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!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Confessions of a Dilettante Gadfly

From 1968 to the early 1980s I had a pretty relaxed life – paid to read and regurgitate to polytechnic students whatever took my fancy in the burgeoning social science literature of the time – variously urban and regional management; and certain aspects of political studies. At the same time I was a serious “political bureaucrat” ie able to use a position as a Chairman of municipal and Regional social policy systems to give direction to an army of officials.
That gave me the opportunity to draft various papers describing the radical changes some of us were trying to make to our public management systems – influenced by a critique of “legalistic professionalism” which was beginning to come from the left, right and centre. Key names in these diverse “schools” were Saul Alinsky, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and those associated with the British CDP work of the early 1970s; James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock of the Public Choice school; and a raft of management gurus who started (with Russell Ackoff) by celebrating corporate management and ended (with Tom Peters) by celebrating chaos.   

A long paper with the (long) title From Multiple Deprivation to Social Exclusion; a Case Study of Organisational Development and Political Amnesia  is a fairly rare attempt of an “insider” to record the 15-year journey by a group of determined politicians and officials in a Regional Council which covered half of Scotland and employed 100,000 staff. 
What we were trying to do attracted the interest of a few researchers – in particular the famous Tavistock Institute (its Institute for Operation Research with John Friend); the Institute of Local Government Studies (Birmingham) and a handful of individual scholars such as Harry Smart who produced in 1991 a book with the rather convoluted title Criticism and public rationality – professional rigidity and the search for caring government which includes a “Coda” written by me.
One of my assistants at the time was someone who later occupied some prominent positions, culminating in the Directorship of the renowned Schumacher College and who edited a large volume in which I make a contribution – The Making of an Empowering Profession 
And he recently produced a brief memoir - Supporting People Power in which, again, I figure

From 1983, however, my (very patient) employers began to expect more serious academic work from me – while I was still holding down several senior political positions. In 1985 I reached breaking point and was forced to give up academic work. For 5 fraught years I operated as a full-time Regional political bureaucrat - searching, at the same time, for a channel for my energies and experience. I was lucky – the Berlin Wall fell and the European networks I had been developing gave me an amazing opportunity to use my understanding and skills in central Europe as a free-lance consultant.

For the past 23 years, therefore, I have been “a gun for hire”…..able to use whatever spare time I had to pursue my reading…..to annoy a variety of senior EC officials with critiques of EC programmes and…to draft the occasional, more reflective musings about the various projects I’ve been lucky enough to run. A few years ago, I tried to pull some of this experience together in an autobiographical piece I called “The Search for the Holy Grail – some reflections on 40 years of trying to make government and its systems work for people

I suppose some people would say I’m a dilettante – operating like a gadfly. But my particular skills-set includes promiscuous, inter-disciplinary reading; communications; networking; and a good memory. I am annoyed by the number of high-profile writers operating within narrow intellectual frameworks - who clearly have little sense of what has been going in related disciplines; and/or fail to reference the work of others ploughing similar critiques.

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