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!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The power of Ideas

The longest of the 6 quotations which run down the blog’s right-hand column is from Keynes – suggesting that ideas have more influence on societies than we imagine compared, that is, with crude calculations of interest.
I have long been fascinated by the ebb and flow of ideas – and how rarely people seem willing to explore how they have changed their thinking…..I suppose our thoughts are so much part of our identity that we get first embarrassed and then angry if others try to push us on our belief changes….”Apostasy” is the big word for such acts of renunciation and there were loads of them in the 1930s as the first flush of enthusiasm for the soviet system dispelled and then again in the 1950s after Hungary. But I deviate……..retournons aux moutons!!

As far back as 1995 I doodled a couple of pages of notes about what seemed to me to have been the key focus of at least anglo-saxon debate in each of the decades from the 1930s. An updated version now makes a fascinating table explained in this post. Fear of the masses had been a strong theme in the 1930s but, by the 1960s, many of us in Europe and America were celebrating rather than fearing them – whether through the fashion for “participation” let alone community action, direct action or social development. 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. In America, the therapist Carl Rogers was at the height of his global influence.
But political and economic events in the 1970s punctured that mood of egalitarianism - and ushered in not mutuality but rather egocentricity, greed and commodification. Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self captures the process superbly…….

But if there is one book which embodied the spirit of individuality and impatience and shaped a generation globally, it is In Search of Excellence – lessons from America’s best-run companies which came out in 1982. It ridiculed the hierarchic structure of organisations and encouraged the inner cowboy in managers to ride free.....

I have been turning the clock back 30 odd years to try to understand how exactly we were all persuaded to give managers and markets so much power in the delivery of our public services….
Clearly the fall of the Berlin Wall both triggered and symbolised a massive shift in people’s perception of state legitimacy – but the critique of the role of the state had been building up since the early 1970s and found expression in Margaret Thatcher’s completely unscripted programme of privatisation and “contracting out” of the 1980s….
I have a copy in my hands of a book published in 1990 called “Managerialism and the Public Services” which maps out in detail the development of UK thinking of that decade – by the same author who coined (the same year) the phrase “New Public Management”.

And it was but 2 years later that David Osborne and Ted Gaebler dramatically put the new thinking on the global agenda when they published Reinventing Government (1992) – with such neat injunctions as -
·         steer, not row
·         encourage competition
·         be driven by missions, rather than rules;
·         fund outcomes rather than inputs;
·         meet the needs of the customer, not the bureaucracy;
·         invest in preventing problems rather than curing crises
·         decentralize authority;

Effectively, it was the public sector version of the 1982 “In Search of Excellence” mentioned above. No less a figure than Vice-President Al Gore then took charge of what became a major political effort to reinvent government (see this paper for a good overview). Coincidentally I was in New York a few months after the book’s publication and was able to bring a copy back with me. The book was – with the possible exception of Machiavelli’s The Prince – one of the few best-sellers on the topic of government.
And Osborne and Gaebler weren’t academics – but a journalist/consultant; and city manager respectively!! And its message about contracting was soon being broadcast globally – thanks to the influence of the World Bank    

By then I was living in central Europe and working on projects designed to help establish more open and democratic public services accountable to citizens in that part of the world. 
In 1998/99 I found myself “resting” (as actors say) between projects in Bucharest and used the time to draft a little book about the challenges of building government structures in ex-communist countries. This is how I tried to set out what I thought I was doing….. 
The book is about the search for effectiveness and equity in government in a new era of immense change and growing expectations. It is aimed at –
-       those both inside and outside the machinery of government - both local and national - who, however reluctantly, have realised that they need to get involved in the minutiae of administrative change
-       people in both West and central Europe.
A lot has been written in the past decade about development endeavours at various levels - but there are several problems about such literature -
-       it is written generally by academics who have not themselves had the responsibility of making things happen: who have rarely, for example, been involved in the early, messy stages of taking initiatives they believed in, or in working with people who feel threatened and confused.
-       its very volume and language makes it impossible for busy policy-makers and advisers to read : a guide is needed.
-       such texts are (obviously) not sensitive to the Central European context
The analysis and argument of this book very much build on my practical experience as a "change-agent" in Scotland during 1970-1990, trying to "reinvent" the machinery of local government and to construct policies and structures to deal with local industrial collapse.
The text reflects a dialogue with a particular Central European audience between 1994 and 1998: the focus - and content - being shaped by the questions and issues which seemed to be at the forefront of the minds of the people I was working with in countries such as the Czech and Slovak Republics, Romania and Hungary…. 

The result was a little book In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) which I want to discuss in the next post because it is one of the few texts which tries to give a sense of what it was like to be active in such administrative reform efforts in the 1980 and 1990s..................

to be continued...

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