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 7, 2017

Miniatures and Matrices

I’ve been reflecting a lot this year on my working experience of organizational change (both managing and advising state bodies) - now equally divided between the UK (the first 25 years) and central Europe and central Asia (the last 25 years).  I do so in a coat of many colours – scholar, community activist, politician, consultant, straddler of various worlds (not least academic disciplines), writer and….blogger.
Conscious that there are very few who have this experience of straddling so many worlds, I thought it would be useful to try to produce some pointers for the general public, using a series of questions which occur to interested citizens about public services 

I have always been a fan of tables, axes and matrices – by which I mean the reduction of ideas and text to the simple format of a 2x2 or 6x3 (or whatever) table. It forces you to whittle text down to the bare essentials. Perhaps that’s why I love these Central Asian and Russian miniatures so much

So I have developed 16 questions and have compressed my answers into such a table with just 2 columns for responses – “how each question has been dealt with in the literature” and “where the clearest answers can be found”. Of course, the literature is predominantly anglo-saxon – although the experience covered is global.
This proved to be an extraordinarily useful discipline – leading to quite a bit of adjustment to the original questions. It’s a long table – so I’ll make a start with the first five questions 
- How does each particular public service (eg health, education) work?
- What can realistically be said about the interests which find expression in “the state”?
- How satisfied are citizens with the outcomes of state activities?
- Why is the state such a contested idea?
- Where can we find out about the efficiency and effectiveness of public services?

Basic Question

How extensively has it been explored
Some Good answers
1. How does each particular public service (eg health, education) work?

How does it define and deal with challenges?
Each country has its own legal and cultural history which affects the shape and funding of services. Globalisation and Europeanisation have posed state bodies with profound challenges since the 1980s – with functions transferring from state to private and third sector sectors (and, in some cases, back again) and an increasing emphasis on mixed provision and “partnerships”
Thousands of books give analytical treatment of each of our public services – some with a focus on policy, some on management.

Measurement and comparison of performance – at both national and international level - have become dominant themes

Less emphasis since 2010 on Capacity building and strategic thinking – seen as luxuries for services under severe pressure because of cuts and austerity…
Public and Social Services in Europe ed Wollman, Kopric and Marcou (2016)

Parliaments and Think
Tanks occasionally report on strategic work
2. What can realistically be said about the interests which find expression in “the state”?
The 1970s and 80s saw an active debate in political science and sociology about the nature of The State (national and local) – and the public, professional, political, commercial and other interests one could find represented there.

As the state has “hollowed out” in the past 30 years – with privatisation and “contracting out” - political scientists became more interested in identifying the narratives which justified the remaining structures (see 8 and 9 below).

It has been left to journalists such as Jones and Monbiot to look at the issue of interests – particularly commercial and ideational – of the new constellation of the state.  

The Captive State; George Monbiot (2000)
3. How satisfied are citizens with the outcomes of state activities?
Despite the constant political and media attacks on public services, the general level of satisfaction of the British public remains high – particularly for local institutions
Opinion polls – Gallup, European Union

Parliamentary Select Committee on PA eg this 2008 report on citizen entitlements
4. Why is the state such a contested idea?

In the 1970s a new school of thinking called “public choice theory” developed a very strong critique not so much of the public sector but of the motives of those who managed it. The argument was not a pragmatic one about performance – but rather that politicians and bureaucrats had  private interests which they always put ahead of any notion of public interest; and that private sector provision (through competition) would therefore always be superior to that of public provision.
Although it was initially treated with derision, it was the basic logic behind Margaret Thatcher’s push for privatisation which became global after the fall of the Berlin Wall
Reinventing Government (by Osborne and Ted Graeber) popularised the new approach in 1992

Public Choice Primer (IEA 2012) is the clearest justification of this powerful school of thinking
5. Where can we find reliable analyses of the efficiency and effectiveness of public services?
In the UK a powerful National Audit Office (with more than 600 staff) investigate Departments of State (inc Hospitals). It is overseen by Parliament’s most powerful Select Committee - the Public Accounts Select Committee. For 25 years local authority budgets in England and Wales were overseen by an Audit Commission which was, very curiously, abolished

Attack on public spending “waste” has long been a favourite subject for the media – with quite a few books devoted to the subject.

Global league tables for health and education sectors

The Blunders of our Governments (2013) The most accessible and comprehensive treatment 

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