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

Friday, December 11, 2009

my list of useful comparative papers on public management reform

Iain MacWhirter is one of the links I recommend in the sidebar – and yesterday’s post on the latest phase of the banker’s scam in the UK is a good example of his writing. Cold mist has been surrounding the house for the past few days – and the trees had a delicate glow of snow this morning. But usually the snow is deep by now.

Yesterday I was still collating what I consider are key references for my briefing note on public management reform efforts (in Europe) and beginning to give some thought to the sort of structure my note will need.
First, however, I need to reread the “seminal accounts” – which, despite the large number of academic titles on comparative work in this field, are fairly small in number since most academic overviews which purport to be comparative actually fall into one of two rather different categories. First there are the ad-hoc collections of case-studies illustrating the priorities of a particular country. The best of this are written around a common set of questions – but most leave it to the author to decide how he wants to write about an experience.
The second type is more comparative – but focussed on a particular tool or approach eg financial, performance management, personnel, agencies, decentralisation etc For example the 2008 book on Managing Performance – international comparisons by Brouckaert and Halligan. A weakness of these books for the practitioner is that they are written to gain points in the academic community – and have therefore to use whatever description they contain into a specialist discourse. Academic discourse is bad enough – but some of the recent post-modernist are evil!
It is for this reason that the most useful books from the practitioner point are those which have been specially commissioned for a customer in the state sector eg OECD or written by an international body. So far my list includes the following -

Public sector reform in Western Europe (1997) Overview paper by Toone and Raadschelder to a larger academic study
Why is it so difficult to reform public administration? Government of the future – getting from here to there (1999) Series of OECD Conference papers
Public Management Reform – a comparative analysis (2000); Academic book by Pollitt and Brouckaert
Performance or compliance – performance audit and public management in five countries (2002); Academic book by Chris Pollitt
International Public Administration Reform – implications for the Russian Federation (2003); Commissioned study by Nick Manning and Neil Parison of the World Bank
Evaluation in public sector reform – concepts and practice (2003); an academic book by Herbert Wollmann
Responses to country questionnaire (2005); national inputs to an OECD survey
International Comparison of UK’s public administration (2008); Report commissioned by National Audit Office
Commentary on international models of good government (2008); Report commissioned by National Audit Office

Perhaps the most useful are the Manning report and the second last paper.
The Manning report (about 400 pages) selects countries considered to have some common features with Russian which might make their experience interesting. These are - Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, UK, USA on which there are individual chapters. The analysis sets up a typology of perceived problems and subsequent reform tools. Then at the results – suggesting that some countries have forces of resistance which make them “low traction” – for which certain tools only are relevant
The NAO paper is perhaps the most intriguing.It suggests that good public administration can be defined by sets of “values”,” outcomes” and “enablers”.
Good PAs are responsive, transparent, accountable, equitable and have a public service ethos.
These can be measured by high quality services, public confidence and trust, good policy advice, culture of seeking value for money and “stability and continuity”
“Enablers” are Culture of performance, Management; Appropriately skilled public Administration; Good leadership; Capacity for change. The report then identifies comparative indices on these outcomes and enablers to rank the UK system

The paintings are all by Atanas Mihov (1879-1974) one of my favourites for his use of colour. Born Stara Zagora. Graduated 1904 from Drawing School. Sofia where he studied under Vesin and Mrkvichka. One of the initiators of Bulgarian realistic painting.
1906-09 teacher in Silistra; 1910-12 Razgrad; 1918-23 Russe. War artist during Balkan War and First WW. Settled in Sofia 1923 where he worked in Knyazhevoo until 1932. I wish I cd find out more about him

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Today was my father's birthday - he would have been 102 - the same age my mum reached! My
October 16th posting - "fathers" - was about him. I honour once again his memory - what he gave me and what he stood for. He would have appreciated this picture - boats, church and foreign places....

a day's reading

I vowed to do a blog each day – partly to encourage the tiny readership I have but also because it is an important discipline – writing is more challenging than talking – it reveals the gaps in your logic and information. And I’ve found it salutary to put on record some of the discoveries which give life its daily delight. And, when you’re a bookish sort of person, that will include insights gained from books. That indeed is one of the main purpose of the blog – to share useful references in the field in which I’ve chosen to spend so much of my life.
Anyway, I have failed to deliver on my daily quota – mainly because I was going through one of these phases of disgust with reading. I was bloated! Books and work – a life not quite in balance? More of that, perhaps, in another post. In the meantime I simply have to admire those such as Matthew Taylor (see links) who are able to make regular posts – with helpful references to the writings of others. One of features I admire in Matthew’s blogs is the honesty with which he confesses his self-doubts. There are millions of us “symbolic analysts” (as Robert Reich memorably called us) who spend our lives scribbling and meeting in ways which our ancestors would find shocking – and being well paid for it. No wonder that the angst sometime shows through!

OK enough of the guilt. What have I found in recent days which is worth sharing? My focus at the moment is a rather challenging assignment in China. Subject to final medical and visa clearance, I depart in 5 weeks and have now started to think myself into the task. I have first to prepare a “Baseline study” on the state of public administration reform there – imagine!! And, as part of that, to draft various briefing papers on the lessons from the countless initiatives of European states in this area eg performance and quality management.
I want to hit the ground running as far as the second part of the initial work is concerned and am therefore trying to first to track down as many recent assessments on the European experience as I can. I do my best to keep up to date – but it is only in the break between assignments that I have to do the surfing and reading which is needed. Earlier this year, for example, I discovered that I had missed quite a few key documents from the British Cabinet Office and yesterday I came across some interesting reports which the National Audit Office had commissioned from academics on innovation in the public sector. I’ve not been able to get separate internet references for the various documents but punch “innovation government” in the NAO search engine and you’ll get 3-4 interesting papers . The NAO also commissioned PWC to do a review of “Good Government” which focuses on France and USA.
The Cabinet Office has also published a useful study of what they regard as good government initiatives here
“Innovation”, “good government”, “improvement”, quality management”, “performance management” etc The language itself confuses – and, to some post-modernists, is itself the product. I hope to return to this issue which is referred to by the academics who have made this their specialism eg Boivard, Brouckaert, Loeffler, Peters, Pollitt. The European Group of Public Administration has lhad a special committee exploring the issue of productivity in the public sector for some years. Their papers can be accessed here You can see why I had no time yesterday to blog – I was too busy surfing!

I also came across an interesting overview from 2004 by Elaine KamarckShe made some intriguing references to the work of President Vincente Fox of Mexico (2000-2006) and when I googled this item I was referred to an article in an open electronic journal I had forgotten about – The International Public Management Review. A glance at the article on the Mexican experience of reform (by Dusaugge) persuaded me that their experience is very relevant to the Chinese! Read it for yourself at And today, I discovered the Scandinavian Journal of Politics – whose articles I am able to access courtesy of Wiley. Some fascinating accounts of what they’ve been up to which rarely get to the mainstream journals. Sorry I’m not able to share them – I’ll try to summarise at some point in the future.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

are human resources people?

I’ve mentioned already the inimitable, little bombshell called Scottish Review which pops 2-3 times a week into my electronic letterbox. It’s been demonstrating the critical skills which the mainline media have lost by conducting in recent months a simple and one-man campaign to make senior executive pay in Scottish public Agencies and public bodies (such as Health Boards) more transparent and has scored several palpable hits. More of that in a minute.
Today’s issue had a short piece sparked off by the author meeting some of his colleagues who had recently retired from middle-level positions in the public service, noticing how more relaxed they looked. “One in particular had been transformed from a tired and careworn individual to a man with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. These were not people who had been in the wrong job, or had lost interest in their professional responsibilities. On the contrary, they had given many years of good service but had simply been ground down by the system and, in the end, were glad to get out. They mentioned a variety of factors which had made retirement a welcome release (or, in a few cases, had impelled them to seek early retirement): the lack of any acknowledgement of their contribution; endless pressure to increase output; the insane demands of an oppressive bureaucracy; less and less time to attend to the matters that they regarded as priorities; periodic restructurings which achieved nothing; managers who failed to inspire trust or respect

The writer (Walter Humes) concludes thus “
Despite all the 'supportive' measures introduced by Human Resource units, significant numbers of long-standing employees have ceased to experience the job satisfaction that motivated them previously and have been glad to escape the constraints of the workplace. Their experience should be taken seriously and used as a basis for reviewing current assumptions about how to treat staff. There is a difference between getting the most out of people and getting the best out of them. In my experience, staff are motivated not by the proliferation of back-covering ‘policies’ and so-called 'entitlements', but by a simple combination of clear expectations, fair treatment, recognition of achievement, backing at times of difficulty, and leadership by example. Underlying all of this is a disturbing question. What kind of people rise to the top when the prevailing culture is one which employs a dishonest rhetoric of employee care, and which alienates the genuinely good guys to the point where they simply want out? It seems a recipe that will allow the calculating, the self-seeking and the cynical to flourish. This perhaps explains why some of our public services are so urgently in need of radical reform. The barbarians are not just at the gate: in some cases, they are running the place”
. For the full article see here
Interesting that I should read this the same day I accessed a very good paper by Chris Demmke of the European Institute of Public Administration which reviews recent development in HRM in European member states - What are Public Services Good at? Success of Public Services in the Field of Human Resource Management; Study Commissioned by the Slovenian EU Presidency Professor Dr. Christoph Demmke/Thomas Henökl, Researcher, EIPA and Timo Moilanen, Researcher, University of Helsinki (EIPA May 2008)
To get a true picture, we always need both academics and vox pop!

Finally revenons aux moutons – pay for senior public executives. Kenneth Roy, the courageous editor of this great little publication, wonders in today’s posting whether the Prime Minister has perhaps been following his campaign. Gordon Brown spoke out strongly yesterday about naming and shaming highly paid senior executives in the public sector. One of them actually stated that he would work for 20% less! In recent postings Roy has been questioning the effectiveness of bodies such as Audit Scotland which are supposedly responsible for ensuring that all is well financially in public bodies

A comment from Marianna Clyde gives a sense of the significance of Roy’s campaign -
Well done on lifting the lid on Audit Scotland. There is indeed a cosy little world of consultants and private accountants benefitting at the public expense while the rest of us suffer. And what does Audit Scotland's staff do all day when their work is done for them by private contractors? And doesn't that rather go against the spirit of 'independent auditing' to hire outside firms? How independent is that?
It is also pretty extraordinary that 'in Scotland, executives and non-executives in public bodies have the right to withhold their consent for disclosure [of salaries] and neither the Auditor General nor Audit Scotland can compel them'. Why? What is the legal basis for this? There is a popular conceit in Scotland that we are naturally a more democratic and egalitarian people than the English, and that the coming of the Scottish Parliament would return us to our 'natural' state. But such disclosures dispel such comfortable myths and show a lazy, slavish, sluggish society apparently at ease with the legitimacy of 'reputation management' as a morally acceptable political technique, a society so comfortable with being managed it has subsumed its critical apparatus and is content to suffer vast and unjust inequalities without asking 'why'? But perhaps no more, if the Scottish Review continues to illuminate the dark corners and ask the awkward questions and expose the fact that Scotland is run by a cliquey, self-satisfied, self-regarding establishment of public sector grandees aided and abetted by their worshipful acolytes in the media and their equally moribund, uncurious politicians in the parliament. Never since the Letters of Zeno appeared in the Caledonian Mercury in December 1782 ('sleep, in a state, leads to slavery' – Zeno) criticising the lack of accountability of the political system of that time, which kick-started the political reform movment, has a series of articles done more to expose the shortcomings of a growing, unaccountable managerial elite and the growth of its management machine. It would be interesting to know what work the 'consultants' employed by Audit Scotland did. For my hopes for a vibrant, genuinely democratic Scottish society I sincerely wish 'reputation management' wasn't one of them!"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

back in mountains

Romania is an amazing country - with many beautiful places even if the wine, paintings and hospitality are not as impressive as its neighbour, Bulgaria. But Bucharest is a disaster - and kills creativity. That's the reason for the absence of blogging. The last few days have been dreich - but I drove this morning through the mist and was rewarded by the sights of the peaks of the Bucegi mountains - both at Busteni on the main road to Brasov and here in the house.
For an excellent take on the moral implications of the UK banking scandal - see Craig Murray's post of 5 December - "pity he wasn't a banker". Interesting for us Scots that "banker" rhymes with "wanker"!