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, October 12, 2017

Those who Went Before

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been trying to compress the thoughts I (and many others!!) have had over the past few decades about administrative reform into a table whose columns list core questions; narratives; and key texts …..
It was all sparked off by the book published earlier this year on Dismembering (the State) – although the subject has been a lot in my thoughts this year

There may now be hundreds of thousands of academics and consultants in this field but, when I started to challenge the local bureaucracy in Scotland in the late 60s there were, astonishingly, only a handful of people challenging public bureaucracies – basically in the UK and the US.
In the US they were following (or part of) Johnston’s Anti-Poverty programmes and included people such as Peter Marris and Martin Rein whose Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) was one of the first narratives to make an impact on me. 
In the UK it was those associated with the 1964-66 Fulton Royal Commission on the Civil Service; with the Redcliffe-Maud and Wheatley Royal Commissions on Local Government; and. those such as Kay Carmichael who, as a member of the Kilbrandon Committee, was the inspiration for the Scottish Social Work system set up in 1969.
In the 70s, people like John Stewart of INLOGOV inspired a new vision of local government…my ex-tutor John MacIntosh focused on devolution; even the conservative politician Michael Heseltine had a vision of a new metropolitan politics…..

It was people like this that set the ball of organizational change rolling in the public sector…. tracked by such British academics as Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and Rod Rhodes – and who have supplied a living first for thousands of European academics who started to follow the various reforms of the 1970s in the civil service and local government; and then the privatization and agencification of the 1980s. Consultants then got on the bandwagon when british administrative reform took off globally in the 1990s.

Working on the tables incorporated in the past few posts has involved a lot of googling - and shuffling of books from the shelves of my glorious oak bookcase here in the mountains to the generous oak table which looks out on the snow which now caps those mountains……
Hundreds of books on public management reform (if you count the virtual ones in the library) – but, for me, there are only a handful of names whose writing makes the effort worthwhile. They are the 2 Chris’s – Chris Hood and Chris Pollitt; Guy Peters; and Rod Rhodes. With Chris Pollitt way out in front……Here’s a sense of how he has been writing in recent years - 
There have been many failures in the history of public management reform – even in what might be thought of as the bestequipped countries.
 Six of the most common seems to have been:
 · Prescription before diagnosis.  No good doctor would ever do this, but politicians, civil servants and management consultants do it frequently.  A proper diagnosis means much more than just having a general impression of inefficiency or ineffectiveness (or whatever).  It means a thorough analysis of what mechanisms, processes and attitudes are producing the undesirable features of the status quo and an identification of how these mechanisms can be altered or replaced.  Such an analysis constitutes a model of the problem.  This kind of modelling is probably far more useful to practical reformers than the highly abstract discussions of alternative models of governance with which some academics have been more concerned (e.g. Osborne, 2010).   [For a full exposition of this realist approach to programme logic, see Pawson, 2013.  For an explanation of why very general models of governance, are of limited value in practical analysis see Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011, pp1125 and 208221]
 · Failure to build a sufficient coalition for reform, so that the reform is seen as just the project of a small elite.  This is particularly dangerous in countries where governments change rapidly, as in some parts of the CEE.  Once a government falls or an elite is ousted, the reform has no roots and dies.
 · Launching reforms without ensuring sufficient implementation capacity.  For example, it is very risky to launch a programme of contracting out public services unless and until there exists a cadre of civil servants who are trained and skilled in contract design, negotiation and monitoring. Equally, it is dangerous to impose a sophisticated performance management regime upon an organization which has little or no previous experience of performance measurement.   And it is also hazardous to run down the government’s inhouse IT capacity 6 and rely too much on external expertise (Dunleavy et al, 2006).  In each of these cases in house capacity can be improved, but not overnight.
 · Haste and lack of sustained application.  Most major management reforms take years fully to be implemented. Laws must be passed, regulations rewritten, staff retrained, new organizational structures set up, appointments made, new procedures run and refined, and so on.  This extended implementation may seem frustrating to politicians who want action (or at least announcements) now, but without proper preparation reforms will more likely fail.  Endless reforms or ’continuous revolution’ is not a recipe for a wellfunctioning administration
 · Overreliance on external experts rather than experienced locals.  As management reform has become an international business, international bodies such as the OECD or the major management consultancies have become major players.  A fashion has developed in some countries to ’call in the external experts’, as both a badge of legitimacy and a quick way of accessing international ’best practice’  Equally, there is perhaps a tendency to ignore local, less clearly articulated knowledge and experience.  Yet the locals usually know much more about contextual factors than the visiting (and temporary) experts.  .
 · Ignoring local cultural factors. For example, a reform that will work in a relatively high trust and low corruption culture such as, say, Denmark’s, is far less likely to succeed in a low trust/higher corruption environment such as prevails in, say, some parts of the Italian public sector.  In the EU there are quite large cultural variations between different countries and sectors……………
I would suggest a number of ‘lessons’ which could be drawn from the foregoing analysis:
1.      Big models, such as NPM or ‘good governance’ or ‘partnership working’, often do not take one very far.  The art of reform lies in their adaptation (often very extensive) to fit local contexts.  And anyway, these models are seldom entirely well-defined or consistent in themselves.  Applying the big models or even standardized techniques (benchmarking, business process re-engineering, lean) in a formulaic, tick-box manner can be highly counterproductive.
2.     As many scholars and some practitioners have been observing for decades, there is no ‘one best way’.  The whole exercise of reform should begin with a careful diagnosis of the local situation, not with the proclamation of a model (or technique) which is to be applied, top down.  ‘No prescription without careful diagnosis’ is not a bad motto for reformers.
3.     Another, related point is that task differences really do matter.  A market-type mechanism may work quite well when applied to refuse collection but not when applied to hospital care.  Sectoral and task differences are important, and reformers should be wary of situations where their advisory team lacks substantial expertise in the particular tasks and activities that are the targets for reform.
4.     Public Management Reform (PMR) is always political as well as managerial/organizational.  Any prescription or diagnosis which does not take into account the ‘way politics works around here’ is inadequate and incomplete.  Some kernel of active support from among the political elite is usually indispensable.
5.     PMR is usually saturated with vested interests, including those of the consultants/advisors, and the existing public service staff.  To conceptualise it as a purely technical exercise would be naïve. 
6.     Successful PMR is frequently an iterative exercise, over considerable periods of time.  Reformers must adapt and also take advantage of ‘windows of opportunity’.  This implies a locally knowledgable presence over time, not a one-shot ‘quick fix’ by visiting consultants.
7.     It does work sometimes!  But, as indicated at the outset, humility is not a bad starting point.

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