learned during the 45 years I’ve been working on the promotion of democracy and the building of the appropriate institutions, first in Scotland and latterly in Central Europe and Central Asia. This was going to build on various papers I’ve written over the years – not least the draft “Search for the Holy Grail”  But I then came across some recent academic valedictories and realized that there was bigger game to stalk – namely the anglo-saxon political scientists who have shaped how we perceive the political system in the post-war period.

Readers will know that I have always had a problem when I’m asked what I do – even my mother had a problem understanding this after, in 1985, I quit the respectability of academia and became first (for only 5 years) a full-time Regional Politician and then something called a “consultant” working in various countries which, until then, had highly dubious reputations. But her brother had been a famous British academic in political studies (Wilfrid Harrison) so I was allowed my louche inclinations….My focus was more mundane – an idiosyncratic combination of traditional public administration and more radical urban studies.
But, suddenly I was in Central Europe in the early 1990s - nobody had ever lived through a triple transformation (Markets, nations, democracy) ever before. People had been writing profusely about the transition from capitalism to communism – but not the other way around. The collapse of communism was a great shock. Few – except the Poles and Hungarians - were at all prepared for it.
And understanding such systems change requires a vast array of different intellectual disciplines – and sub-disciplines – and who is trained to make sense of them all?

In the 1990s I basically used my experience of Scottish local government (described, for example, in this paper) to draft advice notes to those trying in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia to decentralize power…..But I understood only too painfully how I lacked a real understanding of the processes of change in those contexts – and did rapid “teach-yourself” exercises in both European systems of local government and in organisational change….
I was also reading what anglo-saxons were writing about both democratization (in The Journal of Democracy) and about public administration reform. And there was so much writing – not least after the Clinton/Gore initiatives and the 1997 New Labour programmes…..
The names of Donald Savoie, B Guy Peters, Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and Chris Foster became particularly important to me – I grasped their work like a drowning man…..

A paper I drafted and presented to a couple of Annual Conferences of the body which brings together specialists in training and public administration reform in Central Europe tried to summarise a critique I had been developing for a decade - it was called The Long Game - not the LogFrame. 
Those of us who have got involved in these programmes of advising governments in these countries had a real moral challenge. After all, we were daring to advise these countries on how to construct effective public organisations – we were employed by organisations supposed to have the expertise in how to put systems together to ensure that appropriate intervention strategies emerge to deal with the organisational and social problems of these countries. We were supposed to have the knowledge and skills to help develop appropriate knowledge and skills in those in charge of state bodies in these countries!
But how many of us could give positive answers to the following 5 questions? -
·         Do the organisations which pay us practice what they and we preach on the ground about good organisational principles?
·         Does the knowledge and experience we have as individual consultants actually help us identify and implement interventions which fit the context in which we are working?
·         Do we have the skills to make that happen?
·         What are the bodies which employ consultants doing to explore such questions – and to deal with the deficiencies which I dare to suggest would be revealed?
Do any of us have a clue about how to turn kleptocratic regimes into systems that recognise the meaning of public service?  

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