what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

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?

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