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

O lucky man!

An Uzbek graphic

"O Lucky man!" was a left-wing British film of the 1970s with a great theme song by Alan Price. I consider myself a fortunate man – given opportunities to take part in the mysteries of governing at an early age and not succumbing to cynicism. Essentially – I suspect – because I’ve played several professional roles since I left university – 17 years teaching (latterly in urban management) overlapping with 22 years of strategic leadership in first local and then regional government; and, finally, 19 years of consultancy to governments and state bodies of the transition countries of central Europe and central Asia. And, in each of these roles, I’ve faced conundra such as -
- what can government systems realistically do to deal with the huge problem of social exclusion?
- whether a new type of public management can be created which is more sensitive to citizen needs
- the role of external adviser in countries trying to create pluralist systems

Since 1970 I’ve tried to make sense of the challenges I’ve been involved with in various countries by writing about them – relating the various projects to the wider literature in the field – and generally being lucky enough to have the results published. This way I have certain “reality checks” on the way I was seeing and thinking about things along the way.

But we have a saying - “Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach”. And it’s certainly true that leaders of organisations do not make good witnesses about the whys and wherefores of the business they’re in. Most political and business autobiographies are shallow and self-serving. Even with the best of intentions, it seems almost impossible for an active executive to distance himself from the events which (s)he’s been involved in to be able to explain properly events – let alone draw out general lessons which can help others.
And, on the other side, can the teachers actually teach? Academic books and articles about the reform of government have churned from the press in ever larger numbers over the last 50 years. Do they tell a convincing story? More to the point, do they actually help the aspiring reformer? Or do they, rather, confuse him and her – whether by style, length or complexity? Indeed, how many of them are actually written to help the reformer – as distinct from making an academic reputation? And quite a few give the sort of directions an Irishman is famed for giving some tourists who stopped to find the way – “Sure and if were you, I widna start from here!”

what’s the question?
In the first 20 years of my work (in Scotland), my questions related to structures of power in local government – between officials, politicians and community activists. How could we structure better dialogue to produce results for marginalised groups? Some of the answers I felt I had by the mid 1990s can be found at section 6 below. I was, however, fighting against the tide in Thatcher Britain – whose agenda for change was rather more brutal. Truth be told, I had some sympathies for her approach – there was too much complacency in the various professions but she did throw the baby out with the bathwater....I sometime say that I was a political refugee – from Thatcher’s Britain – since she was emasculating the local government system to which I was committed (if ever critical) and I was happy to accept an invitation in 1990 from the Head of WHO (European Public Health) to help WHO try to build constituencies for reform in public health in the newly-liberated countries of central and east Europe.

In the last 20 years, the questions for me have been even more fundamental – how to create a language for reform? I have, since 1991, been living and working in countries where English was a foreign language; and in which there were few shared professional concepts. To those, however, who argued that I could not understand the local context I simply replied that I recognised so well the bureaucratic syndrome from what I had seen and worked through in the West of Scotland in the 1970s. In that sense, my life has been a fight against bureaucracy. My first book was written to throw light on the workings of the new system of Scottish local government in 1976 – it was called “The Search of Democracy”. It’s sad that – 30 years on – people seem still to be looking for it!
For the longer draft, of which this is the opening section, see "key papers" on my website 

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