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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

cost of living

Still no internet connection. I had hoped to do a deal with our landlord and split the cost of a stick with him – but the card apparently doesn’t buy much time online – part of a litany of cost and service issues he warned us arise from living in France. These (and decline in value of pound) has, he said, turned the flow of Brits to the area of the past decade into a reverse flow. Brits, however, account for only about 4% of the households (8% of the houses in Reminiac). I had a feeling before I came that the visit might actually tell me that buying here would not be a practical proposition – and so it is proving.
A charming old bibliotheque municipale in Malestroit (silent “t”) seemed to have internet facilities but had just closed for a 3 hour lunch break – giving us the opportunity to dawdle at the canal; see the inside of a 1,000 old house (invited by a couple who were treating their stonework); and try out some more supermarkets – including gone whose name seemed to suggest they were actually a Casino!)
Beef seems very expensive – but I got a pork “Promo” – 2 kilos for 7 euros!
We joined the small queue waiting for the “mediatheque” (as it calls itself) to open – were kindly received and ushered upstairs to a PC and I was able to retrieve the telephone numbers of the estate agents and re-establish contact. One agent phoned me immediately and passed me to their branch in Ruffiac. Before dropping in there, I gave my desiderata to an agent in Malestroit and arranged to visit him next Wednesday.
How, we watched the TV for the first time – mainly a constant replay of the gaffe made by Brown who was caught calling a 65 year old “a bigot” after apparently having an amicable conversation with her. Not only was it hypocritical but he was heard trying to identify who was responsible for suggesting he talk to her –confirming all the gossip about his being a control freak . At the moment the race is a remarkable three-way one – with the first of a first-ever series of Prime Ministerial debates having given the LibDem leader an opportunity which he had grasped with 4 hands.

settling in

In to Malestroit to try to get connected to mobile and net systems. The net system has been down in the village for a day or so – this apparently is a common occurrence. Manage the mobile – but the 69 euros charged by Orange for an internet stick (plus the normal access charges) seemed too much for one month’s use. The ocean is some 45 minutes away – so we paid our respects and also popped into Carrefour which was also very quiet. Have been looking for some of the titles of one of Brittany’s best modern authors – Michel Mohrt as I remember his name from my reading here some 30 years ago. But the combination of fashion and modernity has wiped such authors from these shelves. Let’s hope we can find a decent bookshop – even better livres d’occasion - somewhere (Rennes presumably)

We woke up on Monday morning to a delightful chorus of birdsong. For Daniela the immediate task was to clean the car – as it has never been cleaned before. Then off to Malestroit – which the Nantes- Brest canal crosses. It is a charming small medieval town/village but as quiet as a cemetery on a Monday as we had been warned it would be in rural France. But the Super U was open and we emerged with 140 euros worth of goodies. In even the smallest settlement 2-3 of these supermarket chains seem to be battling it out – little wonder that so many hamlets seem to be dead. Certainly it was the quietest supermarket I have ever seen.
In the evening I found amongst the books in the house a 1969 thriller by Alaister McLean. Based in Amsterdam and dealing with the drug trade, I was actually impressed with its language.

arrival in Reminiac

A lordly breakfast in a large dining room with matching grand fireplace. A last walk around the superb garden and then off to see Saumur on Loire. First to find petrol – a difficult task on a French Sunday! Saumur was very solid and bourgeois. We stocked up with goat cheese and Chinon wine – fruitshops are not only open but stock other goods. Tried to drive along the Loire – but it was elusive. Angers was the first real find – quite charming. But breathtaking was the castle of Chateaubrillant. After that it was an easy cruise to Reminiac - via Guer. 25 kilometres or so before that we passed by the Brest canal.
Having found the cottage at 16.00, we quickly unloaded and retraced our steps some 6 kms to visit a marche aux puces (vide le grenier) at Monteneuf. Despite the late arrival, there were still quite a few good things to snap up – including a “wine toolkit”. As I’ve never seen such a box of instruments before, I don’t know what else to call this collection of wine pourers, thermometer, stopper etc. Daniela’s find was a neat silver butter holder – suitably aristocratic looking after our Saumur experience. Thereafter a snack of Italian and French cheeses and pate on the patio – washed down with Soave and Slovenian white wine and merlot d’Oc.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

day five - we hit the brick wall at saumur

Approaching the 3,000 kilometres and reaching the limits....The weather and scenery is pleasant enough but not the mood. Away from the autoroutes, the landscape and mansions are superb as I head for Nevers (wasn’t that the town which figured in Hiroshima Mon Amour?).
After Bourges, I pick up the signs for Nantes – but still 300 kilometres away so clearly it’s going to be a very long haul to make in one day.
At Saumur, we pull out of the last autoroute at 15.00 and find immediately a helpful tourist information. A chambre d’hotes with internet connection is our priority – and we find just what we need spiritually as well in the village of Allonnes at Le Grand Logis dthomann@wanadoo.fr
Words can’t do justice to the calm and civility we found with the Thomann family – in a house on the main street which seemed 2 centuries old but which was apparently built be an American lady 80 years earlier. Our room gave on to a patio behind which stretched a large garden full of trees. The sun was shining strongly as we made a fruitless search for a restaurant in the vicinity. Frustrating to go through so many degustations and be unable to imbibe! But a trip to the supermarket boosted the fare we then ate al fresco on the patio – on the table which had just been cleaned from winter ware. And the red Slovenian wine and Italian aqua de vita was shared with the Thomann’s who reciprocated with red Chinon wine and a powerful 1997 home-brewn l’eau de vie. The conversation was good! And the repast so much better than any we could have had in a restaurant.

Day four - the Frejus tunnel and the rhone valley

Despite the fatigue of the previous day, I was up early to catch the magic hill town before it stirred. And to capture some of the sights and angles on camera. Quite amazing that a church with such a long naive can grace the grounds of a hill town!
We were in no hurry to leave – had a leisurely coffee in a cafe which seemed to act more as a cultural centre and hive of village activity.

Then at 10.00 back on the autostrada which became increasingly gloomy and busy as we approached Milan. Thereafter the traffic lessened as we passed Turin and we were almost alone as we headed into the mist-shrouded mountains. Our target was the Frejus tunnel – reached with about 5 previous tunnels of 2-6 kilometre length. The Frejus tunnel is 13.8 km long – and cost a hefty 37 euros!
Then, suddenly, it was the French radio; the end of the banter and the return of serious conversation and music! But French road tolls seem even more expensive. We sailed round Chambery and on to Lyon and the rhone valley. I was aiming for Macon but we came off at Villefranche – where it was really difficult to find accommodation. Best Western offered 80 euros and no breakfast. A nasty room above a pub cost 43. We searched around the station area to no avail – and eventually found a motel-type place just next to the poll booth for 50 euros. What a contrast the room was from the Soave room! The hotel was, however, located in a park – with all the fragrances of the countryside. We dined on bread, tasty Italian salami, Romanian cheese and Soave wine. And then, with a sniff of grappa, to bed!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Day three - through Slovenia, a Trieste encounter and a step back in time

Day three started early – by 08.00 we were on the motorway crossing into Slovenia without actually noticing. Pulled in guiltily 30 kilomtres later to but a vignette to be legit driving on thier roads. Then into Maribo – for a quick drive around - Surprised to find that we were in a euros zone! So some purchases of Slovene wines.
Llyubiana was not a success - we hit it when the civil servants were taking their lunch. And the strong bean soup was too much for our weakened stomachs.
The idea had been to stay at Trieste - but by now the enormity of our journey was beginning to dawn on us - so we decided to press further to Treviso perhaps.
At Trieste we hit pure Italian pantomime - with 2 young men unable to tell us where we cd access the auotostrada. The issue was determined by a leather-jacketed woman who countermanded the male instructions.
Veneto proved to be a longer route than I had imagined. But the becastled skyline suddenly caught our attention at Soave. As we entered its walls, Agroturism advertised itself and was eventually found via a dirtrack which snaked through vineyards and up steep incclines. It was charming but expensive at 65 euros and challenging in its location. So Back to Soave where we found perfection just inside the castle wall.
The inn had apparently been such for centuries – with the large restaurant being the place for the horses. Our room on the first floor was reached via a hallway with massive beam roofing and located next to the old wall fortification which surrounds the town. Its fittings gave a delightful 17th century ambiance – particularly the creaking old oak cupboard. And dinner was tasty and sociable – with a great conversation with dapper Jean Piatro – whose initial friendly advice on the restaurant and whose ubiquity led me to take for the owner - seemed to have been as nomadic as me in his life. Now semi-retired, he spends 3 days doing some sort of work in the town and uses the inn as his base.
And Soave is, of course, where the famous wine comes from – and our English word suave!
Amazingly this village town is not in rough guide!!

through Hungary on day 2

End of day 5 – with 3,100 kilometres on the clock and another 300 kilometres probably between Saumur and Josselin.
The second day was very enjoyable, sunny driving in the quiet, rural southern redoubts of Hungary – with a brief foray into hilly Austro-Hungarian Pecs (we missed the minaret). A storm was brewing (in more senses than one!) as we nosed into Nagykanisza.
Difficult to sense any accomodation - a promised tourist bureau never materialised and we cruised around for about half an hour before we found an excellent large room in a central hotel which gave the sense of having been a Ministry in austro-hungarian days. I found a pizzeria which offered very tasty local Cesar wine (particularly the white - Riesling). Worth buying!!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Ten hours – for a 600 kilometre journey from Romania’s capital to one of its most western city. That is, I suppose, a pretty good measure of how bad Romanian roads and road management are. First the 100 kilometre stretch of its only “Motorway” – although it’s difficult to use that term of a badly constructed 2-lane construct. Then wasting at least an hour in making 2 wrong turns at Pitesti – where M-way signs make no mention of Timisoara or Arad. The maps offer no help in working out what might be the best route – east to the Danube and the iron gorge which I vaguely remember from a journey 15 years ago or north through Hunedoara county. We compromise and take a middle route.
At least twice we are required to make very dangerous U-turns – and the spectacular road north from Trg Jiu starts with a stretch so pot-holed the traffic is reduced to a 10 kmh crawl. Other roads, we are warned, are worse!
Roads and road management, it seems to me, say a lot about a country’s spirit and administrative capacity. Think of Hitler’s autobahns, And Germanic discipline at the traffic lights. In Baku, I suggested that the utter contempt shown for pedestrians was an important index for their public admin system. Of course, while it was true that the sharing of responsibilities for Baku’s road system between 4 agencies did make action difficult, there does have to be the intent – which was missing in Baku’s plutocratic environment! Romania’s current President was Transport Minister – albeit briefly before he ran and won Bucharest City as a better stepping stone to real power. He minces no words – but I haven’t heard him talk about the scandal of his country’s transport system.

And, while we’re on the subject of travel, let me mention another internet discovery - hidden-europe

Monday, April 19, 2010

keeping traditions alive

Had a nice time visiting the Carturesti bookshop yesterday – which spreads over about 7 floors and offers delightful varieties of tea and sweets. Emerged with about 12 books - many about Bucharest. It may be a city I profess to hate – but, amongst the aggression of the traffic and monstrosities of both Ceacescu and post-modernity, are so many glimpses of superb architecture from another world. Hats off to Arcub (the Arch association) which has produced a 3rd edition of their Bucharest – architecture and modernity, an annotated guide which offers a very friendly guide to the best of the buildings in the city. 344 of them to be precise! At another level, there is the flamboyant The Romanian National Style – produced with the support of the Administration of the National Cultural Fund. It’s beautifully produced with glorious detail – often in full-page spreads. And all for less than 10 euros!
In Romanian language only is historian Adrian Majuru’s Bucuresti- diurn si nocturn – a collection of stories about people. He is one of the few who has tried to kick up a fuss about the neglect of the old buildings here.
Moving to modern times, Magda Carneci and Dan Hayon offer Bucuresti – a collection of smells – which captures, in whimsical black and white pictures, the sights a sharp-eyed walker can glimpse in the city. Amazingly, I also picked up Bucharest 2010 – survival guide for expats – which is a very useful collection of addresses and recommendations. I didn’t think the city was a place for ex-pats!
Romanian food also figured on the purchase list – I would recommend very highly the English version of Romanian dishes, wines and customs by Radu Anton Roman. A lovely collection of recipes, regional commentary and black and white pics of old Romania. A gem – worth every euro of its 15 euro price. More prosaic is A Taste of Transylvania produced by Maureen Carnell for the Hospice movement here.

My real finds I have kept to the last – first a small notebook for 2010 for craftsman and craftsmanship produced by a non-profit association dedicated to keeping alive the old building crafts. Exactly what I had been asking for while we were redoing our old house – and having the schite tiles put on the roof. Apart from the illustrations, there are lists of the masters of the various crafts (stove builders, blacksmiths etc) with their telephone numbers. Some of the names are amazing – mesteri de cuptoare; mesteri in impletituri; chirpicar; caramidar; stufar. The association website is www.ahiterra.ro
And, finally, a book about Italian cooking – but not any book – Beaneaters and bread soup – portraits and recipes from Tuscany by Lori de Mori and Jason Lowe. This must be one of the most beautiful books ever – both in its concept, language, pictures and layout. It is a real celebration not only of the simple, old cooking – but of the individual craftsmen in Tuscany who keep the tradition alive.

My thanks to Valentin Mandache and his great blog (Historic Houses of Romania) for the photograph which graces this entry. I didn't have such a picture and surfed to find one. I'm delighted to havefound such a blog.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

free schools?

Blogs will be rare over the next few weeks – so let me leave you with this picture of one of the views from our balcony. It was almost 2 years ago we bought our first digital camera - but only yesterday I saw fit to insert the software for the transfer of pictures to the laptop. I failed the first time - but succeeded after de-installing. I felt quite proud of myself!
The Guardian has a discussion about the idea floated in the Conservative manifesto to allow parents to set up schools – or rather to undertake a procurement process to select an organisation to run a school for them. Participants included a Swede who belongs to a private company which runs about 30 such schools in Sweden.
The manifesto commitment (regardless of its merits) raises two issues about the policy-making process in UK. Raising important ideas in this way – in the last few weeks before an election – hardly seems the best way to obtain robust and effective policies. Secondly, it’s another example of the continuing temptation of ideas and practice being parachuted into systems for sheer novelty affect – rather than emerging from a careful assessment and development of present systems. In 2002 Ross McKibbin had a powerful critique of English educational policy-making in the London Review of Books -
For those wanting to know more about the Swedish system (admittedly from a Conservative Think-Tank) see
I mentioned Jo Epstein yesterday. Here’s an interview -
Have just come across the marvellous wikigallery of paintings – the best I’ve yet encountered. A larger range of paintings than any other site I know; thematically connected; and, of course, giving the possibility of uploading your own suggestions. So its now duly inserted on the links at the right hand of this page. I came across it thanks to a reference in today’s Sunday Herald to the Scottish painter Sir James Guthrie (born apparently in my hometown!) who belonged to the painting school known as the Glasgow Boys.
I have a great passion for the Bulgarian landscape painters for the first half of the 20th century - who are simply not known outside of their country. So today I uploaded one of Mario Zhekov's paintings (which I have already used a couple of times on the blog)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A treatise on our present discontents

Today’s literary discovery – thanks to one of my favourite websites - - is an essayist called Joseph Epstein who muses about the approach of death in a very elegant yet simple essay - Symphony of a lifetime - . And some civilised reactions from readers
I googled him but found only one of his 19 books - On Friendship – which looks delightful. Amazon has a few – and I have put a couple of his collections of essays on writers in my basket.

The day has dawned bright – but still chilly. No signs here of the volcanic ash (from an Iceland volcano) which has grounded half of Europe’s planes. Political leaders are stuck all over the place – Angela Merkel having to drop into Lisbon (shades of Candide) on her way back from the States; the Portugese President in Prague; the Swedish PM apparently ruling the country by twitter in another airport! John Cleese makes a 3,500 euros taxi journey. The UK running out of fruit. Shows you the vulnerability of our systems these days.

Tony Judt’s ILL fares the Land – a treatise on our present discontents is a stunning essay by one of our best historians on how far western societies have fallen in the last 30 years in the pursuit of efficiency. Doom and gloom books are ten a penny these days – full of ecological disasters, commercial greed, academic simpletons and political pygmies. Prescriptions are rather more rare (Will Hutton and David Korton are exceptions). Probably only a historian can give us this sort of perspective on how the model of “social democracy” which seemed to have emerged a stunning victor in the ideological struggle of the 20th century so quickly was consigned, in its turn, to the waste basket. And with what catastrophic results. Of course, we have heard the story of neo-liberalism and its legacy many times before. But, generally, from journalists, economists or campaigners in a fairly strident manner. Judt suggests the story is a bit more complicated – with the new left having to shoulder considerable blame for its stress in the 1960s on “rights”. However legitimate the claims of individuals and the importance of their rights, emphasising these carries an unavoidable cost; the decline of a shared sense of purpose. Gated communities are the result.
The book’s language is simple to the point of elegance – probably because his debilitating illness required it to be transcribed from his spoken word. But the words (and chapter headings and sub-headings) reflect the vast range of his reading and knowledge. This is a very rare book in which a highly intelligent and sensitive historian takes stock of what he has learned in his life - in an effort to give the younger generation both a memory and some hope.
I was initially disappointed at the smallness of the book – but its contents and message and the format given to it by the publisher make it a book to treasure and consult for a long time to come.

understanding and acting

The object of education is not to learn but to unlearn (Chesterton)

To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle (Orwell)

Two nice quotations – the first from the Grey book on studying organisations, the second from Tony Judt’s ill Fares the Land which I read with great enthusiasm. I'll come back to it another day

The book on “studying organisations” finished by recommending eleven books (a football team?) “about the things discussed in the book”. It has encouraged me to try to produce a list of recommended reading for those who want to (a) try to fathom what makes their organisation tick and (b) change it. (As “someone” (!) once said “philosophers have hitherto merely interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”).
I will need time to make the selection – so I will start today with some of my favourite writers in “the field”; then flag up some criteria for the selection; and, finally, make some initial nominations.
And the books and writers will hopefully do justice to all types of organisations (public; commercial; non-profit)
Obviously a book which someone finds insightful reflects both that individual’s experience and the wider context of that moment or zeitgeist. And it is impossible to keep up with new publications in one field – let alone the several I trespass across......

My (Eleven) Recommended Books on organisations will almost certainly contain a book from the following writers – although it will be difficult to select just a single book for each.

Robert Greenleaf – one of his books on stewardship
Charles Handy – perhaps not so much his Understanding Organisations as one of his more autobiographical books. Gods of Management is perhaps a good start.
Roger Harrison – whose Collected Papers represent a rare study of an organisational developer in action and willing to show how his ideas have changed
Hutton, Will - whose last 3 books (The State We’re in; The World We’re in; and The Writing on the Wall) have been a marvellous exposition of the wider socio-economic and ideological systems which give organisations their legitimacy.
Korton, David When Corporations Rule the World (1995) opened my eyes to the history of the commercial company. His later writings are more disappointing (eg The Great Turning)
Lessem, Ronnie – from whose prolific output it is difficult to choose. I chose Management Diversity through cultural diversity (1998) in my blog of October 23 about the books which had made an impact on me in the last 20 years.

To make the final selection, a book needs to satisfy 4 criteria –
• Offers a richer way of looking at the world – whether by introducing a new perspective or setting out typologies which allow us to understand differences
• Be written clearly and simply
• Be open-minded, non-dogmatic, generous
• Inspire and encourage action

First nominations -

Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisations - for the way he demonstrates that our thinking about organisations is governed by metaphors (as machine, brain, organism, political systems, instruments of domination, psychic prisons, flux and transformation and cultures)

Then 2 books which each offer typologies of thinking about ways of organising government systems -
Guy Peters The Future of Governing – four emerging models – which first describes the classic modern assumptions about government which have been challenged in the last 3 decades by "market models", "the Participatory State" , "Flexible Government" and "Deregulated Government".
Chris Hood’s Art of the State offers four models - hierarchist, individualist, egalitarian, fatalist and is particularly good in exploring their typical policy responses.

Harrison and Bramson’s Art of Thinking – suggests that people have very different ways of approaching problems and that we will operate better in teams if we understand what our own style is and that others think in different ways. He offers 5 styles - synthesist, pragmatist, idealist, realist and analyst (and combinations thereof).

Skynner and Clease’s Life – and how to survive it. A therapist and leading British comic have a Socratic dialogue about the principles of healthy (family) relationships and then use these to explore the preconditions for healthy organisations and societies: and for leadership viz -
- valuing and respecting others
- ability to communicate
- willingness to wield authority firmly but always for the general welfare and with as much consultation as possible while handing power back when the crisis is over)
- capacity to face reality squarely
- flexiblity and willingness to change
- belief in values above and beyond the personal or considerations of party.

Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox - which critiques the rationalistic way policy analsis is generally undertaken and then shows the different meanings which can be given to the 4 of the principles governments try to pursue - equality, Efficiency, Security and Liberty. The final part of the book looks at the type of language used by groups for portraying policy problems - symbols, numbers, causes, interests and decisions.

JQ Wilson’s Bureaucracy – what government agencies do – and why they do it

S Zuboff’s The Support Economy about which I’ve written in this blog already.

Friday, April 16, 2010

studying organisations

I have now finished “A very short, reasonably interesting and fairly cheap book about studying organisations” by Chris Grey and, frankly, am disappointed. It promised much at the start – with iconoclastic attacks on the types of writing about organisations - but left me, at the end, only with the impression sociologists generally do and which indeed the author anticipates half way through in a paragraph entitled - Why are you always carping?You may well be thinking, he says, something along the lines – will nothing ever satisfy you? Older approaches to organisations have been condemned as dehumanising and degrading. Human-relations-type approaches are manipulative. Culture management is brainwashing. Now we have non-hierarchical, personally-focused and trust-based organisations (he attacks Richard Semmler’s writing about Semco) and you are still whinging”. Quite!
I know you can’t say a great deal about the study of organisations in 180 pages – but the book's de-constructivism is a bit repetitive.
And I was shocked to see no references to those whose study of organisations were practically grounded and focussed – eg those associated with the Tavistock Institute such as Emery and Trist; or Revans (action-learning). No mention of Eliott Jacques who was associated with Glacier Metal. Nor of the OD consultant, Roger Harrison, who worked with Charles Handy (also not mentioned) on the idea of organisational cultures (The Gods of Management). Ronnie Lessem was also a fascinating writer.

One of Grey’s central questions is why writing in this field is so boring – but he has missed so many individuals whose writing IS interesting. Perhaps because the focus of his book is on the study of organisations in business schools (about which he has a separate chapter). And he does make the point that American writers are considered there the guru figures. Most of the people I have mentioned are British! The title therefore is misleading – he should have added that qualification.
And a lot of money and energy is spent on the study of organisations in the public sector – which hardly figures in his book. Granted the models people use for this work draws on the fashions of the private sector - and perhaps it deserves a separate book. But some references would still be appropriate.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

DIY Government

The UK Conservative manifesto apparently contains a commitment to give citizens more of a say in running government – introducing Swiss-style referenda; election of police chiefs; allowing parents to take over failing schools. Jon Henley of the Guardian suggests that this is part of the larger trend of DIY in society which, he argues, is creating mediocrity. The piece is worth reading. He would appreciate this picture of Kyrgyzs in the office of the President they had just helped oust!

I don’t, however, agree with his argument and found my own thoughts chimed more with this reaction to another article on the issue -
My heritage is old Labour friendly and mutual societies and co-ops and the Workers Education Association, and Mechanics Institutes. It's about people volunteering to be school governors, or magistrates or simply keeping an eye on the old lady that lives on her own. It's about the old miner that gets his mower out to do the bit of grass at the end of the road that the council always forget - because he has pride in his community. It's about self help and helping others. It's about communities deciding to do something for themselves rather than waiting to have something done for them.
It's a community idea. It should be our idea. If we were really left wing it would be our idea and we wouldn't have left a hole there for the Conservatives to fill with this version. Why have we now decided to tell people that they can't run anything themselves and they need some bureaucrat to provide services for them. And why do we wonder people don't bother to vote.

For more see here

Yesterday we paid our local taxes at the village municipality– 25 euros for the house and 20 euros for the acres of land we have around the house and up the hill. The latter is about double what it was last year – and about time! The village needs more resources. Still no resolution of the water metre and installation issue which the mayor promised us would be settled at the start of the year.
Then drove to Predeal for Daniela to catch the train – via one of the antique shops in Rasnov. As a result, I am now (again) the proud owner of a music keyboard. I bought a new one 15 years ago in Mojmirovce (Slovakia) and donated it to the Methodist Church when I left. This one I negotiated for 100 euros. There was also a very solid armchair for 40 euros – but too large for the Cielo. It will have to await the new 4-wheel!

A few blogs back I said some kind words about Ploiesti – here is their municipal website
Despite the latest Amazon delivery, I’m waiting for the next box which will contain Tony Judt’s latest book “Ill fares the Land”. The new issue of New York Review of Books has just arrived in my electronic mail and contains an excerpt from the book.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

what makes us tick?

More Amazon books and the return of our car – which was getting a last fit-out before the big trip from one of these car mechanic treasures you meet only once in a lifetime. He has a garage in Bran and has such a positive and open attitude.
The latest books are challenging – two radical perspectives on organisations - A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations by Chris Grey and Against Management by Martin Parker. Then Basic Instincts – human nature and the new economics by Pete Lunn.
For light relief I have The Collected Dorothy Parker; and Perry Anderson’s latest collection of political essays - The new old world - which this time deals with Europe.

Twenty years in foreign fields makes you more aware of the assumptions organisational designers make (generally without realising) about the motives of staff and others whose behaviour they are trying to change. For several years, I’ve been playing around with a table to illustrate the point I generally try to make to my local counterparts that change requires using more tools than just diktat or a new law. The latest version is hidden as table 13 in my 2008 paper Learning from Experience. I’ve now extracted it and uploaded it to the website as a separate short paper – entitled Fitting policy tools to motives.
I was delighted to come across a recent paper from the UK National Audit Office which looks in considerable detail at the use and effectiveness of sanctions and rewards The Guardian has published the Labour and Conservative Election Manifestos – with commentary

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

turning failure around?

A frequent theme on this blog is the "performance" culture which has overtaken British government. Target-setting, measurement, reward and punishment sometimes sound like the Fordist management which we were supposed to have left behind.
In relation to Gordon Brown's threat of having 1,000 "failing" schools "taken over", I said I would summarise the 3 year research project which ran from 2002-05 in th UK following the attempts to "turnaround" 15 or so English municipalities which were judged to be failing. I will cheat a bit - and use text from the project's First Annual Report of 2004. The italicised references show the confusing fequecy with which government has introduced new and better programmes. Little wonder that there has been cynicism and confusion - this was happening at the same time municipalities were being hit with other bright ideas from above - new governing arrangement, scrutiny processes etc
"The desire by central government level to improve the performance of local authority services has increased in the last 20 years. Policy initiatives moved from the relatively simplistic assumptions about the power of market forces that were inherent in Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) through more comprehensive service review and procurement approaches in Best Value and then into a range of demonstration and incentive initiatives including Beacon Councils, and Local Public Service Agreements.
The introduction of a nation-wide performance assessment process - the Comprehensive Performance Assessent (CPA) – has revealed that some councils are unable to respond effectively to the improvement agenda. Councils are classified into one of five performance bands (excellent, good, fair, weak and poor. Councils classified as poor are subject to special monitoring by central government and the Audit Commission, and may be the focus of legal intervention to direct them to undertake certain tasks or transfer responsibility for a function to a nominee of the Secretary of State".

"The evidence that a group of councils that is under-performing relative to national expectations raises two important questions:
1. Why do local authorities becoming poor performers?
2. What approaches to recovery (or turnaround) work most effectively and in what situations

"There is little scientific research into these issues as they bear on the public sector. What literature there is tends to focus on failures in policy implementation (i.e. why a given policy is not delivered as intended or does not have the effect that was intended, e.g. Bovens, et al 2001; Bovens and t’Hart 1998; Wildavsky 1984) rather than weaknesses of organisational performance. The research into organisational performance in the UK public sector primarily concentrates on schools, reflecting the school effectiveness/school improvement debate (e.g. Gray et al 1999; Willmott 1999), although there is also some with a broader base (e.g. Anheier 1999).
"In contrast to the paucity of public sector research there is a voluminous and largely US-oriented private sector literature. This tends to focus on the way in which organisational leadership fails to respond to environmental changes affecting business profitability, and prescriptions are largely related to chief executive changes or organisational restructuring (e.g. divestment, re-financing, re-positioning, etc.) (e.g. Barker and Mone 1998; Boyne et al 2003; Mellahi 2002).

"‘Learning from the Experience of Recovery’ - was commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), Local Government Association (LGA), Audit Commission, and Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA). The evaluation was undertaken by the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham in association with Cardiff University, MORI and other partners. The study commenced in December 2002 and ran until summer 2005. It involved:
1. evaluation of the recovery process and its impact in five poorly performing case study councils, together with a more limited analysis in another 10 councils
2. a study of the implementation and impact of the policies of government and national agencies in relation to poorly performing councils
3. action-learning sets with managers of the recovery process and recovery projects
4. policy papers on themes and issues related to recovery in poorly performing local authorities
5. dissemination to a range of policy-maker, practitioner and academic audiences.
The first annual report provides early findings from the study, drawing on baseline studies of five ‘poorly performing’ case study councils and on the response of central government and national agencies".

The report certainly gives very useful background history to the efforts of UK central governments to get improvement in both local services and municipalities. And it is relevant to note that the keyword for the past decade has been "improvement". Indeed the Scottish training and consultancy body for local government is actually called Improvement Services

Monday, April 12, 2010

threats as a policy tool

Britain and China are more similar than I thought. In their toolbox of policy measures, fear and threat are favoured tools. Yesterday Gordon Brown promised (threatened) to have 1,000 “failing schools taken over”.
He promises that inadequate schools, hospital authorities and police forces will all be subject to forms of takeover if either objective results or parental ballots demand new leadership. In education this could mean being taken over by successful state or private schools, education chains, or universities.
"The days of take it or leave it public services are over," Brown says. "The days of just minimum standards are over. The days of the impersonal are finished. It has to be personal, accountable and tailored to your needs, and with a mechanism to trigger change if the service does not meet your needs."
He says the aim is to unleash the highest quality providers, whether public or private, so that they can meet needs, not just in their local areas, but to turn around performance in other areas too

And trust in training in leadership and the market is still evident -
He also claims Labour has built a generation of public service leaders capable of running difficult schools, and sharing their leadership skills with other schools. He told the Guardian that his plan was better than the Conservative proposal to introduce a wave of new schools built on the Swedish model, since the Tory system required a costly surfeit of places. He said: "The Swedish free market school experiment has not been successful. The evidence of the Swedish equivalent of Ofsted is that it has led to lower standards and growing inequalities."

I was reminded of some articles on the experience of identifying failing PSOs (public sector organisations) and activating a process whereby they were “turned around”. After some searching I found them – on the sites of (a) the European Group of Public Administration and (b) the Office of the UK Deputy Prime Minister. In the early part of the decade, the UK government sponsored a research projects on “Learning from the experience of recovery” – which focussed on about 15 "failing" municipalities. The papers from the project can (at the moment) be found at http://www.communities.gov.uk/localgovernment/localregional/servicedelivery/learning/
I’ve downloaded them and will do a summary shortly.

No comment;
Communities and Local Government is a website of the British government - which contains guidelines and research papers for local authorities. Apart from the above paper, I also found a strategic guide, Improving Public Access to Better Quality Toilets.According o the site the guidehighlights some innovative approaches taken by local authorities to public toilet provision, although it does not prescribe what approaches they should take. Local authorities are the ones who are best placed to determine the mix of approaches most suitable to their area, and this guidance is intended to support them in making that decision.
This guidance is primarily intended for local authorities and partnerships wishing to explore the feasibility of setting up a Community Toilet Scheme. It provides an overview of the Community Toilet Scheme developed by the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, as well as a step-by-step guide on how to set up a similar scheme.
In addition, the toolkit includes a case study of the SatLav text messaging service operated by Westminster City Council, which makes use of mobile phone technology to help the public locate their closest accessible toilets

Sunday, April 11, 2010

organising local services

Another interesting organisational perspective from BBC World Service – in the first part of a series on the Ganges River whose “magic” qualities have been worshipped by pilgrim bathers for centuries. But all is not well since many dams have been built for purposes of irrigation or general water management. You’ll forgive me said one polite Indian – for saying that the English have a lot to answer for! Water resource management apparently used to be handled by small communities along with many others such as cultural life, etc Then the English came to India and split everything into specialised functions – with irrigation being a separate function from water resource management and from cultural traditions. A crucial holistic dimension was lost as a result. A nice “take” on the silo mentality I referred to yesterday – introducing an important “systems” dimension to the discussion.

If you look at local government systems, the Brits certainly seem to have caught the rationalistic addiction much more strongly than their European neighbours. I have to confess that I was part of the first such on onslaught in the 1960s when – as part of the critical mood then in the air about our institutions - independent commissions in England and Scotland examined the local government systems in those countries and came up with radical solutions which found their way into legislation.

Scotland’s was more radical – Adam Smith’ ghost of specialisation perhaps? 625 municipalities of different sorts (large towns, small towns, Counties and communes) were converted into a two-tier system of 65 municipalities.
Literally a decimation – with 9 Regions, 53 Districts and 3 Island Authorities coming into being in 1975.

As a councillor in a large burgh of 65,000 souls (whose educational, police, water and sewage requirements were taken care of by a County Council – coveting about 300,000 people), I was a strong advocate of their replacement by a District of 110,000 people and a Region (Strathclyde) of more than 2 million whose destinies had been strongly linked by the River Clyde.

But people believed then in “economies of scale”.

In fact, the Region functioned remarkably well – with the development of a new strategic dimension into policy-making which tried to pay proper respect to political, professional and community perspectives; its scale making it the first municipal body to forge a relationship with the European Commission and also making it easier to advance the internal arguments for experimentation and decentralisation at both the county and community level.

Recently Kenneth Roy suggested that the leakage of power from the Scottish towns was responsible for the poor shape in which they find themselves now – and he made a good case (as he always does). I was glad to see, however, that Alex Wood at least put up a rebuttal, arguing how corrupt and complacent town government had become. And, he might have added, the County Councils had already taken their power away – and were not directly elected! This was the critical note I struck in my contribution (What sort of Over-government?) to the Red Book on Scotland which Gordon Brown edited in 1978.

However, it is true that Scotland is now at the far end of the spectrum of the European scale as far as municipal size is concerned – with a one tier system of 23 Districts having been introduced in 1999. A major restructuring every 25 years does not seem a good approach! The French have a reputation for excellent public services – and have held on to their small communes. And their engineers, of course, are still held in higher regard than managers!
However French and German municipal services are now threatened by the credit crunch.

By the way, for further analysis of the Kyrgyzstan developments see an article on the excellent Open Democracy site -

ps - the picture above is the Ploiesti Clock museum - with the Boulevard Restaurant to its right

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mushroom soup and insitutional insulation

Nice run down to Bucharest yesterday – with a stop in Ploiesti to have lunch with Daniela. Nicolae Iorga - a great Romanian historian and politician - said 100 years of Ploiesti It's an ugly city - which begins beautifully - referring to its lovely Boulevard (of chestnut trees) which runs from the central station and was in colourful spring bloom yesterday. Previously known as Romania’s oil centre, the city is now clean. We went to the recently restored Boulevard Restaurant beside the Clock museum. It is roomy; aesthetically pleasing; gives a sense of the old Romania - and is a place to linger. The mushroom soup was the best I’ve ever tasted; and its Romanian Winter platter also very tasty. It draws on the great fish market just a few minutes away; cooks only to order; has a good range of wines (including half a litre house wine for only 2 euros). A rare example here of customer attention (even if the waiter did forget about my main course!)

(by the way, these 2 photos are not of Ploiesti! They are by way of illustration to the themes which now follow

BBC World Service is always a good listen – particularly after an absence. And Peter Day’s Global Business is a model of good conversation in a field which is generally so boring. This morning I was soon hooked on the conversation he was having with Ranjay Gulati about the latter’s new book. The starting point was that the business rhetoric about the customer being the core of company’s thinking was not borne out in reality. The emphasis, he argued, given to reengineering and sheer survival meant that techniques and products were the foremost thing in managers’ minds. Even their much-vaunted customer consultations focussed on their product – rather than trying to understand the wider context in which the customer uses it. And the departmental silos just compounded their distance from the customer. How often have we heard this? Rosabeth Kanter talked about it 27 years ago (in her Change Masters – corporate giants at work). Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism made the same point 6 years ago in a more sustained critique. And Anthony Jay’s spoof article “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” suggests that structures are deliberately created to ensure that policy-makers are isolated from those they are supposed to serve (see key papers on my website). As Day put it wryly – “Big ideas – common sense!”
The book, by the way, has the rather awful title of “Reorganise for resilience – putting customer at the centre of your business" – available already on googlebooks - But you can read the basic idea in a shorter piece he wrote for Harvard Business review.
There are two reasons why I was hooked (apart from the style of the conversation). First it was the issue of departmental silos that first brought me into this field of politics and public administration – I could see that people in the various council departments were well-intentioned so what was it that prevented from (a) seeing things in a less perverse way and (b) cooperating with others? It started my interest in organisational structures.
The second reason is that my immersion in the field of government has made me so impatient of the smug rhetoric I hear both from insiders and those from outside who purport to have the answers to government problems – the think-tankers and consultants. So I am so happy to hear someone dare to say that the Emperor is naked!

The public sector these days needs no convincing of the need for change – it has indeed become the way to show virility and to make your reputation. But the techniques have become predominant – we need to return to the simplicities! We do need to have conversations, listen, think and act (or is to act and think??)

I had to turn BBC World off when they suddenly terminated a conversation which was beginning to explore the reasons for the uprising in Kyrgyzstan – and switched to golf news. Who makes the judgement that listener more interested in golf than Kyrgyzstan? Is this yet another example of producer interest? I noticed one reader of a Guardian “Comment is Free” article wanted some background reading on the country. Google for “Understanding Politics in Kyrgyzstan” by Askat Dukenbaev and William W. Hansen; and go on the website of International Crisis Group – and get their December 2005 report on the Failing State of KR.

ps a note for posterity - the first photo is of a small window in the superb Queen Mary complex in Balcik, Bulgaria. I took the second photo from my car as I was returning to Tashkent from a wine tasting at Pashkent, Uzbekistan. It gives a good sense of the reality for most people in these central asia states

Friday, April 9, 2010

language and control

Saw yesterday my first nesting storks – at Moiecu – despite the recent snow. It was one of my first impressions of central Europe 20 years ago when I drove into Slovakia and Hungary in May.
Before yesterday’s trip for provisions, I had about 5 hours on the internet – uploading my blog and then surfing for the review of the English inspection system which I noticed was missing from my E-library. I remembered having originally come across this review (and its Scottish equialent) when doing a bibliographical search for the Bulgarian project in 2007 on the whole EC compliance process (a huge academic field!!). I eventually traced it – it was the Hampton report of 2005. For some time there had been concern in the UK about the “audit explosion” (40,000 inspectors it was reckoned). Even the academics got into the act – and produced studies. Hampton had been invited by Gordon Brown to look at the whole system as part of the deregulation theme. His report recommended restructuring about 31 bodies down to seven (an interesting theme for post-communist countries).
The Labour Government accepted the report in its entirety – but I couldn’t find any paper on what has actually happened – with what lessons.
As I’m writing this, I have “Romanian Cultural” radio in the background. At midday they do jazz – and right now they’re playing comedy hall songs from the 1930s – eg Lancashire’s inimitable Gracie Fields - let’s see whether they play Harry Lauder or Will Fyfe!! In the meantime I’m thoroughly enjoying the “flappers’” songs – with a mixture of impeccable and regional accents. I suspect that this is the sort of stuff that my mother rather enjoyed – before her married days in the Scottish manse – about which, incidentally, there was a nice little piece in Scottish Review - http://www.scottishreview.net/CMartin233.html

I thought that the Parliamentary Select Committee (under the impressive chair of Tony Wright – with his collection of other mavericks such as Paul Flynn (with whom I once shared a car from Bucharest to a Sinaia workshop)- might have looked at this theme. Apparently not – but I did discover a marvellous report they issued late last year on government and public service language. Time was when the issue was only the obfuscated language of official forms and reports – but now it has become the managerial terms in which many politicians talk. The chairman’s welcome for a couple of journalists and a representative of the Plain English campaign who were giving evidence was couched in highly appropriate terms - Perhaps I could say, by way of introduction, welcome to our stakeholders. We look forward to our engagement, as we roll out our dialogue on a level playing field, so that, going forward in the public domain, we have a win-win step change that is fit for purpose across the piece (!!)
Please have a look at the report – and some of the evidence they were given (written and oral) at - http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/public_administration_select_committee/pascmindyourlang.cfm
The written evidence give excellent examples of meaningless language (much, it must be said, taken from project management) Paul Flynn submits an extract from the House of Commons Business Plan which concerns planning for “business resilience” and “risk management” within the House (that is to say how well the House is protected from a terrorist or other attack and how it could continue after such an attack). It's priceless.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

government and the people

What courage in Bishkek yesterday!
And amid all the consultant talk of public officials and government, we have to remember that this is sometimes the behaviour....

creativity and offices

The picture is a favourite of mine – and shows some of the activists (or municipal change agents) with whom we worked in Kyrgyzstan. It was a 2-day session we had at Lake Issy Kul – and we played and worked hard. You can see their enjoyment. Perhaps a Dilbert or Feiffer cartoon would have been more appropriate to today's theme - but, given events in Kyrgyzstan, I wanted this picture up
I’ve worked very creatively in the last 2 days on a subject about which, in another place 2 months ago, I could not conjure up a single idea – let alone a creative one! What is it about an office environment that kills creativity? In both Sofia and Bishkek, I had my very comfortable flat just 5 minutes walk away where I sometimes go to write. In Bishkek I had an excellent team with whom brainstorm sessions took place – sometimes over yahoo. In Sofia we had a nice little conference room – and had some good brainstorms there which helped the grey cells. I thought at one moment of having a weekly session – where each of us (we were 6) shared something which was enthusing us (preferably a professional paper or book!) I’m very sorry now that I didn’t introduce this – particularly when thing were lagging with the contracting authority!
The office in Tashkent had 4 researchers and a great local project manager with whom I could brainstorm in a large conference room. Perhaps that’s the reason why I was able to produce so many (unasked for!) discussion papers.
Here in the mountains, I create the atmosphere I want – no interruptions – fresh air - inspiring view – and don’t feel guilty about surfing the internet or having music in the background. I just need the occasional feedback – best with a skype conversation.
You cannot turn on creativity according to the scheduling required by action plans – and the best work is probably done as a labour of love!

So how should managers deal with contracted staff who are suffering what the authors call “writer’s block”? In every project, I’ve had one team member who seemed indolent and whom I had to (or wished to) “let go”. I wasn’t trained in how to deal with them. Perhaps it was my fault that I couldn’t create the environment for them to flourish? I know in my case that I suffer from insufficient positive feedback to the stuff I produce. When I start a new project, no one knows about it – although I have had my little book “In Transit – notes on Good Governance” to give a select few. But it is now rather dated (1999). Another challenge?

I had forgotten about the Discussion papers which I produced between 2000 and 2002. One on training one I had used as the basis for the larger paper on Training I produced for the Sofia project (see website). But I felt good about the 60 page paper I produced (and used again in Azerbaijan) on the experience of Western European countries in “transferring functions” (upwards, downwards and sideways) between 1970 and 2000. Noonme else had produced the sort of typology I used. I’ve now uploaded that paper to the website – which has become a real resource for change-agents – with 21 papers waiting for you.

My reading didn’t too well yesterday – the emphasis was on writing with a bit of flicking of the 30 odd papers I downloaded to help my work on the paper. Mainly they related to the evaluation of national administrative reforms – about which not a great deal is written. Finland has probably got the strongest record – the UK publishes a lot but it is mainly celebrationary stuff about their various strategies. A useful discussion on the theme is Evaluation as useable knowledge in public sector reform by Jean Thoenig.
Another good paper I read yesterday was by the Head of the UK Academy of Government I think it calls itself now. The paper has the intriguing title of The Relentless Unforeseen and is at last a paper from someone associated with government which does not pretend that government is or can be all knowing and all-powerful. He contrasts the problem-solving approach which most governments take with that which selects desired outcomes and sets up strategies for their achievement (firefighting versus prevention).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kyrgyzstan - in homage

breaking news is that 17 people have been killed in clashes with the police at the Presidential Palace and TV station in Bishkek - where I spent 2 very productive and happy years. I was there in March 2005 when the demonstrations sent the previous President packing for the same reasons which seem to be arousing people now - the control and corruption.
My heart goes out to those who are suffering. They are a great (mountain) people. The picture was taken at one of the 50 workshops my project ran for municipalities in 2 pilot Oblasts. Earlier this week I uploaded one of papers I wrote from the experience.

connectors, mavens and sales(wo)men

The blogs of the last 2 days have been so long (blame the weather!) that I wasn’t able to follow up some points. Sunday’s blog (Change that lasts) referred to a paper by Matthew Andrew which brought out the role of networks in change. It’s interesting that he made no reference to the vast literature on managing change – just a few references to some pragmatic articles. One might have expected him to refer to the notion of the tipping point which Malcolm Gladwell popularised in his book of that name in 2000. Gladwell identified three key factors which determine whether a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity - the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. Gladwell describes these key types as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (And a maven – in case you didn’t know - is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from the Hebrew, via Yiddish, and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge). If individuals representing all three of these groups endorse and advocate a new idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success. The “connectors” are, I think, the people Andrews was talking about. A horrible word was invented in the 1970s to draw attention to their role and significance – the “reticulist”! This word – from the Tavistock Institute – did not tip into general use!
The other 2 concepts are, frankly, not so well dealt with. The Stickiness Factor as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. Stickiness is hard to define, and its presence or absence often depends heavily on context. Often, the way that the Stickiness Factor is generated is unconventional, unexpected, and contrary to received wisdom. The concept that Gladwell terms the Power of Context is enormously important in determining whether a particular phenomenon will tip into widespread popularity. Even minute changes in the environment can play a major factor in the propensity of a given concept attaining the tipping point.

The New Zealand Government used Wiki in an interesting experiment – to encourage public participation. They brought in OECD’s Joanne Caddy who had edited the OECD’s Beyond Scrutiny I listed recently to help them with this experiment. Judging, however, from its use, it does not seem a great success -
Finally a nice site for those who like Scottish scenery and poetry

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

open government; government structures and roles

My resolution of reading each day at least one Googlebook and one of the countless articles I’ve downloaded and hoarded is not easy to keep. Surfing is addictive and distractive. What treasures are there! When looking at the extensive (39 pages!) summary report which the World Bank had prepared on a 2007 workshop it held on “Social accountability measures”, I googled the name of one of the presenters to see if I could find the full paper I did! But I also very quickly found 4 relevant books of more than 250 pages each –
Beyond public scrutiny (OECD 2007) which gives many examples of citizen involvement in the scrutiny of public services; Public Services Delivery looks a useful guide to performance management issues for public managers; Briefing Book on Decentralisation in Kosovo is an amazing compendium from a cooperation between WB and Soros writers. And finally a book on Participatory Governance UN 2006);
So – one step forward and four backwards as far as making an impact on my library is concerned! I need to install one of these protective buttons on the laptop which prevents my access to google scholar!

I am, however, steadily getting through the World Bank’s book on Governance Reform under real world conditions . It takes what is, for it, a new angle – the “communication perspective” which cynics might summarise as - thinking about the context in which you are working; and adjusting your tactics/ messages accordingly! “Stakeholder analysis” has become the usual (ugly) way to describe the process.
In an early chapter a journalist who was a staff member of WB India recounts some tasks he was given to prepare briefing notes explaining the negative reaction to WB projects. The piece starts with one of the best accounts I’ve ever read of the messy reality of the policy process. When I used to do training on political roles – I used a simple matrix I devised a long time ago – which identifies the 4 worlds (and therefore sets of pressures) a local politician lives in – local electorate; party or interest group to which he owes most of his chances of reelection; elected political colleagues and officials of the council; the personal. I would the suggest that his perceptions of the pressures from these worlds determined the sort of role he played – “populist”, “ideologue”, “spokesman” and “maverick” .
The journalist’s account also reminded me of the way I first encountered the machinery of (local) government 40 years ago – as consisting of bunches of specialists who are first trained and then structured to see the world in very different ways – whether engineers, economists, lawyers, social workers, police etc
In the 1970s we thought that corporate management was the answer ie a new breed of people who could be independent from the fray and help us politicians cut through the these different perceptions and special pleading..But the Chief Executive Departments just set up their own separate power system in turn. And that was the start of the dreadful management revolution which has stamped itself on the face of professionals and patients for example in the health system. Official figures show that the number of managers in the NHS has doubled over the past 10 years – and Kenneth Roy in Scottish Review recently exposed the scandal of their rising pay.
Perhaps, I thought all of 35 years ago, the answer lies in the political system – at a local level in the committee system which, I argued, was just a front for the power of the permanent official. So we set up member-officer groups to look at the neglected issues which straddled the boundaries of departments (marginal). One of the papers on my website is a paper I wrote more than 10 years ago to try to pull out lessons from that experience –
“Local authority services” I argued in the paper “ were designed to deal with individuals - pupils, clients, miscreants - and do not have the perspectives, mechanisms or policies to deal with community malfunctioning. For that, structures are needed which have a "neighbourhood-focus" and "problem focus".
“The Strathclyde strategy did in fact develop them - in the neighbourhood structures which allowed officers, residents and councillors to take a comprehensive view of the needs of their area and the operation of local services: and in the member-officer groups.
“But we did not follow through the logic - and reduce the role of committee system which sustains so much of the policy perversities. That would have required a battle royal! After all, it took another decade before the issue of an alternative to the Committee system came on the national agenda - to be fiercely resisted by local authorities. Even now, the furthest they seem to go in their thinking is the "Cabinet system" - which has been offered as an option several times over the past 30 years (Wheatley; Stewart) but never, until now, considered worthy of even debate. The system of directly elected mayors - which serves other countries well - still does not command favour. One of the great marketing tricks of the English is to have persuaded the world of our long traditions of democracy. The truth is that our forefathers so mistrusted the dangers of unacceptable lay voices controlling the council chambers that they invented a range of traditions such as the one creating a system of dual professional and political leadership in local government. As the powers of local government increased in the post-war period - this became a recipe for confusion and irresponsibility. Little wonder that it was called "The Headless State" (Regan). Chairmen of Committees have been able to blame Directors; and Directors, Chairmen.
“It is now (1999) interesting to see some local authorities now organised on the basis that was beginning to appear obvious to some of us in the late 1970s. The more progressive councils now have three different political structures -
• One for thinking and reviewing - ie across traditional boundaries of hierarchy, department and agency (our
Member-Officer review groups)
• One for ensuring that it is performing its legal requirements (the traditional committee system)
• One for acting in certain fields with other agencies to achieve agreed results (Joint Ventures for geographical areas or issues)"

In fact the “review” process caught on so much it seems to have become part of the audit culture. In English municipalities, certainly, “scrutiny” committees became all the rage (I'll try to put a paper about this on my website)
And the new Scottish Executive (and some other countries) have gone further and actually set up Ministries which focus on clients/problems/opportunities rather than the boundaries of intellectual disciplines and bureaucrats.

Most people now, however, would argue that the critique of professional expertise and assertion of the power of managers and politician has gone too far.
“Stakeholder analysis” at least makes sure that some legitimacy is given by policy-makers to the various voices which need to be heard by those in government. But this is not just an ad-hoc process. Governance Reform helps us explore the central challenge - which is how to devise structures which allow the voice of professionals and the citizen to be heard in the policy process. The role of politicians is arguably more that of a referee at the design stage and to signal when things are going wrong - and of the manager to make sure the implementation runs smoothly?

Monday, April 5, 2010


In one of my blogs I referred to the pleasures of the lists – the Seven Deadly Sins; Seven Habits of Effective People (Covey); Ten Commandments (God); and Ten rules for stifling innovation (Kanter) seem just about manageable. When I was working in Central Europe in the 1990s I used to buy multiple copies of the Covey book in the local language - Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian – since it was one of the few books I knew in English which was also available in the local language and was useful as a means of professional conversation. The principles were/are -
- be proactive
- begin with the end in mind
- put first things first
- think win/win
- seek first to understand : then to be understood
- synergise
- "sharpen the saw" - ie keep mentally and physically fit

When I moved to Central Asia and Caucasus in 1999, I found that presentation of Rosabeth Kanter’s Ten rules for stifling innovation was a marvellous way to liven up a workshop with middle-ranking officials. She had concocted this prescription as a satiric comment on the way she discovered from her research that senior executives in US commercial giants like IBM, General Motors were continuing to act in the old centralised ways despite changed structures and rhetoric.
1. regard any new idea from below with suspicion - because it's new, and it's from below
2. insist that people who need your approval to act first go through several other layers of management to get their signatures
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticise each other's proposals (That saves you the job of deciding : you just pick the survivor)
4. Express your criticisms freely - and withhold your praise (that keeps people on their toes). Let them know they can be fired at any time
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage people from letting you know when something in their area is not working
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganise or change policies in secret, and spring them on people unexpectedly (that also keeps them on their toes)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified, and make sure that it is not given to managers freely
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut back, lay off, move around, or otherwise implement threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it quickly.
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about this business.

“Any of this strike you as similar?” I would cheekily ask my Uzbek and Azeri officials.
Robert Greene’s 24 ways to seduce; 33 ways to conduct war; and 48 Laws of power are, also, tongue in cheek. The first to hit the market was the 48 Laws of power and I enjoyed partly because it so thoroughly challenged in its spirit the gung-ho (and unrealistic) naivety of the preaching which characterised so many of the management books of the time – and partly for the way historical examples are woven into the text. I’ve selected a few to give the reader a sense of the spirit of the book
Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies
• Conceal your intentions
• always say less than necessary
• Guard your reputation with your life
• Court attention at all costs
• Get others to do the work, but always take the credit
• Make other people come to you
• Win through your actions, never through argument
• Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victims

I found a Russian translation of the book in Baku and gave it as a leaving gift to the Azeri lawyer in the Presidential Office I had worked closely with for 2 years on the project to help implement the Civil Service Law. he obviouly made good use of it as 3 months later he was appointed as Head(Ministerial level)of the new Civil Service Agency my work had helped inspire!
Luther’s 95 theses on the wall of the Wittenberg church seem excessive – but, given the success of his mission, perhaps contain a lesson for the media advisers who tell us that the public can absorb a limited number of messages only!

The Bakewell book suggests that Montaigne’s life can usefully be encapsulated in 20 injunctions –
• Don’t worry about death
• Read a lot, forget most of it – and be slow-witted
• Survive love and loss
• Use little tricks
• Question everything
• Keep a private room behind the shop
• Be convivial; live with others
• Wake from the sleep of habit
• Do something no one has done before
• Do a good job – but not too good a job
• Reflect on everything; regret nothing
• Give up control

At the very least, when I see such lists, it suggests we're in for some fun!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

making change stick

It will take some time to get through Governance Reforms under real world conditions – the World Bank E-book I mentioned yesterday. It apparently came out in 2008 – but presumably has only now been made available as an E-book. I spotted it on http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/
Up until now, the World has focussed on the WHAT of administrative change and rarely looked at the HOW. And, as we all know, the devil is in the detail. The reason? Its constitution forbids it from anything that smacks of politics and, as a result, its staff are predominantly US trained economists.
The “real world” phrase in the title is a real slap in the face to the economists who (patently) don’t live in the real world. Critical study of the World Bank has been a real cottage industry – I have about 10 books in my own library alone. Some years back there were several active campaigns to abolish it – initially because of the environmental damage and huge displacements of indigenous people its large-scale damming projects caused. “50 years is enough” was one of the slogans. Under Wolfensohn there was good intent but hubris. Wolfowitz’s brief tenure brought ridicule and his replacement, Zoellick, few hopes. But all has been quiet since then. This publication is, certainly, a good sign – of brains actually being applied with some decent results to an important issue.

The last 3 of the 6 questions it is written around are what we consultants deal with on a daily basis and are not normally what you expect to see the World Bank deal with -
- How do we build broad coalitions of influentials in favour of change? What do we do about powerful vested interests?
- How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?
- How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability to sustain governance reform?

I tried to address some of these questions in several of my own writings – and, a few years back, had got to the stage of suggesting what I called and “opportunistic” theory of change –
• “Windows of opportunity present themselves - from outside the organization, in crises, pressure from below
• But reformers have to be technically prepared, inspire confidence – and able to seize and direct the opportunity
• Others have to have a reason to follow
• the new ways of behaving have to be formalized in new structures

Laws, regulations and other policy tools will work if there are enough people who want them to succeed. And such people do exist. They can be found in Parliaments (even in tame and fixed parliaments, there are individual respected MPs impatient for reform); Ministries of Finance; have an interest in policy coherence; NGOs; Younger generation – particularly in academia, policy shops and the media
The question is how they can become a catalytic force for change – and what is the legitimate role in this of donors
The Paper is number 8 on website (just click publicadminreform in the list of links in the right hand column on this site

The paper by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of the book weaves a very good theory around 3 words – acceptance, authority and ability.

Is there acceptance of the need for change and reform?
• of the specific reform idea?
• of the monetary costs for reform?
• of the social costs for reformers?
• within the incentive fabric of the organization (not just with individuals)?

Is there authority:
• does legislation allow people to challenge the status quo and initiate reform?
• do formal organizational structures and rules allow reformers to do what is needed?
• do informal organizational norms allow reformers to do what needs to be done?

Is there ability: are there enough people, with appropriate skills,
• to conceptualize and implement the reform?
• is technology sufficient?
• are there appropriate information sources to help conceptualize, plan, implement, and institutionalize the reform?

A diagram shows that each of these plays a different role at the 4 stages of conceptualisation, initiation, transition and institutionalisation and that it is the space of overlapping circles that the opportunity for change occurs. “Reform space”, at the intersection of acceptance, authority, and ability, determines how much can be achieved. However the short para headed - Individual champions matter less than networks – was the one that hit nerves. The individual who connects nodes is the key to the network but is often not the one who has the technical idea or who is called the reform champion. His or her skill lies in the ability to bridge relational boundaries and to bring people together. Development is fostered in the presence of robust networks with skilled connectors acting at their heart.
My mind was taken back almost 30 years when, as the guy in charge of Strathclyde Region’s strategy to combat deprivation but using my academic role, I established what I called the urban change network and brought together once a month a diverse collection of officials and councillors of different councils in the West of Scotland, academics and NGO people to explore how we could extend our understanding of what we were dealing with – and how our policies might make more impact. It was, I think, the single most effective thing I ever did. I still have the tapes of some of the discussions – one, for example, led by Professor Lewis Gunn on issues of implementation!

Sad that the recent OECD paper which tried to look at the change process was so inadequate. I mentioned it on a previous blog -
In 1999 I devoted a chapter in my small book - In Transit; notes on good governance -to a summary of the various texts on managing change which was then such a fashionable subject. And one of the "key papers" on the website is a 63 page "Annotated bibliogaphy for change agents".

The 2 best things I have ever read on the subject are Robert Quinn's Deep Change; and Buchanan and Boddy's The Expertise of the Change Agent - public performance and backstage activity (Prentice Hall 1992)
Paul Bate's Strategies for cultural change (1994)is also a highly original and neglected book which presaged the recent fashion on that subject.
Useful summaries of the last 2 books can be found on pages 47-48 of the Annotated Bib I've just mentioned - I like in particular the 5x4 matrix I reproduced on styles of change he suggests.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

the itinerants

A second post today - freezing fog (and light snow) has reduced visibility to 20 metres - and supplied the atmosphere to do a ot of reading, most of which I;ll summarise tomorrow.
One of the daily delights is selecting a picture to go with the blog – but it has an element of what the Germans call “Die Qual der Wahl” – the torture of choice! I am building up a stock of pictures I can draw on – and found that the Uzbek photo perfectly fitted the notion of philosophical discussions which comes later in today's earlier blog. But the first part of the blog is actually about a poem called Smuggler – so I surfed to find such a picture and was reminded of the great Russian school of painters who went by the name The Itinerants. I've supplied a link to the list on the right of the site.
I had to practice my first censorship just now - on an engraving by Albrecht Duerer no less! I wanted it to be the pic for today - but when I uploaded it and saw it, I knew that it just too risque! Instead, I've selected one of the Itinerants - Bogdanov-Belskiy - and his
Mental Arithmetic In the Public School of Rachinskiy
Quite superb! It's a much more powerful painting than the one I had to use in my recent posting of the report on the English primary school system.

I've uploaded two new papers to my website. One fits uneasily with all the jargon of the professional paper - it's 40 Tips for 2010 but fits nicely with the tenor of some of the recent postings. It's paper 9 and is more a New Year thing. But I thought of it since I determined yesterday to (a) read each day at least 2 of the hundreds of professional papers which I;ve downloaded but lie unread in folders and (b) skim at least one of the googlebooks which have been equally downloadedwith enthusiasm but then languished. There is no beating the sensuality of a book between your hands!
I also came across a little pamphlet I produced for a Conference the European Delegation in Kyrgyzstan asked me to attend in late 2006. I've included it because it's an example of the sort of policy analysis I like to write - which tries to find a pragmatic approach to issues in the local context. It was called Building LG in a hostile climate – it's paper 7

Zen Calvinism and Pyrronian scepticism

Still on yesterday’s poem, another pleasure is inspecting the latest books from Amazon – particularly here in Sirnea where their arrival is more of an event. The process starts with a shout from the post office to my neighbour who then phones me to announce the event. Yesterday was such a day – with 6 new books – one of which was a new collection of Norman MacCaig’s poems. His wry, humanistic observations on man and nature have always been a favourite. I thought I had already reproduced a very typical one - “Smuggler” – on this blog but can’t find it (in fact it was Oct 17but this will save the trouble of searching).

Watch him when he opens
His bulging words – justice
Fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visa, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light

Nobody with such language
Has nothing to declare

There are many similarities with the poetry of Marin Sorescu who is my favourite Romanian poet. Both died about the same time in the early 1990s. MacCaig’s last Collection is in the (small) poetry section of my library here – this one (edited by his son) contains about 200 additional ones (some unpublished)
His voice was to be heard even in the Introduction – which recalls how he replied when asked about his religious beliefs – “Zen Calvinist!”
I had just been reading the chapter in the Montaigne book which explores the sort of philosophical scepticism which influenced him.
“Ordinary scepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge; it is summed up in Socrates remark; “All I know is that I know nothing”. Pyrronian scepticism starts from this point but then adds, in effect, “and I’m not even sure of that”. Pyrronians deal with all the problems which life can throw at them by means of a single (Greek) word – epokhe – which means “I suspend judgement”.
MacCaig has some of the same spirit.

One of the World Bank publications I downloaded yesterday was an E-book of 500 pages - Governance Reforms under real world conditions – which looks very useful. It is organised around what it regards as six key challenges facing governance reform efforts:
1. How do we use political analysis to guide communication strategy in governance reform?2. How do we secure political will, which is demonstrated by broad leadership support for change? What are the best methods for reaching out to political leaders, policy makers, and legislators?3. How do we gain the support of public sector middle managers, who are often the strongest opponents of change, and then foster among them a stronger culture of public service?4. How do we build broad coalitions of influentials in favour of change? What do we do about powerful vested interests?5. How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?6. How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability to sustain governance reform?
I was amazed to find the following section in the introduction -
There is an iron triangle of stakeholders whose interests seem to converge mostly on business as usual - Economists in donor agencies, experts in consulting firms, and CEOs in large NGOs are well intentioned. But the natural inertia of modern large-scale organizations, together with residual affinities for the cult of expertise, threatens to halt progress toward people-centred development in its tracks.No doubt much of the threat, if one can call it that, lies in simply not knowing exactly what to do. Large-scale organizations need to change their best practices.
Academia has not been terribly attentive to this need, and those who control the spigot of funding are those whose thinking remains most determinedly technocratic.
Things are looking up at the World Bank! Read for yourself here