what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, October 31, 2011

Update - the British School of Government axed! (part VI)

The UK’s National School of Government – which I indicated (in my recent table about such national Institutes) had been reprieved from closure last year – will now be closed next March. According to a Ministerial statement in Parliament in June, it delivered 809 events to a domestic audience for the 12 month period from 1 June 2010 to 31 May 2011. These events were attended by 33,254 UK government officials. But last week its closure was announced (again) with a bland statement that "The new "Civil Service Learning" will focus on work-based approaches, including e-learning, and will directly involve managers in the training process" says the official statement. Previously called the Civil Service College, the facility runs training, development and consultancy courses for Whitehall mandarins. It employs 232 staff and is based at Sunningdale Park in Berkshire, with an annual budget of £31 million.
Quoted on the school's website earlier in the year, the Head of the Civil Service said: "It is clear that the public sector will be confronted with some serious challenges in the future. The National School of Government is a vital tool to help us meet them. The learning and development it provides must be part of our solution." But the Minister (Mr Maude) has claimed a shake-up of training will "improve the quality and impact of training". In his recent Parliamentary statement, he added: "It will also create greater flexibility by sourcing much of the training from external providers, including small and medium-sized enterprises."

I would have to say that the School was always vulnerable to such treatment. For example, it never produced anything that was available publicly. My source of inspiration when I was a young reforming politician in local government was the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at Birmingam University which was built entirely around the passion of one man John Stewart; which produced a bi-monthly journal; Discussion papers; and books. And to whose seminars one could easily access as a local government person. The revenue came from its local government pmarket - which is politically diverse.
Warwick University has also been home to another such Institute - the Local Government Centre built around one man John Bennington.
The School of Government was more elitist - and political. And therefore vulnerable. So one lesson is not to be too dependent on one market. The recent trend for amalgamating training of local and central government has a lot to be said for it - not least that people from these 2 sectors get to rub shoulders with one another.
There are lessons there - that a sustainable centre needs independence!

The future of public service training - Part V

Imagine yourself the Director of one of the Institutes I have been talking about…. There were periods last year when you didn’t have the cash to pay your staff. You’re not sure how long you’ll have in your position since both it and that of the Institute can be (and has been) affected by political vicissitudes. The only source of money is the European Union – but the bureaucracy is onerous and time-consuming; and the benefits not as obvious as might seem at first sight. None of the cash actually reaches the Institute – most of it goes to private companies and their contracted experts. What do you do in such a situation to try to ensure that the Institute’s activities actually help improve public services and are sustainable?
Most EC consultants would advise the Director to develop a strategic plan. That is to set up a process of identifying and consulting “stakeholders” to develop over several months a new “vision” and “action plan” which would carry with it a new “commitment” from those stakeholders to “make it happen”. I don’t mean to be cynical by the insertion of inverted commas – but I do have some questions about the belief that several months of such an exercise will magically produce an answer that no-one previously thought of or produce a new spirit of cooperation. The first thing I would actually recommend is some strong brainstorming for the Director with some experienced and trustworthy people – to try to identify some realistic options whose feasibility (s)he could then explore in a variety of ways – including a strategic exercise.
And if I were one of those with whom (s)he brainstormed, I would want to explore a central question -
What is the point of having a budget-supported national training centre for public officials?
Running courses is a means - not an end. The end is surely the improvement of state bodies. But this is not achieved by a series of ad-hoc workshops run by trainers who do not communicate with one another and who have no subsequent link with the participants. Of course, despite the claims of management consultants and management gurus, noone really understands the process of improving the performance of state bodies. To some it’s a question of leadership; to others teamwork; to others again, It’s competitive and/or citizen pressures; and to many politicians it’s a matter of targets, transparency and a mix of sticks and stones.

Several things, however, are clear for me –
• each country has its own cultures and needs to find its own way in its own language
• this requires a few experienced people to blaze a trail, providing ways of thinking about issues, presenting and interpreting relevant experience
• sometimes this can be an academic – but they generally have other agendas and an inaccessible language
• A training centre is ideally placed to bring senior managers together to share their experiences, encourage one another and formulate an agenda for strategic change
• A few suitable academics could be encouraged to participate in such sessions (good for their research) and co-produce Discussion papers

Of course this doesn’t immediately bring cash – and does demand time. But it’s time well spent – in building a reputation. It’s not easy to talk about cooperation between education and training institutes (not least because the terminological distinction is not as often made in central Europe as in the UK). The academics worry about a lowering of standards – and the trainers worry about opaque verbosity. But particularly in the field of public management, the distinction is a crazy one. I am not a fan of undergraduate courses in public management – they are shallow pot-pourris; they demonstrate little of value to subsequent employees (save perhaps that those who opted for the course have little ambition); and few who graduate actually go into public service. I think those who find themselves in academic positions teaching and (hopefully) researching public management would be better located in national training institutes – particularly if those institutes had a focus on senior management. I warned in part II that some academic cows would need to be sacrificed!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Can training make a difference? Part IV

Having suggested that few new Member States in central and eastern Europe seem to have managed yet to establish a proper training system for its public officials – and that the European Commission’s type of Technical Assistance has to take part of the blame for this – the following questions seem to be in order –
• Are there any examples of a relevant and sustainable training system in the new member states?
• If so, how did they manage to achieve this position?
• What is the status of such training systems in the older member states?
• Through what process have they gone to achieve their various present positions?
• What lessons would all this suggest for those countries which are still stuck at the drip-feed stage of development?

These are actually very difficult questions to answer – since so little is available - and I have spent the morning wrestling with them. In 1997 SIGMA published a couple of relevant papers – one setting out the various choices and issues involved in setting up a modern training structure; the second giving vignettes of each of the training centres for civil servants in OECD countries. Since then, nothing.
With all the support given over the decades by the European Commission to networks of practitioners, you would have thought that someone by now (eg Christopher Demmke of EIPA) would have recognised the value of a paper on the subject. And NISPAcee is, after all, the Network of Institutes and Schools of Public Administration in central and Eastern Europe but has not undertaken such a comparative (and sensitive) analysis – although its journal does contain the odd profile. There is also the rather elusive Directors of Institutes and Schools of Public Administration (DISPA) whose latest gathering this month in Warsaw was captured on the site of the Hungarian Institute but which, equally, has never risen to the challenge of commissioning a comparative analysis. So I have to venture into this field with all my imperfect knowledge.
The situation of the central PA training institutions in the EU Member States in terms of their role, tasks, funding and other characteristics varies from one country to another. And there have been considerable changes in the legal structure of central bodies for civil service training -
• A Civil Service College in Britain (for senior civil servants) was first part of the Cabinet Office; then became the Centre for Management and Policy Studies; then the National School of Government which was a free-standing Department; was then slated for abolition in March 2011 but was instead transferred back to the Cabinet office.
• The Dutch, Finnish and Swedish Institutes have all been privatized over the past decade.
• Romania’s Institute for National Administration was moved to the Civil Service Agency a couple of years ago after a period of some tension with that body.
• The Bulgarian IPA now finds itself back with the Council of Ministers – having over the past 5 years been part of the (now abolished Ministry for Administrative Reform) and then of the Ministry of Education.
• The Hungarian structure has been subject to major changes recently - with first a university unit being merged with a national training centre and now the integration of national and local government training systems
• The Czech structure was also changed the last year. There were two institutes before: one under the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, Department of the Institute of the State Administration and an independent Institute for Local Administration in Prague. They merged the last year and now there is only one institute under the Ministry of the Interior – Institute for Public Administration Prague.
• The Estonian IPA seems to have been absorbed into the Prime Minister’s Office

Given that most managerial theorists are a bit cynical about organizational changes, it is perhaps ironic that the training centres which are supposed to be helping state bodies become more effective have themselves been subject to so much structural change.
My recent personal experience of central european training systems is limited to 3-4 countries – otherwise I rely on anecdotal impressions from colleagues. I therefore hesitate to identify success stories. I hear good things about the Lithuanian and Slovenian systems but can say nothing about their trajectories – or the lessons they might have for others. In the next post, I will try, however, to present a "provocation" for those countries stuck at the drip-feed stage of development.
In the meantime I really would welcome comment from those readers who have experience and views in this field. I know you're there! I'm pleased to say that my readership has doubled in the past few weeks - but the blog does need (and appreciates) feedback

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Evidence, dear boy? Training - Part III

I have made a lot of assertions in my two recent posts on EC-funded training – based solely on my (limited) experience in 10 countries over the past 2 decades . Before posting the final part of my commentary on EC training programmes for public officials in ex-communist countries, I wanted to check what was available on the internet about the recent experience with, and evaluation of, the EC-funded programmes for developing the effectivness (capacity) of state bodies which Structural Funds have been encouraging in these countries for the past few years. The EC, after all, treasures transparency and it is currently spending hundreds of millions (under its Structural Funds) in projects to develop the capacity of state bodies and their human resource management. In Bulgaria alone, 180 million euros was set aside for the 6 year period for the Admin Capacity theme (significantly this theme doesn't interest the Romanians who have set aside only 1% of their Structural Fund allocation for it). But there are few documents online which give any sense of what is happening. Those few demonstrate the scale of the mountain we have to scale to ensure effective spend of EC Funds. In most cases, of course, the documents are written in a foreign language (English) – for bureaucratic or academic approval – three factors which tend to knock any sense from the text! Key bureaucratic phrases such as cohesion, transparency and inclusion litter the sentences in meaningless ways. There is no experience or critical analysis behind the words – just obedient regurgitation of the required phrases. This academic paper from a Bulgarian in 2007 tries to extract the lessons of pre-accession instruments for future accession states is written clearly but simply presents global figures, organisational carts and some gossip. A 2009 German (GTZ) consultancy report on one of the instruments is more typical of the obtuse reporting style
A document prepared for a small network trying to share their experiences of using EC money for the development of admin capacity gives a useful insight into their world and issues. Finally a more critical 2011 paper from a young Bulgarian academic

Everyone – on all sides(beneficiaries, donors, consultants, academics, evaluators) – plays the same game – everything has to be fitted to the Procustean bed of EC funding. The European Policy Research Centre at the University of Strathclyde, for example, has received hundreds of millions of euros from the EC to explain, evaluate and proselytise the EC’s regional policies since they were a gleam in Bruce Millan’s eye from 1988 when, as EC Commissioner for Regional Policy, he started (under the Delors regime) the incredible expansion of the programmes whose munificence created the real attraction of EC membership for ex-communist elites. Of course it is the last organisation which would dare to blow the whistle on the dubious nature of the ventures. Take, for example, this Greek academic paper it published recently.

One longs for a young boy to shout out that the Emperor has no clothes – and dare to tell it as it is.

making training effective - Part II

Part I suggested that the billions spent by the EC on training public officials over the past decade or so in ex-communist countries have not created sustainable training systems there - ie centres for training public officials whose full-time staff contain both trainers and specialists in the field of public management – and who actually play a role in helping state bodies operate effectively. Most of the new member and Accession states have a central training Institute – but its staff are small and (in all but a few cases) administrators who bring in public officials and academics for a few hours to deliver lectures. Little "needs assessment" can be carried out (an annual schedule is negotiated between the Institute and the Council of Ministers); Ministries have a training budget and pay for the attendance of those officials it allows to attend selected courses (whether at the Institute or other centres). It is virtually impossible for such a system to carry out serious evaluation of course content and of trainers – its staff lack the specialist knowledge (and status) to question, challenge and encourage. Such a system also focuses on individual needs – and is unable to input to discussions about the development of state capacity or help state bodies tackle their organisational problems.
In the older member States, such Institutes have played an important role in setting a vision for the improvement of public services; in monitoring developments and assisting the exchange of experience. At the time, however, such bodies were being established in the ex-communist countries, the new fashion amongst western consultants was for slimline, competitive training; the academic community in the east simply had no relevant experience to offer; and governments were offloading rather than building functions. The result was underfunded training centres.
With budget cuts of the past few years, the EC Structural Funds are being increasingly used to substitute for mainline funding. Given the competitive basis of the procurement, what this means is that private companies (rather than the Institute) are being paid to act as the administrators – undermining the possibility of the national Institute developing its capacity. One other result is an endless repetition of training the trainers programmes and Manual drafting. Whatever happened to the previous trained trainers and drafted manuals?
Of course, the picture is slightly more nuanced. Some countries have Institutes on the French model – which combine undergraduate teaching with short courses and have therefore a core of academic staff. Poland is the prime example (that academic bias can, of course, bring its own problems!) And Ministries of Finance and Justice tend to have their own training centres, staffed by experts in the relevant field. But the general picture stands.

Is there a different model – in these times of crisis? Only on three conditions -
1. if the development of state capacity is taken seriously – by officials, politicians and academics
2. if there is greater clarity about the role of training in individual learning and organisational development
3. if some academic sacred cows are sacrificed

I assume all new member states have the sort of EC-funded Operational Programmes which Bulgaria and Romania have – with themes such as Administrative Capacity and Human resource management (to mention two). Hundreds of millions of euros are allocated to private consultancies to carry out projects of training and capacity building with state bodies as the clients.
In highly politicised countries such as Romania, however, building capacity is not taken seriously. As Tom Gallagher’s most recent and powerful book on the country vividly shows, there are more private agendas at work eg loyalty to the figure who put you in your position. And those academic social scientists who have resisted the temptation to go into consultancy are, understandably, more interested in achieving status with their western colleagues than in making forays into the real world of public administration. Again I speak generally – and from my knowledge more of southern than northern new member states.
As far as training is concerned, it is remarkable (given how much money is spent on it) how little discussion there is of its role and practices in new member states. Training can be effective only under certain circumstances. The very language trainers use – "training needs assessment" – begs the question of whether training is in fact the appropriate intervention. It is the easy option – it assumes that it is the lower levels who are deficient whereas the real issue may be organisational systems or the performance of higher management. I was recently in charge of a project designed to give such an institute the capacity to assist public officials at regional and local levels in the effective implementation of the complex EC Acquis (eg the various legal requirements of safety, consumer rights, equal opportunities, environment). The project was designed as a training project when, for me, the issue was totally different. I tried to develop my argument in several discussion papers but could not, for various reasons, reach the right people for a discussion. Amongst the points I was trying to make were -
• Organisations (state bodies) perform only when they are given clear (and limited) goals – and the commensurate resources and management support. This requires the systems and skills of strategic management.
• This can be developed only through senior management being properly encouraged to prioritise and draft realistic action plans – based on project management principles.
• The core mission of Institutes of Public Administration should be to encourage and help senior management acquire these skills
• But they cannot do this as long as they are trapped in an administrative role – and traditional teaching philosphies
What I remember is the anger I aroused at our final conference from a Professor of Law when I dared to say that state bodies should recognise they cannot implement the acquis in its totality (even with the few opt-outs negotiated) and should prioritise.
I will continue the argument in a future post.

Culture cornerI’m glad to say that art galleries continue to open here in Sofia. I had been disappointed earlier in the year to encounter a nearby gallery which seemed to have closed down but yesterday discovered that it had, some months ago, re-opened under new ownershop and is a charming visit. It is Gallery-Museum" CLASSICA" at 32 Venelin Str., Sofia near the football stadium at Eagle Bridge. Its old website can still be seen here with some of the paintings still on offer. Young Leta and her mother are delightful guides and hosts.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Our Gaddarene swine

This blog generally tries to steer away from crises since there are so many others in the blogosphere who have more insights than me on these – be they economic, financial or political. I try to be a distinctive voice on the things I know best – organisational change in transition countries - and otherwise try to pass on what seem to be sensible comments on ongoing events. The financial crisis, however, which has been rumbling on since late 2007 has, I feel, few real experts – in the sense of both contextual understanding and insights into what interventions would actually help put Humpty Dumpty together again. There are a lot of people, of course, who have the skills, understanding and contacts to exploit this situation for their own benefit but few (like George Soros and Nicolas Talib) able and willing to offer solutions in the interests of ordinary citizens.
Today, however, Paul de Grauwe has a useful comment on Social Europe/ which I would like to share in its entirety -
Imagine an army going to war. It has overwhelming firepower. The generals, however, announce that they actually hate the whole thing and that they will limit the shooting as much as possible. Some of the generals are so upset by the prospect of going to war that they resign from the army. The remaining generals then tell the enemy that the shooting will only be temporary, and that the army will go home as soon as possible. What is the likely outcome of this war? You guessed it. Utter defeat by the enemy.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has been behaving like the generals. When it announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.
Financial markets knew that the ECB was not fully committed and that it would stop the programme. As a result, they knew that the stabilisation of the price of government bonds would only be temporary and that after the programme is discontinued prices would probably go down again. Few investors wanted to keep these bonds in their portfolios. As a result, government bonds continued to be sold, and the ECB was forced to buy a lot of them.
There is no sillier way to implement a bond purchase programme than the ECB way. By making it clear from the beginning that it does not trust its own programme, the ECB guaranteed its failure. By signalling that it distrusted the bonds it was buying, it also signalled to investors that they should distrust these too.
Surely once the ECB decided to buy government bonds, there was a better way to run the programme. The ECB should have announced that it was fully committed to using all its firepower to buy government bonds and that it would not allow the bond prices to drop below a given level. In doing so, it would create confidence. Investors know that the ECB has superior firepower, and when they get convinced that the ECB will not hesitate to use it, they will be holding on to their bonds. The beauty of this result is that the ECB won’t have to buy many bonds.
Why has the ECB not been willing to use this obvious and cheaper strategy?
Part of the answer has to do with the objections that have been raised against the idea that the central bank should be a lender of last resort in the government bond markets of a monetary union. Some are serious (moral hazard); others are phony (inflation risk). I discussed these in De Grauwe (2011) (see also Wyplosz 2011). My impression, however, is that these objections hide another more fundamental reason. The people sitting around the table in Frankfurt continue to believe that financial stability is not part of their core business, and, to use the words of Trichet, that there is only one needle on the Frankfurt compass and that is inflation. As long as this view prevails the ECB will be reluctant to do the obvious.
The result of this failure of the ECB to be a lender of last resort has been that a surrogate institution, the EFSF/ESM, had to be created that everybody knows will be ineffective. It has insufficient firepower and has an unworkable governance structure where each country keeps its veto power. In times of crisis it will be paralysed. As markets know this, its credibility will be weak.
To hide these shortcomings European leaders are now creating the fiction that by some clever leveraging trick the resources of the EFSF/ESM can be multiplied, allowing the ECB to retire to its Panglossian garden of inflation targeting. European leaders should know, however, that leverage creates risk, very large risks. These appear with full force when liquidity crises erupt. Thus when the leverage trick will be most needed, it will fail as it will show how risky the positions are of those who have guaranteed the leverage construction. Governments which now enjoy AAA creditworthiness will take the full blow of a 100% loss on their equity tranches and will lose their creditworthiness in one blow. The whole risky construction will collapse like other clever financial constructions of the recent past.
Academics have the reputation of living in an ivory tower far away from the realities of the world. My impression is that instead of the academics, it is the European leaders who have been living in an ivory tower. Disconnected from the economic and financial realities, they have created an institution that does not work and will never do so properly. Now they are creating a financial gimmick that, in their fantasies, they expect to solve the funding problems of major Eurozone countries. It is time for the European leaders to step back into the real world.
Craig Murray also has a brief and very succinct comment on the issue as does Der Spiegel in its article Politics stupid And I recommend the daily press summaries from Open Europe as the best there are at the moment on this issue.

Is training a waste of money? Part One

Christmas may still be 2 months away but one reputable blog has come with the sort of quiz we play at that time of the year - asking people “which book provides support, or is a book to which one often returns. And the answer cannot be the Bible”. As the participants in the subsequent discussion thread recognise, it’s not an easy question to answer. Most of our reading is novels and specialist stuff. There are, of course, classic novels (both old and new) to which we can and do return but several of the discussants say that it is poetry to which they go back – I would tend to agree. I often turn to TS Eliot, Bert Brecht, WS Graham and Norman MacCaig (sadly BBc doesn't allow me access this last), for example. What about my readers?

My subject today is training of public officials in ex-communist countries.
The European Union has spent many hundreds – if not thousands - of millions of euros on training of public servants in the accession states; in Eastern Europe and central Asia (and continues to do so in the Operational Programmes of its Structural Funds with which I am currently involved here in Bulgaria). Despite the European Commission emphasis on evaluation, I am not aware of any critical evaluation it has commissioned of that spending – nor of any guidelines it has issued to try to encourage good practice in this field of training public officials (It has issued, in recent years, guidelines on “good governance”, internal project monitoring, project cycle management, institutional assessment and capacity development, ex-ante evaluation). And, in particular, there is nothing available for those in transition countries who want to go beyond the task of managing one specific programme of training and actually build a system of training which has the key features of –
• Continuity
• Commitment to learning and improvement

A transition country is lucky if its officials and state bodies actually benefit from a training programme – with training needs being properly assessed; relevant and inspiring courses constructed; and delivered (by skilled trainers) in workshops which engage its participants and encourage them to do things differently in their workplace. Too often, many of these ingredients are missing. But, even if they are present, the programme is usually an ad-hoc one which fails to assist the wider system. The trainers disappear – often to the private sector; their training materials with them. No improvement takes place in the wider system of training public officials.

For 20 years now I have led public administration reform projects in a variety of “transition” countries in central Europe and central Asia – in which training and training the trainer activities have always been important elements. Initially I did what most western consultants tend to do – shared our “good practice” from western europe. But slowly – and mainly because I was no longer living in western Europe – I began to see how little impact all of this work was having. I summarised my assessment recently in the following way-
• Most workshops are held without sufficient preparation or follow-up. Workshops without these features are not worth holding.
• Training is too ad-hoc – and not properly related to the performance of the individual (through the development of core competences) or of the organisation
• Training, indeed, is often a cop-out – reflecting a failure to think properly about organisational failings and needs. Training should never stand alone – but always be part of a coherent package of development – whether individual or organisational.
• It is critical that any training intervention is based on “learning outcomes” developed in a proper dialogue between the 4 separate groups involved in any training system – the organisational leader, the training supplier, the trainer and the trainee. Too often it is the training supplier who sets the agenda.
• Too many programmes operate on the supply side – by running training of trainer courses, developing manuals and running courses. Standards will rise and training make a contribution to administrative capacity only if there is a stronger demand for more relevant training which makes a measurable impact on individual and organisational performance.
• In the first instance, this will require Human Resource Directors to be more demanding of training managers – to insist on better designed courses and materials; on proper evaluation of courses and trainers; and on the use of better trainers. More realistic guidelines and manuals need to be available for them
• Workshops should not really be used if the purpose is simply knowledge transfer. The very term “workshop” indicates that exercises should be used to ensure that the participant is challenged in his/her thinking. This helps deepen self-awareness and is generally the approach used to develop managerial skills and to create champions of change.
• Workshops have costs – both direct (trainers and materials) and indirect (staff time). There are a range of other learning tools available to help staff understand new legal obligations.
• HR Directors need to help ensure that senior management of state bodies looks properly at the impact of new legislation on systems, procedures, tasks and skills. Too many people seem to think that better implementation and compliance will be achieved simply by telling local officials what that new legislation says.
• A subject specialist is not a trainer. Too few of the people who deliver courses actually think about what the people in front of them actually already know.
• The training materials, standards and systems developed by previous projects are hard to find. Those trained as trainers – and companies bidding for projects – treat them, understandably as precious assets in the competitive environment in which they operate and are not keen to share them!

And this last point perhaps identifies one of the reasons why transition countries have found it so difficult to establish public training systems to match those in the older member states. From the beginning they were encouraged to base their systems on the competitive principle which older member states were beginning to adopt. Note the verb - "were beginning". And, of course, there is no greater zealot than a recent convert. So experts who had themselves learned and worked in systems subsidised by the state appeared in the east to preach the new magic of competition. And states with little money for even basic services were only too pleased to buy into that principle. The result is a black hole into which EU money has disappeared.
I will, in the next post, try to set out some principles for capacity development of public training systems in transition countries.
The photograph is of me at the communal table of Rozinski Monastery here in Bulgaria - taken a couple of year ago by my friend and colleague Daryoush Farsimadan, I think there is something appropriate there....

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Downside of Sofia Charms?

I’ve talked several times on the blog about the charm of central Sofia – with its parks and buskers with their retro music; narrow streets, small shops and atmosphere, the owners on the doorstep with a coffe and cigarette talking with friends. Of course the downside of such charm is that those who run the tiny vegetable, dressmakers, tricotage (thread) shops and various types of galleries barely make a living. How many of them are rented, I wonder, and therefore vulnerable to landlord rental hikes and commercial redevelopment? And I wonder how many of those who engage in this sort of soulless redevelopment realise what they are destroying. Is there nothing which can counter this Mammon? Do the city authorities realise what an asset they have? If so, are they doing anything about it? The lady mayor is certainly a huge improvement on her predecessor who, I was told yesterday, used to charge significant sums for those who wanted an audience with him to discuss their problems.

In the Yavorov District on Tuesday – a leafy and lively area near the University and just across from the great park which extends from the Eagle bridge and the football stadium for more than a kilometre east along the Express way which starts the run to the Thracian Valley, Plovdiv and Burgas. Looked at an elegant old flat which had housed the middle managers of the railways in the 30s in an area otherwise known as a residential one for the military at the beginning of the last century. And ventured into a small basement antique shop which was a real alladin’s cave of old Bulgarian and Russian stuff. The prize haul was a set of the small, shaped bottles in which rakia used to be drunk.

They seem to be 1950s or early 1960s – with wry humour stamped on to the glass. I haven’t discussed rakia yet in the blog (apart from the blog about the recent visit to Teteven). First time I tasted rakia in 2002, when I sped through the country on the way to the Turkish Aegean, I found it inspid. But I have now had a chance to taste various brands – and compare it with various Romanian palinka – and have become an afficiando. Here is a write up of one brand which won a few years back a silver medal in the International Review of Spirits Award -
Golden salmon colour. Vanilla and toasted nut aromas. nice oily texture. Dryish, vanilla bean oily nut flavors. Finishes with a lightly sweet powdered sugar and pepper fade. A nice texture and finish but could use more on the mid-palate
Finally – a great blogposts about traditional sheep farming by someone who spent a couple of months with the shepherds and cheese makers in the Carpathians.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The power of images

George Monbiot’s post in yesterday’s Guardian gave me some good links to papers trying to encourage a debate which is long overdue -
We think we know who the enemies are: banks, big business, lobbyists, the politicians who exist to appease them. But somehow the sector which stitches this system of hypercapitalism together gets overlooked. That seems strange when you consider how pervasive it is. It is everywhere, yet we see without seeing, without understanding the role that it plays in our lives. I am talking about the advertising industry. For obvious reasons, it is seldom confronted by either the newspapers or the broadcasters. The problem was laid out by Rory Sutherland when president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Marketing, he argued, is either ineffectual or it "raises enormous ethical questions every day". With admirable if disturbing candour he concluded that "I would rather be thought of as evil than useless." A new report by the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF opens up the discussion he appears to invite. Think of Me as Evil? asks the ethical questions that most of the media ignore – and adopts a rigorous approach, seeking out evidence. Our social identity is shaped, it argues, by values which psychologists label as either extrinsic or intrinsic. People with a strong set of intrinsic values place most weight on their relationships with family, friends and community. They have a sense of self-acceptance and a concern for other people and the environment. People with largely extrinsic values are driven by a desire for status, wealth and power over others. They tend to be image-conscious, to have a strong desire to conform to social norms and to possess less concern for other people or the planet. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and to report low levels of satisfaction with their lives.
We are not born with our values: they are embedded and normalised by the messages we receive from our social environment. Most advertising appeals to and reinforces extrinsic values. It doesn't matter what the product is: by celebrating image, beauty, wealth, power and status, it helps create an environment that shifts our value system
A pamphlet from the Compass Think Tank also picks up the issues. Less measured in its tone than the PIRC publication, it argues that advances in psychology. neurology and technology have given advertising insidious new powers; points to the interventions which governments have been making since the 1960s in relation to tobacco, protection of children etc and makes a series of recommendations – including the banning of advertising in public spaces, a measure introduced recently with great success apparently in the mega-city of Sao Paulo (20 million population).

Advertising may, as Monbiot suggests, have succeeded in the past few years in keeping its head down but there was a time when it was under attack. In my youth, I remember the impact of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1956 or so) and, a few years later, Jk Galbraith’s powerful dissection (in his 1967 book The New Industrial State) of the reality of the market and the way large companies shaped demand. Of course, the downfall of large companies a couple of decades later by the more flexible Apple and Microsoft companies was widely used to discredit Galbraith’s thesis. A more measured assessment of his arguments about corporate power (and indeed contribution to economics) appeared in the Australian Review which said -
Two rejoinders are in order. First, the qualitative evolution of economic systems highlights that grand generalisations are necessarily period-specific. The character of the automobile market after the mid-1970s may be instructive, but it does not vitiate generalisations on its character before the mid-1970s.
Second, Galbraith’s generalisations regarding the unbridled power of the corporate sector retain direct relevance to other segments of the corporate sector—the military-industrial ‘complex’ (including constructors), big oil (centred on Exxon Mobil), the medical-insurance complex, big chemical, big tobacco, big retail (Wal-Mart) and big finance. It is curious that Galbraith’s critics have not sought to juxtapose Galbraith’s focus with current developments that involve corporate actors writing the legislation that governs their sector (medical-insurance), heading off legislation or penalties that adversely effect their sector (oil, chemical, tobacco, etc.), or channeling foreign policy with heinous implications (weapons contractors and constructors).
On the related issue of consumers as pawns, it is true that American consumers belatedly exercised autonomy in electing to buy the automobiles of foreign manufacturers (albeit a sub-sector of the market remains subservient to the US auto giants’ emphasis on sports utility vehicles and the preposterous Hummer). Galbraith rightly asked the rationale for the then vast sums spent by producers on marketing (a question never satisfactorily addressed by mainstream economists)
Most people, however, want to see the world’s economies refloated and jobs returning. Whatever their gripes about advertising, they see it as a means of aiding that objective. Those who see the huge waste and social destruction of our present system have an upward struggle. I was pleased to see people like Fritjof Capra and and Hazel Henderson taking the argument into the enemy camp with a pamphlet published in 2009 by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales – entitled Qualitative Growth. I wouldn’t say it is the most convincing paper for such an audience – and am sorry that its references didn’t give wider sources eg Douthwaite.
The problems of the economic system we have can be best be summed up in two words - dissatisfaction and waste. Advertising creates the first - and the economic machine wastes people, resources and the planet. And yet its ideologues have erected a propoganda machine which tells us that it is both efficient and effective! What incredible irony!
Last evening was spent very pleasantly at one of Astry Gallery’s great vernissajs, celebrating the opening of yet another exhibition. This time the work of Natasha Atanassova and Nikolay Tiholov. Natasha is on the left and Vihra, the gallery impressario, on the right. And the painting at the top of the post is one of two I bought - this one by Natasha. The second is by Nikolay and is here -
Astry Gallery (under Vihra's tutelage) is unique for me amongst the Sofia galleries in encouraging contemporary Bulgarian painting. Two things are unique - first the frequency of the special exhibitions; but mainly that Vihra follows her passion (not fashion). I am not an art professional - but Vihra has a real art of creating an atmosphere in which people like me can explore. I have been to a couple of other exhibition openings here and they were, sadly, full of what I call "pseuds" - people who talked loudly (mostly Embassy people) and had little interest in the paintings (except perhaps their investment value). Vihra and her Astry Gallery attract real people who share her pasion and curiousity. It is always a joy to pop in there - and talk to her, visitors, artists, other collectors and her father.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is complexity theory useful?

Thirty years ago terms such as "policy failure” and "implementation drift” were all the rage in political science circles – with the implicit assumption that such drift was a bad thing ie that the original policy had been and/or remained relevant and effective. Nowadays we are more sceptical about the capacity of national (and EU) policy-making – and (therefore?) more open to systems thinking and complexity theory and its implications for public management. Certainly Gordon Brown’s fixation with targets was positively Stalinistic – and was progressively softened and finally abolished on his demise. I have blogged several times about the naivety of the belief that national governments (and, logically, companies) could control events by pulling levers – sometimes calling in aid posts from the thoughful blog Aid on the edge of chaos ; John Seddon and his systems approach and Jake Chapman who wrote a useful paper some time ago about the implications of systems thinking for government.
I have never, however found it easy to get my head around the subject. I am now reading the Institute of Government’s recent pamphlet on System Stewardship which is exploring the implications for english Civil Service skills of the Coalition government apparent hands-off approach to public services ie inviting a range of more localised organisations to take over their running – within some sort of strategic framework. The task of senior civil servants then becomes that of designing and learning from (rather than monitoring (?) the new system of procurements. My immediate thought is why so few people are talking about the reinvention of English local government (turned in the last 2 decades into little more than an arm of central government) – ie of inviting/requiring local authorities (rather than central government) to do the commissioning. The logic of complexity theory for collective organisations is presumably to reduce hierarchies and move decision-making as near as possible to individuals in their localities. Neoliberals say this means markets (dominated by large oligopolies); democrats say it means municipalities committed to delegation and/or mutual societies and social enterprises; and many northern Europeans would argue that they have the answer with their mixture of coalition governments, consultation and strong municipalities. But those who write in the English language don't pay much attention to that.
When I googled "stewardship”, I realised it has, in the last few years, become a new bit of jargon – and have to wonder if it is not a new smokescreen for neo-liberalism.
For the moment, I keep an open mind and will be reading three papers I have found as a result of this reading – a rather academic-looking Complexity theory and Public Administration – what’s new?; a rather opaque-looking Governance and complexity – emerging issues for governance theory; and a more useful-looking Governance, Complexity and Democratic participation – how citizens and public officials But I'm not holding my breath for great insights - just seems to be academic reinvention by new labels.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Memoriam; Ion Olteanu 1953-2010

I dedicate this post to the memory of Ion Olteanu – a Romanian friend who died a year ago and whose anniversary was today at the Scoala Centrala in Bucharest. Sadly, being in Sofia, I wasn’t able to attend. He was one of a tiny minority in post-Ceausescu Romania with a vision for Romania – and worked tirelessly and with great sacrifice and professional passion with its adolescents to try to realise it. He had a marvellous and unique combination of tough logic and tender care.
I hope he will consider it a suitable memorial comment.

In recent years, some of us consultants in admin reform have found ourselves drafting manuals on policy-making for government units of transition countries. I did it ten years ago for the Slovak Civil Service (it is one of the few papers I haven't yet posted on the website). I’m sorry to say that what is served up is generally pure fiction – suggesting a rationality in EC members which is actually non-existent. I like to think that I know a thing or two about policy-making. I was, after all, at the heart of policy-making in local and regional government at the height of its powers in Scotland until 1990; I also headed up a local government unit which preached the reform of its systems; and, in the mid 1980s I got one of the first Masters Degree in Policy Analysis. So I felt I understood both what the process should be – rational, detached and phased - and what in fact it was – political, partial and messy. I was duly impressed (and grateful) when the British Cabinet Office started to publish various papers on the process. First in 1999, Professional policy-making for the 21st Century and then, in 2001, a discussion paper - Better Policy Delivery and Design. This latter was actually a thoroughly realistic document which, as was hinted in the title, focused on the key question of why so many policies failed. It was the other (more technical parts) of the british government machine which showed continued attachment to the unrealistic ratonal (and sequentially staged) model of policy-making – as is evident in this response from the National Audit Office and in the Treasury model pushed by Gordon Brown.
The Institute of Government Think Tank has now blown the whistle on all this – with a report earlier in the year entitled Policy-Making in the Real World – evidence and analysis. The report looks at the attempts to improve policy making over the past fourteen years – and also throws in some excellent references to key bits of the academic literature. Based on interviews with 50 senior civil servants and 20 former ministers, along with studying 60 evaluations of government policy, it argues that these reforms all fell short because they did not take account of the crucial role of politics and ministers and, as such, failed to build ways of making policy that were resilient to the real pressures and incentives in the system.
The Institute followed up with a paper which looks at the future of policy making “in a world of decentralisation and more complex problems” which the UK faces with its new neo-liberal government The paper argues that policy makers need to see themselves less as sitting on top of a delivery chain, but as stewards of systems with multiple actors and decision makers – whose choices will determine how policy is realised. As it, with presumably unconscious irony states, “We are keen to open up a debate on what this means. There is also a third paper in the series which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

In this year’s paper to the NISPAcee Conference, I raised the question of why the EC is so insistent on accession countries adopting tools (such as policy analysis; impact assessment; professional civil service etc) which patently are no longer attempted in its member states. Is it because it wants the accession countries to feel more deficient and guilty? Or because it wants an opportunity to test tools which no longer fit the cynical West? Or is it a cynical attempt to export redundant skills to a gullible east?

Friday, October 21, 2011

There is another way

I am grateful to a Balkans historian, an Irish economist and an anonymous Canadian for this post. Tom Gallagher pointed me to a post on the website of David McWilliams one of whose discussants gave the following info -
Recently, the workers in the Fagor Appliance Factory in Mondragón, Spain, received an 8% cut in pay. This is not unusual in such hard economic times. What is unusual is that the workers voted themselves this pay cut. They could do this because the workers are also the owners of the firm. Fagor is part of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, a collection of cooperatives in Spain founded over 50 years ago.
The story of this remarkable company begins with a rather remarkable man, Fr. José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, who was assigned in 1941 to the village of Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain. The Basque region had been devastated by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938); they had supported the losing side and had been singled out by Franco for reprisals. Large numbers of Basque were executed or imprisoned, and poverty and unemployment remained endemic until the 1950’s. In Fr. José’s words, “We lost the Civil War, and we became an occupied region.” However, the independent spirit of the Basques proved to be fertile ground for the ideas of Fr. José. He took on the project of alleviating the poverty of the region. For him, the solution lay in the pages of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and the thinkers who had pondered the principles these encyclicals contained. Property, and its proper use, was central to his thought, as it was to Pope Leo and to Belloc and Chesterton. 
“Property,” Fr. José wrote, “is valued in so far as it serves as an efficient resource for building responsibility and efficiency in any vision of community life in a decentralized form.” José’s first step was the education of the people into the Distributist ideal. He became the counselor for the Church’s lay social and cultural arm, known as “Catholic Action,” and formed the Hezibide Elkartea, The League for Education and Culture, which established a training school for apprentices. He helped a group of these students become engineers, and later encouraged them to form a company of their own on cooperative lines. In 1955, when a nearby stove factory went bankrupt, the students raised $360,000 from the community to buy it. This first of the co-operatives was named Ulgor, which was an acronym from the names of the founders.
From such humble beginnings, the cooperative movement has grown to an organization that employs over 100,000 people in Spain, has extensive international holdings, has, as of 2007, €33 billion in assets (approximately US$43 billion), and revenues of €17 billion. 80% of their Spanish workers are also owners, and the Cooperative is working to extend the cooperative ideal to their foreign subsidiaries. 53% of the profits are placed in employee-owner accounts. The cooperatives engage in manufacturing of consumer and capital goods, construction, engineering, finance, and retailing. But aside from being a vast business and industrial enterprise, the corporation is also a social enterprise. It operates social insurance programs, training institutes, research centres, its own school system, and a university, and it does it all without government support.
Mondragón has a unique form of industrial organization. Each worker is a member of two organizations, the General Assembly and the Social Council. The first is the supreme governing body of the corporation, while the second functions in a manner analogous to a labor union. The General Assembly represents the workers as owners, while the Social Council represents the owners as workers. Voting in the General Assembly is on the basis of “one worker, one vote,” and since the corporation operates entirely form internal funds, there are no outside shareholders to outvote the workers in their own cooperatives. Moreover, it is impossible for the managers to form a separate class which lords it over both shareholders and workers and appropriates to itself the rewards that belong to both; the salaries of the highest-paid employee is limited to 8 times that of the lowest paid.
Mondragón has a 50 year history of growth that no capitalist organization can match. They have survived and grown in good times and bad. Their success proves that the capitalist model of production, which involves a separation between capital and labor, is not the only model and certainly not the most successful model. The great irony is that Mondragón exemplifies the libertarian ideal in a way that no libertarian system ever does. While the Austrian libertarians can never point to a working model of their system, the Distributists can point to a system that embodies all the objectives of a libertarian economy, but only by abandoning the radical individualism of the Austrians in favor of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
The Cooperative Economy of Emilia-Romagna. Another large-scale example of Distributism in action occurs in the Emilia-Romagna, the area around Bologna, which is one of 20 administrative districts in Italy. This region has a 100 year history of cooperativism, but the coops were suppressed in the 1930′s by the Fascists. After the war, with the region in ruins, the cooperative spirit was revived and has grown ever since, until now there are about 8,000 coops in the region of every conceivable size and variety. The majority are small and medium size enterprises, and they work in every area of the economy: manufacturing, agriculture, finance, retailing, and social services.
The “Emilian Model” is quite different from that used in Mondragón. While the MCC uses a hierarchical model that resembles a multi-divisional corporation (presuming the divisions of a corporation were free to leave at any time) the Emilian model is one of networking among a large variety of independent firms. These networks are quite flexible, and may change from job to job, combining a high degree of integration for specific orders with a high degree of independence. The cooperation among the firms is institutionalized many in two organizations, ERVET (The Emilia-Romagna Development Agency) and the CNA (The National Confederation of Artisans).
ERVET provides a series of “real” service centers (as opposed to the “government” service centers) to businesses which provide business plan analysis, marketing, technology transfer, and other services. The centers are organized around various industries; CITER, for example, serves the fashion and textile industries, QUASCO serves construction, CEMOTOR serves earth-moving equipment, etc. CNA serves the small artigiani, the artisanal firms with fewer than 18 employees, and where the owner works within the firm, and adds financing, payroll, and similar services to the mix.
The Emilian Model is based on the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity revolves around the notion of bi-directional transfers; it is not so much a defined exchange relationship with a set price as it is an expectation that what one gets will be proportional to what one gives. The element of trust is very important, which lowers the transaction costs of contracts, lawyers, and the like, unlike modern corporations, where such expenses are a high proportion of the cost of doing business. But more than that, since reciprocity is the principle that normally obtains in healthy families and communities, the economic system reinforces both the family and civil society, rather than works against them.
Space does not permit me to explore the richness of the Emilian Model. I will simply note here some of its economic results. The cooperatives supply 35% of the GDP of the region, and wages are 50% higher than in the rest of Italy. The region’s productivity and standard of living are among the highest in Europe. The entrepreneurial spirit is high, with over 8% of the workforce either self-employed or owning their own business. There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, certainly one of the densest concentrations per capita in the world. Some have called the Emilian Model “molecular capitalism”; but whatever you call it, it is certainly competitive, if not outright superior, to corporate capitalism.
Other Examples. There are many other functioning examples of Distributism in action: micro-banking, Employee stock option plans, mutual banks and insurance companies, buyers and producers cooperatives of every sort. This sample should be enough how distributism works in practice. Distributists are often accused of being “back to the land” romantics. The truth is otherwise. There are no functioning examples of a capitalism which operates anywhere near its own principles; there couldn’t be, because the mortality rates are simply too high. Hence, capitalism always relies on government power and money to rescue it from its own excesses. Distributism goes from success to success; capitalism goes from bailout to bailout
I visited Mondragon in the late 1980s in my capacity as Chairman of a trust which funded community enterprise in the West of Scotland and was deeply impressed - not least by the area's remoteness as I ascended a steep mountain in a hired car to reach the place. We need more celebratation of its achievements.

And the "way" which is shown in the picture is the new road which the village has built at the bottom of my garden. Not as fearsome as I had feared!!  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


A cold but gloriously sunny morning here in Sofia (although eastern Bulgaria being lashed with rain and snow) – Vitosha’s 2 peaks capped in light snow making a marvellous backcloth for cycling on the cycle lanes, up Vitosha Boulevard to the old market area in the search for a tea set for entertaining. Then on to Sofia Art Gallery to buy the best book I know about Bulgarian painters in a European language (Die Bulgarischen Kuenstler und Muenchen - whose CD I had bought earlier but was not quite legible). Its focus is the influence of Munich’s Art Academy on Bulgarian painting in the century from the 1850s and it gives more then 40 painters a few pages each– many of them unknown to me. The route took us to the University area – so I decided to have another look at the Ilya Beshkov sketches I had been shown at a favourite gallery there – and bought three (including the one shown above which would have been very suitable for yesterday's post).

A friend recently asked for my recommendations for think-tanks which covered public management issues. My immediate thought was Demos and the Institute for Government which won last year’s UK Prospect Magazine’s Think Tank of the Year award) and which published in 2009 an important paper assessing how the British civil service compared globally. Despite this comparative element, however, most of their papers are, by definition, too tied to the current British (English) political agenda – which made me wonder about European Think Tanks.
The Wikipedia entry on the subject is actually quite useful – with good historical comment and a lot of links But a real find was a special website - On Think Tanks - which tries to pick up on ongoing themes. There are apparently now more than 6,000 such bodies in the world – a far cry from my early days when only the Rand Corporation and The Brookings Institute existed (we never thought of the Fabian Society in those terms). They seem to divide into four types –
• those which are strongly linked with academia and focus mainly on economic issues
• those which are explicitly sympathetic to a political party or set of political principles (the Fabian Society; the French political clubs)
• those funded (generally on a clandestine basis) by commercial interests to make the world a safer place for their pursuit of profits – particularly the extractive and drug industries. The campaigning journalist George Monbiot wrote recently about this. And the Mother Jones journal gave some useful examples of the link between funding sources and results. One website simply tracks the right-wing thinks tanks set up quite explicitly to protect the professedly "free market” agenda.
More entrepreneurial ones (a lot of which are found in central and east Europe) which offer bright ideas from a position of apparent independence

Of course, all Think Tanks profess their independence and rigour of methodologies but it is interesting that the European Commission is trying to insist that all Think Tanks register in the Commission’s Official Register of Lobbyists (albeit in a special section)
And, inevitably, we now have global league tables of Think Tanks – drawn up apparently with a highly arbitrary methodology
Diane Stone is a good analyst on the subject (not to be confused with Deborah Stone who wrote the best book on policy analysis – Policy Paradox!) who co-authored in 2004 what looks to be a great book on the global ThinkTank phenomenon Think Tank Traditions – policy research and the politics of ideas which has chapters on the various key countries. And you can read here a list of the German ones
Finally, a couple of speculative pieces on how Think Tanks need to smarten up their act – one which focuses on methodology; the other on technology

Monday, October 17, 2011

Identifying the real culprits

I haven’t said anything in the blog yet about the Occupy Wall St protest movement - which is most remiss of me. An article in what is a new magazine for me – Orion Magazine – expresses the issues very well
What is needed is a new paradigm of disrespect for the banker, the financier, the One Percenter, a new civic space in which he is openly reviled, in which spoiled eggs and rotten vegetables are tossed at his every turning. What is needed is a revival of the language of vigorous old (US) “progressivism”, wherein the parasite class was denounced as such. What is needed is a new Resistance. We face a system of social control “that offers nothing but mass consumption as a prospect for our youth,” that trumpets “contempt for the least powerful in society,” that offers only “outrageous competition of all against all.
There’s also a good post (and discussion) on the Real Economics blogsite And Jonathan Scheel has an eloquent piece in The Nation on the subject.
And yesterday I came across the website of the marvellously-entitled Centre for the Study of Capital Dysfunctionality – set up before the global crisis at the London School of Economics by a financier who simply became disgusted with his experiences and now writes and talks eloquently about alternative systems.
He and others produced a book about the Future of Finance last year which (like a lot of others I suspect) I missed. It can be quickly downloaded hereand should be read in conjunction with the report which came from the Vickers banking commission which was set up by the UK Government in 2010

The Occupy Wall St movement is overdue (see my blog the Dog which didn’t bark) and is explained by two simple emotions – anger and impotence. Anger at the greed and wealth of a tiny group of financiers who provide no service but simply use invented money to sustain a sick way of life for themselves which impoverishes the majority. And impotence at a political system which not only gave them this opportunity in the first place – but shows no sign of wishing or being able to rein them in.

A recent, mainstream American book Winner Take All – how Washington made the rich richer and turned its back on the middle class explores these questions. How did the incredible inequalities arise? And why is the American political system acting so perversely – with voters apparently supporting the parties whose governments dismantled the regulatory systems and created the mess? The book shows quite clearly that American government is in bed with corporate power. No surprise there for many of us in Europe – but a bit of an eye opener for the average American reader whose access to such books is fairly limited. An excellent review (and discussion thread)summarises thus -
The book downplays the importance of electoral politics, without dismissing it, in favor of a focus on policy-setting, institutions, and organization. First and most important – policy-setting. Hacker and Pierson argue that too many books on US politics focus on the electoral circus. Instead, they should be focusing on the politics of policy-setting. Government is important, after all, because it makes policy decisions which affect people’s lives. While elections clearly play an important role in determining who can set policy, they are not the only moment of policy choice, nor necessarily the most important. The actual processes through which policy gets made are poorly understood by the public, in part because the media is not interested in them (in Hacker and Pierson’s words, “[f]or the media, governing often seems like something that happens in the off-season”).
And to understand the actual processes of policy-making, we need to understand institutions. Institutions make it more or less easy to get policy through the system, by shaping veto points. If one wants to explain why inequality happens, one needs to look not only at the decisions which are made, but the decisions which are not made, because they are successfully opposed by parties or interest groups. Institutional rules provide actors with opportunities both to try and get policies that they want through the system and to stymie policies that they do not want to see enacted
What is particularly interesting about the review is that it sets the book in the wider context of the malaise of American academic social science -
There is no field of American political economy. Economists have typically treated the economy as non-political. Political scientists have typically not concerned themselves with the American economy. There are recent efforts to change this, coming from economists like Paul Krugman and political scientists like Larry Bartels, but they are still in their infancy. We do not have the kinds of detailed and systematic accounts of the relationship between political institutions and economic order for the US that we have e.g. for most mainland European countries. We will need a decade or more of research to build the foundations of one.
Hence, while Hacker and Pierson show that political science can get us a large part of the way, it cannot get us as far as they would like us to go, for the simple reason that political science is not well developed enough yet. We can identify the causal mechanisms intervening between some specific political decisions and non-decisions and observed outcomes in the economy. We cannot yet provide a really satisfactory account of how these particular mechanisms work across a wider variety of settings and hence produce the general forms of inequality that they point to. Nor do we yet have a really good account of the precise interactions between these mechanisms and other mechanisms
One of the discussants in the discussion thread on the book review asked what the European literature said on the matter. The only response was a reference to Wolfgang Streeck’s new book on Germany - Re-forming Capitalism; institutional change in the German political economy. Earlier this year I mentioned 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 by Gijs Jan Brandsma.
The painting is (of course) by Georg Grosz - Eclipse of the sun - about the military-industry complex

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can government ever change?

The UK Select Committee on Public Administration continues to do useful work – in identifying important questions to probe about the operation of government; and attracting witnesses from all sectors of society (including academia, Ministers and senior officials) to explore the issues with the Committee’s members. A few months it produced a report about government IT projects with the great subtitle - "recipe for rip-off". It is currently exploring the capacity of the civil service to deal with the Coalition government’s ambitious plans for "turning the model government upside down” – through contracting even more of public services to social enterprises. Its initial report Change in Government - the agenda for leadership came out last month and is tough not so much on the civil service as the government itself -
The Government has embarked on a course of reform which has fundamental implications for the future of the Civil Service, but the Government's approach lacks leadership. The Minister rejected the need for a central reform plan, preferring "doing stuff" instead. We have no faith in such an approach. All the evidence makes clear that a coordinated change programme, including what a clear set of objectives will look like, is necessary to achieve the Government's objectives for the Civil Service. The Government's change agenda will fail without such a plan. We recommend that, as part of the consultation exercise it has promised about the future role of Whitehall, the Government should produce a comprehensive change programme articulating clearly what it believes the Civil Service is for, how it must change and with a timetable of clear milestones.
In short, the Government has not got a change programme: Ministers just want change to happen: but without a plan, change will be defeated by inertia
And this in one of the OECD’s “best governed countries” – according to a 2008 World Bank assessment. What chance, then, for the sort of cooperation between policy-makers, senior officials and academics in transition countries called for by the various analysts I quoted yesterday?
The report goes on to set out what it would expect to find in a reform plan -
62. We consider that a number of key factors for success specifically relevant to large-scale Civil Service reform are vital to the success of change programmes in Whitehall:
a) Clear objectives: there must be a clear understanding of both what the Civil Service is being transformed from and to, as well as the nature of the change process itself. This requires both a coherent idea of the ultimate outcome, but also how clarity on how to ensure coordination of the reform programme and how to communicate that throughout the process.
b) Scope: The appropriate scope for the reforms must be established at the outset; with focused terms of reference, but also wide enough to be able to explore all necessary issues.
c) Senior buy-in: A political belief that reform is needed must be matched by the same belief within the Civil Service and ministers, and both should be clear on their roles in delivering it. Sustained political support and engagement from all ministers is crucial.
d) Central coordination: Either the Cabinet Office or reform units such as the Efficiency and Reform Group must drive the change programme. This requires good quality leadership of such units and a method of working which ensures collaboration with departments, and Prime Ministerial commitment.
e) Timescales: There must be a clear timetable with clear milestones to achieve optimal impact and to ensure political support is sustained. The lifespan of the change programme should include the time taken for reforms to become embedded. Two to three years is likely to be the most effective; beyond this period reform bodies may experience mission creep.
63. Measured against the factors for a successful change programme, the Government's approach to Civil Service reform currently falls short. There is no clear or coherent set of objectives, nor have Ministers shown a commitment to a dynamic strategic problem solving approach to change. The Cabinet Office have signalled their commitment to change the culture of Whitehall, but we have not yet found sufficient evidence to imply a coherent change programme. In the absence of leadership from the Cabinet Office, departments are carrying out their individual programmes with limited coordination and mixed levels of success. Without clear leadership or coordination from the centre, setting out, in practical terms, how the reform objectives are to be achieved, the Government's reforms will fail
.Useful stuff!
We were snowed upon this morning in Sofia!
The painting is another Yuliana Sotirova which I have my eye on. Has a certain appropriateness for the theme of the post.....

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can political and academic leopards change their spots?

Tempus fugit! It's time already to think about a paper for the 2012 NISPAcee Conference - which,again, will be held nearby - at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.
The two previous papers I have presented at NISPAcee Conferences (in 2007 and 2010) were about the role of Technical Assistance in building the capacity of public bodies in transition countries. They basically argued that –
• Technical Assistance based on the logframe approach and competitive tendering is fatally flawed - assuming that a series of “products” procured by competitive company bidding for discrete projects can develop the sort of trust, networking and knowledge on which lasting change depends
• The EC's 2008 "Backbone Strategy" has not improved matters – the audit which led to the review was narrowly focused on procedural issues in the procurement process and the Backbone strategy continues with this bias.
• Few comparative and longitudinal studies have been carried out of administrative reform in transition countries – and in particular of the effectiveness of the various tools in the technical assistance cupboard of administrative reform. The myriad evaluations which the EC commissions of its institution building projects in the Region are formalistic and difficult to find – largely because of the commercial basis on which most technical assistance in this field is carried out.
• we are, to put it mildly, rather hypocritical in our expection that tools which we have not found easy to implement in our own countries will work in the more politicised contexts of East Europe and Central Asia.

At the 2012 Conference, I propose to elaborate the latter part of this critique; with respect to three issues -

a. Can the leopard change its spots?
One common thread in those few assessments which have faced honestly the crumbling of reform in the Region is the need to force the politicians to grow up and stop behaving like petulant and thieving magpies. Nick Manning and Sorin Ionitsa both emphasise the need for transparency and external pressures. Cardona and Tony Verheijen talk of the establishment of structures bringing politicians, officials, academics etc together to develop a consensus (see section 10.4 of this paper on my website). As Ionitsa put it succinctly –
The first openings must be made at the political level – the supply can be generated fairly rapidly, especially in ex-communist countries, with their well-educated manpower. But if the demand is lacking, then the supply will be irrelevant.
This seems to imply an emphasis on civil society and democratisation – rather than institutional development.

b. Over-specialisation and lack of dialogueDepartmental 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. For example, “Fragile states” and “Statebuilding” are two new subject specialisms which have grown up only in the last few years – and “capacity development” has now become a more high-profile activity. But the specialists in these fields rarely talk to one another – not least because of the professional advantages in pretending that theirs is a new field, with new insights and skills.

c. The superficiality of public managementInstitutions grow – and noone really understands that process. Administrative reform has little basis in scientific evidence (See the 99 contradictory proverbs underlying it which Hood and Jackson identified in their (out of print) 1999 book. The discipline of public administration from which it springs is promiscuous in its multi-disciplinary borrowing; new public management (still alive and well) is based on a mixture of dubious managerialism and theoretical eccentricities. Traditional PA was at least aware of politics and history. Technocratic NPM denies both.

My ambitious proposal for the 2012 NISPAcee Conference is to present a paper which will explore these issues through–
• A literature review of comparative assessments of administrative reform in the Region – and of the experience and lessons of the specific tools used
• A tentative exploration of the basis and contribution of the various “disciplines” to our understanding of institutional development

The painting is of St Joan Church on Lake Ohrid - by the esteemed Bulgarian Atanas Mihov (1879-1974)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Grim times for forgotten people

The house in the past week has been busy with guests – so not much chance to blog but lots of good conversation….wine and rakia. All of which needed in the colder and damp weather now being experienced here. So yesterday saw a trip to Teteven, nestling in the heart of the Balkan mountain range with the crucial aim of picking up local rakia from an old friend of Sylvie – my ex-landlady. After a speedy 80 kilometres on what must be the most scenic highway in the Balkans, a 3rd class road took us 18 kilometres through a lovely plain marked by signs of decline – but the industrial dereliction of Teteven still shocked us. The town straddles along a river and must have about a dozen derelict plants – of which the picture is typical. The only sign of economic activity is an Italian furniture factory. And a sad story of hopelessness emerged over the superb lunch which awaited us. Elections are in a few weeks – but the political class is seen as irrelevant and venal. I got the impression of a return to Hobbesian conditions – with youngsters having neither jobs nor hope; old people expected to live on a pension of 100 euros a month; and the European Union’s agricultural policy having shafted much of the rural self-sufficiency which produced such superb food in the past.

Friday, October 7, 2011

musical and visual tributes, visit to Dionysus shrine

First some musical tributes – sparked off by the very sad news that a guitarist legendary in my young days, Edinburgh-born Bert Jansch, has died - in his late 60s. I hadn’t realised he had an association with the Pentangle group which was a favourite of mine.
Billy Connolly, the great Scottish comedian, did a nice video on Jansch some years back.
Going down memory lane, I googled two other favourites of mine then - Pete Atkins (with words by the famous Clive James)and the Renaissance band

I visited Perperikon on Tuesday – an amazing medieval fortress topping a high hill with a superb 360 degree panorama (in the south to and beyond the Greek border). It was built in the place of an ancient Thracian sanctuary, related to the cult towards the Thracian equivalence of the Greek god of wine and feasts, Dionysius (known as Zagrey among the Thracians). It was discovered fairly recently; is still being excavated and is reckoned to have been built some 3,500 years ago - used for ritual sacrifices of animals and people. You have to be pretty fit to scramble up a steep trail for almost a kilometre – and then climb the stone staircases. I'm suffering today (knees)

Yesterday I had just over an hour’s drive to Blagoevgrad to visit a workshop on private-public partnership. Chatted with a couple of the participants and the trainer – then off to see the gallery of my favourite contemporary Bulgarian artist – Yuliana Sotirova. She is a very versatile painter – attracted to old buildings but good also with figures. She is also a sculptor (life size stuff). Before my visit, I had 6 of her paintings – including a magnificent oil one she did of my father from a black and white photograph which now hangs in my study in the mountain house. She must have more than 200 paintings in her studio – but after an hour she had 6 fewer.
This is one of a series of small paintings she has done of various church interiors - this one in Salonika. I will post others as space allows in the next few days.

The Guardian is the only UK newspaper I look at and was instrumental in Rupert Murdoch's recent humiliation. The Editor delivered recently a stirring (and rare) statement of the importance of a strong and free presswhich everyone should read.

And, if you are a cook and use garlic, this is a must-see video clip on how to peel a clove in 10 seconds flat without all the usual hassle (as a purist) I threw away my garlic crusher years ago