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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The virus affecting our systems

One of the many dystopian themes which figure in contemporary novels and films is that of the pandemic - of a new virus being let loose in the world and causing havoc. In fact, it’s already happened – it’s called neoliberalism and its gestation can be traced back to a conference in 1947 in the Swiss resort of Mont Pelerin attended by such luminaries as Hayek and .Popper
The full story of how the corporate world has patiently, over the past half-century and more, funded the setting up of hundreds of right-wing think tanks who have unceasingly pumped out their anti-government message is told in The road from Mont Pelerin – the making of the neoliberal thought collective; P Mirowski (2009)

And it wasn’t just economic doctrine that was affected – it was also how we thought government services should be organised. Academia in particular has had a strange fixation over the past 30 years with the idea of organizational improvements of public services called..."New Public Management" (NPM)

In the late 60s I was an early “reformer” – pushing at the open door offered by the 2 Royal Commissions on Local Government which operated in the UK between 1966-68 and which led to the wholesale reorganization of that system in both Scotland and England and Wales in the mid-1970s.
The only academic discipline covering such developments at the time was that of public administration whose intellectual fare was every bit as boring as its name suggests – although my politics tutor, John P Macintosh, wrote a powerful and prescient book in 1968 on “The Devolution of Power – local government, regionalism and nationalism”. 
And another academic, John Stewart, was shortly to start electrifying a new generation of officials  at Birmingham’s Institute for Local Government (INLOGOV) with a new vision of local power - centred on a more open and flexible system of local government – which, sadly, failed to materialize.

Since the mid 1970s, the search for the silver bullet of organizational improvement (or reform) in its public services has been endless. 50 years ago we thought that the right rules (and strategies) – fairly managed by well-intentioned officials and politicians in a system of accountable power – was the way forward…
We threw that model away in the 1980s and bought into the “theory of the market” – believing that citizens would be better off being able to choose between competitive suppliers.
David Osborne’s "Reinventing Government" (1992) was the book which really opened the floodgates – with its notion of “Steering…not rowing..”

The only problem was that most of the relevant services have this basic reality of being chunky monopolies ….Overnight therefore a system of regulators had to be created – bringing forth an Audit Explosion.
By 2000 it was obvious that wasn’t working – but it took 2008 to blow the thing apart.

But although another way of organizing things, whether in the economy or government, has been actively explored for many decades we still do not have a consensus about a better way….In 2015 the UNDP published a good summary of what it called the three types of public management we have seen in the past half century. There are different ways of describing the final column but this one gives a sense of the values which have been trying to find expression..

The three types of public management

Old Public Admin
New Public Management
New Public Service

Theoretical foundation
Political theory
Economic theory
Democratic theory

Model of behaviour

Public interest
Citizen interest
Concept of public interest
Political, enshrined in law
Aggregation of individual interests
Dialogue about shared values
To whom civil servants responsive

Role of government

Serving, negotiating
Mechanism for achieving policy
Building coalitions
Approach to accountability
Public servants within law, professional ethics, values
Admin discretion

Assumed organisational structure
Top down
Assumed motivation of officials
Conditions of service
Entrepreneurial, drive to reduce scope of government
Public service, desire to contribute

But NPM - like neoliberalism - just seems to have too strong a grip. And we still await a replacement
This is the story I try to tell in my little book “Hos did Administrative Reform get to be so Sexy?” whose current version you can access here.

I have just come across a great book which identified and explored this issue of our being taken over by a new ideology – what the French used to call “La Pensee Unique”, It is Monoculture – how one story is changing everything by FS Michaels (2011).

Monday, May 20, 2019

Real Control

I have always been a fan of companies which are managed by those who work in them. In the late 1970, I helped start up a project called the Local Enterprise Advisory Project (LEAP) which morphed in a large multi-million Community Business encouraging and supporting those living in marginalised estates to set up companies offering local services which small businesses locally wouldn’t touch.
It provided people with purpose – and services – and wages instead of welfare. But ultimately it became too dependent on government grants – and folded.

But the hierarchies which poison the atmosphere of workers in both commercial and government organisations are becoming increasingly unacceptable. Mondragon and Buurtszog are only the most famous of cooperative which inspire us to contemplate a new working model.
Reinventing Organisations (2014) by Frederic Laloux gave us a great typology and principles for self-management which should inspire us to action. Dealing with Dysfunction – innovative problem solving in the public sector (also 2014) by Jorrit de Jong is a very different sort of book but it too indicates that a different sort of cooperative approach can work.
A new book has just appeared in the UK in the same spirit which I hope to report on soon - Radical help – how we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state; Hilary Cottam (2019)

The OECD is not my favourite body – it peddles neo-liberal solutions and the dreaded New Public Management.
A few years ago it set up something called the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation which has just produced a report with a lot of examples of how cities are working together to use Big Data to produce local solutions.
But as befits a group of technocrats their language is impenetrable – and they clearly cater for an academic audience since every second line has 2 or 3 academic references which completely breaks the rhythm of the reading, The report is Transformation of Public value – cities as the playground for the future; (OECD 2019)

Those wanting to see how public services can work for ordinary people should really read Public Services Reform – but not as we know it; by Hilary Wainwright (Unison and TNI 2009) is a rare readable case study of a bottom-up approach to reform.
As far as the process of improving local services is concerned, I would strongly recommend Creating Public Value in Practice – advancing the common good in a ….noone in charge world; ed J Bryson et al (2015), 
The last 3 books can all be accessed in full by clicking the hyperlink…..

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Let the Fingers Do the Talking

One of the reasons why this blog continues is that the physical process of writing words – whether on a keyboard or on the pages of a notebook – somehow releases thoughts that take me in unexpected directions.
Let me give an example….On Thursday I came across an article which annoyed me – it was in something called the Stanford Social Innovation Review – so I should have known better!
It seemed to be about community-based solutions to perennial problems like homelessness - but talked of
 the urgent need to eradicate social and economic ills rather than just manage them”.

Three things annoyed me on my first skim of the article – first the sheer arrogance of such an approach particularly when, secondly, it made no reference to any previous efforts to find such a "silver bullet". And, finally, that a serious university (Hertie in Berlin) seemed to take it seriously enough to offer the authors a platform – who were also claiming in aid a recent British book “Radical Help”.

Bingo, I thought….here’s a peg on which to hang a post about the importance of decentralized approaches – but not before I clear the ground to spell out some of the efforts which others have made to supply alternatives to the centralized delivery of services….
Hence the two previous posts – the first which started with Ralston Saul’s quote about democratic structures being more important than technocratic; my own critique (from 1977) of managerialism and pluralism; then the technocracy of New Labourism; and, finally, the hypocrisy of the Conservative “Big Society” and “mutualisation” programmes from 2010.
The second post was a reminder of the significance of Frederic Laloux’s book on “Reinventing Organisations” and its celebration of worker self-management…

The Kafka Brigade  
But, as I prepared for what I thought would be a detailed critical post about the article The New Practice of Public Problem Solving, I did my usual surfing and came across an amazing book with an unusual title - Dealing with Dysfunction – innovative problem solving in the public sector by Jorrit de Jong (2014). It's written by a Dutchman who had, a decade earlier, been a member of a team called “The Kafka Brigade” (!) - whose work is described in this excellent short article The Kafka Brigade – public management theory in practice; M Mathias (2015). 
This has elements of “action-research” – to which I’ve always been attracted – shades of “learning while doing”……The opening chapter of his book (see title link) puts it more precisely -

“using a bottom-up diagnostic approach, collaborative inquiry, creative problem-solving techniques and a pressure-cooker environment, the Kafka Brigade has tapped into the knowledge and experience of hundreds if public officials and clients”  

At this stage, I would normally clear my throat a bit ironically……but, hey, we all have to make a living …and the jargon isn’t all that difficult …..And he and his team readily accept that his approach has yielded both failures and successes……it is indeed a pragmatic learning process. Indeed he quotes one of the first academics to devote a full-length book about “bureaucratic dysfunctions” – Herbert Kaufman - who wrote (in 1977) that -

“what we need is a detailed clinical approach rather than heated attacks, the delicate wielding of  a scalpel rather than furious flailing around with a meat axe”!

And the heated attacks since then have included (successful) calls for “Deregulation”, “smaller government”. “stronger professional input” and “private sector models of management”.
De Jong makes it clear his approach was influenced by Mark Moore’s concept of Public Value which I discussed (all too briefly) in this post last year about the struggle in the past 20 years to offer a better model for public services than New Public Management

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???

My post also looked critically at some other competing ideas which had been offered – such as “good governance”, the “common good”, “communitarianism”, “service” and “stewardship”
All these concepts have problems – as does “Dealing with Dysfunction” (!!) – but “The Kafka Brigade”?,,,,,now there’s a powerful image!!

I warned you at the start of this post that, more than anything else, I would be trying to “showcase” (what an awful word!!) how I approach the blog first thing in the morning. 
I let the fingers do the talking…..   

Friday, May 17, 2019

Workforce Management – real dignity

You will not generally find me extolling books with titles which refer to “reinvention” – we all had our fingers burned in the 1980s and 1990s with names such as Hammer, Osborne and Gore overhyping that particular concept.
But Reinventing Organisations – a guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness (2014) by Frederic Laloux is that rare thing - a highly readable and inspiring book. It starts with a strong attack on the alienating nature of so much work in large organisations - and a question about whether it needs to be so.

Highly-automated assembly lines began to appear at the end of the last Century but it is only recently that David Graeber and others have drawn attention to the scale of alienation (a staggering 80% of employees in the developed world find their work brings absolutely no satisfaction). Indeed a new term - the “bullshit job” came into circulation to describe the meaningless nature of most work these days.
Laloux suggests that organisations, until now, can be classified into four types to which he gives colours - Red, Amber, Orange and Green – with the guiding metaphors for these types (p 36 of the book) being
-               “wolf pack”,
-               “army”,
-               “machine” and
-               “family”.

This all reminds me of the four “Gods of management” a joint creation of both Charles Handy and the rather more neglected  Roger Harrison – whose fascinating “final reflections” (accessible by clicking the hyperlink) speak to a wider theme which has become central to the redrafting of my “Dispatches to a future generation”. But that’s for another post so let’s move on…..

The core of Laloux’s book consists of his portrayal of organisations which had broken out of the limits of this typology - and were giving both customers and staff satisfaction. Twelve organisations are identified and their history structure and processes detailed.
They are both profit and non-profit but have one basic feature in common – they are all managed by the workforce - with senior executives (such as are left in a streamlined structure) playing essentially a coaching role…..
The most famous of these is probably the Dutch nursing cooperative Buurtzorg

There’s a lot of thought-provoking material in the book which, after an initial splash 3 years ago, has not been much heard of – despite it being the first management book for a long time to focus on worker control (in a  totally non-ideological way).
Perhaps the thrust of the argument challenged too many people?
-               the theorists – for attributing so little to them. And
-               the ideologues who would have preferred some slogans…..

I referred yesterday to a much-hyped article – The New Practice of Public Problem Solving – which I hope to get around to discussing in the next post. But I felt that readers should first be aware of the history sketched out in these two posts….

main Laloux website
- You can read the book for yourself here – but you can get the gist in the summary given in the hyperlink in the title above; and some good slides here. And you can see Laloux in action here

Reviews of Laloux book

Other useful reading
-       Alternative Models of Ownership (UK Labour party 2017) - basically about coops, social enterprise and worker-controlled organisations,
-       Ahistorical article https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/42488947.pdf

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wresting the political from the technocrats

The  blog’s masthead carries some quotations which hopefully give readers a sense of the sort of material which will hit them (on the top right – just move the cursor down a bit to the end of the list of titles). This is one of the quotes -

We've spent half a century arguing over management methods. If there are solutions to our confusions over government, they lie in democratic not management processes.
JR Saul

John Ralston Saul is a true original – one of the very few who has chosen to carve out his own life of choice, In 1992 he published a blast of a book called “Voltaire’s Bastards – the Dictatorship of Reason in the West” - which I found at the time simply one of the most brilliant books of the decade. It went on to receive this friendly review which puts the issues in a wider context and turned out to be the first of a series of four books in which he has explored what he identifies as six “human qualities” - of which “reason” is only one.
18 years later, when I started my blog, his words were still in my mind and used for the first-ever masthead quote. I chose the quote, I suppose, because of a certain ambivalence about my own managerial roles.

Feeling the Tension?
For the first 20 years of my adult life, I had been a (fairly scholastic) politician - for the next 20 years an apolitical adviser. It’s perhaps only in the past decade that I’ve been able to go back to being truly “my own man”. In 1973 or so – based on my experience of working with community groups and trying to reform a small municipal bureaucracy – I had written a pamphlet called “From Corporate Management to Community action” (sadly no longer available) which reflected my disillusionment with the technocratic fashions of the time.
A few years later I drew on my reading of the previous decade’s literature (UK and US) about urban politics and community power to challenge (in what is, I grant you, a rather long and academic article entitled Community Development – its political and administrative challenge)  the validity of the “pluralist” assumptions underpinning our democratic practices.

The article looked at how community grievances found voice and power and were subsequently dealt with by political and administrative processes.
I wasn’t a Marxist but the sort of questions I was raising seem now to indicate a greater debt to that sort of analysis than I was perhaps aware of then, I wasn’t just saying that life chances were unevenly distributed – I was also arguing that, from an early age, those in poor circumstances develop lower expectations and inclination to challenge systems of authority. And the readiness of those systems to respond was also skewed because of things like the “old boy network”.

The piece explored the functions which political parties were supposed to perform under pluralist theory – and found them seriously wanting. 

The Technocracy of New Labour
The issue of inequality and poverty was, of course, an important one for the Labour government which came to power 20 years later - particularly one with Gordon Brown in charge of the nation's finances
A Social Exclusion Unit was quickly established in the Cabinet Office as an indication of the seriousness with which this “scourge” would be dealt with
But, despite the talk about “community” this was a centralising strategy with a vengeance. The Treasury became a giant machine for minute tweaking of socio-economic processes across the board. PSA (public service agreements setting targets for Departments) were infamous for their detail and optimistic assumptions about the link between technical means and social outcomes. But it showed little understanding of the literature on the perversity of social interventions.

New Labour had 13 years in which to make an impact and first assessments were on the cool side. A more detailed assessment can be found here.
My particular interest is in the “community power” aspect – where it took New Labour some time to move – with a Social Enterprise Unit being set up only in 2002
Scotland has a high profile in the social enterprise world – as evident in this 2014 report

The Big Society Con
When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 he launched the Big Society idea.
It was quite something for a Conservative Prime Minister to commit his government to deal with poverty and inequality (I think Bill Clinton called it “triangulation”).
He actually quoted from the Wilkinson and Picket book which strongly argues that healthy societies are equal ones. Having proven (to at least his own satisfaction) that big government (spending) has not dealt with the problem of poverty, Cameron then suggests that the main reason for this is the neglect of the moral dimension, refers to various community enterprises, entrepreneurs and goes on –

Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Nor is it just smarter government. Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society. Our alternative to big government is the big society.
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society.

The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities. That way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age - the post-bureaucratic age. In commerce, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, Eric von Hippel, has shown how individuals and small companies, flexible and able to take advantage of technologies and information once only available to major multinational corporations, are responding with the innovations that best suit the needs of consumers.

This year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has shown through her life's work how non- state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems.

Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.
So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible - as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents.

Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods. So our new Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to come together, agree on the number and type of homes they want, and provide themselves with permission to expand and lead that development.

Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.
This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.

Of course one can make various criticisms – one of the best is in a TUC blog.
It is sad that I never found Blair or Brown singing a song like this – despite some of the important steps they took to encourage social enterprise and community banking.

My intention had been to write about an article being hyped as “the new practice of public problem-solving” – but got sidetracked instead by these memories. Treat this post as the necessary context which is completely missing from the article which my next post will hopefully address…

A JR Saul Resource
A review of a Doubter’s Companion; Brothers Judd is a great website I had forgotten about
Power versus the public good – a 1996 lecture
Rethinking Development – Bhutan address 2007
He was interviewed on this great website when a new edition of "Voltaire’s Bastards" came out in 2013.