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!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Call to Arms!

I have been reading these past 2 days an important tract which appeared last year and which pillories the state of British government - Stand and Deliver. It suggests that the performance of the British government system is so poor as to require a total overhaul and indeed formal “Treaty”. The BBC gives good coverage to the author in this piece
His more radical ideas are based around bringing in new feedback systems into the working of governments.He likens government at present to a gardener planting seeds, telling people what the garden will look like but then never actually checking whether or not they have grown as planned (instead spending lots of time checking on the sharpness of a spade or the water efficiency of a hose). That is in contrast to the private sector, which checks on the outcomes of spending continually.
A similar discipline needs to come into government, he says. There has been progress with the National Audit Office, the Office for National Statistics and select committees, he says, but he wants them all brought under the umbrella of the second chamber (the House of Lords at the moment) becoming a "Resulture" able to score policies and kill off those ones which are not working.

I call this a “tract” since it is not the normal “run of the mill” academic, political or technocratic treatise. Its author is thoroughly familiar with the political and technocratic worlds (less so the academic) and is very angry with what he has experienced……
So it is a very individual take on the British system of government – despite his consultancy experience in other countries and his emphasis on the need for “benchmarking”, only the Swiss system really seems to rate for him.

My first reaction as I read the opening pages was to try to remember when I had last read such an onslaught…… Simon Jenkins’ “Accountable to None – the Tory Nationalisation of Britain” (1996) and Thatcher and Sons (2006) were both powerful exposes of the excesses of the 1979-2006 governments; Christopher Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005) was more measured and brought his particular rich blend of academia and consultancy. It took a search of the latter’s book to remind me of the title and author of the famous expose of civil service waste which had first attracted Margaret Thatcher’s attention - Leslie Chapman’s Your Disobedient Servant (1979). And 2005 saw the launching of the Power Inquiry into the discontents about British government……
Oddly, however, none of these books appear in Straw’s three page and rather idiosyncratic bibliography.

The book itself promises to give an “organisational” rather than political take on the subject – which suited me perfectly as this has been my perspective since I first went into “government” (local) in 1968 – absorbing the more radical challenge to hierarchies and power…..Faced in turn with the challenge in 1975 of becoming one of the senior figures on the new Strathclyde Region, I used my position to develop more open and inclusive policy-making processes – extending to junior officials and councillors, community activists. With a huge Labour majority we could afford to be generous to any opposition! And, even under Thatcher, the Scottish Office Ministers were conciliatory – “partnership” was the name of the game we helped develop and was most evident in the success of the “Glasgow” revival. Straddling the worlds of academia and politics, I was able to initiate some important networks to try to effect social change
It was this experience of cooperating with a variety of actors in different agencies I took with me when I opted in 1990 to go into consultancy work in central Europe – to help develop the different sort of government capacity they needed there……then, for 8 years in Central Asia. I was lucky in being allowed to operate there to take advantage of “windows of opportunity” and not be hogbound with the stupid procurement rules…but I became highly critical of the EC development programme as you will see in this 2011 paper The Long Game – not the Logframe

Throughout this entire 45 year-period, I have been keeping up with the literature on change and public management – so am intrigued by this book of Ed Straw’s which promises to bring an organisational perspective to the frustrations we all have with government systems…….  
It was published more than a year ago; has a dedicated website but, from my google search, seems to have gone down like a lead balloon. Tomorrow I hope to present his arguments and explore how well the book fares on the following tests -
-  “resonating” with the times?
-  a “convincing” argument?
-  demonstrated “feasibility”?  
-  opposition identified?
- sources of support?

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