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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!

Monday, June 11, 2018

The politics of reform

The world is an unruly place and has sometimes to be kept in order – whether by force or persuasion. And presumably because of our need for simplification - the battle is generally between two sides.  Sun versus earth; Catholicism v Protestantism; Cavaliers v Roundheads; Left v Right; Christians v Muslims. Those in the middle – whether liberals or greens – generally get ground down between such enmities…
So it has been for the past in my professional field - of what used to be called public administration and is now better known as public management
Until 1980 things were actually quite boring - with “public administration” being largely legalistic and a description of conventions governing the “machinery of government” in particular countries.
The subject had been a bit more interesting in the United States – at least at the end of the 19th century when the blatant collusion between big business and the political class made reform an explosive issue. Indeed it actually led to the founding of public administration as we know it – with none less than Woodrow Wilson leading the way….

In Britain, the politics may have been more muted - but let’s not forget that it was the infamous charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Crimean War which created the conditions which led to the creation of the British civil service system which remained intact for more than 100 years. A Royal Commission on the Civil Service (Northcote-Trevelyan) had been set up in the early 1850s but had been labouring until that military action exposed the disastrous nature of the aristocratic leadership in the country – it was the spark which led to the demands for a more meritocratic approach…..
And the early 1960s saw strong questioning again of British administrative traditions – epitomized in the establishment in 1966 of the Royal (or Fulton) Commission on the Civil Service which laid the foundations to a much more managerial approach in the 1970s which became increasingly aggressive in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Richard Chapman’s The Civil Service Commission – a bureau biography 1855-1991 (2005) is the best guide to this process – although B Guy Peters’ The Politics of Bureaucracy – an introduction to comparative public administration; (1978) was probably the first comparative and sociological approach to the subject. But it was probably The Private Government of Public Money; Hugh Heclo and Aaron Wildavsky (1974) which first made this subject really sexy in Britain!

Coinciding (?), however, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the phrase “New Public Management” (NPM for short) signalled that we had a new ideology on our hands. Christopher Hood is credited with having invented the term and described it very clearly in this 1995 article

New Public Management (NPM)
Typical Justification
Hands-on professional management of Public Organisations
Visible management at the top; free to manage
Accountability requires clear assignment of responsibility
Explicit standards and measures of performance
Goals and targets defined and measured as indicators of success
Accountability means clearly stated aims
Greater emphasis on output controls
Resource allocation and rewards linked to performance
Need to stress results rather than procedures
Shift to disaggregation of units
Unbundle public sector into units organised by products with devolved budgets
Make units manageable; split provision and production; use contracts
Greater competition
Move to term contracts and tendering procedures
Rivalry as the key to lower costs and better standards
Stress on private sector styles of management practice
Move away from military- style ethic to more flexible hiring, pay rules, etc
Need to apply "proven" private sector management tools
Stress on greater discipline and parsimony
Cut direct costs; raise labour discipline
Need to check resource demands; do more with less

How much is really new?
In all the excitement of new rhetoric, it is all too easy to imagine that we are confronting these issues for the first time: in fact argument about how to run government and public services goes back many centuries and the present debates are in some ways a replay, in different language, of those debates. Whilst the technology and skills have certainly presented us with new opportunities, perhaps a touch of humility or sense of history might help us in these frenetic times?

1991 saw the publication of a particularly interesting and strangely neglected book - Administrative Argument - which identified 99 different "solutions" which had been advanced at one time or another to the issue of improving administrative performance. Sadly it is out of print; not available on google books; nor accessible even in part on the internet...
If ever we needed a lesson in the need for a measure of scepticism toward the enthusiastic marketing of the latest management fashion, we have it in the brief list of these 99 solutions - many of which happily contradict one another. Sometimes the need for continuity in staffing is stressed: sometimes the need for turnover. Sometimes openness; sometimes secrecy……
Hood and Jackson suggest that we tend to use three general "stereotypes" in our thinking about organisations -
Three classic organizational stereotypes

Military Stereotype
Business Stereotype
Religious Stereotype
Run it like the army
Run it like a business
Run it like a monastic order
Work force
Limited career
Hired and fired
Service for life
Fear of punishment
Hope of honours
Fear of dismissal
Hope for money
Fear of damnation
Hope for salvation
Audit of war
Faith; social acceptance
Objective setting
Orders of day
Worked out at length in discussion and reflection
Obedience to leadership brings efficiency
Incentives to reduce waste and search for innovations
Lifetime internal commitment limits rash selfish ideas
Hood and Jackson  (1991)

The third column actually anticipates the various efforts which have been made in the past decade to find a new synthesis to PA and NPM

To be continued…..

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