what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, April 12, 2021


1. Policy Analysis

Paul Cairney is one of these rare academics who writes well. He has had a policy analysis blog for 12 years which is simply the most comprehensive on the subject there is  He makes the topic as interesting as it actually ought to be.

His latest post refers to an article he’s just written about Covid 19 and health policy-makingI was impressed that, after the obligatory “abstract”, the article was preceded by a “Plain Language Summary” which I understand is a feature of at least this Open Research Europe site. And I also liked that he had teamed up with health and political science academics in at least one foreign university apart from his own, Stirling University.

I should at this stage confess that I was a graduate from one of the first (part-time) Policy Analysis courses run in Britain in the mid 1980s by Lewis Gunn of Strathclyde University – with the emphasis on the rationalistic side of things being challenged by the likes of Charles Lindblom. And I still vividly remember the first time “frame analysis” was presented to us.

But this did not prevent me from presenting an overly rationalistic “stage-approach” when, in 2002, I drafted a Manual for senior Slovak Civil Servants…. If only I had known that, by then, Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox – the art of political decision-making was into at least its second edition! It remains for me the best read on the subject…

2. Eric Hobsbawm – a Life

Eric Hobsbawm was a brilliant British historian who lived to a grand old age and left us definitive and superbly-written histories of our age which you can access on this post of mine. There’s a nice 1995 profile of him here.

LRB commissioned an hour-long documentary on him which you can view here

3. Leading Questions

Dave Pollard is one of the few bloggers whose posts I generally read in full – always thoughtful, generally provocative. His latest post is typical - professing lack of interest in what people had to say about themselves in CVs or expressions of future hopes – but preferring rather to suggest…… 

six “leading questions” that might evoke some kind of useful sense of who someone is and what they care about - and possibly assess whether the person you’re talking with might be the potential brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend you’ve been looking for. These are the questions:

1.      What adjectives or nouns would you use to describe yourself that differentiate you from most other people? When and how did these words come to apply to you?

2.     Describe the most fulfilling day you can imagine, some day that might realistically occur in the next year. Why would it be fulfilling? What are you doing now that might increase its likelihood of happening?

3.     What do you care about, big picture, right now? What would you mourn if it disappeared? What do you ache to have in your life? What would you work really long and hard to conserve or achieve? How did you come to care about this?

4.     What is your purpose, right now? Not your role or occupation, but the thing you’re uniquely gifted and inspired to be doing, something the world needs. What would elate you if you achieved it, today, this month, in the next year? What would devastate you if you failed, or didn’t get to try? How did this become your purpose?

5.     What’s your basic belief about why you, and other humans, exist? Not what you believe is right or important (or what you, or humans ‘should’ do or be), but why you think we are the way we are now, and why you think we evolved to be where we are. It’s an existential question, not a moral one. How did you come to this belief?

6.     What’s your basic sense of what the next century holds for our planet and our civilization? How do you imagine yourself coping with it? How did you come to this belief?

These are not easy questions, and asking them might prove intimidating or even threatening to some people, which is why in the last post I suggested volunteering your own answer to each question yourself first, in a form such as “Someone asked me the other day… and I told them…”. It’s also why there are supplementary questions to each, to get the person you’re asking started. And the last supplementary question in each group lends itself to telling a story, since that’s what we’re most comfortable with. Even then, some of these questions will stop many people cold, which might tell you something about them right there.


4. Britain - and its Union

Peter Oborne may be a right-wing British journalist but he is certainly not typical in his readiness to attack the myths of so many of his ilk – particularly the country’s highly elitist system of power. I have been a great fan of his Triumph of the Political Class since it came out almost a decade ago.  

When therefore he sticks it not only to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump but to the enture media class, you can rest assured you’re in for a great read. And so it is with his Assault on Truth – Johnson, trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism (2021) which is in epub format.

It’s on Johnson’s watch that the collapse of the so-called UK is becoming final - as this paper from the neutral Constitution Society demonstrates - Britain at the Crossroads - can the British State handle the challenges of devolution?

Sunday, April 11, 2021

“Surgery of the Mind”

When communism suddenly imploded in 1989, noone really knew what to do. Earnest tomes had explored how capitalism would tear itself apart and morph into communism but few had bothered to consider – let alone prepare for - the opposite path. Transition to the institutions of democratic capitalism was the only option. In a few cases (Poland and Russia) that meant shock therapy – in most others, the building of a new institutional capacity for both the market and democracy in which training was a major component. 

I got a bit uneasy about the mechanistic way I saw training being delivered and started to question the various assumptions which were being made about the key roles in the process. Was this, I wondered, just the way things worked in ex-communist countries – or was the problem perhaps deeper??

Training is something that always seems to be done to someone else. The verb indeed seems to be parsed "I know: you learn: they are to be trained"!

I had a wiser older political colleague who, whenever he heard the word “training”, would react by retorting “surgery of the mind”. 

On the basis of 2 decades working in central Europe and Central Asia on programmes of capacity development, a 2011 paper tried to identify the key lessons I had learned about training - starting with these questions -

- WHO needs to learn WHAT?

- WHY (motivation)?

- HOW do people (in public service) learn most effectively?

- from/with WHOM?

- HOW are trainees - and trainers - evaluated?

 - WHO decides these various things - and HOW?

I noticed that the authority of two groups set the pace

(a) training suppliers (in which academia was initially dominant) and

(b) the senior managers who commissioned training.

It was these two groups who decided -

·       what skills and knowledge were to be developed

·       in whom

·       who was to provide such courses

·       how and where this was done.

As the senior managers usually delegated these issues to the more junior Training or Personnel Manager, most of these questions were decided by the academics who ran the courses - who were generally subject specialists with no training themselves in training methods.

And in the early years, the focus of training was seen as the more junior staff; the topics technical (eg finance); the location a classroom; and the method a lecture.

The "recipients" of the training had little influence on such things: and the effectiveness and credibility of training suffered as a result. Several decades down the line we seem to have "learned", at considerable cost, two big lessons about organisational training strategies

·       good and highly appreciated courses can give managers new enthusiasm, perspectives, skills which, however, are wasted when they return to an organisation which does not allow the newly acquired skills and attitudes to be applied since it lacks the will or ability to change.

·       some organisations aware both of the need to change, and of the role of training in that process, find that the courses they have sent managers to have been structured in a traditional scholastic way which, however unconsciously, teaches conformity and respect for authority - rather than the inter-personal and strategic skills involved in managing effective change.

Effective learning requires

·       the "learner" to feel that (s)he is in control of the process

·       to be integrated in and supported by the working environment

·       an initial process of helping him/her develop a set of individual learning "targets"

·       training suppliers to respond to these.

·       in a highly participative way

Formal, scholastically-based training is of limited value unless linked to - and supported by - the working environment. There is little point in someone going on (say) a one-month course unless the individual's immediate manager strongly supports this whether as part of project development or management development - and to the extent of new responsibilities being given on return.

More and more organisations in the West are realising that the sort of change they need to make can only be done by the whole organisation engaging in joint learning - led from the top.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Education under the microscope

Every month, the Great Transition Initiative invites its readers to explore a specific question relating to climate change  and how we might best respond - with the author of Journey to Earthland selecting the question and managing the discussion.

Last month the theme selected was “educating for the future we want”.

I’m normally very hesitant about engaging in discussions of this topic – in which everyone professes to be an expert and in which strong prejudices are quickly on display - but I felt it was about time I pulled my disparate thoughts on the subject together, starting with a confession and personal profile. 

I personally enjoyed my (state) schooling and respected my teachers (and fellow-students) - although I had no clear idea about my course of study at university and chose modern languages by default, moving in the last two years to politics and economics.

In the mid 1960s, graduates had the pick of the job market. So I had 4 different jobs in so many years - before getting my dream job as a Polytechnic Lecturer able to indulge myself for about 15 years before students complained that I was failing to give them what they required. A few years later I started a career as a consultant to government bodies in ex-communist countries - and latterly learned a lot about training…..

It’s not so long ago that kids were told that, if they did well at school, they would be rewarded with a great job – which we often kept at for our entire life. Charles Handy remembers how puzzled he was at the emphasis given to pensions when he got his first job at British Petroleum in the 1950s. Handy was the first to raise questions about ”the future of work” and went on to lead what he, later in the 1980s, designated a “portfolio” career – with jobs increasingly on short-term contracts. Education remained important in such a system – but with a greater emphasis on the post-school and university sectors.

With the increasing reality of robotisation, what advice should parents now give their children? Basically, it seems, the same message as the deschoolers of the 1960s…..rediscovering the need for creativity? The speaker in the video is education expert Sir Ken Robinson whose 3 books include "Creative Schools – the grassroots revolution that’s transforming our schools" (2015). 

And, of course, the new fear - which the pandemic has intensified - is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will further accelerate future losses. A World without Work – technology, automation and how we should respond by Donald Susskind (2019) may make grim reading – particularly when taken in conjunction with The Future of the Professions which the author penned  a few years earlier with his father – but it offers a sound and balanced analysis of what awaits.

One of the interesting points it makes is that AI has developed with the speed it has not by machine intelligence aping human intelligence – but by big data crunching…..Our minds, it seems, remain intact….

And it is the working of our minds that has become the focus of a newfound interest from psychologists (and “cognitive scientists” as they rather grandly call themselves)

I had, in the 1970s, been a fan of Ivan Illich; social critic (Paul Goodman); Education Professor (Neil Postman) and adult educator and philosopher (Paulo Freire) – although working away behind the headlines loomed the more profound figure of psychologist Carl Rogers. And in 1983 fellow psychologist Howard Gardner published the book Frames of Mind – the theory of multiple intelligences whose effects are still being felt today. Five Minds for the future (2006) is a clearer statement 

The public has become increasingly vexed as international league tables have demonstrated national weaknesses in systems which are now seen as crucial for a country’s economic success…..Whose advice should we heed on such things?

- Politicians – who have the authority to make changes?

- Teachers – who have the responsibility for managing the system of schooling?

- Experts – who study and monitor the workings and the performance of the system?

- Parents – who have variable degrees of responsibility, activity and expectation?

- Pupils – who have their own expectations and attitudes? 

When we ask such a question, the variability of the answers is quite amazing. Each country tends to have its own pattern – with the Finnish system regularly quoted as the most successful but outlier country in which highly-trained professionals are trusted to get on with the business.

Most people would probably still respond to the question with a reference to the need for collaboration - few would trust the politicians.  

And yet it’s politicians who set the pace in many countries! It’s hardly surprising that neoliberal Britain sets the most store by competition and choice for schools and parents – with “academies” being the preferred  educational tool for New Labour in the period of its rule from 1997-2010.

Europe is (and remains) more consensual in its approach – with the French elitist system being the exception which is only now being challenged.  

My references are always too anglo-saxon – so I was delighted to find a Dane (Knud Illeris) as the most respected European educationalist and look forward to reading his How we Learn – learning and non-learning at school and beyond (2007) as well as Contemporary Theories of Learning – learning theorists in their own words ed Knud Illeris (2018). And to reading more thoroughly this issue of a European educational journal  

I’m intrigued by how little reference there is to “power” in discussion about schools, education and training and hope to turn to that next

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

How to build State Capacity

The last few posts have argued that -

- few (if any) societies can any longer claim to be democratic

- we need, very loudly, to be exposing such claims as the falsehoods they are

- a new vision of a democratic society needs to be articulated

- pressure groups should coalesce around the demand for citizen juries

- political parties no longer serve any useful purpose

- we should be insisting that governments start focusing on the big issues which are currently kicked into the long grass

- governments, in other words, should govern

At this point I remember the reaction of The Candidate played by Robert Redford as he realises he has won his fight for a Senate seat – “what the hell am I supposed to do now?”.

It’s bad enough that Ministers have time only to deal with immediate crises – how therefore can we also expect them to find time to deal with long-term issues? Basically by shuffling them onto someone else… But Tony Blair was ridiculed for appointing the ex-head of the BBC to be his “Blue skies thinker”.

At least between 1971 and 1983 there was a body called CPRS (Central Policy Review Staff) which not only undertook strategic thinking but was able to publish its reports quite openly. This could – and did – create problems for government and was soon judged not to be necessary by ideologue Margaret Thatcher…..Its spirit needs to be resurrected!

Arguably the EC’s technocrats have, in this instance at least, been a positive force – creating for member states strategic guidelines which have been used in a multiplicity of fields to give benchmarks and inspire laggards to action….

The tools are at hand. Making a positive case for government interventions may not have been easy in the past 40 years but a few people dared to do so – and to keep developing the necessary tools. I thought Henry Mintzberg was the first Canary in the mine, as it were, with his 1996 Harvard Business Review piece on “Managing Government” which argued that we had gone too far in our rejection of the State. But John Bryson and Barbara Crosby had published Leadership for the Common Good – tackling public problems in a shared power world  a few years earlier – in 1992 (it can be accessed in full by clicking the title). This was also the year “Discovering Common Ground” by W Weisbord was published - a series of case-studies of localities and companies coming together to explore how they might best respond to the challenges they faced. The history of the “search conference” is nicely summarised here.

Mark Moore famously used his position at Harvard’s School of Government to work with senior Public Servants to develop in 1995 his influential notion of Public Value which influenced those working with British civil servants such as John Stewart and John Benington.

Moore and Bryson can be seen as the inspiration for European academics such as Paul t’Hart, de Jong and Mariana Mazzucato who have, more recently, all emphasised the importance of strategic governing. Other trainers such as Matt Andrews have also managed to make the notion of strategic governing acceptable even in places such as The World Bank.

So, for those leaders who genuinely want to know how to go about making their governments more strategic, here are some texts to consider – starting with Bryson and Crosby in 1992. I was, frankly, astounded to find there were so many!!




Leadership for the Common Good – tackling public problems in a shared power world J Bryson and B Crosby (1992)

Exhaustive exploration of the issues involved in any attempt to bring people together to confront major problems they face as a society or group

Creating Public Value; Mark Moore (1995)


What was originally a series of inspiring profiles has morphed into a confusing academic industry which is well assessed in the link in the title

The capacity to govern Y Dror (2001).


A masterclass from someone who advised governments throughout the world

The Art of Public Strategy – mobilising power and knowledge for the common good; Geoff Mulgan (2008)

The ex-Head of the UK Cabinet Office wrote this a few years after he finished his service with Tony Bliar

Future Search – getting the whole system in the room for vision,  commitment, action; M Wesibord and S Janoff (2010)

The third edition of a detailed manual – full of examples from around the world

Understanding policy success – rethinking public policy; Alan McConnell (2010)

Most academics focus on how things went wrong. This was a rare book which tried to identify the lessons of success

Agents of Change – strategy and tactics for social innovation ; S Cels, Jorrit de Jong and F Nauta   (2012)

A Dutch group inspired by Mark Moore

Recognising Public Value Mark Moore (2013)

An update of his 1995 book

The Entrepreneurial State; Mariana Mazzucato (2013)

The first of a trilogy of books from this Italian-British economist who strongly argues the interventionist case

Dealing with Dysfunction – problem solving in the public sector; Jarrit de Jong (2014)

Not the most inspiring of titles for what is a great read from someone who ran a group entitled “The Kafka Brigade”

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy ; Michael Barber (2015).

A clearly written and useful book about the approach taken by Tony Bliar’s favourite consultant


Creating Public Value in Practice – advancing the common good in a ….noone in charge world J Bryson and Crosby (2015)

The update of their 1992 book

The 21st Century Manager”; Z van der Wal (2017)

An interesting-looking book written by another Dutch academic and consultant who has spent the past  7 years as a Prof at the University of Singapore

Radical Help – how we can remake the relationship between us and revolutionise the Welfare State Hilary Cottam (2018)


an inspiring example of experimental work


Great Policy Successes” Paul t’Hart (2019)


presents 15 in-depth case studies of policy successes from around the world - each containing a detailed narrative of the policy processes and assessing the extent to which the policies pursued can be regarded as successful. 

Successful Policy Lessons from Australia and NZ; ed J Luentjens, M Mintrom and P t’Hart (2019)

The “successful public governance” website at Utrecht University is now running a series of case studies “pour encourager les autres”

"Strategies for Governing - reinventing public administration for a dangerous century"  Al Roberts (2019)

Ideal for politicians – not just because it’s short (140 pages) but because it covers the central issues so clearly

The Good Ancestor – a radical prescription for long-term thinking; Ronan Krznaric (2020)

I’ve included this highly original book – even although its focus is the individual – rather than government

Mission economy – a moonshot guide to changing capitalism”; Mariana Mazzucato (2021)

Mazzucatto’s latest

Guardians of Public Value – how public organization become and remain institutions (2021) ed A Boi, L Harty and P t’Hart

Another series of case-studies from the Utrecht unit of excellent public organisations and the secrets of their success

Public Value Management – governance and reform in Britain ; John Connolly et al (2021)

Rather too academic. Exclusive focus on UK – no references to Netherlands eg de Jong

First, a confession….I certainly haven’t read them all. Indeed I can claim close familiarity only with Barber, Bryson, Cottam, Moore and Roberts. Each is very different – some being voyeuristic case-studies – others reflecting intense personal experience (Dror and Mulgan) or passionate commitment (Cottam and Mazzucato). But all are worth looking at….

Monday, April 5, 2021

Purposive Government

Who could possibly disagree with the idea of governing with a sense of purpose??

But, as I look back over the past 50 years, I realise that such a notion has been – for all but a few years and in all but a few countries – treated with total incredulity

France was fairly exceptional, in the post-war period, with its system of national planning – although the UK very briefly toyed with the idea when the 1964 Wilson Government set up the Department of Economic Affairs as a rival to the Treasury.

But such aspirations were quickly stifled – with the Heath government of 1970 reasserting the market approach which was fully developed in the 1980s with the Thatcherite privatization programme. 

These forces were so powerful that, during the 1970s, writers on policy analysis seemed near to giving up on the possibility of government systems ever being able to effect coherent change - in the absence of national emergencies. This was reflected in such terms as “government overload” and "disjointed incrementalism": and in the growth of a new literature on the problems of "implementation" which recognised the power of the "street-level" bureaucrats.

Although the New Labour governments of 1997-2010 – particularly its “modernizing government” programme - used the language of strategy and targets, its ideology was an open continuation of the market-friendly and neoliberal policies of Thatcher 

Why “purposive government” is so difficult

·       the electoral cycle encourages short-term thinking

·       the 24-hour media ensures there is always a crisis for governments to deal with

·       programmes and priorities create sticks with which to beat politicians

·       politicians need to build and maintain coalitions of support - not give hostages to fortune. They therefore prefer to keep their options open and use vague rhetoric rather than commit themselves to programmes they won’t be around to gain benefit from

·       The machinery of government consists of a powerful set of "baronies" (Ministries/Departments), each with their own interests

·       the permanent civil servants have advantages of status, security, professional networks and time which effectively give them more power than politicians who often simply "present" what they are given.

·       a Government is a collection of individually ambitious politicians whose career path has rewarded skills of survival rather than those of achieving specific changes

Even before the pandemic, there were voices urging governments to snap out of their focus on short-term thinking and face up to the huge challenges facing all societies – be it the ageing of the population, AI or climate change. But it is not just the realities of politics which makes that difficult – it is the domination over the past 30 years of the financial calculus in business decisions with companies nervously checking the swings of share prices….

In theory Covid – and the realisation it has brought of the dangers of pandemics – strengthens the case for more strategic government. A senior Australian civil servant currently enjoying an academic sabbatical in the US has an interesting reflection on this -   

An important question is whether there is something about the practice of democracy today or the forces it is subjected to which make it harder for democracies to think strategically. It is possible that the ‘professionalisation’ of politics has created a cadre of apparatchiks hardened and motivated by political battle rather than policy challenges.27 Perhaps feeding a rapid news cycle traps government and media alike in a short-term, reactive hamster-wheel that prioritises sensation over substance.28 The rise of social media seems to have hardened partisan positions in the public, which bleeds into politics — and provides fertile ground for nefarious state and non-state actors to stoke for their own purposes using new technologies.29 Moreover, perhaps the nature of the challenges that liberal democracies now face — such as climate change, or a China that is savvy about gaining ground without crossing the threshold of Western military responses — are not immediate enough to trigger the compulsion for national defence that usually switches democracies from tactical to strategic.


In the face of such an array of difficulties, it may be tempting for some to reach for a dramatic redesign of democracy as the only way to set the system straight. A better course of action may be to understand how to more routinely trigger democracies’ already existing capabilities to think and act strategically. For these triggers to work, they need to offer something to all stakeholders, and demonstrate value through tangible progress and real outcomes toward the risks and opportunities that democracies are facing. They would need to offer elected leaders something to challenge the current incentives that prioritise short-term competition and partisanship. And they would need to show the public something different — to allow them to feel more confident in the ability of their government to meet opportunities and challenges, and more confident that their society is on the right path.

What is impressive is that the article also recognises the importance of more direct forms of democracy 

One obstacle to a more strategic and ambitious policy in the United States and Australia is a view that there is little real public appetite for it. Voters may say they want vision and strong action, but if this requires more taxes it is a non-starter. In one Australian survey taken before the last federal election, seven out of ten Australians supported more spending on public services, but only very small percentages in each tax bracket felt that they were not paying enough tax.35 Few elected leaders want to take on this issue. However, questions like these may not be getting at the issue in the right way. Connecting taxes and revenue with specific choices over what public money buys may yield different results.

On a much smaller scale, the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, experimented with this concept more than a decade ago. When Chris Beutler was elected mayor in 2007, his administration faced circumstances familiar to many democratic governments large and small: not enough revenue to pay for services and a population hostile to the idea of tax increases, reductions in services and generally distrustful of political leaders.36

Beutler created an initiative called Taking Charge, which brought the community into the budget process as participants, not just observers. They engaged citizens directly on questions of specific trade-offs, like the costs of different levels of snow removal. This appears to have been an open and transparent conversation about the fiscal challenges the jurisdiction faced, and the available choices of cutting services, raising revenue or doing both. When engaged in this way, citizens supported some surprising outcomes. In one 2011 survey, a staggering 84 per cent were willing to raise property taxes to preserve services.37The city found that citizens were willing to cut some sacred cows from the budget when they understood the trade-offs; and — arguably just as important — this process endowed residents with a higher level of confidence in the city government. Not only did Taking Charge give the city’s leadership the space to pursue reform, but it also improved the conversation between public and government.

The challenge is how to take a local government model like the experiment in Nebraska and apply it at a national level, where the issues are more complex and the distance between political leaders and citizens is greater. Indeed, direct democracy is regarded with suspicion by some experts who see it as a pathway to community division rather than as a unifying tool.38 One low-risk, high-payoff way to make a start at the national level would be to identify a specific inspirational initiative each year, such as in exploration or big science. After an information campaign to inform the public about the initiative and what it would mean for them, voters would decide if they wanted to dedicate extra tax to its realisation. 

The Conversation is an excellent site encouraging scholars to contribute concise pieces which has been online for almost 5 years – and has an excellent discussion here on this subject.

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, argues that our obsession with short-term planning may be a part of human nature – but possibly a surmountable one. Chris Zebrowski, an emergency governance specialist from Loughborough University, contends that our lack of preparedness, far from being natural, is a consequence of contemporary political and economic systems. Per Olsson, sustainability scientist and expert in sustainability transformations from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, reflects on how crisis points can be used to change the future – drawing on examples from the past in order to learn how to be more resilient going into the future.