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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, November 1, 2015

When will they ever learn?

“Change” is one of these words that has had me salivating for half a century. According to poet Philip Larkin, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963…” – at roughly the same time my generation began to chafe under the restrictions of “tradition” - so well described in David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain and Modernity Britain 1957-1962

The notion of “modernization” (as embodied in a famous series of “What’s wrong with Britain” books published by the Penguin Press) became highly seductive for some of us - …. Coincidentally 1963 was the year Harold Wilson delivered his famous speech about the “white heat of technology” to an electrified Labour Party Conference, presaging one of the key themes of the 1964-70 Labour Government.

The need for reform of our institutions (and the power structures they sustained) became a dominant theme in my life when, in 1968, I found myself representing the east end of a shipbuilding town. I eagerly absorbed the writing which was coming from American progressive academics (such as Warren Bennis and Amitai Etzioni) about the new possibilities offered by the social sciences; and listened spellbound on the family radio to the 1970 Reith Lectures on “Change and Industrial Society” by Donald Schon – subsequently issued as the book “Beyond the Stable State”. In it, he coined the phrase “Dynamic conservatism” and went on to talk about government as a learning system and to ask what can we know about social change.

From that moment I was hooked on the importance of organisations (particularly public) and of institutional reform……In those days there was little talk of management (!) and only a few Peter Drucker books…..    
Toffler’s Future Shock came the very next year (1971) by which time I had started to proselytize the “need for change” in papers which bore such titles as “Radical Reform of municipal management” and “From corporate planning to community action”…..

In 1975 I got the chance to shape the key strategy of Europe’s largest regional authority and to manage that change strategy for the next 15 years……  From 1990 I took my “mission” of institutional change to first central Europe and then (for 7 years) to Central Asia……
In 1999 I reflected on the lessons of my work (and reading) in a 200 page book In Transit – notes on good governance which contains from page 145 my (fairly rough) notes on the literature on “management of change” I had been reading in the 90s… Then followed a decade of intensive experience and critical reflection set out in the long 2011 paper The Long Game – not the log-frame – which reflects the stage I had reached in my thinking about how to achieve institutional change “against the odds”……

These were the memories stirred by a draft book entitled How Change Happens by Duncan Green – well known development adviser and blogger – which I downloaded yesterday and read, along with a shorter 2007 paper with the same title by R Kzarnic (which is actually a very concise and comprehensive review of the relevant literature)
It has raised yet again the question which has been nagging me recently – “when will we ever learn?” - or better perhaps “what” has been learned from all this exhortation to “change” or "develop capacities"?
For 50 years the rhetoric has been “improvement”, “reform”….“change for the better”…..we have ridiculed those who wanted to "maintain" or “conserve”……

But perhaps it's time to pause and ask some questions about the agenda of those who have preached change – at least in the public sector???

My own speciality has been the process of change – but it is the substance of most of the changes which is now being so seriously and widely questioned in Britain and Europe. Particularly the increased role of management and of private companies…..
We used to think it was advertising that made us such a dissatisfied people – constantly wanting “better” and “newer”….but it is also our political class which has helped create this dissatisfaction with public services and the demand for “better”….  

I've always believed in what I called the "pincer" movement of change - that improving people's lives required both "bottom-up" social movement and "top-down" support from "caring dissidents" within the system....Sadly the programmes which funded me after 1990 rarely gave me the opportunity to work this strategy........... 

The title of the post is a line from Pete Seeger's famous protest song - "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" and the photo of that great folk-singer who died last year.....

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