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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!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What If???

As I suspected, I’m still worrying away at some of the issues raised by the series of posts about the massive changes to our public services in recent decades – and how they have been covered in “the literature”. I realize that I left out an important strand of thinking – and that the series leaves the impression of inevitability….
The last post paid tribute to some of the people who, in the 1960s, most clearly articulated the demand for a major shake-up of Britain’s public institutions – the “modernization” agenda which initially brought us huge local authorities and merged Ministries with well-paid managers operating with performance targets.
Scale and management were key words – and I readily confess to being one of the cheerleaders for this. The small municipalities I knew were “parochial” and lacked any strategic sense but – of course – they could easily have developed it……

Were the changes inevitable?
I have a feeling that quite a few of the early voices who argued for “reform” might now have major reservations about where their institutional critique has taken us all – although it was a global discontent which was being channeled in those days…..
However not all voices sang from the same hymn sheet……The main complaint may then have been that of “amateurism” but it was by no means accepted that “managerialism” was the answer.
1968, after all, had been an expression of people power. And the writings of Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich – let alone British activists Colin Ward and Tony Gibson; and sociologists such as Jon Davies and Norman Dennis – were, in the 70s, celebrating citizen voices against bureaucratic power.
The therapist Carl Rogers was at the height of his global influence. And voices such as Alain Touraine’s were also giving hope in France…..

The managerialism which started to infect the public sector from the 70s expressed hierarchical values which sat badly with the egalitarian spirit which had been released the previous decade….
But, somehow, all that energy and optimism seemed to evaporate fairly quickly – certainly in the British “winter of discontent” and Thatcher rule of the 80s. What started as a simple expression of the need for some (private) “managerial discipline” in the public sector was quickly absorbed into a wider and more malevolent agenda of privatization and contracting out…..And, somehow, in the UK at any rate, progressive forces just rolled over….  Our constitutional system, as Lord Hailsham once starkly put it, is an “elective dictatorship”.
The core European systems were, however, different – with legal and constitutional safeguards, PR systems and coalition governments – although the EC technocracy has been chipping away at much of this.

Just why and how the British adopted what came to be called New Public Management is a story which is usually told in a fatalistic way – as if there were no human agency involved. The story is superbly told here - as the fatal combination of Ministerial frustration with civil service “dynamic conservatism” with a theory (enshrined in Public Choice economics) for that inertia….  A politico-organisational problem was redefined as an economic one and, heh presto, NPM went global 

In the approach to the New Labour victory of 1997, there was a brief period when elements of the party seemed to remember that centralist “Morrisonian” bureaucracy had not been the only option – that British socialism had in the 1930s been open to things such as cooperatives and “guild socialism”. For just a year or so there was (thanks to people such as Paul Hirst and Will Hutton) talk of “stakeholding”. But the bitter memories of the party infighting in the early 80s over the left-wing’s alternative economic strategy were perhaps too close to make that a serious option – and the window quickly closed…..Thatcher’s spirit of “dog eat dog” lived on – despite the talk of “Joined Up Government” (JUG), words like “trust” and “cooperation”  were suspect to New Labour ears.
Holistic Governance made a brief appearance at the start of the New Labour reign in 1997 but was quickly shown the door a few years later.…

“What if?,,,,,”
The trouble with the massive literature on public management reform (which touches the separate literatures of political science, public administration, development, organizational sociology, management….even philosophy) is that it is so compllcated that only a handful of experts can hope to understand it all – and few of them can or want to explain it to us in simple terms.
I’ve hinted in this post at what I regard as a couple of junctures when it might have been possible to stop the momentum….I know the notion of counterfactual history is treated with some disdain but the victors do sometimes lose and we ignore the discussion about “junctures” at our peril.

The UNDP recently published a good summary of what it called the three types of public management we have seen in the past half century. There are different ways of describing the final column but this one gives a sense of how we have been moving..

Old Public Admin
New Public Service
Theoretical foundation
Political theory
Economic theory
Democratic theory

Model of behaviour
Public interest
Citizen interest
Concept of public interest
Political, enshrined in law
Aggregation of individual interests
Dialogue about shared values
To whom civil servants responsive
Role of government
Serving, negotiating
Mechanism for achieving policy
Building coalitions
Approach to accountability
Public servants within law, professional ethics, values
Admin discretion
Assumed organisational structure
Top down
Assumed motivation of officials
Conditions of service
Entrepreneurial, drive to reduce scope of government
Public service, desire to contribute

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