Monday, March 22, 2010
cookbooks and desert islands
I have hundreds of books about public admin reform in my library (mainly in my virtual library). But what beneficiaries want to know is - "What's the bottom line? We know that academics talk a lot of shit Just tell us what we should do. Give us a manual...."
I am always excited when I discover such manuals. And I will shortly try to put onto the website some of the more useful texts I have found in my work. However, when I was asked recently to bid for a project which would have required me to draft about 10 such manuals, I declined.
Let me explain why.
I love cooking - and have quite a collection of cookery books. I think 50 at the last count. They get increasingly attractive and popular. Millions of copies are bought. (They also seem to be getting heavier! I use one as a door stopper - The Cook's Book - step-by-step techniques and recipes for success every time from the world's top chefs).
The curious thing, however, is how little I actually use them to cook with! They are nice to glance at. They certainly get the juices and inspiration running. But I then will do one of two things. Often, from laziness or fear of failure and ridicule, I will return to my tried and tested recipes. But sometimes I will experiment, using the recipe as an inspiration - partly because I don't actually have all of the ingredients which I am told are required but partly because it's more fun! There's a moral there!
Or think of all the self-help (and diet) books which have been published in the last 50 years. I have a fascinating book 50 self-help classics - 50 inspirational books to transform your life from timeless sages to contemporary gurus. Have they made people happier, slimmer?? Can they?
The word "manual" comes from the world of military, construction or do-it-yourself. Manuals give (or should!) clear and logical descriptions of the steps required to assemble a machine or artefact. Human beings and organisations are not, however, machines!!
There are no short-cuts to organisational change - although the project cycle management approach which is the basis of EC Technical Assistance would have us believe there are!!
A marvellous book appeared in 1991 (sadly long out of print) and set out and classified 99 different - and mutually inconsistent - principles and injunctions which various serious writers had offered over the decades for helping managers in the public sector operate it effectively!
And more than a decade ago, two books ridiculed the simplistic nature of the offerings of management consultants in the private sector. Management Gurus - what makes them and how to become one appeared in 1996 (one of my googlebooks) and The Witchdoctors-making sense of the management gurus (also 1996). If the books had any effect, it was only to drive consultants into the more gullible public sector! (see Daid Craig's "Plundering the Public Sector" for proof that I'm not joking!)
I used to criticise the EC for not giving any intellectual leadership to those working on its programmes of technical assistance. Well, they have certainly made up for lost time in the last few years. At the last count I had 12 substantial manuals in my virtual library from them, the last one with the curious sub-title of " backbone strategy" (for improving the operation of their PIUs). But, in my view at any rate, they are not fit for much.
One of the longest- running and appreciated radio programmes in the UK is BBC's Desert Island Discs. The format is simple. A famous person is interviewed about his/her life and, on the belief that they have been shipwrecked and have to select the most important music and a single book to keep them company. Excerpts of their favourite music are played. At the end, the question is asked "Apart from the bible, what book would you wish to take with you??"!! (Presumably they now add "or Koran"?)
The question for today is what single book would you put in the hands of your beneficiary?
In Uzbekistan I gave the Deputy Prime Minister I was working with either Guy Peter's The Future of Governing; four emerging models or Chris Hood's The art of the state (see my google books). I think it was the former. Both books suggest that all writing on government reform can be reduced to 4 schools of thinking. This sort of classification I always find helpful.
In Azerbaijan, I gave my beneficiary (who was subsequently appointed Minister for the new Civil Service Agency which came from my work) a Russian version of Robert Greene's "48 laws of power"! Greene is a modern Machiavelli. And life for a reformer is tough in Azerbaijan!
And, in the mid-1990s, I used to buy and distribute Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Effective People since it was about the only title in those days translated into central european languages.
If you had to choose one book for your beneficiary, what would it be??