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!

Friday, October 16, 2009

writing to make sense of things

The sublime Mario Zhekov (1898-1955) - only Nicolas Tanev and Z Boyadjiev surpass him in the Bulgarian pantheon. But he is my favourite - and I boast one of his paintings.

God (like Kanter) had 10 Commandments – Stephen Covey identified 7 “habits” of effective people. Osborne has 5 strategies for “banishing bureaucracy”[1]. At the other end of the scale Robert Greene has 48 laws of power and Hood and Jackson identified no fewer than 99 different prescriptions and rationales for better public management[2] which have been used over the centuries - each of which has its equally plausible opposite.
The format of prescriptions is evidently a good one – at the very least in disciplining the thoughts of the writer. But seven-ten prescriptions, however, seem to be as many as people can handle.

I do not know at this stage what do’s and don’ts will emerge from the reflections I'm drafting about the lessons from my work of the past 40 years.

For me writing is not initially about communications – but rather organising thought. I think I know something - but it becomes evident during writing that there are gaps and inconsistencies in my thinking. There’s a very wise saying that, “if you want to learn about a subject, write a book about it”. One of the mistakes I made early on in my life was to think that, if I read enough books, I would absorb knowledge. But first you have the questions.....

Another thing about writing and books is that it is contextual. At University, I initially found it difficult to read Hobbes “Leviathan” but, when I understood more about the times in which it was written, I became more interested. It’s the same for me about poetry – I wish there were more comments from the poets about the context in which they had written these tight, concentrated stanzas.

That is why, in Part I of my "Reflections on 40 years of fighting bureaucracy", I first sketch in the context – not only the particular roles I was playing but the intellectual currents which affected me.
I have identified three key stages[3] – the initial encounter with bureaucracy and politics and the shaping of a reform position (1968-1974); the period of “strategic leadership (1974-1991); and “nomadic consultancy” (1991 - the present).
The focus for the first 2 stages was a combination of “social exclusion” and “managing change” – at a time when these were not the disciplines they have become. I quickly saw how deadly party government was - and, with the help of community workers and their thinking, "went native". Curiously, however, that removed me from the faction fighting which was the essence of the Labour party then - I was seen as belonging to no faction and therefore a good second vote in internal elections to positions of power. For 18 years I therefore triumphed in the bi-ennial elections to the key postion of Group Secretary - and had my pick of positions.

For the last 2 decades, the focus of my work has been more generally that of “building administrative capacity” – of state bodies in “transition countries”. And, again, I was in at the beginning of a venture for which there were not then the writings and tools apparently now available. For example a paper on public sector reform on a website recently established by the EC - http://capacity4dev.ec.europa.eu/concept-paper-public-sector-reform-introduction
Also on the website is a useful paper on capacity development

For each stage, the draft paper on my website describes context and events - and then some lessons are drawn. Generally these are the lessons I felt at the time – as reflected in a piece of writing.
I notice that the text is fairly personal initially – but becomes less so from 1990 when my role changed from being an “insider” to an “outsider”. Although I consider that I have always been a bit of an outsider! I have always been inter-disciplinary – working in no-man’s lands[4], building bridges - but remember vividly the central European joke about bridges – “in peacetime, horses shit on them - and, in war-time, they get blown up!”

Part I uses the language in which the various issues of social exclusion, community development, managing change, capacity building are normally discussed. Part II tries to see the commonalities of these disparate languages. I remember being puzzled in the 1970s by the separate path education and social work people in the UK took to the discovery of the importance of the social process of learning – with two completely different (and rival) disciplines (community work; and community education) being established.

[1] in Banishing Bureaucracy; the five strategies for reinventing government (Addison 1997)
[2] in Administrative Argument (Aldershot 1991)
[3] There are supposed to be seven stages to life! See also Bridges (Transitions) etc
[4] the social scientists in the Tavistock Institute coined the phrase "reticulists" for those of us who straddled the boundaries of party, NGO and academia....

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