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!
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

Monday, May 30, 2011

Opening the dark recesses of Sofia City Gallery

The special exhibitions of Sofia City Art Gallery play an important role in Bulgaria in bringing together the paintings of people like Dobre Dobrev, Nikolae Boiadjiev (to mention 2 recent events) from the various municipal and private museums in the country. But the Sofia gallery boasts the best collection of Bulgarian art (7,000 artefacts) and how therefore to ensure that they see the light of day? The Gallery curator Dr. Maria Vasileva has different ways of dealing with the issue - first collections around themes such as "the window"; the "artists's studio and model" and "portraits of artists"(to mention three recent themes).
The Gallery has also started a series of exhibitions (and booklets/discs)(“The other Eye”) which involves opening up the gallery's large collections to selected outsiders - who are invited to comb the dungeons of the gallery where the collections are stored, strip off the protective covering and select some paintings for public display.
I missed the first two exhibitions of such works – selected by an artist Luchezar Boyadjiev and a philosopher Boyan Manchev. The small booklet which accompanied the second exhibition tells of Manchev expecting to find a large section of the museum’s collection covering major events – whether historical or personal). Instead
the representation of various aspects of people’s private world obviously prevails, there being, conditionally speaking, an “idyllic” thread running through the works, which unifies all those aspects through the representation of elements of everyday living, which are not directly related to either big moments in history and monumental events, or to essential existential and metaphysical issues such as life, death, birth, violence, suffering, etc.”
It says a lot about the richness of the Bulgarian painting tradition that only the first four of the following names selected for the exhibition are on the list of more than 140 painters I have selected for the booklet on Bulgarian painting I am working on! Naoum Hadjimladenov, Bencho Obreshkov, Dechko Ouzounov, Kiril Tsonev, Vera Nedkova, Vera Loukova, Ivan Nenov, Lika Yanko, Sami Bidjerano-Sabin, Georgi Bawev, Nadezhda Kouteva, Samouil (Suli) Seferov, Dimiter Voinov, Dariya Vassilyanska, Nadezhda Deleva, Andrei Daniel, Zina Yourdanova, Luben Kostov, Nina Kovacheva, Ivan Moudov, Nikola Mihov, Stoyan Sotirov, etc.
Of the new names, I found Loukova, Nedkova and Nenov most attractive.

And a third exhibition has just opened The Choice - of artefacts this time selected by 43 prominent Bulgarian art and cultural historians belonging to different generations and fields of work (lecturers, researchers, museum curators, directors of art galleries, museums and nongovernmental organizations, art critics, curators and freelance researchers. The project aim is defined in very ambitious terms
• to look into the factors that single out an artwork as valuable and important for the development of Bulgarian art from today’s perspective;
• to establish whether selection criteria have changed as compared to the ones applied in decades past;
• whether the best textbook examples of artworks have stood the test of time;
• whether the language of art criticism has changed; what is the personal stance of the most prominent Bulgarian art historians.

The accompanying booklet (only 5 euros) allows each of the 47 to analyze their choice both in view of its specific features and the features it shares with other works belonging to the same historical period. Alongside the collection’s masterpieces there appear somewhat forgotten names, as well as some totally unfamiliar ones; alongside classical artists there stand young artists. For my taste, there is too much contemporary crap – collages and multi-media. And the text which accompanies each artefact – which could have been informative to lay people like myself – is too often self-indulgent and uninformative.
The displays which impacted on me were –
• A still life from a forgotten - Patriki Sandev (1881-1959)
• A portrait by Konstantin Shturkelov (1889-1961)
• A portrait by Kiril Tsonev(whose greatness I am only now beginning to appreciate)
• The famous Haymaking-Rest by Zlatyu Boyadjiev (1941)
• Village scene (Muslim Bulgarian women) by Simeon Velkov (1885-1966)
• Zlatin Nuriev’s harrowing scuplture Window (1985) of an eyeless Pomak (carved during the “Revival Process” when those of Turkish descent were forced to take Bulgarian names.

Perhaps I can persuade the Gallery to let me into its depths?? And I wonder whether the Regional Galleries have the same policy. I hope to visit the Stara Zagora Gallery on Sunday. The painting is an Ivan Milev - who died so young.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Taking on the system - credit where credit is due

I try to avoid references in this blog to personalities and „hot” news and issues – whether DSK, the Arab risings, Wikileaks, the financial crisis etc – on the basis that this is what most blogs and media focus on and there is nothing useful for the rest of us to say. But one article about Sarah Palin I have to share – since it puts a very different slant on her work and raises the interesting question of what might have happened if she had stuck to her own initial script rather than the one the extreme Republicans gave her after her nomination as the Republican’s VP Candidate.
Palin’s achievement was to pull Alaska out of a dire, corrupt, enduring systemic crisis and return it to fiscal health and prosperity when many people believed that such a thing was impossible. She did this not by hewing to any ideological extreme but by setting a pragmatic course, applying a rigorous practicality to a set of problems that had seemed impervious to solution. She challenged supposedly inviolable political precepts, and embraced more-nuanced realities: Republicans sometimes must confront powerful business interests; to govern effectively, you have to cooperate with the other side; you sometimes must raise taxes to balance a budget; and doing these things can actually enhance rather than destroy your career, whatever anybody says. True reform—not pandering to the base—established Palin’s broad popularity in Alaska. This approach is sorely absent from most of what happens in Washington these days.
The full article - The Tragedy of Sarah Palin - in the current issue of the Atlantic tells an amazing story of how she (a) came to take head-on the Oil Giants and corrupt Alaskan politicians they had in their pocket; and (b) put together an unlikely coalition with opposition politicians to pull off an incredible deal for the State. And some of the corrupt politicians were duly arraigned and imprisoned. The article give suseful chapter and verse.
Political systems these days need individuals who are prepared to take on the strong financial interests which are destroying us – and it is indeed a tragedy that she ran on a completely different ticket!
OECD insights has a useful post on this very subject of battling graft (corruption)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What are public admin scholars up to?

I don't want to offend - but this is a 16th Century Albrecht Durer sketch - which seems quite appropriate for the theme.

Strange but refreshing weather in Sofia – starts well, then in late afternoon scudding grey clouds, wind and thunder.
I’m reading at last Basic Instincts – human nature and the new economics by Peter Lunn (who has academic qualifications first in neuroscience then in economics (with a considerable spell as broadcaster in between) and whose book gives a good critique of mainstream economics and introduction to the new behavioural economics which has been developing in the past decade and which already has many books, blogs and, as of last week, a world-wide Association of 3,500 members.
In March last year I suggested that, as both mainstream economics and psychology were undergoing major challenge, it was time that the scholastic discipline of public management had this sort of overhaul The only popular book on the subject I can think of was Reinventing Government (1991) by David Osbourne and Ted Gaebler – which did not, however, attempt an overview of the topic but was rather proselytise for neo-liberalism. For a book which had such a profound effect, it’s curiously absent from google scholar and those not familiar with it will have to make do with this useful riposte to its approach.

Economics and psychology, of course, are subjects dear to the heart of everyone – and economists and psychologists figures of both power and ridicule. Poor old public administration and its experts are hardly in the same league! As I said in yesterday’s post, not only does noone listen to them – but the scholars are embarrassed to be caught even writing for a bureaucratatic or political audience. And yet the last two decades have seen ministries and governments everywhere embark on major upheavals of administrative and policy systems – the very stuff of public administration. But the role of the scholars has (unlike the 2 other disciplines) been simply to observe, calibrate and comment. No theory has been developed by scholars equivalent to the power of the "market”, "competitive equilibrium” or "the unconscious” – unless, that is, you count Weber’s "rational-legal bureaucracy” or Robert Michels "iron law of oligarchy”. Somehow Lindblom's "disjointed incrementalism" never caught on as a public phrase!
Those behind the marketising prescriptions of New Public Management (NPM) were not from the public admin stable – but rather from Public Choice Economics and from the OECD – and the role of PA scholars has been map its rise and apparent fall and (occasionally) to deflate its pretensions. At its best, this type of commentary and analysis is very useful – few have surpassed Chris Hood’s masterly dissection of NPM 20 years ago. This sets out for the first time the basic features of (and arguments for) the disparate elements which had characterised the apparently ad-hoc series of measures seen in the previous 15 years in the UK, New Zealand and Australia – and then goes on to suggest that the underlying values of NPM (what he calls the sigma value of efficiency) are simply one of three clusters of adminstrative values – the other two being concerned with rectitude (theta value) and resilience (lamda value). 
Table 2 of the paper sets this out in more detail.

The trick (as with life) is to get the appropriate balance between these three. Any attempt to favour one at the expense of the others (NPM) will lead inevitably to reaction and is therefore unstable. This emphasis on the importance of balance was the focus of a very good (but neglected) paper which Henry Mintzberg published in 2000 (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) about the Management of Government which starts with the assertion that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 but "the balanced model” ie a system in which there was some sort of balance between the power of commerce, the state and the citizen. Patently the balance has swung too far in the intervening 20 years!

Hood elaborates on these three sets of values in the book he published at the same time with Michael Jackson - Administrative Argument (sadly out of print) - when he set aut 99 (conflicting) proverbs used in organisational change.

In 2007, Russell Ackoff, the US strategic management guru, published a more folksy variant of this proverbs approach – The F Laws of management a short version of which can be read here We desperately need this sort of approach applied to the „reformitis” which has afflicted bureaucrats and politicians in the past 20 years. A book is needed which –
• Is written in a clear and accessible way
• Sets out the history of public admin thought (already available in many academic texts)
• Sets out the thinking which has dominated practice of the past 20 years; where it has come from; and what results it has had (already well done in academia see the Pal paper on the role of the OECD I referred to a few posts back)
• Gives case studies – not of the academic sort but more fire in the belly stuff which comes, for example, from the pen of Kenneth Roy in the great crusading Emag he edits and which today tells a tale which should be shouted from the rooftops of the collusion of so many public figures with the activities of the cowboys who run privatised companies which are trying to muscle in on (and make profit from) public services.

Perhaps I should try to produce such a book?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Speaking truth to power

The last session of the NISPAcee Conference on Saturday afternoon came back to the Conference theme of Public Administration of the Future - with a slightly over-the-top intro to Professor Bouckaert, suggesting that governments listened to him and acted upon his advice. Netherlands may, of course, be an exceptional case – but the sad reality is that few public admin scholars even see government as an audience. There is the odd occasion when a Ministry does commission some scholars – Finland did it in the early 2000s and Denmark also.
It would be great to see a paper from some academics which tried to summarise the lessons from the last 20 years of frenetic administrative reforms in a way which made sense for political leaders in central europe (let alone Western) eg a presentation for junior Ministers. Even more helpful would be an advice note on how they should handle the latest recommendations from management consultants! I have actually never read such a paper. Chris Pollitt’s stimulating 2004 paper on Buying and Borrowing Public Management Refoms is as close as I can get to such a paper. In 2006 he actually addressed the issue of consultancy - but from a rather shamefaced point of view"Academic Consultancy What is its nature, place, value within academia?" The paper is useful, however, in separating out eight possible roles which academics can usefully play - including "court jester" and "sparring partner". And Chris Pollitt is the guy who actually produced, in 2003, a book written for officials - The Essential Public Manager.
Even a literature review could be useful but the PAR literature now is so vast that noone (to my knowledge) has attempted it – although there are useful literature reviews on more specialist areas such as anti-corruption work (many); performance management etc.
One of the best policy analysts was Aaron Wildavsky who actually made the budgetary process a sexy topic - and gathered his various papers together in the late 1970ss in a book called "Speaking Truth to Power". It's time for this tradition to be reborn!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reflections on an intellectual network

NISPAcee has played an interesting role in monitoring and encouraging institution-building in central and eastern europe these last 18 years. Funded initially by the Ford Foundation and by the Pew Charitable Trust; then by SIGMA, LGI Soros (even The World Bank I think at one stage),its Quarterly Newsletter, annual Conferences and publications have been an important resource for those interested in administrative reform in the countries which moved out of the communist embrace in 1989. The Conference is very much a showcase – more than a hundred papers were presented – ie half of those attending were presenting. This leaves little time for thematic exploration – although hopefully the older working groups (civil service reform; and local government) manage a bit more of this. Any dialogue has therefore to take place elsewhere. And the presentations are predominantly academic – as befits an organisation which has defined itself in scholastic terms. I find it a shame that the important concern for analytical rigour is assumed to require obeisance to the narrow and soul-destroying standards of modern academia.
Of course, most authors are writing in a foreign language (English) – and feel it necessary to use all the jargon of new public management. It is the younger people who attend the Conference (they have the language) and, at this early stage in their career, it is difficult (both intellectually and politically) for them to challenge the concepts. It is a pity the Conference cannot attract more older practitioners (from both East and West) who could not only have useful exchanges between themselves – but also challenge the conventional wisdom of the theorists (and the OECD). Of course OECD itself convenes sessions with senior officials on these issues – but they are restricted events.
The theme of the Conference was supposed to be Public Administration of the Future – but got lost a bit in the proliferation of papers and working groups and rather passed me by, distracted as I was by my own presentation. I did, however, catch a panel discussion on the American perspective whose 4 wizened members, understandably, did not seem to be able to move away from the job haemmorrage which is taking place there in the public sector generally and also in university. One of the few interesting comments made by the panel was that American Public Admin scholars have traditionally had a strong link with government practice – and that this was perhaps something which should be taken up by central and east european PA scholars. Certainly it is not very evident in West Europe

As I write this in an empty Sofia (yet another 2 day pubic holiday!) I am listening to the great World Music programme and heard some very touching harp and vocals from the Scottish bard, Robin Williamson, who many decades ago was part of The Incredible String band. It can be heard for the next 4 days here - you’ll find it about half way through.
NISPAcee is at a bit of a crossroads – not least because a major source of funding dries up shortly. In 2007/2008, it carried out a major strategic review and produced a strategy for 2009-12 from which I have pulled this mission statement
The strategic goals of NISPAcee are to:
• define itself as a network-oriented organisation towards the improvement of PA education and training standards in the region
• provide an orientation in multi- and trans-disciplinarity in curriculum development of PA programmes, paying special attention to the connection to, for example, sociology, developmental studies, etc.
• transform itself as a research organisation increasingly oriented towards public administration reforms, and problems of significant importance and high priority in the modernisation of public administrative systems
• measure up to international standards of research and to be competitive with Western Europe and the US
• strengthen the relationship between research, education and consultancy,
• strengthen the role of a bridge between academia and practice, inside the NISPAcee region and between the NISPAcee region and the Euro-Atlantic world.
My only comment (as a sympathetic outsider who only recently took out individual membership) is that there is not much evidence of the strengthening of the relationship with consultancy; and I would love to see the evidence for success in building a wider curriculum. Although quite how relevant that is for undergraduates I doubt. It is by no means obvious that PA graduates are any better recruits to state bodies than others; indeed some would argue that the breadth of their studies makes them intellectually less suitable! Of course the French ENA tradition has had an influence on the region on this point - but I could never understand how, for example, the Presidential Academy of PA in Azerbaijan could justify its existence when virtually none of its graduates were subsequently recruited to state bodies!
Romania is in the Francophone area of influence and inherits its intellectual tradition. Its National Political Studies and Public Admin was strongly represented at the Conference (just down the road) and their papers were quite incredible in their remoteness from reality.
There were some moments at the Conference when its potential was evident - such a range of countries (Afghanistan made its first appearance with quite a strong delegation) and mix of ages and disciplinary interests. But the potential is not being focussed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Conference frustrations

When you’re a blogger and at a Conference, you are supposed to move into a higher gear. All the chats and adrenalin etc But the NISPAcee Conference at Varna on the Black Sea seems to have had the opposite effect on me. First – few contacts. I missed both evening receptions – because I had travelled by car. Thursday I was just so tired after negotiating Varna (so easy to reach from Bucharest) trying to find the Conference Hotel at the Golden Sands in the north amongst so many thousands in the area – that I could not be bothered getting in a bus to retrace 25 kilometres to Varna University.
And, no matter how hard you prepare for a presentation, you have to see the arena and feel the chemistry of the people before you can decide how to pitch the ideas. NISPAcee has seven working groups and our room was the ballroom (!!) – where even the largest slide was difficult for me to read. Only 10 minutes were allowed (in my case for a 25 page paper with 60 footnotes) and most of the presenters in the first Friday morning session understandably opted for Powerpoint. One didn’t – and I at least focussed more closely on his words. I decided therefore to throw away the slides (but still distribute them as individual handouts). So I missed the plenary session at 11.00 while I wrote a new presentation.
My presentation went down fine amongst the 40 participants (at least amongst the older, more independent characters from Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia who no longer have to earn brownie points from the older academic guru figures around whom most of the Conference swarms). This was a working group (on administrative reform) which I had helped establish by a critical paper I had presented to the 2006 Conference (with several others including David Coombes) – but it was not being managed in a way which allowed any sustained dialogue.
And Friday’s reception involved another bus journey – which I did not fancy - to the nearby Albena resort for some real estate marketing. And, after a couple of beers, the car journey I had planned (to give me the flexibility) was out of the question because of the Bulgarian police lurking behind every palm tree. I had planned to leave Saturday afternoon – but realised this was unfair so decided to stay the course to see if something more coherent could be retrieved. But the presentations were so messy – and all treated as worthy - no matter how pathetic (eg an ex Romanian State Secretary whose support is seen as so crucial to the Conference that he can turn up literally at the last minute - without the necessary paper - and scribble something illegible on a whiteboard). I will later name names!!
Of course it is always a privilege to have the chance to present a paper - even without feedback, it helps me write the paper I should have presented in the first place. And listening to other presentations from those other rare individual who have got into this business of public admin reform also sets off fascinating thoughts which enrich my creative juices. So many thanks to those who took the trouble to attend for the duration (and not just swan in at the last moment via a state limousine) and make a real contribution at Varna!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hungary's repressive state

I’ve mentioned the Hungarian Specrum blog several times already. If ever a blog deserved a prize, it’s this one – for its consistent and detailed reporting of the misdemeanours of the different parts of the Hungarian system. Here’s a recent post on how an innocent opposition mayor was kept in jail for almost 3 years – with no charges and no evidence. Be very afraid when you cross into Hungary!
People in the EU know about the government control of the Hungarian media. What they haven’t woken up to is the extent of Orban (their PM’s) relentless takeover of every part of the Hungarian system (including the judiciary) and crushing of opposition figures. For that information, you have to read Hungarian Spectrum.

And more on the subject of yesterday’s comment about the long-hatched plot to privatise the English health system. So far, the Scottish government has managed to resist this trend.

The stories about jobless Greek people returning to their villages should be read in conjunction with this blog which, every week, addresses the issue of the simpler life we should be choosing to live - rather than waiting until you're forced to.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

laboratory of education and health change

Hats off to the mayor of sector 1 Bucharest! Thanks to the municipality scheme, we were able to pick up 2 bikes at 11.00 Sunday morning – completely free of charge – and cycle around in the delightful Harastroia park and lake in complete safety for 2 hours. Hopefully this scheme – which lasts until the autumn - will encourage more to take to their bikes.

As usual, England is currently the subject of mad scientist experimentation – in the 2 fields politicians most like to play around with – education and health.
A good case-study in economics and in the use and meaning of league-tables is given in an article in The London Review of Books which explores the apparent UK Coalition Government’s drive to emulate US policy toward universities ie customer payment and competition.
The data which appear, at first glance, to demonstrate the great strength of the US university system are revealed, on even the most rudimentary analysis, to demonstrate nothing of the kind. Measure for measure, US universities are manifestly not the ‘best of the best’. If value for money is the most important consideration, especially in an age of austerity, the American model might well be the last one that Britain should be emulating.
This analysis has serious implications for government policy. There is no evidence here that private sector competition drives up academic standards, but there is clear evidence that market competition drives up prices, since academic excellence apparently costs much more in the US than the UK. Why is this? It isn’t in fact difficult to see why the introduction of market pricing into a small cohort of elite universities will drive prices up, not down. Wherever a small and strictly limited supply of a highly desirable commodity – such as places at Harvard – is introduced into a genuinely open market, the wealthiest cohort in society will drive its price up to levels only they can afford. This is essentially what has been happening at the upper levels of the US university league since the income gap began to open up in the 1980s. For several decades, tuition fees have been rising at double, triple and even quadruple the rate of cost-of-living inflation, first at the most exclusive universities, and then throughout the private sector, so that there are now more than a hundred private colleges and universities in the US charging students at least $50,000 annually for fees, room and board.
The introduction of competition drives down prices only in markets for commodities that can be readily produced. If a firm is producing things inefficiently, or skimming off too much profit, it can be undercut by more efficient methods of production or leaner business models. But there are some things which cannot be readily produced, and ancient universities are an excellent example. Oxford and Cambridge have a 600-year head start on their English rivals. Many of the advantages they enjoy are the product of their long histories: their architectural settings, their libraries and archives; their unique systems of tutorial teaching, collegiate organisation and self-government; and the academic prestige accumulated by two dozen generations of scholars, philosophers, scientists, poets and prime ministers. Their competitors cannot produce these things at any price, much less one that undercuts theirs. And because the ‘student experience’ they offer is one that many find uniquely attractive, they could, if freed from the constraints of government legislation, charge as high a price for this experience as the market would bear, without the risk of being undercut by anyone but each other.
But why does all the extra money pouring into US universities generate such a poor return in the rankings? Evidently, a large fraction of this funding is being invested in something other than academic excellence. This haemorrhage of funds has not gone unnoticed by American university leaders, who have traced the source of the leak to another aspect of market-driven academic culture which the government plans to start importing from America: the ‘student experience’.
Jonathan Cole, former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, wrote in the Huffington Post last year that in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.
If Cole is correct, then the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries. To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.
As far as the government's intentions for the poor health system are concerned, the backlash from the medical profession to the idea of putting GPs in charge of the health budget (in England) has been so great that the Government set up a "listening exercise"in the summer. Two recent discussion threads give a good sense of what's at stake - in the first BBC's Paul Mason sets out the very clearly the thinking which lay behind the reform; the problems it has run into; and what might now happen. A rare analytical discussion. The second thread - from the Guardian - is more conerned with political aspects.
In the course of following the discussion, I came across a good health blog.
Coincidentally, just as put down (a reread of) Colin Leys' 2001 book on Market-Driven Politics (which was the first study I ever read of the "commodification" of public services, I came across a new article and booklet he has written, suggesting that the government's health changes are not (as normally represented) a deviation but rather part of a change whiuch has been more than a decade in preparation.
The Kazanluk gallery was kind enough to Email me yesterday this pic of one of several paintings they have by Vassil Bakarov - "my mother".

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Salute to the local municipal galleries

Thursday I spent on a very pleasant drive from Velingrad in the Rhodope mountains to Bucharest (500 kms) – first through the gorge I spoke about; then east across the Thracian plain with a spectacular glowering sky; a hop past Stara Zagora over another mountain; and pulled in at Kazanluk on the basis of what I had read about its Art Gallery. And I was not disappointed. I was warmly received by Daniela who introduced me to their collection which included the Stanio Stamatov featured above – he was one of many local painters. Indeed the small town was so prolific with artists that it used to be called „the town of a hundred painters”. The collection is therefore a rich one - of both paintings and sculptures - and, amongst those whose acquaintance I made were Vasil Barakov (1902-1991); a scupltor Hristo Pessev (1923-2000); and Spas Zawgrov (1908-1991) born in a nearby village whose landscapes and portrait sketches were in a temporary exhibition funded by his family. Hristo Genev, the Director, welcomed me into his den and presented me with a couple of discs (one of his own material). He sculpts the most fascinating pieces from wood – one of which I displayed a couple of posts back. This is a gallery worth a detour to see – and many revisits!

I don’t often look at yahoo stories - but this is a useful bit of pleading for the simpler life we should be leading.

There are definite advantages in attending workshops which are in languages one doesn't understand! It forces you to use other senses to understand what is going on - to look at body language, for example. And it also gives me the time to reflect - eg I suddenly remembered the paper I had written in 2008 about Training assessment Tools which have different examples which could be used at the different stages of the training cycle. I duly had it printed it out and gave it to the Council of Ministers rep who was also attending the Vilengrad session (since they had insisted on a simplistic evaluation form being used). I will add this shortly to my website.
And I was also able to read more closely the paper on Training and Beyond; seeking better practices for capacity development by Jenny Pearson which I referred to recently - which sets out very well the critique of training I was myself struggling toward in my own 2008 paper.

Finally three good articles on the Chinese mood. The first about a rare critical article on Mao by an 82 year old Chinese economist. Then a good piece on the competition for the new leadership positions.
The last is particuarly interesting - since it gives an insight into how systematic is the Chinese way of researching issues.

Friday, May 13, 2011

New perspectives on democracy and the global financial crisis

Just as my watering poor eyes are beginning to tell me that I should be dramatically cutting back on the time I spend in front of this screen (and blogspot helped by going offline for 36 hours!), good internet articles seem to be increasing. In the last hour, I’ve encountered several fascinating pieces.
First the good news. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who has felt unease at the exploding number of indices of good governance and democracy. Open Democracy has just sent me their latest batch of thought-provoking articles – one of which by Jorge Heine puts the issue very clearly Another article on the same site introduced me to a new democracy manifesto which at last moves the focus away from the West.
And Anthony Barnett – the driving force behing the Open Democracy site (which I have now rather belatedly added to my links) – also has a good piece on the manifesto.
Democracy is spreading and it will be with us to stay. That is the good news. The bad news is that, through some sleight of hand, this powerful idea that has mobilized so many people and so much human energy around the world, has been turned by some into a highly parochial, procedural version of what self rule is all about. It is the specific political practices of a few (ironically) self-appointed countries around the world, mostly in the North Atlantic, that have come to be defined as setting the tone and the parameters for what democracy is and is not.
Globalization, by spreading the idea of democracy, has helped to liberate people from many a dictatorial yoke. But globalization also embodies the danger that a ‘one-size fits all’ model of democracy be imposed from abroad and from above. an upsurge of efforts to categorize, classify and rank countries around the world according to a variety of ‘democracy indexes’, which purport to tell us how democratic any given country is.
And this is not a mere academic exercise. Real-life consequences flow from it. Funds are disbursed, loans are approved or rejected and countries are suspended from international organizations as a result of these rankings. One of the great paradoxes of all this is that movements and governments that empower people and bring large numbers of the formerly disenfranchised into the political realm are often the targets of these self-appointed ‘democracy policemen’.
A number of countries in Latin America, like Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and others have experienced this treatment. New leaders, new constitutions, new rights for the hitherto marginalized aboriginal peoples have brought about enormous changes in these countries in the course of the past decade.
Bolivian President Evo Morales is the first Amerindian to be elected head of state in the Americas. Lula was the first trade union leader to become president of Brazil. Rafael Correa has brought political stability to Ecuador and a willingness to stand up against the oil majors to defend his country’s rights.
Yet, far from being welcome as major architects of the deepening of democracy in South America, some of these leaders are often demonized as populists by this fake international consensus about what democracy is and is not.
I was going to say that the bad news is that a special poll for the Labour parties of Sweden, Germany and UK (all of whom lost power recently) has revealed the extent of the distrust in these countries for these parties (despite the global conditions in which they should be thriving). But, as the poll reports a lack of faith in the ability of governments to stand up to vested interests (just 16% believed they could in the UK, 21% in Germany and 27% in Sweden).

That could actually be good news. If a significant percentage of the public understand that the parties have in fact sold the pass and cannot stand up to corporate interests, this could pave the way to stronger political demands. However it is not easy to overcome fataliasm. 29% in the UK were scepticical about the ability of government-led action to improve societies, with and 27% in Germany questioning whether governments can be an effective force.
It’s time parties which purport to be left use arguments and facts such as the following

And another post from Real World Economics reminds us of the strong report on the global financial crisis which came from a UN Commission of Experts (helped by Joseph Stiglitz) in September 2009 which had suggested the establishment of a panel of experts modeled after the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This summer the UN is to decide whether it should implement this. Should there be a panel? And if so what would its function and structure be? The last thing the world needs is yet another glossy report with yet another take on the financial crisis. And why bother if such an effort gets mired in UN bureaucracies and is not fashioned into a voice that would have traction with governments across the world?
The UN is the most legitimate and among the most qualified global bodies to weigh in on the global economic system and it would be ridiculous for it to sit on the sidelines. The UN has economists and experts in numerous global agencies such as UNCTAD, DESA, UNDP and beyond, as well as regional efforts such as ECLAC, ESCAP and others. If the UN does not weigh in, the only other options are the G-20 and the IMF. The G-20 as an institution does not include more than 170 countries in the world, and the IMF has a very poor track record on analyzing, preventing, and mitigating financial crisis. The UN is looked to for balance.
We very much need a meta-analysis of the global state of understanding on the causes of financial crises and measures to mitigate them, with the goal of making suggestions for reforming global economic governance—as recommended by the Stiglitz Commission. The UN has the track record here. The UN has already created two (while not perfect) efforts on climate change and on agricultural development. The IPCC is a body that analyses the state of climate science and its impacts, and the Intergovernmental Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge in Science, Technology, and Development (IAASTD) analyzed the state of knowledge on agriculture from the perspective of fighting hunger and poverty in a manner that can improve human health and environmental sustainability. 
What would an inter-governmental panel do? Like the IPCC and the IAASTD, an Intergovernmental Panel on Systemic Economic Risk would perform a meta-analysis of the state of knowledge on the causes, impacts, and implications of financial crises. This would not be just another report; rather, like the IPCC effort it would be the “report on the reports” where eminent persons make sense of the thousands of peer reviewed articles and agency (UN, IMF, etc) assessments that have been done. This would synthesize the similarities and spell out the differences in thinking about these issues to help policy-makers make better decisions about reform.
One of the volumes would look at causes and impacts, while another could serve as a clearinghouse for financial regulatory reform efforts. Nations and regions around the world are reforming their financial systems but there is no single place to catalogue and make sense of these new regulations. This is important for investors and policy makers as they seek to maneuver in a post-crisis world. It will also help stimulate policy diffusion whereby innovative regulation from one country can be applied to another.
If such an effort gets bogged down in UN processes it will be doomed to fail. Like the IPCC and the IAASTD the effort will need to have relative autonomy from the standard UN process. It should also engage with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The IAASTD has a Panel of Participating Governments (governments of all participating agencies) but also has a 60-person “Multi-stakeholder Bureau” that formally advises the plenary. Thirty of the members are governmental officials, 30 are from civil society, the private sector, and academics. Furthermore, IAASTD has seven cosponsoring agencies: the FAO, UNDP, WHO, UNEP, UNESCO and yes even the World Bank.
A UN panel on the financial crisis could model itself on IAASTD to some extent, having some of the governmental officials in a stakeholder bureau come from Central Banks and Finance Ministries, and having the sponsoring agencies be among UNCTAD, UNDP, UNDESA, some of the regionals, such as ECLAC, ESCAP, and the IMF, and World Bank.
It seems clear that at present the UN is not weighing in with a clear voice on the reform of the global economy. This is a pity. The world’s most powerful leaders and the press that follow them have found solace in the G-20 and the IMF, which are not delivering either. The UN is among the most qualified and certainly the most legitimate bodies to deal with the truly global nature of economic crises and their development implications. It started off better than any other body with the establishment of the Stiglitz Commission. Let us hope the UN is up to the task of following through on the Commission’s recommendations. The health of the global economy depends on it.
The painting is another Nenko Balkanski - which I came across on Thursday in the great Kazanluk municipal Gallery. It's of the painter's wife - and is quite similar to a painting in the Smolyian Gallery.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Restoration and identity

A great drive from Assenovgrad via the Plovdiv old town to Velingrad yesterday. In Plovdiv the main purpose was to visit the Phillippolis Gallery which had really been responsible exactly three years ago for starting my passion for buying Bulgarian paintings (mainly from mid-20th century). So far I have more than 50 – and not enough walls to hang them on! It was therefore not difficult to resist the temptation to buy another Dobre Dobrev (950 euros) – but I could not resist 7-8 small and highly original ceramic pieces at the small shop BG Art Gallery nearby. Before I left I had to revisit the Atanas Krastev house where local painter and conservationist Atanas Krastev lived until his death in 2003. His constant striving to keep the old buildings (at a time in the 1960s when tradition was viewed with some hostility) and to have them as active centres of cultural activity earned him the title of Mayor of Old Plovdiv – and he deserves wider recognition. The cosy, well-furnished house is strewn with personal mementoes, and the terrace offers superb views. His self-portraits and personal collection of (mostly) abstract 20th-century Bulgarian paintings are displayed. The garden also houses exhibits.
I thought it might be difficult to find the Olymp Hotel in Velingrad – since the spa town has so many. But the difficult part of the journey was actually negotiating round Pazhardik which (like Plovdiv) is very badly signposted. I have to say that everyone I stop to ask for guidance is enormously helpful.
And, as I drove straight for the mountain range, I could not see how on earth a road could be there – it is in fact one of the greatest engineering feats I have ever seen – cut right through at the side of a strongflowing river gorge. There is (or was) actually also a small-gauge railway which I seem to remember running 3 years ago when I used this road in the opposite direction. I hope its active in the summer season!
Vilengrad is 800 metres in a lovely valley surrounded by mountains – so the cold has followed me here! But I've warmed up in one of the 70 hot springs with which it is served!

For those who have been following passionately the development of next week’s Conference paper about EC Technical Assistance, I have posted an updated version here. And you can see the thread of the argument on the slides here.

A typically clear and provocative from Simon Jenkins – this time about the issue of Scottish independence which has been put firmly back on the agenda by the results of last week’s elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Kenneth Roy (equally typically) puts the matter in proper perspective.
Namely the Labour vote held up; only 22.6% of the electorate voted SNP in last week's election, while 26.7% insisted on voting for the boring old unionist parties. It was the Liberal Democrat vote which transferred to the SNP and gave it their strong victory. But Jenkin’s article remains one of the best summaries of the substantive issues I’ve seen (apart from the small matter of the dual negotiations which would be involved – first with the UK government and then with the EU!)
An equally good piece on the Scottish question is here.
Finally, an interesting discussion about central europe 20 years after the fall of the wall
The pic is a wood sculpture by Hristo Genev, the Director of the Kazanluk Art Gallery about whom I will write later

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

our cunning elites

I was skirting yesterday round Plovdiv (which has an old Roman heart – like so many Bulgarian towns) at lunchtime yesterday on the way to a workshop at Assenovograd when I passed a sign (Brestovitza) which is the name of my favourite red wine. I did an about turn, drove through some great-looking vineyards at the eastern foot of the Rhodope mountains and shocked one of guys hanging around the rather decrepit winery into opening a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and of a Rose for me to taste! I don't think they have such requests very often - although this small village apparently has 10 wineries (including the famous Toderoff one)! I was amazed to discover they they produce the great Erigone wines - which I fell in love with 3 years ago but then couldn't find again! Now I know where! I bought 2 of the Erigone's Cabernet-merlot (4 euros); 2 Rose (3 euros); and 2 Chardonnay. Tomorrow I will pop in to one of the Plovdiv art galleries which started me on my painting collection exactly three years ago - on my way to another workshop in a small spa town which skirts the western side of the Rhodopes. What a life! I’m staying at a superb Hotel (Sani) on the outskirts of Assenovograd with a very sizeable room with a view up a valley between the foothills – and a cavernous supermarket in the basement with rows of products (including one of the best selections of wines I’’ve seen) – but no customers! Smacks of a „cathedral in the desert”. Speaking of which, I was horrified to learn at dinner that municipal elections in November here may make half of the the 120-odd trainings this project is organising abortive! Such is the politicisation that many of the officials will be replaced – and it will take a couple of months for that to work through. And, because this project was 2 years late in starting (the usual Balkan politics), it is impossible to extend its current termination date of end-March. So even more workshops may be crammed into the autumn period before the axes start to fall in the pre-Christmas period! My initial view would be to stick with the schedule – although, in such a climate, noone probably wants to be absent from the municipal office! This is where the Brit in me loses patience – Bulgaria should be booted out of the Council of Europe for having such a level of Sultanism in its municipal systems.

But there are more important things to focus our energies on – eg the banks. A couple of good articles. Many of us had thought that neo-liberalism was on the wane; that the financial crisis had exposed once and for all the inanity of the claims of the financial experts; and that the clear public consensus for root and branch reform of the banks would lead to radical reform. In fact the opposite seems to have happened. The elites have spotted the danger; have been able to put an alternative narrative in place (about government debt – and its needing to be cut back) and have audaciously and, so far, successfully, managed to take things in the opposite direction. George Irvin has a strong piece about the strengthening (rather than weakening) of the neo-liberal agenda this has allowed in Social Europe.
Few of us pretend to understand finance – and that is the achilles heel of Democracy these days. We can talk until we are blue in the face about education, migrants, law and order but all this is just a gigantic diversion compared with the activities of those who control our financial system. And, as long as we fail to try to understand what they are up to, we are doomed. That’s why this amazing paper on what’s behind the Irish financial crisis is so important. It’s also why the Real World Economics blog (written by a group of economists who expose the nonsenses of that so-called discipline and have a commitment to drag it into the real world) is so worth reading (and therefore on the list of my recommended links) – particularly the recent posts by Peter Radford which give us insights into the unreal world which has such a profound effect on our real world.
Perhaps the most devastating comment about the state of economics today came – as a short article on Social Europe recounts - at a recent conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire – site of the 1945 conference that created today’s global economic architecture – came when Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf quizzed former United States Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, President Barack Obama’s ex-assistant for economic policy. “[Doesn’t] what has happened in the past few years,” Wolf asked, “simply suggest that [academic] economists did not understand what was going on?”Here is the most interesting part of Summers’ long answer: “There is a lot in [Walter] Bagehot that is about the crisis we just went through. There is more in [Hyman] Minsky, and perhaps more still in [Charles] Kindleberger.” That may sound obscure to a non-economist, but it was a devastating indictment. Bagehot (1826-1877) was a mid-nineteenth-century editor of The Economist who published a book about financial markets, Lombard Street, in 1873. Summers is certainly right: there is an awful lot in Lombard Street that is about the crisis from which we are now recovering. Minsky (1919-1996) is best approached not through his collected essays, entitled Can “It” Happen Again?, but rather through the use Kindleberger (1910-2003) made of his work in his 1978 book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises. Asked to name where to turn to understand what was going on in 2008, Summers cited three dead men, a book written 33 years ago, and another written the century before last.
For my sins I trained as an economist – although in the Scottish tradition of political economy – and did, for some years, lecture on the subject. But I was always mystified about it and sensed its quasi-religious element.
I have a large folder on the financial crisis – but confess to have read very little of it. There are few writers who can make the subject really interesting. Susan Strange was one – but is sadly lost to us. Susan George used to be another – but does not seem to have written recently. I have always admired the writings of Ronald Dore (who helped open our eyes to the Japanese ways of doing things) and was happy to see that he had written a piece in 2008 about the financialisation of the global economy.

And I’m travelling with the paperback Basic Instincts – human nature and the new economics by Pete Lunn who writes very well and clearly.
The painting is by a different Petrov - Ivan this time! 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Myopic General class - time to let the troops loose

For those not aware, the heading I gave to yesterday’s post was from "that play” by Shakespeare (it’s apparently bad luck for actors to refer to the play’s name!!)
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

I was pleased to find out that I will not be the only one in Varna next week questioning the conventioanl wisdom. In a quieter way, another paper – by Canadian Professor Leslie Pal – sets out some of the instruments which have been used by the OECD to try to get the sort of public management reform it thinks necessary. It looks at an important report OECD published in 2009 which, unfortunately, is behind a pay wall. But his paper summarises its main themes and argues that -
the OECD report contains a direct critique of New Public Management (NPM) and three questions that governments were urged to ask themselves in the search for a new governance paradigm. The critique of NPM noted that due “to lack of data and numerous challenges in measuring outputs and outcomes, governments have a difficult time in determining whether the reforms have really resulted in efficiency gains.” But it goes further:
New Public Management has exacerbated the traditional separation between politics and administration, between policy decisions and their implementation. Dismantling organisations also sometimes led to a loss of continuity, institutional memory and long-term capacity. The focus on contracting and reporting may have come at the expense of coherence of strategy, continuity of values and connecting public interest to individual motivation.
In addition, many governments have not developed sufficient oversight capacity, increasing the threat of provider capture. Often, governments adopted reform instruments or ideas from the private sector or from other governments without regard for the country context and/or understanding the inherent limitations and weaknesses of these instruments. (OECD 2009a: 33)
In a sober tone reminiscent of (its earlier neo-liberal tomb) "Modernising Government", the report asked whether a “new paradigm” was needed: “…OECD member countries may need to reassess what has worked well in past 25 years, what has not and why, what might be discarded from those reforms, what needs to be adjusted, what might be further built upon and what are the conditions for success.”
The three questions were (1) How can countries achieve a better balance between government, markets and citizens?, (2) What governance capacities or competencies are needed for dealing with global challenges?, and (3) How can a continued focus on efficiency and effectiveness be reconciled with upholding other fundamental public service values?
The discussion in connection with the third question was telling. While governments would continue to emphasize performance in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, the concept of performance – in light of the challenges of the financial crisis – would have to be broadened to include a government’s ability to uphold “core values such as accountability, transparency and equity.”
I spent the morning reading other papers Professor Pal has written exporing the insidious role the OECD has played in creating what the French would call „La Pensee Unique” in this field of government systems - here and here

I hope to give some more of his analysis tomorrow. I was hoping his material would give me the missing inspiration for the short presentation I have to do at Varna.

- What, basically, am I beefing about? What am I asking for?

A skype discussion with Daryoush helped me on my way.
My plea seems to be for a dialogue about better governance with new actors.
At the moment the dialogue is set by academics and top civil servants (OECD). What we might call the “brain”.

Completely missing is the "backbone" – middle-level officials, politicians, citizens and… consultants like me. In the EC system consultants (“experts”) are the foot soldiers – above us are battalions (companies and Delegations); Generals who are swapping stories and drinking wine – and academics writing about the battles – and noone talks with the troops!! Academics and officials have their (subsidised) Conferences and fora – but not the troopers!

The recent report of the OECD’s Network on Governance’s Anti-corruption Task Team on Integrity and State Building makes part of the point for me
As a result of interviews with senior members of ten donor agencies, it became apparent that those engaged in anti-corruption activities and those involved in the issues of statebuilding and fragile states had little knowledge of each other’s approaches and strategies
.Departmental silos are one of the recurring themes in the literature of public administration and reform – but it is often academia which lies behind this problem with its overspecialisation. „Fragile states” and „Statebuilding” are two new phrases which have grown up only in the last few years – and „capacity development” has now become a more high-profile activity. There are too many specialised groups working on building effective institutions in the difficult contexts my paper focusses on - and too few actually sharing their experiences. We need a road map – and more dialogue!

On a different note, I’ve raged before about management. But this post is a real eye-opener about trends in hgher educartion
As faculty jobs have become increasingly contingent and precarious, administration has become anything but. Formerly, administrators were more or less teachers with added responsibilities; nowadays, they function more like standard corporate managers — and they’re paid like them too.
Once a few institutes made this switch, market pressures compelled the rest to follow the high-revenue model, which leads directly to high salaries for administrators. Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members.
And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sound and fury – signifying nothing?

I’m now at the stage of creating the slides for the 10 minute presentation of my paper at the Varna Conference on 20 May. It’s a deeply depressing (but salutory) experience to have spent several months crafting a 25 page paper (with almost 100 footnotes!) and then find – when you look for the basic message - that it seems to say so little! What does this say about me? Or about the nature of administrative reform? Perhaps that should be the focus of my presentation??

The basic points in the paper are that –
• The EC programme of technical assistance is a multi-billion euros industry and policy field
• The European Court of Auditors published a fairly strong critique in 2007 – which was about its procurement procedures rather than the effectiveness of the tools used
• The EC’s 2008 response – its „Backbone strategy” - basically said that the overstretched staff of its 80 European delegations should try harder to achieve 4 things – demand-driven solutions; better project design; better selection of experts; and more project flexibility (already possible during the inception period). This is a cop out!
• Serious gaps in the analysis were failures to analyse the companies and individual consultants who are the real „backbone” of the TA
• There are too many cowboy companies winning projects by dubious means – and using experts they don’t know; who have arrived in the business by accident; and who receive no training (A paper I had presented to the 2006 NISPAcee Conference had questioned the „accidental” nature of the comeptitive procurement system used by the EC TA)
• The project basis of the EC TA is questionable – it lacks sustainability
• Perhaps there is another model - which strikes a better balance between competition, flexibility and sustainability?
• The second part of the paper looks at the difficult contexts of the EC Neigbourhood countries and suggests that few of the (overly rationalistic) tools in the reform toolbox of the EC will work there
• Change is a mysterious process for which the logframe (a tool for the construction industry) is totally unsuitable. This is recognised in the development industry
• Experts in adminsitrative reform lack insights into these wider development processes – and are stuck at stage one of a four-stage process which has been mapped by development experts
• EC TA is a deeply paternalistic model of change

It's been a useful exercise to list these points. Between now and Monday I have to elaborate them and decide what the slides should actually say for a 10 minute presentation - bearing in mind what the other presentations will be saying!!!

The painting is one of several Emilia Radusheva ones which have suddenly appeared. She has been in the Netherlands and her paintings seem to have dried up. But no longer. She has a very distinctive style and is, with Juliana Sotirova and Michko Constandinov, one of my favourite contemporary Bulgarian artists.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hungarian ambitions and Bulgarian gentility

The Hungarian Spectrum blog continues its amazingly penetrating analysis of political developments in Hungary by a piece on the background to an event which I (and, I supsect, all non-Hungarians) had missed in all the comment about the recent Constitutional changes there – the renaming of the country from „Hungarian Republic” to „Hungary”.
From such promising beginnings in 1989, this small country is turning out to be a real pain in the arse. I was struck with the arrogance of its people in 1993-95 when I worked there – and, looking at the size of their houses (and this was in North-East Hungary, their poorest part hard up against the Slovak, Ukrainian and Romanian borders), I wondered why on earth they needed European money then. Even then, all sorts of municipal developments were in evidence – something which you don’t even see here in the capital of Bulgaria 15 years later!
I have never seen such a poor state of pavements as here in Sofia. I wonder what the statistics of broken ankles are here. Unfortunately the internet offers no real treatment of Bulgaria – there was a rather inconsequential piece recently on an Economist blog about the corrupt state of the media here but, as one of the discussants rightly said, they have been set a very good example by the anglo-saxon world!
I have always seen Sofia as have an old-fashioned gentility – mainly from the tiny shop and gallery units you fiind in its centre with both young and old eking out a fragile existence but at least one whose rhythm they control. Since hearing the buskers in the nearby park playing early 1960s jazz and rock, I realise that Sofia, in many ways, could market itself as the retro-capital of Europe. You still see Trabis (although generally vegetating on the sidewalks); and, at leats round my area, the old folk are always out in strength and not marginalised as in so many other capitals. Of course, this is a stark reflection of the poverty of the economy – indeed I just don’t know how the economy here manages even to tick over.
Romania has at least one good news outlet in English which I came across recently

Today I came across this very evocative clip of poet John Betjeman celebrating Philip Larkin's poetry.

Apparently today is both St George's Day AND the Day of the Bulgarian Army. So I'm using one of Ilia Petrov's pictures.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

St George's Day - and Vernissaj

Am I the only person finding the Yahoo site increasingly aggressive and unacceptable? So many huge ads and so much flashing – and delays in getting access to my mail as they divert you to proselytise their latest version of one thing or another. I am seriuous thinking of switching – but is google any better? And not easy to switch when you have been with one address for 8 years!
The weather here in southern europe (Sofia) continues to be…well…Scottish! Cold, dreich and drisle – not calculated to get you running for your swimming gear. So I missed this morning’s walk and swim. And the constant problems anyway with access to the large pool in the Sparta Complex makes swimming totally uninviting….
Tomorrow is (another) holiday here in Bulgaria celebrates I was told that it was Soldiers' Day but became a bit puzzled - the soldiers' day I celebrated (with Russians!) in Riga a decade or so back was 23 February. And Victory day for Russia is 9 May so I don't know what 6 May is all about (Now I learn it's St George"s Day - a soldier!!) Regardless, the roads in town were clogged as people tried to get out for a 3 day weekend. If this is indeed a celebration of the Russian soldier it is utterly deserved. A couple of days after the US assassination in Pakistan, I'm not sure if we should be celebrating soldiers generally. It appears that, for once, they got the right guy - but so easily it could have been an innocent. And what sort of people go dancing in the streets to mark such a macabre strike? Only the sort who danced in the streets after September 11 2001!

Last evening, as I was returning from the Konus Gallery, I alighted on a Vernissaj (free wine at the opening of a gallery viewing) on Rakovski st – interesting landscapes from one Milko Voshkov and I struck a very professional figure as I manoeuvred the four paintings which Yassen had had framed for me into the gallery! The wine was bitter so I didn’t linger. This evening I had an invitation to another opening – at a new gallery only 4 minutes' walk from the flat. I was soon home – the paintings were a modernist disgrace (supposedly on the 7 deadly sins) and the place full of empty English chattering glitterati

Jeffrey Sachs is a figure we all love to hate. A neo-liberal in liberal disguise. I was amazed to fiind him today talking about the corrupt elite (about which, I concede, he knows a great deal!)

And a good discussion thread on the UK health reforms

Angela Minkova is a very creative and versatile Bulgarian artist - who paints and sculpts (in unusual materials - including bone). I'm very tempted by this piece which my friend Yassen has in his Konus Gallery - for 100 euros (the small guy at the bottom is dangling a key).

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How do we know what we think?

I notice that I have recently started to use the phrase „corporate interests” – as in "politics in deep thrawl to corporate interests”. I generally don’t like politically-loaded words since, as Orwell memorably expressed it, they so quickly lead to the death of thinking and the tyranny of words and slogans. It also means that we alienate others and end up talking only to those who agree with us. So why have I started to use the phrase – and what exactly do I mean by it?
It started, I suppose, when I first realised the extent to which both the media and political parties have been penetrated by multi-national business money and its perspectives.
It was obvious from the beginning that New Labour policies were shaped to keep the party safe from the attacks of the Rupert Murdoch media empire – but the infamous Bernie Ecclestone scandal at the very start of New Labour rule in 1997/8 was a shock to many (demonstrating so vividly how business people could purchase policy and access to legislative power – on the American model). But I suppose I thought this was just a bit of anglo-saxon distinctiveness.
As, however, other governments followed the path of neo-liberalism - and money and greed became more respectable, scandal after scandal followed (eg Enron). The global financial meltdown opened everyone’ s eyes – not only to the immorality of the big players but their utter shamelessness. And the growing centralisation of the media – and its unreliability – has also hit me hard recently. When I developed my type of gentle socialism (under the influence of Tony Crosland’s writings of the late 1950s and 1960s) we really did have a "mixed economy”. Power was reasonably balanced then in the UK (and the rest of Western Europe) between the various forces of labour and capital – and capital was not so monolithic. The word "„corporate” is another word for multinational (or big) business – and my use of the phrase "corporate interests” was shorthand for my disgust for the extent to which such corporate power is now, literally, out of control.
And its grip of the media means that the onus is on those of us object to the imbalance to demonstrate how little competition actually exists now in huge swaithes of the "market” at whose alter we are all supposed to worship. I’ve mentioned already on the blog a couple of recent publications which have exposed the extent of big business influence on the EU - Bursting the Bubble (Alter EU 2010); and Backstage Europe; comitology, accountability and democracy (2010) by Gijs Jan Brandsma.
Today I came across a summary of an academic treatment of the subject – Quiet Politics and Business Power – corporate power in Europe and Japan.
This is on Daniel Little’s excellent blog – and the article led me on to a previous post of his which is very important in answering the basic question of „how we actually know that things work the way in society that we think?”

The Guardian has an interesting piece about a new European left initiative. But I'm not holding my breath!

And, at last, we have one of the female Bulgarian painters represented! This is one of my favourites - Alexandra Mechkuevska who painted mainly in the 1930s and 1940s(I have two of hers). Not one of her best - but too few of the paintings I show have figures!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

are we any better than the Chinese one party state?

This year marks the centenary of the publication by Robert Michels of his great book Political Parties - which set out "the iron law of oligarchy" ie that all forms of organisation, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies (ie rule of the few). The reasons behind the oligarchization process are: the indispensability of leadership; natural self-interest and survival instincts (it’s a good life); and the passivity of the led individuals, more often than not taking the form of actual gratitude towards the leaders. These days we would add the media need for a hierarchical figure to focus on. I haven’t seen any recognition of the centenary yet. But I mentioned in my last post a paper written by a Frans Becker and Rene Cuperus a Dutch political scientist in 2004 - Party Paradox - which is the best analysis of the failings of the modern European political parties (and also the possible reasons for the various deficiencies; and possible ways for dealing with the crisis) which I’ve ever read. It might, with a bit of updating and some more international examples, make a suitable new version of the Michels classic – one hundred years on.
There have been innumerable articles and books bemoaning the state of democracy – but few to my knowledge which have identified the role of the political party in creating this parlous state. I had a long post in November bemoaning this lack of analysis.
So it’s great at last to find a good, solid paper – which I can recommend to others. Here are some excerpts -
Social-democratic politicians – even the local ones – come from a limited circle. Most are well-educated and are professionals in the collective sector. They closely resemble their counterparts in other parties as far as their education is concerned but differ from them in terms of their professional backgrounds.25 They are often well-suited for civil service and the policy-based, bureaucratically-oriented decisionmaking process and are at ease in the small inner circle of politics. The sociologist Van Doorn has described the contrast between the old and new politicians as follows. The old political elites were selected “because they had social standing, and they derived their standing from their leadership of certain social groups and core institutions: employers’ federations and employee organizations, leagues of farmers and small businessmen, dailies, broadcasting associations, and universities. In the 1960s these double offices became suspect and gradually disappeared. The “regents” were replaced by political professionals, who often had more ambition than experience. They became significant thanks to their election. A self-perpetuating cycle began: the inflow of professional politicians eroded the standing of being a member of parliament, and this diminished standing compromised the quality of the MP’s. They were selected from the crowd and lacked any competence beyond that of a low-prestige board. They almost exclusively represented their party and consequently became isolated from a society that is rapidly becoming disaffected with party politics.” Admittedly, some exceptions occur, and the good ones among them deserve their due.
Parties and politicians have come to focus increasingly on policy making. Politicians are like mechanics, tinkering at the engine of society by means of policy, without ever getting away from under the hood, as Anton Hemerijck put it at a conference of the Institute for Public Policy Research in London in 2000. Parties, having lost their social footing, do not appear to have replaced it with new alliances with civil society organizations.33 The isolation of the political parties is the predominant theme in the analysis of the Dutch Labour Party’s defeat in the 2002 elections. In the successful election campaign in 2003, Wouter Bos overcame this isolation and restored the electoral position of the Dutch Labour Party. Both a drastic change of the party culture and more structural ties with social organizations have been suggested as remedies to achieve sustained reinforcement of the party’s position.
The paper finished by suggesting that
three strategies are available to these parties in their quest to retain or reclaim their role in democracy. First, to focus far more on their procedural functions. As political parties become less adept at their representative function, they will need to take on a new role as keepers of transparent and democratic public administration, where access to political and administrative decision-making remains open; private and public interests are clearly distinct, the foundations of the constitutional state are taken into account, and diversity and freedom of expression and information provision are guaranteed. Entrepreneur-politician Berlusconi’s skill in using politics and state to further his interest demonstrates that his party fails as the countervailing power required for democracy
The other two strategies were:
(a) a shift toward more direct democracy; and (b) party innovation with a capital P, which means improving professional quality and fostering a more open party style. In the case of the Netherlands a reallocation of the party landscape into a loose two-party system would be desirable
In effect citizens are no longer presented with real options by political parties at the national levels – neither in the USA nor Europe where parties have, to one degree or another, succumbed to what some people call the pressures of globalisation and others call „corporate interests”. What it boils down to is a quasi one-party State. In China (from which I recently returned), the Party has recognised that the recruitment of elected politicians has to be strictly conducted – with party members receiving strict training as well as their elected cadres. Of course any electoral system has to give scope for (if not encourage) mavericks (populists) to keep the representative part of the system operating. If necessary the Party makes the suitable policy adjustment to keep the public happy.
But I would dare to suggest that the role of political parties at a local government might be reduced – and I say this as someone who for 25 years operated as the Secretary of ruling Labour groups at both municipal and Regional levels. Frankly I saw too much of my colleagues representing either party interests or the interests of professional departments (like Education and Police) – and not enough of their representing public concerns. And local elections contests when parties are dominant means that there is no serious debate – and that voters vote on national political grounds. This is probably one of the strongest arguments for the principle of elected mayors to which the Establishment seems at last to have come round to in England (since it brings in the issue of personality) – but I don’t see the argument for it being conducted in these terms. And elected mayors are not enough – a system needs to exist which allows the ordinary citizen to believe that it is possible for her that (s)he could if she wished have a reasonable chance of getting on to the council and being listened to.