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!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Managing Change…why have we lost interest?

Let me try to summarise the argument of the recent posts about public services reform……

Our view of the State (and what we could expect of it) changed dramatically in 1989 – and not just in Eastern Europe. Boring “public administration” gave way to New Public Management (NPM) – with its emphasis on the “consumer” (rather than citizen) and on “choice”…

A series of blogposts last autumn used 15 questions to explore its state almost 20 years on….
Anglo-saxon voices were loudest in what was essentially a technocratic debate, focussing on concepts such as “good Governance” and “public value”.  
Last week I wrote that it was nothing short of scandalous that, in comparison with the thousands of books written on the subject by academics in the past 25 years, there seem to be only two written for the general public by journalists….Even if I add in those written by consultants (such as Barber, Seddon and Straw) the total comes to under a dozen….

A question which is surprisingly rarely explored in the vast literature on reform is one relating to the sources of change. We all too readily assume that effective change comes from politicians and their advisers…..The sad reality is that this is generally the kiss of death.
Of course this seems to fly in the face of the narrative about democratic authority and political legitimacy…. 
But that just shows how two-dimensional is the concept of democracy which prevails in anglo-saxon countries.
Effective change doesn’t come from the “ya-boo; yo-yo” system of adversarial power blocs of the UK and USA – it comes from sustained dialogue and coalitions of change.
And, often, it starts with an experiment – rather than a grand programme…Take, for example, what is now being called the Dutch model for neighbourhood care – started by Buurtzorg a few years back which is now inspiring people everywhere. That is a worker cooperative model… which, quite rightly, figures in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations
And when “mutualisation” was being explored by the UK Coalition government in 2010/11 (see reading list at end of this post) it was a bipartisan idea which had strong support from the social enterprise sector….

There was a time when people were interested in the process of organisational change…..it even spawned a literature on “managing change”, some of which still graces my library shelves (from the early 1990s). …The titles figure in this Annotated Bibliography for change agents which I did almost 20 years ago….
Most of the literature was paternalistic but a few writers understood that change could not be imposed (however subtly) and had to grow from a process of incremental adjustment….that was Peter Senge at his best….But the most inspiring book on the subject remains for me Robert Quinn’s Change the World (2000) – this article gives a sense of his argument. At a more technical level, Governance Reform under real world Conditions (2008) also offers an overview with a rarely catholic perspective.....

I don’t understand why we have lost interest in the process of change – and why leaders seem doomed to reinvent the broken wheel…..

Postscript; for the record, this post probably encapsulates some of the most important messages from this series about reform I have been writing in the past year

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Playing Games with a serious issue?

Part of me understands the groans (sometimes more than metaphorical!) which meet the term “public management reform” whenever it comes up in conversation…..
I have sometimes wished we could find a better phrase to do justice to what is, after all, one of the most important issues confronting countries everywherenamely how we structure and fund the rights and responsibilities we all have ...in order to help make and keep societies secure.

So this post looks at some of the efforts which have been made in the last 20 years to find a less brutal approach to public service management than that represented by New Public Management 
Just why and how the British adopted NPM – which then became a global pandemic - is a story which is usually told in a fatalistic way – as if there were no human agency involved. One persuasive explanation is given here - as the fatal combination of Ministerial frustration with civil service “dynamic conservatism” (as Donald Schoen would put it) with Public Choice economics offering a seductive explanation for that inertia….  A politico-organisational problem was redefined as an economic one and, heh presto, NPM went global 
The core European systems were, however, different – with legal and constitutional safeguards, Proportional Representation systems and coalition governments – although the EC technocracy has been chipping away at much of this.

Good governance ?
This became a fashionable phrase in the 1990s amongst at least policy wonks in the World Bank – although it was aimed mainly at ex-communist and “developing” countries and never really caught on in everyday conversation. One of the ingredients of the rather formulaic “good governance” goulash was anti-corruption measures - which I felt were always basic aspects of sound public management and not a novel add-on….  

“Public Value”?
Mark Moore’s Creating Public Value – strategic management in Government (1995) demonstrated how the passion and example of individual leaders could inspire teams and lift the performance and profile of public services. The decentralisation of American government allowed them that freedom.
British New Labour, however, chose to go in the opposite direction and to build on to what was already a tight centralised system a new quasi-Soviet one of targets and punishment – although this 2002 note, Creating Public Value – an analytical framework for public service reform, showed that there were at least some people  within the Cabinet Office pushing for a more flexible approach.

Measuring Public Value – the competing values approach showed that there was still life in the idea in the UK – if only amongst academics  eg Public Value Management – a new narrative for networked governance by Gerry Stoker in 2006.
Sadly Public Value; theory and practice ed by John Benington and Mark Moore (2011) offered no clarion call to a better society, it was full of dreadful jargon…..Who in his right mind imagines that networked public governance is going to set the heather alight???

“The Common Good”?
One of the things which struck me on rereading some of these references is how academic (apart from Moore’s original book) they are….For example John Bryson’s work on public strategies constitute the best writing on the subject eg Leadership for the Common Good; Crosby and Bryson (2nd edition 2005) but when I look at the indexes and bibliographies of the material on Public Value, their names and books don’t appear! This shows utter contempt for the practical side of things…..
Quite rightly, the title of their latest book Creating Public Value in Practice – advancing the common good in a ….noone in charge world; ed J Bryson et al (2015) shows that their contribution is much more valuable than that of the academics….. 

“Communitarianism”?
At one stage, I thought that communitarianism – so eloquently served by the indefatigable Amatai Etzioni – held an important key……But I soon realised that it smacked of what Orwell benignly called the sandal-wearers and others, less kind, would call the Calvin sect……

Before I finish let me bring up the neglected issue of….Service.
Like Mark Moore, Chris Pollitt’s The Essential Public Manager (2003) focused on the human aspect of public management by exploring the core attributes and values of those who used to be called “public servants”… It’s a pity that more politicians don’t see themselves as “public servants” – and indeed Pollitt might consider, for the next edition of the book, replacing the word “manager” with that of “servant”; and adding at least one chapter to deal with Ministers…. ….????? And “Public Service Reform” is certainly the better phrase since it removes that offensive word “management”….and takes me to Robert Greenleaf whose On Becoming a servant leader (1996) is a book I sometimes turn to for inspiration.
Greenleaf was a thoughtful senior manager with corporate giant AT and T who took early retirement in 1964 to set up a foundation to develop his ideas about leadership - which had a clear influence on writers such as Stephen Covey and Peter Senge. These two management gurus preached/preach in the 90s a softer approach to the subject – while avoiding the explicit critique evident in the later work of, for example, Canadian Henry Mintzberg, one of the rare management writers to break ranks  and call big business to account – in his 2014 pamphlet Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center. As early as 1970 Greenleaf wrote an article which set out the main elements of his approach - The Servant as Leader (1970). His continuing influence on at least some management writing can be seen here

In conclusion
This has been quite a romp – which has taken me longer to craft than my normal post. But, from my point of view at least, has been very useful….
 “Good government”, “Public service reform”, “networked public governance”, “public value”, “communitarianism”, “the Common Good”……what is it to be????  Perhaps I should do a straw poll?

But it has left me with one conclusion….that there are two significant sets of voices we don’t hear in most of these texts – the officials who run the services and the citizens who experience them. Last week I discussed the notion of public service ventures in the shape of cooperatives; and this is an issue which really does need to be pushed more strongly…….

 Further Reading
From NPM to Public Value (2007) – a useful academic overview
Public Value and Leadership; 2007 – a mercifully short and clear paper on the subject
Public Value; conjecture and refutation (2010) – a good academic overview with an emphasis on ethical consideration
Appraising public value; past, present and futures (2011) is an excellent review of the literature in the first 15 years of the concept’s life
Stocktake of a concept (2015) – a clear exposition of the development of an idea
Designing the model of public value management; (2015) How the concept is seen in Romanian academia
Comparison of public value frameworks (2016) a good academic assessment

To be continued

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The power of Ideas

The longest of the 6 quotations which run down the blog’s right-hand column is from Keynes – suggesting that ideas have more influence on societies than we imagine compared, that is, with crude calculations of interest.
I have long been fascinated by the ebb and flow of ideas – and how rarely people seem willing to explore how they have changed their thinking…..I suppose our thoughts are so much part of our identity that we get first embarrassed and then angry if others try to push us on our belief changes….”Apostasy” is the big word for such acts of renunciation and there were loads of them in the 1930s as the first flush of enthusiasm for the soviet system dispelled and then again in the 1950s after Hungary. But I deviate……..retournons aux moutons!!

As far back as 1995 I doodled a couple of pages of notes about what seemed to me to have been the key focus of at least anglo-saxon debate in each of the decades from the 1930s. An updated version now makes a fascinating table explained in this post. Fear of the masses had been a strong theme in the 1930s but, by the 1960s, many of us in Europe and America were celebrating rather than fearing them – whether through the fashion for “participation” let alone community action, direct action or social development. 1968, after all, had been an expression of people power. And the writings of Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich – let alone British activists Colin Ward and Tony Gibson; and sociologists such as Jon Davies and Norman Dennis – were, in the 70s, celebrating citizen voices against bureaucratic power. In America, the therapist Carl Rogers was at the height of his global influence.
But political and economic events in the 1970s punctured that mood of egalitarianism - and ushered in not mutuality but rather egocentricity, greed and commodification. Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self captures the process superbly…….

But if there is one book which embodied the spirit of individuality and impatience and shaped a generation globally, it is In Search of Excellence – lessons from America’s best-run companies which came out in 1982. It ridiculed the hierarchic structure of organisations and encouraged the inner cowboy in managers to ride free.....

I have been turning the clock back 30 odd years to try to understand how exactly we were all persuaded to give managers and markets so much power in the delivery of our public services….
Clearly the fall of the Berlin Wall both triggered and symbolised a massive shift in people’s perception of state legitimacy – but the critique of the role of the state had been building up since the early 1970s and found expression in Margaret Thatcher’s completely unscripted programme of privatisation and “contracting out” of the 1980s….
I have a copy in my hands of a book published in 1990 called “Managerialism and the Public Services” which maps out in detail the development of UK thinking of that decade – by the same author who coined (the same year) the phrase “New Public Management”.

And it was but 2 years later that David Osborne and Ted Gaebler dramatically put the new thinking on the global agenda when they published Reinventing Government (1992) – with such neat injunctions as -
·         steer, not row
·         encourage competition
·         be driven by missions, rather than rules;
·         fund outcomes rather than inputs;
·         meet the needs of the customer, not the bureaucracy;
·         invest in preventing problems rather than curing crises
·         decentralize authority;

Effectively, it was the public sector version of the 1982 “In Search of Excellence” mentioned above. No less a figure than Vice-President Al Gore then took charge of what became a major political effort to reinvent government (see this paper for a good overview). Coincidentally I was in New York a few months after the book’s publication and was able to bring a copy back with me. The book was – with the possible exception of Machiavelli’s The Prince – one of the few best-sellers on the topic of government.
And Osborne and Gaebler weren’t academics – but a journalist/consultant; and city manager respectively!! And its message about contracting was soon being broadcast globally – thanks to the influence of the World Bank    

By then I was living in central Europe and working on projects designed to help establish more open and democratic public services accountable to citizens in that part of the world. 
In 1998/99 I found myself “resting” (as actors say) between projects in Bucharest and used the time to draft a little book about the challenges of building government structures in ex-communist countries. This is how I tried to set out what I thought I was doing….. 
The book is about the search for effectiveness and equity in government in a new era of immense change and growing expectations. It is aimed at –
-       those both inside and outside the machinery of government - both local and national - who, however reluctantly, have realised that they need to get involved in the minutiae of administrative change
-       people in both West and central Europe.
A lot has been written in the past decade about development endeavours at various levels - but there are several problems about such literature -
-       it is written generally by academics who have not themselves had the responsibility of making things happen: who have rarely, for example, been involved in the early, messy stages of taking initiatives they believed in, or in working with people who feel threatened and confused.
-       its very volume and language makes it impossible for busy policy-makers and advisers to read : a guide is needed.
-       such texts are (obviously) not sensitive to the Central European context
The analysis and argument of this book very much build on my practical experience as a "change-agent" in Scotland during 1970-1990, trying to "reinvent" the machinery of local government and to construct policies and structures to deal with local industrial collapse.
The text reflects a dialogue with a particular Central European audience between 1994 and 1998: the focus - and content - being shaped by the questions and issues which seemed to be at the forefront of the minds of the people I was working with in countries such as the Czech and Slovak Republics, Romania and Hungary…. 

The result was a little book In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) which I want to discuss in the next post because it is one of the few texts which tries to give a sense of what it was like to be active in such administrative reform efforts in the 1980 and 1990s..................

to be continued...

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Writer's Craft

“What is a writer? asked jesting Pilot - and would not stay for an answer”….OK I cheated, the question was actually “what is truth?” But the rest of the quotation (from one of my favourite essayists – Francis Bacon 1561-1626) is correct.
I don’t know why this quotation is so deeply engrained in what passes for my mind….although Bacon (and Lamb – I kid you not!) are probably the characters responsible for my love of good language……Charles Lamb actually came along a couple of hundred years later (1775-1835) and I remember mainly for his essay “on eating roast pig”. Joseph Addison came in between (1672-1730) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a contemporary of Lamb’s…
Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a great fan of novels – the classical essayists, to whom I was introduced in my teens at school, made their impact, I realise, for two reasons – they crafted short pieces which left a vivid impression.

That said, if I am asked to name my three favourite writers, it’s not necessarily George Orwell who comes to mind….but rather Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Sebastian Haffner – ie a Hungarian and two Germans - and all of them essentially journalists!
Arthur Koestler was a taste I acquired in my youth – and the hyperlink gives my tribute to him.
He was a prolific and powerful writer whose arguments on such varied subjects as the death penalty; and laughter and jokes I remember to this day. His memoirs give a far better sense of what it was like to be alive in the early part and middle of the 20th century far better than any novel.

I wrote an extensive post about Joseph Roth last year; until recently Roth was known in the English-speaking world basically as the author of The Radetzky March but now enjoys a reputation for his journalism and short stories thanks to the quality of his translator, Michael Hofmann, 
He was a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”

I was long a fan of Sebastian Haffner whose material on contemporary Germany I remember reading in The Observer – although he was by the 60s back in Germany. But he had made his reputation in Britain in 1940 with Germany Jekyll and Hyde – a contemporary account of Nazi Germany. In 1978/79 he produced “The Meaning of Hitler” but it was his posthumously produced "Defying Hitler – a memoir” which I found quite stunning in the picture it painted of how ordinary decent citizens reacted passively to the beatings, sackings and disappearances being inflicted on their neighbours…..
In the post-war period too many people fell for the argument that it was all the fault of a few Nazis when, in reality, it was a significant section of an entire society which was complicit…..
Reading it just a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck with the American parallels…. 

The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.
But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic “They Thought They Were Free”, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, “Defying Hitler”, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)

A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives – how ordinary Germans experienced the 20th century, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century.

What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.

The message seems to be that – in the hands of a skilful writer or journalist – the words and conversations of ordinary people can be moulded into powerful literature….
Joan Didion was another writer who had this gift of conveying conversations - Everyman's Library has a wonderful 1000 page collection of her nonfiction – We Tell Ourselves Stories in order to Live
JD Taylor is too young to warrant inclusion with such names but his recent tale of a bike tour – Island Story - has political commentary which takes us back to the writings of Cobbett’s Rural Rides. George Borrow and George Orwell……..

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Public Services are too serious to be left to.......bureaucrats and academics

A journalist friend has written making the very good point that people tend these days to live in what he called national “traumas” in which any mention of government reform is treated as just so much pointless rhetoric – if not with outright scorn and ridicule…(my words).
Of course this simply reflects the fact (as I’ve emphasised in recent posts about reform efforts) that those who write about admin reform are predominantly (95%) academics – and that they talk only to one another – or down to students – and never to the public at large ….
But every European State spends about 40% of its GNP on public services – so there must be a few informed citizens out there – even if most of us are so overwhelmed with apathy/fatalism that we don’t bother….  We mutter amongst ourselves but, otherwise, leave it to the politicians, bureaucrats, trade unionists and lobbyists!
And I know of at least one academic who did try (in 2003) to write a book about the subject for the general public – it was called The Essential Public Manager. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact….

But what effort - it might be asked - do public service professionals make to try to change the things we (and they) don’t like about the services they work in? It is, after all, real individuals who run our schools, hospitals and state infrastructure. They have received expensive training; surely they should be more active?
The idea of transferring some public services to its staff caught the imagination recently in Britain in a policy called “mutualisation” - which was indeed embraced early into the UK 2010-15 Coalition government programme. The Post Office was to be the gem in that particular policy jewel but ideological fervour beat principle and the famous PO was duly privatised in 2015…..  Despite that setback, the past couple of decades have seen a considerable growth of social enterprise (employing about 1.5 million) particularly in the field of public health and some welfare services….
But how many articles do you see about this - even in north-west europe let alone the south-east?

Indeed, looking back over the past 40 years or so, I can recall only two books by journalists about public services (in the English language at any rate) – one an American (David Osborne) who produced in 1992 what turned out to be a best-seller – Reinventing Government. The other is a Brit (Polly Toynbee) whose recent book Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state actually triggered the blog series I did last autumn…
I understand the environment in which journalists write – but still think it’s sad that so many journalists just take the PR handouts from government departments and don’t bother with even minimal some policy digging. (Needless to say, my friend doesn’t belong in this category)….

Perhaps other journalists might therefore be interested in a little book (100-odd pages) which has pictures, tables and para headings to make it all the more reader-friendly; not to mention an eye-catching title - How did Admin Reform get to be so sexy?
I readily concede that the book titles and lists which adorn the text are a bit of a turn-off but there is little I can do about that since one of the book’s intentions is to guide the interested reader through the extensive literature; and to help people identify what is actually worth reading….
 I always liked the comic-book approach – in the 70s there were a couple of good series (Writers and Readers Coop was one) which did excellent ones on figures such as Marx, Freud…even Chomsky…
Of course, cartoons should be used more often to liven up such texts. Dilbert has long shown the way…

Perhaps the subject of Government Reform needs that sort of approach?


Further Reading on mutualisation and social enterprise

Monday, June 18, 2018

Gennady Rozhdestvensky - RIP

Music and books surround me in this mountain idyll – but I don’t pay enough tribute to the former. I was sufficiently moved by Leonard Cohen’s death to post an RIP - as I did earlier this year to a composer whose film scores touched me.

A conductor has just died (at the age of 87) of whom I had actually not heard - Gennady Rozhdestvensky and this video in particular tells me what I have missed …..what a mischievous and expressive face!  And how glorious his Russian sounds….

It reminds me of when I sat within touching distance of Rostropovich when he came to Baku just a few years before his death….I was the guest of a friend from the President’s Office….And I have just discovered these amazing shots of how the Azeri street musicians greeted him during his visit….it brought a smile


RIP both of you…..

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Brexit - the reality

A once-proud country slowly sinks under the waves – and the rest of the world stifles a yawn….This is the news brought back from their recent visits to what the Brits call “the continent” by two writers I value. The Brexit Blog is about the only thing worth reading on that topic and is crafted by organisational theorist Chris Grey - who was the first this week to bring back from a visit to France the news that few people in Europe find the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc of the slightest bit of interest….
We were always “semi-detached” – at least as a political class – people may regret our going but it was not a great surprise……..So “bring it on” – and sooner rather than later - is the general attitude of the European political class.
Andrew Rawsley writes a weekly column in The Observer and confirmed that with today’s piece

The last few weeks have seen quite a bit of parliamentary drama but the hard reality of Brexit (of whatever form) now looms – and the hope many had a year ago that the whole thing would go away now looks an increasingly forlorn one….Exactly a year ago, a knowledgeable (if disgraced) politician even published a book with the title Brexit – no Exit; why (in the end) Britain won’t leave the EU; (2017).
Britain’s “negotiating” tactics have been, it is widely recognised, hapless – if not offensive – reflecting not just the divided counsels inside “government” but a total lack of preparation and conviction…..And the longer the farce has continued, the more it has reminded the Europeans of what a bloody nuisance the Brits have been in the “project”. Better, they think, that we should piss far away from the tent……

Even left-wingers are recognising this – see this week’s initiative - The Full Brexit
Although this 300 page book from University College London Press - Brexit and Beyond – rethinking the futures of Europe - gives a more measured treatment..
Coincidentally this was the week Owen Hatherley (author of Landscapes of Communism) chose for his new book TransEurope Express on what the changing shape of European cities tells us about their respective visions….