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, May 28, 2015

Stand and Deliver - a new design for successful government??

In this – and a future post – I want to examine its analysis and claims.
It is an angry book - which reflects the public’s loss of trust in the political system….. but has attracted surprisingly few reviews - so let me start with the BBC coverage which, as you would expect, is simply a summary of the book’s blurb they were given -
The thrust of Ed Straw's book is that the current system of government is too adversarial, fails to include any feedback on whether policies have succeeded, gives little choice to voters and suffers from a civil service which hampers politicians' attempts to get things done."Between elections, the places where power resides are the news media running their various agendas, good and bad, political and business - large companies and industries with expert preferential lobbyists and party funders, dealing with a political and civil service class mostly ignorant of their business," he says.
He says governments "limp on with a mixture of muddle, error, howlers and the occasional success" and politicians "rarely work out before getting power that it's bust". He says he has come to the conclusion that the civil service cannot be reformed on its own, because reform would involve transferring more power to the government, which would "make it worse because they have too much power already". 
So his solution is a revamp of the whole system of government. The better-known reforms that he wants to see include proportional representation and state funding of political parties - with a ban on large donations - to promote competition among parties and make sure that individuals or interests cannot buy influence.Swiss-style referendums would be held on a more regular basis, while governments would be limited to four-year terms and prime ministers not allowed to serve more than eight years (to stop the "autocracy cap" where a leader with pretty much unchecked power becomes autocratic and "wants to stay for ever because you can't imagine life without that power"). 
His more radical ideas are based around bringing in new feedback systems into the working of governments.He likens government at present to a gardener planting seeds, telling people what the garden will look like but then never actually checking whether or not they have grown as planned (instead spending lots of time checking on the sharpness of a spade or the water efficiency of a hose).That is in contrast to the private sector, which checks on the outcomes of spending continually.
A similar discipline needs to come into government, he says.There has been progress with the National Audit Office, the Office for National Statistics and select committees, he says, but he wants them all brought under the umbrella of the second chamber (the House of Lords at the moment) becoming a "Resulture" able to score policies and kill off those ones which are not working. 
The civil service would be radically revamped with it retaining a smaller administrative role, but in other areas there would no longer be a permanent civil service. Instead specialists with knowledge of, say, the railways, would be brought in to contract, manage and regulate that industry. 
Ed Straw says that his application of organisational theory onto how the UK government works is unique. He has also strong views on the Labour Party's structure. He says a lot of Labour's problems could have been avoided if they had a better process for challenging or replacing a leader, saying the Conservative system is much more efficient. It would have allowed Mr Blair to be removed before the 2005 election, for Gordon Brown to have gone within a year of taking office and John Smith to have led Labour in 1992 rather than Neil Kinnock, he says.But whatever the changes within parties, he says that successive governments have shown that nothing much will change without the wider reforms he is suggesting.

Most Brits will find all of this very acceptable….although I personally am a bit disappointed that his book doesn’t make any reference to the voluminous “What’s Wrong with British Government” literature.
- Chris Foster (academic, government adviser and fellow PWC consultant) wrote in 2005 an important paper Why we are so badly governed? – an enlarged version of which can be found in his book of the same year British Government in Crisis 
- Kate Jenkins was an active participant in the changes of the 1990s and wrote an important book in 2007 about her work Politicians and Public Services which is admittedly more descriptive.
- But others – such as John Seddon – have offered a more systemic approach
- and most British Think Tanks at one time or another have written critiques containing fairly radical proposals for change in the government system.

So it would have been useful if Straw had given some indication of exactly how his approach differs from others. But all we get is a short sentence saying his approach is “unique”!

 Apparently this is because his is an “an organizational perspective” (page 10) But what exactly does he mean by this? 
He seems to mean the “contestability” brought by competition between commercial companies (when it is allowed to exist) thereby raising a couple of critical questions - the first being the hoary question which occupied some of us in the 1980s – the extent to which it was possible to apply the same management principles in  public and commercial organisations. One the Professors on my MSc programme wrote one of the classic articles on this – with a strong warning about the scale of the difference between the two contexts and their measures (“profit” and “public interest”)

The second question is - Has the contestability factor not been at the heart of New Public Management (NPM) which the UK has had for the past 20-odd years?  
Ed Straw has been a senior partner in the Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) Management Consultancy for many years – and gave evidence to the British Parliament’s Select Committee on Public Administration in 2005 which included strong support,for example, for the privatization of the Prison Service…and talked loosely about the need for further “politicization” of the Civil Service. In the name of “accountability”…..

His Demos pamphlet of the same year – The Dead Generalist – spelled out in more detail what he meant. Apparently he wants more contestability…..but his book is not happy with NPM – on page 36 he says simply that 
“the developers of NPM omitted some essential components of the original conception”. On the same page he refers to the “countless diagrams attempting to represent the unified field theory of public sector reform developed in central units like the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and Delivery Unit from international management consultancies…..some are worth reading and some so limited as to be aberrant”. 

And that’s it! He divulges no more – except to tell us to read Norman Dixon’s “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence” (1976), Peter Drucker, Charles Handy, Michael Porter, Peter Senge and 3 others I have only vaguely heard of….
So what are the "essential components" of the NPM model which the British designers missed? We’re not told….

footnote; the subtlety of the book's  main title may be lost on some of my foreign readers - it is the demand that came from the highway robbermen of the past when stopping stage-coaches - "deliver your valuables......" But "delivery" (implementation) is also the bit of policy-making which governments (let alone consultants) have been identifying for decades as the key weakness of the government process

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