We need to talk about….the State. Or at least about the “machinery of government” about whose operations I am most familiar – in local and regional government in Scotland from 1968-90 and then in local and national systems of government in some 10 countries of central Europe and central Asia from 1991-2012.
Terminology is admittedly confusing….my first love, for example, was “public administration” since, at one fell swoop in 1968 I became both a Lecturer (officially in Economics) and a locally-elected reformist politician. From the start, I saw a lot wrong with how “public services” impacted on people in the West of Scotland – and I strongly associated with the national reform efforts which got underway from 1966, targeting both local and national systems of government and administration.
Major reforms of the “Civil Service” and of English and Scottish systems of local government were duly enacted – and I duly found myself in a powerful position from the mid 1970s to 1990 to influence strategic change in Europe’s largest Regional authority
But, by the late 70s, national debate focused on “state overload” and on “ungovernability” and the discourse of private sector management was beginning to take over government.
The 80s may have seen a debate in UK left-wing circles about both the nature of “the local state” and the nature and power of “The State” generally but it was privatization which was driving the agenda by then. “Public Administration” quickly became “public management” and then “New Public Management”….
Indeed by the 90s the debate was about the respective roles of state, market and society. Come 1997 and even the World Bank recognized that the undermining of the role of the State had gone too far.
But it has taken a long time for voices such as Ha-Joon Chang and Marianna Mazzucato to get leverage……and the space to be given for talk about a positive role for the “public sector”.
In the meantime talk of “platform capitalism”, the P2P “commons” and automation confuses most of us… and the last remnants of European social democratic parties have, with a couple of exceptions, totally collapsed. So do we simply give up on the idea of constructing a State which has some chance of working for the average Joe and Jill?
Because I’m a bit of a geek, I’ve long followed the discussion about Public Admin Reform and PMR…..trying to make sense of it all – initially for myself….but also for those I was working with….For the past 40 years I have been driven to draft and publish – after every “project” or intervention - a reflective piece…..
It’s only now that I feel I am beginning to understand some of them…..particularly those I wrote a decade or so ago about the possibilities of reform systems of power and government in central Asia…
And then a British book about “the attack on the state” provoked me into identifying some questions about this huge literature which academics hog to themselves - but which need to be put out in the public domain. I found myself putting the questions in a table and drafting answers in the style required by the fascinating series such as “A Very Short Introduction” or “A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably priced book about….”,
The State (at both local and national levels) is a constellation of diverse interests and power – to which we can give (rather arbitrarily) such terms as “public”, “professional”, “party”, “commercial” or “security”. But, the questions begin…..
- In what sense can we say that something called the state exists?
- What can realistically be said about the interests which find expression in “the state”?
- How does each particular public service (eg health, education) work?
- How satisfied are citizens with the outcomes of state activities?
- Why is the state such a contested idea?
- Where can we find out about the efficiency and effectiveness of public services?
- Where can we find rigorous assessments of how well the “machinery of government” works?
- What Lessons have people drawn from all the “reform” experience?
- How do countries compare internationally in the performance of their public services ?
- Has privatisation lived up to its hype?
- what alternatives are there to state and private provision?
- why do governments still spend mega bucks on consultants?
- do Think Tanks have anything useful to contribute to the debate?
- whose voices are worth listening to?
- What challenges does the State face?
- If we want to improve the way a public service operates, are there any “golden rules”?