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!

Monday, January 28, 2019

The danger of being labelled

Richard North’s daily blogs have been indispensable reading for me recently – he penetrates the laziness of the British media reproduction of government and political press releases in a formidable manner. 
He co-authored the most persuasive of the alt EU history books, the 600 page The Great Deception – can the EU survive? (2004) – which was mostly ignored by the press and academics at the time. One blogger started his very fair and detailed review with the not unfair comment that it was
“an unusual book – part scholarly inquiry, part cheap polemic”
I read the book (in 2008 or so) although I can’t recall the impact it made. It’s one of the texts I might have expected Ambassador Sir Ivor Rogers to refer to if he had been in the mood for giving his readers some context for his commentary on how the UK got to where it is today…It certainly deserved a critique.....as far as I'm aware, noone critiqued Hitler's "Mein Kamp" at the time - and such myopia (with all due respect to the eminently decent Richard North) says a lot about the political nous of "serious" commentators.
Another blogger has recently discovered the book (the link on the title gives the entire text) and has been feeding installments (up to the 12th at the last count).

But, until now, I was baffled by how such a strong Brexiteer as North could write such frank and tough dissections of the government, political and media coverage of the Brexit “debate” as contained in his daily posts...
But this article explains why - that (unlike the other Brexiteers) Richard North actually had a detailed plan for exiting the EU which was totally ignored by the government. You can actually find it here – and it built on a 400 pages strategy called Flexcit which he and others had developed a year or so before the referendum…. 
The most significant thinker in the Brexit movement. Richard North, the advocate of “Flexcit”, warned that, as a sudden departure would wreck people’s lives, Britain would have to be like Norway and stay in the single market, “at least in the medium term”, as it dedicated many years, maybe more than a decade, to flexible negotiations about a future arrangement.

But, as the referendum campaign was getting underway in autumn 2015, the key Brexiteers decided that presenting voters with such analyses would be confusing and divisive – and that their campaign for withdrawal would focus only on the problems created by membership….Suddenly, Richard North – the architect of the only plan for Brexit - found himself marginalized.
You don’t need to be a detective to work out why the darkness fell. How could the Brexit campaign inspire nationalist passions, how could Fox, Lawson, Johnson, Farage and Banks inspire even themselves, if they were to say that the only rational way to leave the EU was to carry on paying money, accepting freedom of movement and receiving laws that Britain had no say in making, while an orderly retreat was organised? Who would vote for that? What would be the point of leaving at all? Better to promise everything while committing to nothing

North could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved by the book’s general neglect since the public seemed (just prior to the poll) to favour his gradualist approach. And another polemical treatment - European Integration 1950-2003 – superstate or new market economy? - by John Gillingham (2003) had received a much easier ride just a year earlier.
But, then, Gillingham is an established academic – even if a rather abrasive neoliberal as demonstrated by his more recent The EU – an obituary (2016)

Academics who write for the general public have been rarities – one thinks of JK Galbraith – and never popular amongst their fellows. They can these days (just about) get away with blunt presentations without attracting a label – although Niall Ferguson is an obvious example of an ideologue who positively panders to his fawning audiences - and whose reputation has suffered accordingly. My favourite, the political economist Mark Blyth, has so far – amazingly - been able to avoid being labelled as a leftist - one wonders for how long….
But non-academics who try to craft books have to be ultra-careful in their presentations to avoid the fate of being ignored or written off as crude polemicists! So far, journalists such as George Monbiot, Paul Mason and Owen Jones have managed to avoid this fate.

David Dorling is an interesting example of an academic who has ventured – so far successfully – into political territory with his books such as Injustice (2011) which identified 5 “social evils” – elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair and explored the myths which sustain them. The argument is that we are all guilty of these evils and of sustaining these myths. More recently he produced "A Better Politics" - a great and persuasive read. 
He has just issued a new book Rule Britannia – Brexit and the end of empire – which I am eagerly waiting for

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The EndGame approaches

It’s the endgame moment for the BREXIT farce…with the British parliament totally deadlocked on the PM’s strategy (voted down last week by 230 votes) - and the only alternatives appearing to be
-       (i) the UK’s ignominious and chaotic exit - with “no-deal” - in 2 months;
-       (ii) a second referendum (impossible to organize in time); or 
-       (iii) a postponement for up to a year of the withdrawal (difficult for EU to accept - not least for its complication of the May Euro-elections).

Started the day trying to read all four of the lectures delivered by Ivor Rogers – our Ambassador to the EU until his sacking/resignation..….His first (October 2017) lecture set out the factors which led the country to the referendum of June 2016 – reminding us of the eurozone crisis of 2011 which had led to the UK’s isolation…The second lecture (May 2018) explored the technical options then facing the country. But it was his Nine Lessons which, in December, made the real impact.
And he has now followed up with Brexit – where is it going to take the UK?

I like the idea of such a series from someone who was at the heart of European negotiations for some years – particularly when it tries to suggest lessons for our political masters. But, somehow, he loses me
- Perhaps it’s the lecture format……not as concise as the more formal written text?
- Perhaps it’s the complexity of the mental processes involved in the endless negotiations – where nothing is real except the computing of the perceptions of those involved?
- Perhaps it’s the absence in his lectures of references to (at least the more technical of) the commentariat – which I seem to need to test if not “legitimate arguments?

Whatever it was, I soon drifted into a more gripping podcast on “the crisis of globalization” by Mark Blyth – whose analysis, in turn, led me on to Chris Bickerton (author of a recent Citizen’s Guide to the EU) who actually manages to make analysis of the architecture of EU member states clear and interesting.
Bickerfield has written more journalistically on this in the radical Brave New Europe website and indeed wrote a little book in November 2017 supporting the case for Brexit - A Brexit proposal; and has been pinpointing the structural weakness of the EU for some years eg The new intergovernmentalism – European integration in the post-Maastricht period (2014) 
as the European states have evolved from nation-states to member states, democratic representation at the national level has been squeezed out, leaving only populist protest and technocratic responses by national executives acting in concert at the European level…… Since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992,
European integration has moved forward in leaps and bounds. In addition to monetary union, the EU has also expanded into many new policyareas: foreign policy, police and border issues, justice, social policy and employment policy. However, this expansion has not come with the transfer of powers from national governments to European institutions.But, over the same period, key EU institutions, like the Commission, have seen their powers reduced.
We have therefore seen a form of integration without supranationalism, which can be explained by the fact that the EU is a union of member states rather than a supranational state of its own.
 Member state governments are the leading agents of integration, not the traditional supranational institutions like the Commission and the Court./……The internal organizational arrangements of “member states” have a number of characteristics. One is the dominance of the executive. Another is the proliferation of institutions to which powers are delegated by central government. A third is the reduction of power of the “mediating institutions” such as political parties between the state and domestic society.
The executive dominance comes from the fact that policymaking is being undertaken less by parliaments as legislators and more by executives as negotiators. International agreements tend to empower executives in so far as they conduct the negotiations, set the terms for them, and are able to select which domestic interests they want to represent and which to leave aside ( …… The result of this shift from nation-state to member state, and the effect on the way state power is constituted, is that political life at the national level is no longer based on a combination of democratic contestation and governmental effectiveness. Political parties have been, since the beginning of the 20th century at least, the main vehicles within European democracies for the reconciliation of the competing demands of representation and responsible government (see Peter Mair’s “Ruling the Void” 2009).
Member statehood, based as it is on a thinning of the state-society relationship to the point that mediating bodies, like political parties, are increasingly marginalized, generates a kind of political life that is unable to combine representation with responsibility. Instead, the two have become uncoupled and appear as opposites that challenge one another: populism, on the one hand, and technocracy, on the other. It is the people versus the elites, rather than competing representations of the popular good and its realization through concrete sets of policies.

Further Reading
Brexit and the British Growth Model – toward a new social settlement; Chris Bickerton et al (Policy Exchange 2018)
Brexit and Beyond (UCL 2018)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Le Grand Debat

The “yellow vests” (gillets jaunes) got only passing attention in the British newspapers which have had more dramatic (in the full sense of the word) events to focus on – nothing less than the sinking of the reputation of a nation whose policies, institutions and citizens were, until very recently, taken very seriously
BBC Television stopped broadcasting in this part of the world some years ago but this household, fortunately, still has access to the French and German channels viz TV5 Monde and Deutsche Welle. Although we miss some of the BBC dramas, the quality of particularly the TV5 documentaries is quite stunning…although it is Michel Onfray whose programme tops the viewing

So, apart from some short Guardian pieces, the only English language coverage of the gillets jaunes protests and reactions I’ve been able to access are two or three articles on the great Open Democacy site; the first by Bruno Dreano, Yellow Fever in France (11 December); the second by Philippe Marli (17 December); and the last a long and incomprehensible piece by  French philosopher Etienne Balibar (20 December).
France’s reputation was saved, however, by the clarity of the only article – Who are the Gilets Jaunes? - which has so far appeared about the protests in the Eurozine journal

But this past week I’ve been catching up on my reading about the issue – thanks mainly to what’s available in Bucharest’s kiosks. In November a reference to Le Point caught my eye and encouraged me to buy a few copies of a centre-right weekly which has a freshness I find lacking in le Nouvel Ob . It also has four times the circulation of similar UK journals – let lone greater depth.
Nouveau Magazine Literaire is a monthly which I’ve also started buying. Its January edition has good coverage of the gillets jaunes - as well as a curious (“none-Eurocentric”) feature which identifies 35 global thinkers.
And, despite previous issues of the leftwing Le Monde Diplomatique putting me off (by the sheer scale of its foreign coverage), I was persuaded to buy the current issue – since most of it seems to be devoted to the gilets jaunes. A long article on “The unsuspected power of the French female workforce” gives a good sense of the depth you can expect in LMD

I have fond memories of Le Monde (which sadly I can no longer find in Bucharest) even if I regret its cessation of the wonderful footnotes (still amazingly retained by LMD). But I was seduced today by the offer of a month’s electronic access - for only one euro. We shall see how its daily presence affects my perception of the world…All French journals have a paywall..- as well as the German heavies - although my father’s favourite, Hamburg-based Die Zeit, still seems freely accessible. 
At this point, of course, I need to pay tribute to The Guardian newspaper whose website remains free to access – in its totality. And is the lifeblood of this blog…

After his concessions of December 10th, Macron launched a strategy for dealing with the challenge of les gillets jaunes on 15 January - with an open letter and invitation to "Le Grand Debat" which has 4 themes "fiscality and public spending”; “the shape of public services”; “the ecological transition”; and “democracy and the citizen". The debate is scheduled to run until 15 March – with local mayors playing an important role in encouraging “voice” and a college of 5 “sages” playing an as yet unclear role … ....

What a contrast with how the UK dealt with the divisions which faced the country after the Brexit vote......!! I can’t recall many voices calling there for a “healing” – let alone a consensual conversation. Gordon Brown’s first such suggestions came only a couple of months ago.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tribute to an historian

What looks to be a fascinating biography of the UK’s most famous historian – Eric Hobsbawm – a life in history – will shortly be published by another admirable historian, Richard Evans.
Eric Hobsbawm belonged to the amazing generation of central Europeans who contributed so much to the intellectual life of the UK – the list is long but includes Arthur Koestler, Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Balogh, Karl Popper, Ernst Schumacher and Ghita Ionescu 
The clarity and elegance of his writing – as well as his range of interests (he was the jazz critic of the New Statesman for many years) – make us grateful that he lived to the ripe old age of 95.

The Evans article encouraged me to google – duly rewarded with being able to download all 5 core books of his oeuvre – as well as this 1995 conversation with Eric Hobsbawm.
He was, of course, an unrepentant communist to the very end – not that this prevented the British establishment from awarding him in 1998 the Order of Companions of Honour.
His last book was mischiefly entitled How to Change the World – Reflections on Marx and Marxism; (2011)

UK historians are unique in academia in having real skills in narrative….AJP Taylor and Richard Cobb were two of my favourites – and this article indicates that some historians have quasi-pop status these days…Post War – a history of Europe since 1945; byTony Judt (2005) remains a model treatment for me of the second half of the 20th century.
But, given the accessibility of the Hobsbawm histories (in all senses), I really should now do some speedreading – starting with “The Age of Revolution”!!

A Hobsbawm resource
Age of Extremes – the short twentieth century 1914-1991 https://libcom.org/files/Eric%20Hobsbawm%20-%20Age%20Of%20Extremes%20-%201914-1991.pdf
Nations and Nationalism since 1780

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Time to reclaim public services

To coincide with this year’s Davos Conference, Oxfam has just released what has become an annual shot over the bows of the global plutocrats.who assemble in that Swiss resort at this time of the year. And this year’s publication focuses on ….public services….just in time to serve as a nice intro to this post. So read Public Good or Private Wealth? (Oxfam 2019) with the rest of this post.

I realise I’ve been muttering all these months about the importance of public services – but have been very frugal on references.
The most valuable source for me on privatization was the Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich which, very sadly, now appears to be closed? Their last publications seems to be this report on benefits, costs and processes of Public ownership of the UK Energy System – in 2016

The other important briefing source has been the Transnational Institute which, in 2017, produced a superb 250 page report Reclaiming Public Services - analyzing the way that 1500 cities throughout the world have managed to get rid of the privatized bodies which had made a mess of things.
In 2009 the same body had helped publish Hilary Wainwright’s Public Sector Reform – but not as we know it - which remains one of the very few clearly-written documents on the subject (see “recommended reading” below)

Unusually, the United Nations has now added its voice to the critique of privatization with a major report recently which details the appalling effects on poorer countries of the privatisation model which the World Bank and IMF continue to peddle. The report is 25 pages long and the English version can be read here.

Last summer I offered a crisp summary of my thinking about administrative reform – a summary which has, I think, withstood the test of time…..

-       In 1989 “the state” crumbled – at least in eastern europe…   30 years on. how do we assess the “huge efforts” to make its operations more “effective”??
-       15 question offer a key to the most interesting writing on the matter. 
-       Different parts of the world have their own very different approaches and ways of talking about reform. English language material has tended to dominate the literature; but
-       Scandinavians, Germans and French let alone South Americans, Chinese and Indians have also developed important ideas and experience - of which English-speakers tend to be blithely unaware.
-       Two very different “world views” have held us in thrall over the past 50 years….a “third” and more balanced (eg the “new public service”) has been trying to emerge
-       We seem to be overwhelmed by texts on reform experience – but most written by academics. Where are the journalists who can help the public make sense of it all ?
-       At least 8 very different groups have been active in shaping our thinking about “reform” efforts
-       These are - academics, journalists, politicians, think-tankers, global bodies, senior officials, consultants and an indeterminate group
-       each uses very different language and ideas – with academics being the most prolific (but tending to talk in jargon amongst themselves; and therefore being ignored by the rest of us)
-       Some old hands have tried to summarise the experience for us in short and clear terms. The lesson, they suggest, is that little has changed…
-       What is sad is how few “social justice” campaigners seem interesting in this issue. Hilary Wainwright being an honourable exception…..

Of course, the “huge efforts” were external (mainly EC) and financial – the “local elites” have had their own “exploitative” agendas and lack a single gram of altruism in their bodies…

Good Reads

Readable generalist books – the last 25 years have seen astonishingly few such books (in the English language)
Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state; Polly Toynbee and D Walker (2017) a clear analysis by two british journalists
How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy ; Michael Barber (2015). A clearly written toolbook by Tony Blair’s favourite consultant
The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; J Micklewaithe and A Woolridge (2015) Editors of no less a journal than The Economist give us a breathless neoliberal analysis
The Tragedy of the Private – the potential of the public; Hilary Wainwright (PSI 2014) an important little pamphlet
Public Sector Reform – but not as we know it; Hilary Wainwright (Unison and TNI 2009) A rare readable case study of a bottom-up  approach to reform
Democracy Inc – managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism; SS Wolin (2008) the doyen of American political science takes the American political system apart!
The Essential Public Manager; Chris Pollitt (2003) A critical analysis of the political and technical aspects of the search for effective public services
The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain; George Monbiot (2000) A powerful critique of the nature and scale of corporate involvement in our public services
Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000) Simply the best analysis of the process of social and organizational change
Reinventing Government; David Osborne and Graeber (1992) The book which started the New Public Management revolution.

More specialist recommended reads
Reinventing Organisations; Frederic Laloux (2014)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Plain – and translated - English

This blog tries to write in plain English about important questions – such as “the State” and the continuous efforts made globally in the past few decades to shape it so that it (better) serves the public interest.
Despite the significance of the State in our lives (for both bad and good) it is noticeable that very few journalists bother to cover the operation of public services.. And, when they do, it is either to reproduce government press releases (about good news) - or to cover a scandal which is easily filed under the “bureaucratic blunders” heading.
The best newspapers, of course, still have their “economics”, “education”, “social policy” or “science” “correspondents” for more nuanced coverage – although “affairs of state” are covered by “diplomatic”, "foreign” or “political” “correspondents…

But last year, I was so inspired by a (rare) journalistic book about state reform in the UK that I wrote a series of posts – which morphed into How did admin reform get to be so sexy?
Operating across ten countries as I have in the past 30 years, translation has been an important part of my life - which, however, all too rarely gets a mention anywhere let alone by me. I was, therefore, delighted to find that the fourth of the 63 chapters of The Palgrave Handbook of Public Administration and Management in Europe; ed Edoardo Ongaro and Sandra van Thiel (2018) deals – for almost the first time for native English speakers - with this question of translating public admin terms…. You can read  their “Languages and Public Administration in Europe” here.

Those of us who have pontificated since the 1980s in European networks rarely gave a thought to how our concepts and sentences were dealt with by the valiant translators – very few of whom had any qualifications in public administration.
I know that – whenever simultaneous translation was on offer - I was almost unique in seeking out those who would be doing the translation and spending time with them to explain my presentation….
The very word “politics” was a classic conceptual morass. “accountability” and “responsibility” not far behind….Just today, my partner and I were having an argument about the characteristics of “magistrates” – who have such different roles in the French, Romanian, UK and US traditions….
And it is not just a question of simple terms – it is also the nuances of phraseology as demonstrated by this classic translation guide.

What a pity that we can do no tests on the understanding of European politicians, senior civil servants, journalists and judges have of the concepts with which they deal.....we might indeed be shocked by how their british and american counterparts understand them......

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Is Admin Reform really Sexy?

It’s a bit eccentric, I know, to upload a book about the experience of pubic admin reform at a time when the British government and society is stuck in a crisis second in British history only to the second world war. Courtesy of the UK Parliament’s live television channel, I was able to tune in every now and then to this week’s parliamentary debate but was, for most of the time, engaged in updating the little E-book on “Reforming the State” (which I had uploaded in April last year) to take account of the additional posts on the subject.
I’m now running with the title "How did Administrative Reform get to be so Sexy?" – and I perhaps owe my readers some explanation of why I continue to be so fixated about the issue…
Quite simply I feel that the writing on the subject falls into one of two categories – it’s produced either by academics (who reify and obfuscate) or by think-tankers (who simplify and exaggerate). It’s very difficult to find material written by practitioners – or, even better, by those who straddle boundaries of discipline, nation or role

I came to full adult consciousness in the 1960s, getting my first taste of political power in 1968 and of political responsibility and innovation in 1971 when I became Chairman of a Scottish Social Work Committee.
“Reform” was very much in the air – although no one could then have imagined what an industry public administrative reform would become. Indeed, in those days, the only management author you could find in the bookstores was Peter Drucker. And the only books about reform were American….

The opening pages of How did Administrative Reform get to be so Sexy? try to convey a sense of what it was like to be an early pioneer of organisational change in the country. My position in academia encouraged me to develop a habit of publishing “think-pieces” often in the form of pamphlets in a Local Government Research Unit which I established in 1970 at Paisley College of Technology – this 1977 article gives a good example of the style. The same year I  published a little book about the experience of the new system of Scottish local government and, for the next decade, various musings on my experience of running a unique social strategy in the West of Scotland.  
In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) were the reflections which resulted from my first decade living and working in the countries of post-communist central Europe. Eight years then followed in three Central Asian countries and strengthened a feeling about the inappropriateness of the approach we “foreign experts” were using in our “technical assistance”.
In 2007 I tried to interest people in the NISPace network in a critique called "Missionaries, mercenaries or witchdoctors – is admin reform in transition countries a religion, business or a medicine?" – but to no avail.

I started blogging in 2008 with a website which is still active – publicadminreform - clearly signalling that I wanted to use it to reach out to others. Sadly that has not happened…but it has not stopped me from continuing to “talk to myself” on this blog and from trying to produce a book which does justice to the thoughts and experiences I’ve had in about 10 countries over the past 50 years….

So let me try to summarise why I persevere with this fixation of mine –
-       I’ve occupied different roles (political, academic, consultancy) in different countries and have therefore been able to develop a facility for seeing different sides to the same story
-       My knowledge of “the literature” tells me that few authors have bothered to try to explain the stratospheric and continued rise in interest in administrative reform
-       New cohorts of politicians, public servants and even academics arrive in the workforce without a good sense of history
-       Few authors in this field seem to have an interest in communicating with the public – they focus instead on students or experts in government, academia and think tanks. I know of only two books with a wider appeal