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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Uses of Conflict

I may sometimes fancy myself as a contrarian, challenging the “conventional wisdom” but, temperamentally, I am not cut out for confrontation. The blog occasionally refers to my growing up in a bit of a class-less “No Man’s Land” in which I became painfully aware of the power of conflicting group loyalties; and keen to search for ways beyond polarised simplicities…

And these are very polarised times – with people apparently unable to resist the temptation to strike out at others.

We know that people argue very differently in different cultures – the French (and Romanians) are classic “disputationists”, with a perhaps apocraphyl guide being issued to British soldiers before the Normandy landing warning them that loud verbal disputes amongst natives should not be mistaken for conflict – it was just normal French conversation.

Japanese and other Asian cultures have much more subtle ways of conducting disputes which a delightful new book Conflicted – how productive disagreements produce better outcomes tells me demonstrates the distinction between Low Context (direct and explicit) and High Context (indirect and implicit) cultures. Although the English like to think of themselves as open and direct, the way they use language in negotiations and everyday conversation has sufficient aspects of High Context to confuse their interlocuteurs about the real meaning of their words.

I learned a lot from the book – which is useful not only for couples, families and teams but for more specialised work in reconciliation, hostage-taking and even addiction.

I generally dislike the psychology books which detail experiments to persuade us of their thesis but, somehow, Ian Leslie’s use of this device works. He weaves theory nicely into the text and then brings it all together at the end to leave us with 10 Golden Rules.

But before then, I had been bowled over by how he had dealt with what he argued had been a great decline in our argumentative style since Socrates invented his method of probing for clarity and truth. Disputation, he argues, has been institutionalised in medieval universities but people like Descartes ridiculed such scholastic disputes – after which Guttenberg and the Reformation made the pursuit of knowledge an individual rather than social matter.    

“For intellectuals, the purpose of reason was to gain knowledge of the world – but reason often seemed used to entrench whatever we wanted to believe, regardless of whether it was true. For the “interactionist” reason hasn’t evolved to reach truth but to facilitate communications and cooperation”

The myth of the individual who can think his way through any problem in magnificent isolation is powerful….but misleading

The book then goes into the more specialised field of conflict or dispute reconciliation and summarises what are, of course, complex issues in some interesting (if necessarily simplistic) injunctions  



First connect

Look for opportunities to make a personal connection with the “other” in an argument, try to establish “trust”

Let go of the rope

Don’t try to control what the other person thinks or feels

Give face

Don’t engage in status battles. Make the other feel good about themselves

Check your WEIRDNESS

Probably the most important. Don’t assume you share cultures!


Get curious

Show genuine interest in the other

Make wrong strong

Use mistakes to apologise

Disrupt the script

Introduce novelty and surprise into the conversation

Share constraints


Only get mad on purpose


Be real



Monday, April 26, 2021

The Future isn't what it used to be!

When I had a high profile – as a change agent in Europe’s largest Region in the 1970s and 1980s – I would quite often receive invitations to join discussion/advisory groups or write articles for journals (generally one led to the other). One of the first came from the Tavistock Institute and was to join the Advisory Group for a 3 year project about Networks in which my Region was taking part in the late 1970s.

John Friend was the key player in the Institute of Operational Research which ran the project but Eric Trist and Fred Emery were big names associated with the systems thinking which lay behind the work. The planning theorist Andreas Faludi nicely situates here John Friend’s contribution to the planning fieldAn article I contributed to the Newsletter they ran gives a very good sense of the wider context in which the work was taking place - “Local government, learning and social change (Linkage newsletter 3 of Institute of Operational Research (IOR) 1978)

Involvement with the Institute gave me a chance to look at my work using a different perspective or lens. Wherever we are, we tend to get too used to our routines – and it helps to be jolted out of that and get the chance to see things though different eyes…..(hence the title the blog has carried this past year or so)

In the 1980s, the invitations came increasingly from Europe and were focused on the processes and lessons of urban change. It was through a network with the acronym R.O.M.E that I met the indefatigable Riccardo Petrella who became a great campaigner against globalisation and for the importance of public water provision

My role as an institutional development consultant from 1991 brought a reduced public profile – although the European Centre for Development Policy Management did invite me for discussions about my local government work in Kyrgyzstan - when I was wrestling with the concept of capacity development about which, with the support of people like Pete Morgan, they did a lot of work. Here’s a typical example

The most recent invitation is from the International Futures Forum – based in Scotland whose mission statement reads simply 

to enable people and organisations to flourish in powerful times. We address complex, messy, seemingly intractable issues – local, global and all levels in between – fostering practical hope and wise initiative. 

We support people making a difference in the face of all that stands in the way of making a difference, rising to the challenge of the moment.  We develop their 21st century competencies for thriving in complexity and their capacity for inspiring and transformative innovation.  We offer resources to support this activity through the IFF Practice Centre.  We work with governments, communities, businesses, foundations and individuals.  

We offer people a space for reflection, thoughtful engagement and mutual support and we freely share the powerful ideas, tools and frameworks that result. 

I am apparently one of some 50 ex-pats who are being invited in a couple of weeks to take part in a zoom session to explore how we might become more involved. I like the idea and could access some of the material which is available in their IFF Practice Centre.

But I prefer a slightly more independent approach and have therefore identified some books which I will try to flick through in preparation…

I start in 1971 with the full edition of one of Futurology’s greats – Wendell Bell whose contribution to the field is superbly described in the first half of an article by Barbara Adam, the author of a 2007 study which figures in the list of about a dozen books


Author’s background


The Sociology of the Future – theory, cases and annotated bibliography; ed Wendell Bell and James Mau (1971),

One of America’s foremost futurologists

The book was a real challenge to the prevailing quietism of Talcott Parsons’ sociology

Futures we are in Fred Emery (1977)

Renowned Australian organisational thinker – with background in psychology

But rather elitist and technocratic style

New Thinking for a new Millennium – the knowledge base for future studies; Richard Slaughter (1996)

a well-known Australian futurist.

Superbly written

Foundations of Future Studies; Wendell Bell (1997)

See above

The editions of 2004 and 2007 carry great overviews of work since

Future Matters – action, knowledge, ethics; B Adam and C Grove (2007).

British sociologists

a clear and thorough analysis

Foresight – the art and science of anticipating the future; Dennis Loveridge (2008)

A british analytical chemist with strong working experience in industry who took up an academic post on future studies in 1991

Has the style and insights one would expect from someone with his background

What is the Future? John Urry (2016) only in epub format.

Urry was a great British sociologist

Comprehensive treatment strong on bib references

Superforecasting ; P Tetlock and D Gardner (2016)

Paul Tetlock is an American economics Prof who focuses on finance and statistics

And has a reputation for scepticism about forecasting

Future Studies and Counterfactual Analyses – seeds of the Future; T Gordon and M Todorova (2019)

futurologists – the older an American with a scientific background, the younger a Bulgarian with a cultural studies background


Critical Terms in Future Studies; ed Paul Heike (2019)

An interesting collection of 50 international academics whose subjects are generally in the humanities


From What Is to What If – unleashing the power of imagination to create the world we want Rob Hopkins (2019) only in epub format.

Climate change campaigner


This is, admittedly, Rob’s latest contribution to his “Transition Towns” series and therefore not quite an example of future studies

Uncharted – how to map the future together ; Margaret Heffernan (2020) epub

Serial entrepreneur

American-born but currently living in UK

A curious book – strong on stories – generally sceptical but strong on scenario planning

The pandemic, we are told, is one of these critical junctures which shake the world from time to time and can move it in surprising directions….After the global financial crash of 2007 a lot of people’s predictions about government roles strengthening were proven false. The power of Big Capital increased – as did inequality. It took the populist revolt to begin to bring western liberalism to its senses.

The Covid pandemic has demonstrated new possibilities for government that people will not forget in a hurry - but has equally consolidated the power of the global AI and IT monopolies and intensified our fears of a future without work.

Futurists should therefore be at a premium these days….       

Postscript; interesting that, within days of this post, I was invited by the Centre for Public Impact to complete a questionnaire about ways of improving government which focused on the sort of information I got from internet platforms.

I had to respond quite strongly that it is only books which help me understand realistic ways for improving government – particularly those written by people such as Gerald Caiden, Chris Hood, B Guy Peters, Eduardo Ongaro and Alasdair Roberts.

But the website is an interesting one – and pursuing a very worthwhile objective

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Scribbling – the professional writings since 1990

I thought my HEALTH WARNING would discourage readers – but, curiously, it seems to have had the opposite effect with daily clicks hitting the 400 mark today after the last post on the central Asian experience…

This post is a record of my professional writing over the past 30 years and included largely to ensure that I have easy access to such source material

It does not include the material about my travels in places such as Bulgaria, Germany and Romania and other material you can find listed in the top right corner of the blog…

In Transit – notes on good governance

1999 book

in which I tried to capture for my new colleagues in ex-communist countries what I felt we in the West had learned, between 1970 and 2000, about managing change in the public sector

My initial projects in CzechoSlavaki, Romania, Hungary and Latvia were all a bit scrappy and it was the 3 Central Asia projects of 1999-2007 which gave me the real satisfaction

Transfer of Functions – European Experience 1970-2000.

Uzbekistan 2002

The experience of transferring functions in Europe to different levels of government in the latter part of the 20th century


Policy analysis for Slovakian senior civil servants - a manual


One of my least successful efforts

I need to add a bibliography and update it a bit eg Paul Cairney


Public Admin Review in Azerbaijan as at 2005


This was the first project since I had left Scotland whose results left me totally satisfied – what seemed a hopeless situation when I arrived in 2002 started slowly to give hope, culminating in the setting up of a Civil Service Agency

“Missionaries, Mercenaries or Witchdoctors?Paper presented to 2006 NISPAcee Conference

A fairly biting analysis of the shortcomings of Eiropean Technical Assistance in its efforts to develop the capacity of Ministries and state bodies in ex-communist countries


Road Map for Local Government under threat 2007

I had experience of helping run a municipal authority – but not designing a local government system. Romania, CzechoSlovakia, Hungary and Latvia gave me certain insights about this in the 1990s but it was a 2year project in Kyrgyzstan which helped me produce this detailed RoadMap

Administrative Reform with Chinese Characeristics


China still haunts me – 11 years later. I was invited to lead a 4 year EC project in the country but had culture shock very quickly…I produced 17 reasons for my resignation – but still learned enough to write this piece….

The Long Game – not the Logframepaper presented to 2011 NISPAcee Conference at Varna

critique of EC technical assistance to PAR – presented to NISPAcee Annual Conferences of 2007 and 2011


Training that Works 2011

100 page paper based on what I felt I had learned in the last decade particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Bulgaria. It challenges a few myths

Blog 2009-2021


See the annual collection of posts for the last 2 years – as well as E-books on administrative reform, Bulgarian art, Romanian culture, Germany etc

No Man’s Land; journeys across disputed territories (2018)

A first effort at my personal story

Just Words -  a Sceptic’s glossary


EC reports always gave an opportunity for provocative writing and I started this habit of caustic definitions early in my career with them

Change for the Better? A Life in Reform; (2021)

the present version of my effort to make sense of the challenge of admin reform in a variety of countries

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Scribbling from Foreign Lands

I still remember the autumn morning in 1990 when I stood beside my car at the Hull docks waiting to board the ferry that would take me to a port on Denmark’s west coast with a subsequent drive to WHO HQ Copenhagen. On the basis of my strategic work in the West of Scotland, the Head of European Public Health division had invited me take up a short assignment helping her develop a health promotion strategy for the newly-liberated countries of central and eastern Europe.

Ilona Kickbusch was a formidable German lady who didn’t appear to need much help but I was desperate to explore new horizons – having rather boxed myself career-wise. And so it proved – with a new career in “institutional development” in central europe quickly opening up first in Prague, then Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Brussels and Latvia.

The projects were, however, largely an apprenticeship as I learned to deal not only with a new role but new subjects (transitology; a national rather than local government focus) – as well as a way of presenting ideas which took account of interpretation needs. Thus I would always try to give interpreters advance briefing – particularly for any conference papers…. 

But in 1999 I became the Leader of a fairly large team in Uzbekistan on Civil Service Reform although there was little or no pressure for any real change from the Prime Minister’s Office (our beneficiary) which gave me the luxury of being able to write material for the small number of officials who did seem to be interested.

I took to doing regular – and highly interactive - sessions with middle-level officials at the Presidential Academy of Public Administration – in a training centre set up by the project.

I learned quite a lot as a result – about European systems of local government; privatisation; and that dreadful thing called “human resource management”. I was particularly proud of the little series of publications I left behind eg the 60 page Transfer of Functions – European Experience 1970-2000. 

All of this was to prove invaluable to me in the two projects which immediately followed. 

In Azerbaijan I was Team Leader from 2003-2005 on a Civil Service project which worked with a network of personnel managers and, very much against the odds, managed eventually to have a Civil Service Agency set up to introduce new-fangled merit-based appointments. It’s apparently still going strong…..

The early days were difficult – a civil service Law had been passed by Parliament but no one knew what to do with it…..A previous Team Leader had resigned in frustration. Instead of an office in the prestigious Presidential Office Building, I was offered rooms in the nearby Presidential Academy of Public Administration. There I befriended some staff with whom I started to work on lectures and 3 books…… totally outside my Terms of Reference. I like to think that my method of working won friends and influenced people…. Although it did cause some problems with the European Commission monitors who watched with bemusement…

But the European Office supported me and I began to acquire friends in the President’s Office and Parliament who actually encouraged me to campaign publicly – with lots of press interviews and even a television hook-up with the public!

The three books I co-authored were published with European funds and the first on public management and the civil service to be available in the Azeri language. So I was proud of that too….

I had no sooner finished that work than I was flying to Bishkek to take up a two-year project as Team Leader in Kyrgyzstan (2005-7) which helped establish a Local Government Board; did a lot of training of municipal people….and also left three books behind – one of which tells a good story about learning and strategic change - Developing Municipal Capacity and strongly challenged the prevailing assumptions in the capital about whose capacities needed developing!

Only one of these had been in my terms of reference - Road Map for Kyrgyz Local Government (2007) which I regard as one of the best things I ever produced…  The more I worked on it, the more I appreciated the potential of this device. The opening page warns that - 

A road map does not give a route – YOU choose the route. A roadmap simply locates the key features (mountains, rivers and swamps) you need to be aware of when trying to travel from the A to the B of your choice. So this is not an attempt to force foreign models on the local situation

Another point about a road map is that it cannot cover every changing detail nor tell you how you should approach certain situations – sometimes a large bump in the road or impatience can have fatal consequences! So a road map is only a guide - local knowledge, judgment and skills are needed to get you to your destination! And, like a map, you don’t have to read it all – only the sections which are relevant for your journey!

So don’t be discouraged by the size of the booklet – simply dip into the sections which seem most useful to you

Such projects always have an “inception period” (generally a month) to allow the team and beneficiary to take stock of the situation and make adjustments…which even paymasters realise are needed when a President flees the country – as happened in March 2005 as I was completing my round of visits not only to “beneficiaries” but other “stakeholders” such as UNDP, The World Bank and US Aid. I took full advantage of that period (which involved my own flight – back to Baku for a week of safety) to ensure the “maximum feasible flexibility” in the project. 

One of the high points of the project for me was when, at a Conference of the municipalities, I invited the participants to play a game similar to “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”. As you will see from the annexes of the Road Map, I simple reminded people of

·       the main elements involved in making a successful car trip (features of the car; geography; roads; petrol stations);

·       listed the key players in the local government system (politicians; laws; citizens; lobbies)

·       invited them to pin the appropriate label on the map

At that point, I decided that it was time to see how the newest members of the European Union were coping. I had acquired an old mountain house in a remote village in the Carpathian mountain which my Romanian partner took from a shell in 2000 to a warm habitable home with superb vistas from front balcony and back terrace of two spectacular mountain ranges……

I got the chance to spend only one summer there in 2007 there before being tempted by one of the last Phare-funded projects which bore the highly poetic title – “Technical Assistance to the Institute of Public Administration and European Integration - for the development of an in-service training centre network linked to the implementation and enforcement of the Acquis”. The project’s aim was to – 

 “ build a system for in-service training of Inspectors and other stakeholders to satisfy clearly identified training needs and priorities in the field of acquis communautaire implementation”. Five fields were selected by the Institute for the initial development of training and training material – Food safety; Environment; E-government; Consumer protection; and Equal opportunities. The project appointed Bulgarian specialists in these fields to manage this process of designing and delivering training. In six months the project was able to -

·       Produce 18 training courses

·       Draft Guidelines for assessing training; how to carry out assessment which helps improved training.

·       Produce a Training of Trainers’ Manual; and a Coaching Manual

·       Run 30 workshops in the 6 regions for 500 local officials

·       Draft a Discussion Paper to identify the various elements needed to help improve the capacity of Bulgarian state administration. This offered examples of good practice in both training and implementation.

“Procurement issues” (for which read a combination of Bulgarian and Italian corruption) delayed the start of the project by some 4 months…….and continued to plague us for the remainder of the year. But it was, for me again, a marvellous learning opportunity during which I learned so much about both the fundamental issue of “compliance with European norms” - as well as how effective training could and should be organized……

Monday, April 19, 2021

My scribbling from 1975-1990

HEALTH WARNING – this is a very self-indulgent post which simply records (essentially for my own use) the pieces which are still accessible from my writing during the years when we still used typewriters

I’ll add the post 1990 material in a future post…. 



What sort of Overgovernment?” chapter in the famous “Red Paper on Scotland” (1975) edited by Gordon Brown.

My chapter looked at the then popular argument that Scotland, having just reorganised its local government system, entered the EU and facing the prospect of a new national Assembly, could become “overgoverned” – a sentiment which neoliberals were just beginning to express with their references to the “overloading” of government. I would like to think that the chapter anticipated this – although it certainly questioned certain aspect of democracy in municipal authorities….

Community Development – its political and administrative challenge

Social Work Today

Feb 1977

Western civilization blinked in 1968..its leaders panicking as the demos stirred and turning to 3 Wise Men who duly produced in 1975 the Trilateral Commission Report on The Future of Democracy (all 227 pages) which talked about the “overloading” of government and the loss of public trust…...I had been in the streets in May 1968 but, no longer a student, engaging in community politics - working with community activists as they organized themselves

This is a long and prescient 1977 paper drafted as a result of a study of community development which lasted several years -which critically assesses the claims of pluralist democratic theory and finds them wanting.Five functions of political parties are identified and tested – with the conclusion that they were losing their basic functions. ...Three different schools of community development and their relationship to political parties are are identified and explored.

The Search for Democracy – a guide to and polemic about Scottish local government

1977 book of which I retain a sole copy in my mountain house

A short book written around some 40 questions community activists and students were putting to me about the new system of Scottish local government which had arrived in 1975. I was in a fairly unique position to deal with this since I had, for some 3 years, been occupying one of the leading positions in the country’s largest local authority – Strathclyde Region. I’m not able at the moment to give excerpts……

Local government, learning and social change” Linkage newsletter 3 of Institute of Operational Research (IOR) 1978

Article in a Tavistock Institute newsletter (Linkeage) about the need for political learning. Reflects the work of such systems analysts as Geoffrey Vickers and Stafford Beer.

A Little Local InequalityChapter in “Scotland- the Real Divide” ed by Gordon Brown and Robin Cook 1983

The piece started with a piece of purple prose describing the contrast between the glorious location of one of the areas in my regional seat overlooking the river Clyde and the grim realities of the lives of the people there. The article then describes how a new Social Strategy of the Regional Council was giving local people more hope

“Scottish Local Government – what future?” Chapter in The Scottish Government Yearbook 1984

A critical assessment of the system – a mere ten years after a major reorganization

My more academic side on display

Various papers on Social Strategy for the 80s


The Council’s strategy was unique in the UK and I made it my business to make sure that people in the country were aware of it. See also Criticism and public rationality – professional rigidity and the search for caring government; Harry Smart (1991)

Case Study in Organisational Learning and Political Amnesia

The definitive paper on the Strathclyde Region’s Social Strategy experience – written a few years after I left the Region. Be warned – it’s 50 pages long!!