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!

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?

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