what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse 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

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Fall - and Rise - of Positive Public Admin

The last post flagged up what seems to have been a change in tone recently in the vast literature which has inundated us since the early 90s on public management reform. 

But first a little potted history. A half-century ago, nothing seemed more boring than my chosen field of UK public administration. It was descriptive and drew mainly on public law – with a smattering of politics. But, in the late 1960s, local government and the civil service suddenly became subjects of immense interest. Critiqued for being behind the times and needing “modernisation”, they were investigated by prestigious Royal Commissions which, after several years of open inquiry, issued detailed reports declaring in ringing tones that they were not fit for purpose and needed radical change….

With the world abuzz with talk of people power, I was elected as a municipal councillor, in 1968, in a shipbuilding town and was soon active in community politics – using my new position to help stir local activists against local officialdom. The spirit of such campaigns is nicely captured in Norman Dennis’ People and Planning – the sociology of housing in Sunderland (1970)


The Civil Service was a difficult nut to crack and the changes (which started on Ted Heath’s arrival in power in 1970) proved to be a generational process – starting with the introduction of managerial practices from the private sector and, later, more dramatic restructuring.

The reorganisation of local government, when it eventually came in 1975, was quite dramatic - with the number of councils in both England and Scotland being literally decimated.  


Thatcherism produced in the 1980s not only privatisation but dramatic changes in the structure of British government which, argued leading academics, was being “hollowed out”. Indeed, by 1992, the talk – on both sides of the Atlantic – was of the very reinvention of government.

This was the stage when a new academic industry of reform got underway - it was Chris Hood who first gave the new wave its designation (in 1991) of New Public Management but it was a book called Reinventing Government (1992) by a town manager and consultant (Ted Gaebler and David Osbourne) which opened the academic floodgates and led to Vice-President Gore’s Commission on Reinvention….A table in the Hood article caught the mood perfectly -

New Public Management (NPM)




Typical Justification


Hands-on professional management of Public Organisations

Visible management at the top; free to manage

Accountability requires clear assignment of responsibility


Explicit standards and measures of performance

Goals and targets defined and measured as indicators of success

Accountability means clearly stated aims


Greater emphasis on output controls

Resource allocation and rewards linked to performance

Need to stress results rather than procedures


Shift to disaggregation of units

Unbundle public sector into units organised by products with devolved budgets

Make units manageable; split provision and production; use contracts


Greater competition

Move to term contracts and tendering procedures

Rivalry as the key to lower costs and better standards


Stress on private sector styles of management practice

Move away from military- style ethic to more flexible hiring, pay rules, etc

Need to apply "proven" private sector management tools


Stress on greater discipline and parsimony

Cut direct costs; raise labour discipline

Need to check resource demands; do more with less


For the next two decades, books and articles rolled from the academic world in increasing numbers about the new fad of “competitive managerialism” – although often with a note of caution…

 The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state by J Micklewait and A Wooldridge (2014) - which I took to task a couple of years ago - seems, ironically, to have been the high-point of that wave……

Since then, the tone has changed – thanks largely, it seems, to Mark Moore the emphasis has turned to examples of what successful public managers and institutions are achieving. The Successful Public Governance website based in Utrecht is an excellent example….


I’ve listed below (in chronological order) the other books which have come to my attention recently and which also reflect the new tone

Understanding policy success – rethinking public policy; Alan McConnell (2010)

Agents of Change – strategy and tactics for social innovation ; S Cels, Jorrit de Jong and F Nauta   (2012)

Recognising Public Value Mark Moore (2013)

Dealing with Dysfunction – problem solving in the public sector; Jarrit de Jong (2014)

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy ; Michael Barber (2015). A clearly written book about the approach taken by Tony Blair’s favourite consultant

The Barber Report (HMSO 2017) which he then summarised for a new government

Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state; Polly Toynbee and D Walker (2017) a strong analysis of austerity by two british journalists

The 21HYPERLINK "http://zegervanderwal.com/zeger/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The-21st-Century-Public-Manager-Chapter-1.pdf"stHYPERLINK "http://zegervanderwal.com/zeger/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The-21st-Century-Public-Manager-Chapter-1.pdf" century public manager – challenges, people and strategies”; Z van der Wal (2017) An interesting-looking book written by a Dutch academic and consultant who has spent the past  7 years as a Prof at the University of Singapore

Reclaiming Public Services – how cities and citizens are turning back privatisation; TNI (2017)

Radical HelpHYPERLINK "https://ukaji.org/2019/01/30/book-review-radical-help-how-we-can-remake-the-relationships-between-us-and-revolutionise-the-welfare-state-by-hilary-cottam-2018/" – how we can remake the relationships between us and Revolutionise the Welfare State; Hilary Cottam (2018) an inspiring example of experimental work

Great Policy Successes 2019

Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand (anu.edu.au); ed J Luentjens, M Mintrom and P n’Hart (2019)

Public Value Management, governance and reform in Britain ; ed J Connolly (2021) Pity about the extensive academic references and exclusive focus on UK – no references to Netherlands eg de Jong

Guardians of Public Value – how public organization become and remain institutions (2021) ed A Boi, L Harty and P t’Hart

Monday, February 22, 2021

Good techniques, leaders or institutions?

Books about getting public services to run well for the average person are little fun to read – which is a crying shame since the issue is of fundamental importance to almost all citizens.

Arguably, it was Gerald Caiden who first made administrative reform sexy – in the late 1960s

Because it’s an issue which has been central to my work, as academic, politician and then as consultant, for the past 50 years, I’ve had to wade through thousands of books and article on the subject since then – most of them academic. A few only have given real pleasure – those written by people such as Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and B Guy Peters – exposing the nonsenses of the fashion for New Public Management (NPM) which started around 1990.

Most of the writing is spoiled by the appalling academic tic of backing up every statement, in almost every line, with named references (in brackets) linked to long bibliographic lists. And academics have to demonstrate their cleverness – so the articles and books consist of long descriptions of innovations – with results difficult to measure but almost certainly with little real impact…  


You might think that the net result of this torrent of negative academic coverage would have discouraged innovators in government – but, hey, there are reputations and careers to be made out of the change process. And staff turnover is such that the disappointing results which eventually come in can be blamed on others


Managers first started to make an appearance in government in the 1970s – they were the magicians supposed to turn dross into gold. I confess that I was an early enthusiast for “corporate management” which is indeed still alive and well in the continued reference to managerial silos which are to be slain…..John Stewart of the INLOGOV institute of the University of Birmingham was the guru who inspired a whole generation of local senior officials to think more creatively about this and indeed led me, in the mid 1970s, to help set up in Europe’s largest Region two new types of structure – area committees and scrutiny groups of middle-level officials and politicians  

But it was the Department of Government at Harvard University under the leadership of Mark Moore which began to show what it was possible to do at a more local level…His “Creating Public Value” (1995) celebrated the energy and creativity which good public managers brought to state bodies at both the national and local levels. By then, however, the formulaic NPM had got its grip and Moore, despite teaming up with Stewart and producing a second book, remained a lone voice – with his message that people (rather than techniques) made the difference. 

In recent years Ive noticed a little ripple of interesting titles about more creative ways of working – such as Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations” (2014),  Jorrit de Jong’s (of the Kafka Brigade fame) “Dealing with Dysfunction” (2014), Hilary Cottam’s “Radical Help” (2018)  culminating in Strategies for Governing (2019) by Alasdair Roberts 

But it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve realised that Mark Moore’s influence has inspired a few Europeans (particularly from the Netherlands) who have been producing a series of books on good practice in public management – of both the “heroes” and “institutions” (of integrity) sort as they are called in the recent Guardians of Public Value – how public organization become and remain institutions (2021) ed A Boi, L Harty and P t’Hart This seems to take inspiration also from Hugh Heclo whose “On Thinking Institutionally” I wrote about some years ago 

At this stage I would normally conclude with a “resource” of relevant titles – but I realise that this can look a bit off-putting…..so those interested can ask me for the list (or I’ll add it later)


Thursday, February 11, 2021

James Burnham has the last laugh

One of the central issues bothering the elite a century ago was that of how “the masses” might be “controlled” in the “new age of democracy”….Writers such as Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion 1922) and Ortego y Gasset (Revolt of the Masses 1930) conjured up frightening narratives about the dangers of the great unwashed masses. Lippmann’s full book can be read here

The scintillating prose of Joseph Schumpeter’s (1883-1950) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1943) was a favourite of mine at University – with his theory of the “circulation of the elites” reassuring the elites of the post-war period that all would be well…. 

Of course the rebellious 60s got them worried – but a combination of the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report on The Crisis of Democracy and, as Perry Anderson has recently and very usefully reminded us, the European Commission soon saw the plebs off...... 

But the populism evident since the start of the new millennium has sparked new anxieties about the masses amongst the liberal elites – and indeed raised the question anew as to whether capitalism is consistent with democracy

One guy whose words are worth reading on that question is SM Wolin – whose book on the history of political thought - Politics and Vision - held me spellbound in the 1960s. In his 90s he produced this great critique of the US system – Democracy Inc – managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism (2008). And this is an interesting recent article, Why Elites always Rule which reminds the new generation of the significance of Pareto’s work….. 

In 1941 James Burnham produced his magisterial “The Managerial Revolution” against which George Orwell wrote in 1946 a devastating essay Second thoughts on James Burnham. Orwell clearly had some agreement with Burnham about the oligarchic direction in which political forces were pushing society and faulted Burnham more for his fatalistic assessment of the probability of Nazi success.

Not so well known was Burnham’s next book The Machiavellians – defenders of freedom (1943)  which examined the work of such theorists as Mosca, Pareto and Sorel

And also forgotten is a book he produced in 1964 - by which time he had turned from the fiery radical and "friend" of Trotsky to a full-blown liberal - Suicide of the West 

That sort of title has become a fairly common theme this past decade or so. In these myopic times, a bit of respect for long-dead writers is overdue!  

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A New Class War??

I’ve been looking for some time for a book which does justice to our fall from innocence in the 1970s. I start from JK Galbraith’s concept of “countervailing power” which sustained the post-war period in western development. This was the theory that the corporate, union and social power held each other, for a “glorious 30 years”, in a certain balance until 1980 – with results good for everyone.

That balance was destroyed by something we too easily try to explain away by the use of the meaningless phrase “neoliberalism”. I’m familiar with the various efforts a range of social scientists have made to put meat on that particular bone – such as Philip Mirowski, Vivian Schmidt and, more recently, Quinn SlobodianBut, for my money “Licence to be Bad; how economics corrupted us” by Jonathan Aldred (2019) offers the most readable explanation of how we have all succumbed in the past 40 years to a new highly individualistic and greedy virus…..

The question which has been gnawing at me since the start of the new millennium is what can be done to put a new system of countervailing power in place…..????

Until now, few books dared raise or pursue that question, But Michael Lind’s The New Class War – saving democracy from the new managerial elite (2020) offers to do precisely that……

It starts powerfully – 

Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.

before reminding us that -

In the 19th and early twentieth centuries, five major schools of thought debated the future of industrial society: liberalism, producerism, socialism, corporatism, and pluralism (p39) 

……Producerism is the belief that the economy should be structured by the state to maximize the numbers of selfemployed family farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers in society. The moral ideal of this school is the selfsufficient citizen of a republic with a small-producer majority whose economic independence means that they cannot be intimidated or blackmailed by wealthy elites. In the form of Jeffersonian agrarianism, producerism has a rich history in the United States. The rise of mass production in the economy, and the shift from a majority made up of farm owners and farm workers to urban wage earners, rendered the producerist ideal irrelevant in the modern industrialized West. While small-producerism still has appeal to romantics on both the left and the right, it is and will remain anachronistic, and having criticized it elsewhere, I will not discuss it in this book.4

….. A fourth philosophy, opposed to free market liberalism and state socialism alike, envisioned a harmonious society of state-supervised but largely self-governing “corporations,” by which was meant entire economic sectors, not individual firms, rather like medieval guilds.6 This tradition influenced Catholic social thought, as expressed in the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931). For the French sociologist Émile Durkheim and others in the secular French republican solidarist tradition, the organization of labor and business could be an antidote to “anomie,” a phrase Durkheim devised to describe the isolation and disorientation of many individuals in urban industrial societies.7 The same term, “corporatism,” is often used for both democratic and dictatorial versions of this political tradition

….. The view of society as a community of self-organized and self-governing communities, under the supervision of a democratic government, is best described as “pluralism,” the term used by the English pluralists of the early twentieth century, like Neville Figgis, F. W. Maitland, G. D. H. Cole, and Harold Laski, and by their late-twentieth century heirs, including Paul Hirst and David Marquand. 

And then goes on to argue that – 

Only a new democratic pluralism that compels managerial elites to share power with the multiracial, religiously pluralistic working class in the economy, politics, and the culture can end the cycle of oscillation between oppressive technocracy and destructive populism.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The words we use

For the past thirty years I have lived in countries in which English is not the language of the street – nor that which comes naturally to those I talk with. That quickly makes one very sensitive to the very different meanings words are capable of holding.

Dave Pollard’s latest article is a tough one about “The Illusion of Communication” which he starts thus -

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff describes how our language and our conditioning, from very early in our lives, form our beliefs, hopes and expectations (collectively, our worldviews), and that the way we think is primarily through frames and metaphors (we learn metaphorical thinking at age two). Our worldviews in turn directly affect what we do and don’t do. 

“The theory that communication is embedding thoughts and ideas into language and then transmitting them to another who then assimilates the same thoughts and ideas, simply doesn’t work”, George says. Only if the sender and receiver share worldviews, frames and metaphors will there be understanding, and without understanding there is no communication. And what is not understood — which is everything that doesn’t fit the listener’s worldview and ways of thinking — will simply not be heard. We are also, George asserts, incapable of learning about anything we don’t care about, since we will not even be trying to understand.

Pollard then goes on to explore how few of the messages managers try to communicate in the workplace are actually understood – and that’s when they’re actually speaking the same language!

I know that when I speak at courses and Conferences, I would always track down the interpreters and summarise for them the key messages I was trying to communicate.  

I have always been fond of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets not only for its Zen like sense of time and the puniness of our efforts but for its emphasis on the fragility of words – thus, in “Burnt Norton”

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place

You can read the entire poem here. And East Coker has a section I use a lot – 

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

 Pollard is actually pretty pessimistic about our ability to share our thinking (let alone convince others) - suggesting that poems and pictures have more potential. I totally agree. I generally make sure that my presentations have a poem or a painting….It certainly wakes people up! 

So, best, I think, to be an artist, to use the wiles of song and paint and poetry (full of metaphor and reframing) to slip into the spaces where the listener’s or viewer’s worldview is not locked tight, and to accept that, while your work may transport and even transform them, that will happen in ways you cannot control or even imagine.

And if you are not an artist, and disposed to muddle with the messy imprecision of words, you can only try to throw as many interesting, provocative, imaginative, ideas, possibilities, insights, connections, confirmations, refutations, imaginings, challenges, and stories at your poor, unsuspecting audience (hopefully articulately and fairly and not manipulatively), and see what sticks, what their lifelong conditioning has made them, just now, ready to hear, to entertain, and to admit.

In doing that, you might well change their conditioned beliefs, worldview, and future behaviours. Though of course, that only happened because your conditioned beliefs and worldview necessitated that you try to do so.

When it comes to communication, that’s the best we can do, or hope for. 

Orwell gave us a practical checklist of strategies for avoiding such mindless momentum of thought and the stale writing it produces

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself”. 

A year or so ago I stumbled on a useful format to help me present my thoughts more briefly and clearly – viz a table with questions such as what had sparked off the thoughts and what the basic message was which I wanted to leave with the reader.

And an old article on Economical writing shows the way by being divided into 28 sections - each of which is headed by a delightfully short and clear statement or injunction viz 

The author (McCloskey)'s injunction

What I think (s)he Means

“Writing is the economist’s craft”

Most economists are so focused on the message that they forget they are engaged in communications – which implies a reader

“Writing is thinking”

Most writing is thinking aloud…trying to clarify one’s own confusions….to be ready for an audience, it needs to go through about a dozen drafts

“Rules can help, but bad rules hurt”

A lot of books have been written about how to improve one’s writing style – some of them downright silly

“Be Thou clear”

Clarity is not the same as precision – and requires a lot of experiment and effort. Indeed I would rephrase the adage as “Strive to be Clear”

“The detailed rules are numerous”

“most advice about writing is actually about rewriting”!

“You too can be fluent”

Contains some lovely advice about the process of composing and transposing one’s thoughts and words

“You will need tools, tax deductible”

On the importance of words

“Keep your spirits up, forge ahead etc”

We’ve got to get the words flowing on the paper….don’t be a perfectionist….it’s just a first draft…many more to go!

“Speak to an audience of human beings”

Probably the most important point….who is the paper for? Imagine a typical reader!

“Avoid boilerplate”

Don’t use clichés or chunks of text everyone thinks thei understand

“Control your tone”

You can (and probably should) be conversational – but if you want to be taken seriously don’t joke around

“Paragraphs should have points”

Readers hate to see several pages of only text. Break it up when you sense you’re moving to a new point

“Use tables and graphics – and make them readable”

For me, crucial

“Footnotes are nests for pedants”

Love it!

“Make your writing cohere”

Very interesting section with points I had never come across before

“Use your ear”

A sentence consists of a subject, verb and object, We often overburden with qualifying clauses.

“Avoid elegant variation”

Clumsy way of saying we should not use a lot of adjectives or adverbs to say the same thing  

“Check and tighten; rearrange and fit”

Priceless advice….we should be doing this all the time

“Rhetorical questions?”

Interesting question

“Use verbs, active ones”

Some good points made

“Avoid words that bad writers use”

Some very useful examples given

“Be concrete”

Great example of circumlocution

“Be plain”

Cut out the flowery language

“Avoid cheap typotricks”

Don’t use acronyms

“Avoid this, that, these, those”

Useful point

“Above all, look at your words”

Words so easily take over our thoughts. Be suspicious of the words that come initially to mind ….