The origins of my fixation with public management can be traced back to an odd mix of characters – from RH Tawney, an uncompromising non-conformist English socialist from the early part of the 20th century and Welsh firebrand Nye Bevan - to smooth-talking academics such as Bernard Crick John MackintoshChris Hood in the UK; Donald Schoen, P Marris and M Rein and Aaron Wildavsky on the other side of the Atlantic - with a strange mix of Tony Crosland (of “Future of Socialism” fame) and the community activist Saul Alinsky thrown in to give spice and complexity to the brew….
Tawney and Bevan supplied the passion; Crosland, Hood, Mackintosh, Marris/Rein, Schoen and Wildavsky the cool reasoning; and Alinsky some of the tools of early activism…
The argument in Bernard Crick’s “In Defence of Politics” (1962) that politics was an important and honourable activity was a fresh and powerful one when I first read his book at University and undoubtedly played a role in my becoming in 1968 a local politician - and occupying a senior, reforming position in the West of Scotland for more than 20 years. For the subsequent 20 years I was a nomadic consultant in something called “institutional development” which my mother, understandably, simply couldn’t understand….
This was the start of what I wanted to be a short intro to, and commentary on, a new book about public admin which has just arrived. I felt I needed to put the book in the wider context of how this important subject has landed up with such a boring reputation with citizens – even if (because?) it inspires tens of thousands of academic devotees. But the text just ran away with me – so I have pushed that question away for the time being and will focus simply for the moment on the book itself
Bear in mind that my library already has a couple of hundred books and thousands of articles on this subject of public admin or public management as we learned to call it from 1990. Why should I need another?
But this one, called “Strategies for Governing; reinventing public administration for a dangerous century (2019) by Alasdair Roberts seemed different – its Intro was clearly arguing that something was seriously wrong with the subject
We must recover the capacity to talk about the fundamentals of government, because the fundamentals matter immensely. Right now, there are billions of people on this planet who suffer terribly because governments cannot perform basic functions properly.
People live in fear because governments cannot protect their homes from war and crime. They live in poverty because governments cannot create the conditions for trade and commerce to thrive.
They live in pain because governments cannot stop the spread of disease.
And they live in ignorance because governments do not provide opportunities for education.
The expectations that we hold of our leaders can be stated simply: They should protect us from foreign enemies, maintain internal order, increase prosperity, improve well-being, and provide justice. Even in the twenty-first century, most governments on this planet fail to do this
The leaders of modern-day states have a difficult job.
- They must devise a strategy for leading their countries toward security, order, prosperity, and justice.
- Next, they must design and build institutions that translate their strategy into practice.
- And then they must deal with the vicissitudes of time and chance, adapting strategies and institutions in response to altered circumstances and unexpected events.
To do this well, leaders need advice about the machinery of government—what it is capable of doing, how it should be designed and constructed, how it ought to be run, and how it can be reconstructed.
The book took only a couple of weeks to reach me in my Carpathian mountain house; I raced through it; and am deeply impressed. Let me simply say that the book
- is one of the most important half dozen or so books in the English language on the subject
- is superbly written – and structured (short chapters)
- gives the subject of the state (and its good management) back its central significance in people’s lives
Most people may find public admin boring – but, if they are honest, they will also admit that most economics leaves them mystified. This blog has recently emphasised the huge dangers of leaving the fate of our society so much in the hands of the economists. But the same might be said of the public admin/management scribblers who have succeeded, with a very few exceptions, in making their subject boring and inaccessible.
Of course, it’s not fair to put all the blame on academics – journalists and politicians also bear a heavy responsibility for the strange combination of hype and omission which passes for commentary on public affairs….Only last month I wrote an important post about Covid19 raising profound questions about how differently eastern states were managing the pandemic
“Strategies for Governing” was written before the pandemic but, rightly in my view, reminds us that it is individuals who manage the public sector and that skills of statecraft have been ignored for too long (apart from people like John Bryson and Mark Moore) – with the focus too much instead on issues of micro-management and of ideology. The very word “governing” in its title is so refreshing after all the reified nonsense we’ve had about “governance”
This is the first of what I suspect will be a series of posts…..