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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!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

State of the State – part 5

It’s odd that “Public Bureaucracy” seems to be of so little interest to the public - since one state alone (eg the UK) can spend no less than 800 billion pounds a year to give its citizens services….
A month ago in one of this series of posts, I actually identified 8 very distinct groups of people (academics, consultants, think tankers, journalists etc) who write about public services – from a variety of standpoints - using a variety of styles (or tones) and formats of writing. We could call them “the commentariat”.
It has to be said that little of their material is easy to read – it has too much jargon; it takes 10 pages to say what could be said in 1. Those who write the material do not write for the general public – they write for one another in academia and global institutions. On the few occasions they write snappily, they are generally selling stuff (as consultants) to governments.

The media do give a lot of coverage to various scandals in particularly the welfare and health services - but rarely give us an article which sheds any real light on what is being done with these hundreds of billions of euros….We are treated, instead, as morons who respond, in Pavlovian style, to slogans.
I am, of course, being unfair to journalists. They write what they are allowed to by newspaper and journal editors and owners – who generally have their own agenda. And who wants to read about the dilemmas of running public services or arguing about their “functions” being “transferred”? Just looking at these words makes one’s eyes glaze over!!
It seems that only journals like “The New Yorker” who can get away with articles such as The Lie Factory – about the origins, for example, of the consultancy industry.
And yet there is clearly a public thirst for well-written material about serious and difficult topics.
Take a book I am just finishing - journalist Owen Jones’ The Establishment – and how they get away with it (Penguin 2014) can boast sales approaching 250,000. For only 9 euros I got one of the best critiques of British society of the past decade……

I remember being in New York in 1992 and finding a copy of Reinventing Government (by Osborne and Ted Graeber) in one of its famous bookstores - which went on to become the world’s bestseller on government (with the exception perhaps of Machiavelli’s The Prince?). I simply don’t understand why someone can’t do that again with all that’s happened in the past 25 years….

In 2015 Penguin Books made an effort in this direction with a couple of titles …..Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015) and The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge (2015). I’ve refused so far to buy the second since it is so obviously a right-wing tome – and the first suffers for me in too obviously being the special pleading of someone who was Tony Bliar’s Head of Delivery in the British Cabinet and has now reinvented himself as a Deliverology Guru.

Over my lifetime, I’ve read/dipped into thousands of books about managing public services and organisations generally. About a dozen have made a lasting impression on me – I’ll reveal them in a future post…Let me, for the moment, continue some of the questions I think we should be asking about the state – and our public services -


How has “the commentariat” dealt with the question?
 Recommended Reading
6. Has privatisation lived up to its hype?

There is now quite a strong backlash against the performance of privatised facilities – particularly in the field of water and communal services – with the Germans in particular mounting strong campaigns to return them to public ownership….

A lot of such services remain monopolies – occupying the worst of all worlds since privatisation creates “transaction costs” (both in the initial sale process and subsequent regulatory bodies) and boosts executive salaries and shareholders’ profits – thereby adding significant additional costs. The only advantage is an artificial one – in the removal of the investment cap. 

7. What are the realistic alternatives to state and private provision of Public Services?
A hundred years ago, a lot of public services (even in the education and health field) were charitable.
That changed in the 40s – but the 80s saw the welfare state being challenged throughout Europe. In the UK, government started to fund social enterprises working with disadvantaged groups – new Labour strengthened that work.

The 2010 Coalition government started to encourage mutual structures for public services  

8. Where can we find rigorous assessments of how well the “machinery of the state” works?

The process of changing the way the British “machinery of government” started in the 1970s and has been never-ending.
Although the emphasis during the Conservative period from 1979-97 was transfer of functions to the private sector, a lot of regulatory bodies were set up to control what became private monopolies – in fields such as rail and, in England, water.
And, in an effort to mimic real markets, the health service was also the subject of a major division between purchasers and suppliers.

Such innovations were eagerly marketed by international consultants – and copied globally
New Labour was in power between 1997 and 2010. Its Modernising Government programme was developed with a strong emphasis on sticks and carrots – eg naming and shaming.
Curiously, there are far more books describing the intentions and activities of specific programmes of change than assessments of the actual impact on organisations.
A Government that worked better and cost Less?; Hood and Dixon (2015) is one of the few attempts to assess the effects of the British changes of the past 40 years.

The two clearest and most exhaustive UK books analysing in detail the reasons for and the shape and consequences of the large number of change programmes between 1970 and 2005 were written by someone who was both an academic and practitioner - Chris Foster author (with F Plowden) of “The State Under Stress – can the hollow state be good?” (1996); and British Government in Crisis (2005)
Transforming British Government – roles and relationships ed R Rhodes (2000) is a good if outdated collection

9. What Lessons have people drawn from all this experience of changing the way public services are structured and delivered?
We have now almost 50 years of efforts to reform systems of delivering public services - and the last 20 years has seen a huge and global literature on the lessons……
Academics contribute the bulk of the publicly available material on the subject – with Think Tankers and staff of global institutions (World Bank; OECD; EC) the rest.
Consultants’ material is private and rarely surfaces – apart from their marketing stuff. 
Michael Barber was Head of New Labour’s Delivery Unit in the early 2000s and has now become a “deliverology” consultant to governments around the world. He shares his advice here -  How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015)

Chris Pollitt and Rod Rhodes are 2 of the top political scientists studying the changes in the structure of the state - see Rethinking policy and politics – reflections on contemporary debates in policy studies). Their basic message seems to be that a lot of civil servant positions were disposed of; new jargon was learned; management positions strengthened – but “stuff” (ie crises) continued to happen!

The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; John Micklewaithe and Adrian Woolridge (Penguin 2015) is a rare journalistic entry into the field (to compare with Toynbee and Walker; and Barber).
The best short article on the experience must be 
What do we know about PM reform? Chris Pollitt (2013)

International Public Administration Reform  by Nick Manning and Neil Parison (World Bank 2004) had some good case studies of the early wave of efforts.

Two of the best collections of overviews are - Public and Social Services in Europe ed Wollman, Kopric and Marcou (2016) AND
10. Is anyone defending the state these days?
We have become very sceptical these days of writing which strikes too positive a tone. “Where’s the beef?” our inner voice is always asking – ie what interests is this writer pushing?

Paul du Gay is a rare academic who has been prepared over the years to speak up for the much-maligned “bureaucrat” and his is the opening chapter of a 2003 collection of very useful articles
The Toynbee and Walker book is another rare defence….this time from journalists
Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state; by Polly Toynbee and D Walker (Guardian Books 2017)

The Values of Bureaucracy”; ed P du Gay (2003) - googling the title should give you a complete download)

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