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!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Close Encounters of the…..”bureaucratic” kind

Next year will mark 50 years for me of “close encounters” with “state structures” or (more emotively expressed) with “bureaucracy”. Except that I am a political “scientist” and was trained in the 1960s in the Weberian tradition – to understand that term in a more analytic way as “the exercise of rational-legal authority”. 
Weber – like most classical philosophers and sociologists – was intrigued a hundred years ago by the source of social obedience. Why do people obey the rulers? And he produced the most satisfactory answer – with a famous three-fold classification – traditional, charismatic and rational-legal authority…..

By 1945 the world had had its fill of charismatic authority and settled amicably in the 1950s, for the most part, for “rational-legal” authority – although, in the 1960s, clever people such as JK Galbraith started to mock it and such as Ivan Illich and Paole Freire to critique it. Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970) was probably the real warning shot that the old certainties were gone – and “change” has been non-stop since then. 
I’ve operated at the community, municipal, Regional and national levels of public management – in some ten countries in Europe and Central Asia and have tried, over this half-century, to keep track of the more important of the texts with which we have been deluged (in the English language) about the efforts of administrative reform.

I do realize that I am a bit naïve in the faith I still pin on the written word – in my continual search for the holy grail. After all, it was as long ago as 1975 – when I wrote my own first little book - when I first realized that few writers of books are seriously in the business of helping the public understand an issue – the motive is generally to make a reputation or sell a particular world view…. 
Still I persist in believing that the next book on the reading list will help the scales fall from my eyes!
So it’s taken me a long time to develop this little table about patterns of writing about admin reform…… 

Communicating administrative reform

Who they write for
In what format
With what “Tone”

Too many!
One another – and students
Academic journal articles; and books
Aloof, qualified and opaque
 Fair number
The public – and professionals
PR handouts generally; more rarely an article
Breathless; More rarely critical
A few
The electorate
PR handouts; more rarely a pamphlet
Critical of past; optimistic of the future
A lot
Booklets; and PR material
Even more!
Senior civil servants

Confidential reports; very rarely booklets and even a few books
Celebrating their “product”
One another; OECD wonks

Descriptive papers and reports
Global organs (eg World Bank, ADB, WHO
More than we think
A global network inc Cabinet Offices, Ministers, think-tanks; journalists;
well-researched, well-produced reports and websites
Omniscient, dry

Mugwumps – sitting on fences
Very few
The poor middle-ranking official who is expected to achieve the required change
Toolkits; manuals; roadmaps; notebooks
Open, humorous

The fads and fashions of organizational “reform” include “reengineering”, “transformation”……even “revolution” and we no longer know who to believe or trust – let alone obey…..  
From time to time I try to make sense of this avalanche of material eg in the early part of the In Transit – notes on good governance book which I wrote in 1999 for young Central European reformers – or The Long Game – not the log-frame - where I tried to capture a sense of the various organisational models with which consultants were trying to entice central European policy-makers. 

More recently I’ve tried to incorporate such texts with relevant blogposts in a draft book about “Crafting Effective Public Management” – but have had to accept that it didn't read well....too scrappy certainly,,,,but something else too....
But, as I said, a few weeks back, someone with my experience of straddling all these worlds must (and does) have something distinctive to say about all this organisational effort. 

And I think I have perhaps cracked what’s been wrong – I’ve been using the wrong “tone” in those efforts…the text is too abstract – for the most part “writing about writing”!!
In the last few days I've been experimenting with a different approach to my reflections about the experiences of organisational change ....  It consists of -
…..“telling a story”…..of the times when a few of us came together and, through a combination of imagination, discussion, networking and sheer inspiration, were able to raft something (a project) which gave the system a bit of a jolt…..

In fact I had written a lot about these occasions – they were all in various folders. But I have never given the papers the profile and legitimacy I now realize they deserve. I’ll give some examples in the next post

Most of the writing about reform cuts out that human factor – so what you get is a profound sense of inanimate concepts and forces……And to be fair, a lot of changes are like that – a few people at the top think something is a good idea; announce it; and expect to see it implemented and working. Effective change, however, requires not hierarchy and obedience - but open dialogue and negotiation. There was a time when we thought we had learned that ….eg from the Japanese…. But that memory faded and, in these autocratic days, too many people in organisations still act like the couriers in Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the Emperor’s New Clothes …..developing the groupthink and suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the Emperor’s actual sartorial condition!

But, at my level, all effective changes I have seen have come from a few individuals coming together to explore deeply how they can improve a problematic situation - and then developing a constituency of change around a vision which emerges as consensual. Never by one person at the top imposing a fad or idea!

Perhaps that’s why charlatans like Michael Barber have been able recently to make such a global impact with his “deliverology” – for which Justin Trudeau is the latest to fall prey…..A new central Unit….reporting to the boss….a few simple messages….a few targets…..big data crunching…..sticks and carrots……..and hey presto…we’ve solved the perennial problem of implementation!!

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