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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!

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?

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