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!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the wrong model of government

I’m now trying to explore the wider implications of the thoughts I posted earlier this morning – both on the blog and on the Guardian’s article comments pages - for the issue of getting government systems to deliver better value to their citizens.
The question which the Guardian article confronted was how society (not just teachers) can best deal with disruptive pupils. And parental satisfaction with the schooling system is as reasonable a test as one could imagine for how well a governance system is operating. (In Azerbaijan, I suggested the basic test was how easily people could cross the street!) Those who study and write about government and public administration over-complicate things - we need some simple tests like these!
So let’s explore what this example of the tools available to deal with disruptive pupil behaviour tells us about the British “governance” system.
The British political, professional and legal systems have made a lot of interventions over the past 30 years into the affairs of the school. Laws, targets, national curricula, guidelines, procedures and outside groups (such as police, social workers and a new breed of auditors) now constrain what teachers can and cannot do. Schools cannot easily get rid of unruly pupils – and have to deal with them in normal classes.
And yet the results of all this effort appear to have made the situation worse. This is ironic – since the NewLabour government boasted in its early years of having found a wider range of policy tools which could be used to fine-tune social behaviour.
I remember so well some of the chapters in Geoff Mulgan’s significantly-entitled “Life after Politics – new thinking for the twenty-first century” (1997). In particular Perri 6’s “Governing by cultures” – which classified the various tools government had to change social behaviour.
Douglas Hague’s title was also interesting – “Transforming the Dinosaurs”. That was strong language to use about schools and universities!
And, in 1999, we had the Modernising Government paper – and the Cabinet Office (under Geoff Mulgan) produced fascinating papers on policy-making and the development of effective strategies. Part of the new weaponry was “evidence-based policy-making”.
The tools of (central) government seemed so clear! This was social engineering with a vengeance!
I realise that this does not appear to be very helpful to the parent whose child’s education is suffering from the disruptive behaviour. But bear with me......

Knowing Labour as well as I do (having been a paid-up member since 1959 and a leading regional councillor from 1974-1991), I was disappointed but not surprised that local government did not appear as one of the possible mechanisms of change. New Labour had already absorbed that power ethos which was revealed when Hartley Shawcross spoke in 1946 the famous words - “Now WE are the masters”. That phrase gave the game away – that voting was simply to facilitate “the circulation of the elites” who knew best. The ratonale was superbly set out in Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
Sixty years later the assumptions of the British system have not changed - those at the centre know best - so central targets are set; laws are passed; and complex and invasive control systems established. John Seddon has been one of several recent critics of this "command and control" model which the recent Cambridge University report on primary education rightly called Stalinist.
And just look at the mechanistic language we all find ourselves using - policy "tools"; "machinery" of government! For God's sake, don't we realise that we have allowed ourselves to be classified as machines - subject to a few people pulling levers. It was Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation http://books.google.com/books?id=h-f429ueNRYC&printsec=frontcover&lr=&rview=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false) who made us realise the different metaphors we use to describe organisations - and how much they affect our thinking and awareness of options.
Morgan suggests there are eight basic "images" viz organisations as "political systems", as "instruments of domination", as "cultures", as "machines", as "organisms", as "brains", as "psychic prisons", as "flux and transformation" and as "instruments of domination". And the machine metaphor is the most primitive!
Have we utterly forgotten the powerful critique about the counterproductivity of state measures eg James Scott's classic Seeing like a state - how certain schmes to improve the human condition have failed? (1999)
OK this is long enough for the moment! What I am trying to say is that dealing with an issue like disruptive behaviour requires us to step out of the centralist, machine model of government - and go to a very different way of thinking. Are the British people up to this? I shall try to develop this theme in subsequent blogs

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