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!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What If???

As I suspected, I’m still worrying away at some of the issues raised by the series of posts about the massive changes to our public services in recent decades – and how they have been covered in “the literature”. I realize that I left out an important strand of thinking – and that the series leaves the impression of inevitability….
The last post paid tribute to some of the people who, in the 1960s, most clearly articulated the demand for a major shake-up of Britain’s public institutions – the “modernization” agenda which initially brought us huge local authorities and merged Ministries with well-paid managers operating with performance targets.
Scale and management were key words – and I readily confess to being one of the cheerleaders for this. The small municipalities I knew were “parochial” and lacked any strategic sense but – of course – they could easily have developed it……

Were the changes inevitable?
I have a feeling that quite a few of the early voices who argued for “reform” might now have major reservations about where their institutional critique has taken us all – although it was a global discontent which was being channeled in those days…..
However not all voices sang from the same hymn sheet……The main complaint may then have been that of “amateurism” but it was by no means accepted that “managerialism” was the answer.
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.
The therapist Carl Rogers was at the height of his global influence. And voices such as Alain Touraine’s were also giving hope in France…..

The managerialism which started to infect the public sector from the 70s expressed hierarchical values which sat badly with the egalitarian spirit which had been released the previous decade….
But, somehow, all that energy and optimism seemed to evaporate fairly quickly – certainly in the British “winter of discontent” and Thatcher rule of the 80s. What started as a simple expression of the need for some (private) “managerial discipline” in the public sector was quickly absorbed into a wider and more malevolent agenda of privatization and contracting out…..And, somehow, in the UK at any rate, progressive forces just rolled over….  Our constitutional system, as Lord Hailsham once starkly put it, is an “elective dictatorship”.
The core European systems were, however, different – with legal and constitutional safeguards, PR systems and coalition governments – although the EC technocracy has been chipping away at much of this.

Just why and how the British adopted what came to be called New Public Management is a story which is usually told in a fatalistic way – as if there were no human agency involved. The story is superbly told here - as the fatal combination of Ministerial frustration with civil service “dynamic conservatism” with a theory (enshrined in Public Choice economics) for that inertia….  A politico-organisational problem was redefined as an economic one and, heh presto, NPM went global 

In the approach to the New Labour victory of 1997, there was a brief period when elements of the party seemed to remember that centralist “Morrisonian” bureaucracy had not been the only option – that British socialism had in the 1930s been open to things such as cooperatives and “guild socialism”. For just a year or so there was (thanks to people such as Paul Hirst and Will Hutton) talk of “stakeholding”. But the bitter memories of the party infighting in the early 80s over the left-wing’s alternative economic strategy were perhaps too close to make that a serious option – and the window quickly closed…..Thatcher’s spirit of “dog eat dog” lived on – despite the talk of “Joined Up Government” (JUG), words like “trust” and “cooperation”  were suspect to New Labour ears.
Holistic Governance made a brief appearance at the start of the New Labour reign in 1997 but was quickly shown the door a few years later.…

“What if?,,,,,”
The trouble with the massive literature on public management reform (which touches the separate literatures of political science, public administration, development, organizational sociology, management….even philosophy) is that it is so compllcated that only a handful of experts can hope to understand it all – and few of them can or want to explain it to us in simple terms.
I’ve hinted in this post at what I regard as a couple of junctures when it might have been possible to stop the momentum….I know the notion of counterfactual history is treated with some disdain but the victors do sometimes lose and we ignore the discussion about “junctures” at our peril.

The UNDP recently 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 how we have been moving..

Old Public Admin
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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Those who Went Before

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been trying to compress the thoughts I (and many others!!) have had over the past few decades about administrative reform into a table whose columns list core questions; narratives; and key texts …..
It was all sparked off by the book published earlier this year on Dismembering (the State) – although the subject has been a lot in my thoughts this year

There may now be hundreds of thousands of academics and consultants in this field but, when I started to challenge the local bureaucracy in Scotland in the late 60s there were, astonishingly, only a handful of people challenging public bureaucracies – basically in the UK and the US.
In the US they were following (or part of) Johnston’s Anti-Poverty programmes and included people such as Peter Marris and Martin Rein whose Dilemmas of Social Reform (1967) was one of the first narratives to make an impact on me. 
In the UK it was those associated with the 1964-66 Fulton Royal Commission on the Civil Service; with the Redcliffe-Maud and Wheatley Royal Commissions on Local Government; and. those such as Kay Carmichael who, as a member of the Kilbrandon Committee, was the inspiration for the Scottish Social Work system set up in 1969.
In the 70s, people like John Stewart of INLOGOV inspired a new vision of local government…my ex-tutor John MacIntosh focused on devolution; even the conservative politician Michael Heseltine had a vision of a new metropolitan politics…..

It was people like this that set the ball of organizational change rolling in the public sector…. tracked by such British academics as Chris Hood, Chris Pollitt and Rod Rhodes – and who have supplied a living first for thousands of European academics who started to follow the various reforms of the 1970s in the civil service and local government; and then the privatization and agencification of the 1980s. Consultants then got on the bandwagon when british administrative reform took off globally in the 1990s.

Working on the tables incorporated in the past few posts has involved a lot of googling - and shuffling of books from the shelves of my glorious oak bookcase here in the mountains to the generous oak table which looks out on the snow which now caps those mountains……
Hundreds of books on public management reform (if you count the virtual ones in the library) – but, for me, there are only a handful of names whose writing makes the effort worthwhile. They are the 2 Chris’s – Chris Hood and Chris Pollitt; Guy Peters; and Rod Rhodes. With Chris Pollitt way out in front……Here’s a sense of how he has been writing in recent years - 
There have been many failures in the history of public management reform – even in what might be thought of as the bestequipped countries.
 Six of the most common seems to have been:
 · Prescription before diagnosis.  No good doctor would ever do this, but politicians, civil servants and management consultants do it frequently.  A proper diagnosis means much more than just having a general impression of inefficiency or ineffectiveness (or whatever).  It means a thorough analysis of what mechanisms, processes and attitudes are producing the undesirable features of the status quo and an identification of how these mechanisms can be altered or replaced.  Such an analysis constitutes a model of the problem.  This kind of modelling is probably far more useful to practical reformers than the highly abstract discussions of alternative models of governance with which some academics have been more concerned (e.g. Osborne, 2010).   [For a full exposition of this realist approach to programme logic, see Pawson, 2013.  For an explanation of why very general models of governance, are of limited value in practical analysis see Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011, pp1125 and 208221]
 · Failure to build a sufficient coalition for reform, so that the reform is seen as just the project of a small elite.  This is particularly dangerous in countries where governments change rapidly, as in some parts of the CEE.  Once a government falls or an elite is ousted, the reform has no roots and dies.
 · Launching reforms without ensuring sufficient implementation capacity.  For example, it is very risky to launch a programme of contracting out public services unless and until there exists a cadre of civil servants who are trained and skilled in contract design, negotiation and monitoring. Equally, it is dangerous to impose a sophisticated performance management regime upon an organization which has little or no previous experience of performance measurement.   And it is also hazardous to run down the government’s inhouse IT capacity 6 and rely too much on external expertise (Dunleavy et al, 2006).  In each of these cases in house capacity can be improved, but not overnight.
 · Haste and lack of sustained application.  Most major management reforms take years fully to be implemented. Laws must be passed, regulations rewritten, staff retrained, new organizational structures set up, appointments made, new procedures run and refined, and so on.  This extended implementation may seem frustrating to politicians who want action (or at least announcements) now, but without proper preparation reforms will more likely fail.  Endless reforms or ’continuous revolution’ is not a recipe for a wellfunctioning administration
 · Overreliance on external experts rather than experienced locals.  As management reform has become an international business, international bodies such as the OECD or the major management consultancies have become major players.  A fashion has developed in some countries to ’call in the external experts’, as both a badge of legitimacy and a quick way of accessing international ’best practice’  Equally, there is perhaps a tendency to ignore local, less clearly articulated knowledge and experience.  Yet the locals usually know much more about contextual factors than the visiting (and temporary) experts.  .
 · Ignoring local cultural factors. For example, a reform that will work in a relatively high trust and low corruption culture such as, say, Denmark’s, is far less likely to succeed in a low trust/higher corruption environment such as prevails in, say, some parts of the Italian public sector.  In the EU there are quite large cultural variations between different countries and sectors……………
I would suggest a number of ‘lessons’ which could be drawn from the foregoing analysis:
1.      Big models, such as NPM or ‘good governance’ or ‘partnership working’, often do not take one very far.  The art of reform lies in their adaptation (often very extensive) to fit local contexts.  And anyway, these models are seldom entirely well-defined or consistent in themselves.  Applying the big models or even standardized techniques (benchmarking, business process re-engineering, lean) in a formulaic, tick-box manner can be highly counterproductive.
2.     As many scholars and some practitioners have been observing for decades, there is no ‘one best way’.  The whole exercise of reform should begin with a careful diagnosis of the local situation, not with the proclamation of a model (or technique) which is to be applied, top down.  ‘No prescription without careful diagnosis’ is not a bad motto for reformers.
3.     Another, related point is that task differences really do matter.  A market-type mechanism may work quite well when applied to refuse collection but not when applied to hospital care.  Sectoral and task differences are important, and reformers should be wary of situations where their advisory team lacks substantial expertise in the particular tasks and activities that are the targets for reform.
4.     Public Management Reform (PMR) is always political as well as managerial/organizational.  Any prescription or diagnosis which does not take into account the ‘way politics works around here’ is inadequate and incomplete.  Some kernel of active support from among the political elite is usually indispensable.
5.     PMR is usually saturated with vested interests, including those of the consultants/advisors, and the existing public service staff.  To conceptualise it as a purely technical exercise would be na├»ve. 
6.     Successful PMR is frequently an iterative exercise, over considerable periods of time.  Reformers must adapt and also take advantage of ‘windows of opportunity’.  This implies a locally knowledgable presence over time, not a one-shot ‘quick fix’ by visiting consultants.
7.     It does work sometimes!  But, as indicated at the outset, humility is not a bad starting point.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why have we allowed academics to blind-side us all?? The state of the State - part 6

This is the last part of my tabular presentation of what the commentariat have been saying in the past 50 years about the management and delivery of public services – although it’s certainly not my last word on the subject!
This is a subject to which I’ve devoted most of my life but I have to say that the result of this particular exercise leaves me with the powerful feeling that tens of thousands of academics have been wasting their lives - and the time of their students and of others hoping to get some enlightenment from the writing on the subject
“New public management”, “governance”, “public value”, “new public governance”, "public sector" or "governance" "innovation"..... the terms, strategies and debates are endless – and little wonder since the discussion is rarely about a concrete organization but, rather, about the system (of thousands of organisations) which makes up the entire public sector.

In the 1990s “the management of change” became a huge new subject in management literature – chapter 6 of my book In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) discussed the literature on management in both sectors - and the earliest book quoted is from 1987.
In the private sector, change was handled according to the perceptions of each Chief Executive and his team. But not so in the public sector – where reform was determined at the highest political level and its future (uniform) shape the subject of central edicts.
Academics dominate the writing but only as historians and classifiers…..at a very high level of abstraction….as will be seen from my summary of chapter 4 of In Transit – notes on good governance     

How it’s dealt with by the commentariat
Typical Products

11. How do states compare in quality of public services?

“Benchmarking” national policy systems has become an important activity of bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) - until 2000 The Commonwealth Fund is now the main source for a global assessment of Health systems. The OECD does a global education survey.

Occasionally efforts are made to benchmark entire systems of public admin
Peer Review” is also a widespread activity within the EC eg this recent one on the Polish educational system

12. Why do governments still continue to pay consultants vast sums of money?
Private consultants now run a global industry dispensing advice to governments which is worth at least 50 billion euros a year. Statistics are not easy to find – but the UK alone spends 1.3 billion pounds a year - see Use of consultants and temporary staff (NAO 2016) – which is actually about half of the figure ten years ago!

Some will argue that this is a small sum to pay for good, independent advice to help ensure that public services are kept up to date.
The trouble is that no one really knows whether it is good advice. It is a highly secretive industry – with reports seen only by senior civil servants and the odd Minister.
Management consultancy in the private sector has been the subject of at least two highly critical studies  (Hucynszki; Micklewait and Woolridge) – which suggest a world of senior executives subject to fads and fashions and given to imposing their will on the work force in an autocratic way. This is even more likely to happen in public bureaucracies which have the additional problem of a political layer on top.

13. Role of Think-Tanks?
A few Think Tanks have a reasonable track record in this field – generally those who draw on retired civil servants for their insights… eg The Institute of Government
The Demos Think Tank was a favourite with New Labour in its early years of the ambitious Modernising Government programme.
The Centre for Public Impact is a new body which promises great things from its use of Big Data –We will see…..

Policy-making in the Real World (Institute of Government 2011)

14. What challenges and choices does the state face in the future?
The focus of these questions has been organisational – there are a couple of important elephants in the room namely finance and technology which are dealt with in other bodies of literature

Governance in the Twenty First Century (OECD 2001) is one of the rare books which tries to deal with future challenges
15. What are the best Toolkits, manuals, roadmaps etc for people to use who want to engage in reform efforts?

I am not a fan of deliverology but…..Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015) does repay study......

To Serve and to Preserve; improving public administration in a competitive world (Asian Development Bank 2000) still offers wise words
The Essential Public Manager; by Chris Pollitt (2003) is, by far and away, the best book to help the intelligent citizen make sense of this field

Although I’m no fan of the World Bank, 2 titles (from the Development field!) offer the  best insights -

Sunday, October 8, 2017

State of the State – part 5

It’s odd that “Public Bureaucracy” seems to be of so little interest to the public - since one state alone (eg the UK) can spend no less than 800 billion pounds a year to give its citizens services….
A month ago in one of this series of posts, I actually identified 8 very distinct groups of people (academics, consultants, think tankers, journalists etc) who write about public services – from a variety of standpoints - using a variety of styles (or tones) and formats of writing. We could call them “the commentariat”.
It has to be said that little of their material is easy to read – it has too much jargon; it takes 10 pages to say what could be said in 1. Those who write the material do not write for the general public – they write for one another in academia and global institutions. On the few occasions they write snappily, they are generally selling stuff (as consultants) to governments.

The media do give a lot of coverage to various scandals in particularly the welfare and health services - but rarely give us an article which sheds any real light on what is being done with these hundreds of billions of euros….We are treated, instead, as morons who respond, in Pavlovian style, to slogans.
I am, of course, being unfair to journalists. They write what they are allowed to by newspaper and journal editors and owners – who generally have their own agenda. And who wants to read about the dilemmas of running public services or arguing about their “functions” being “transferred”? Just looking at these words makes one’s eyes glaze over!!
It seems that only journals like “The New Yorker” who can get away with articles such as The Lie Factory – about the origins, for example, of the consultancy industry.
And yet there is clearly a public thirst for well-written material about serious and difficult topics.
Take a book I am just finishing - journalist Owen Jones’ The Establishment – and how they get away with it (Penguin 2014) can boast sales approaching 250,000. For only 9 euros I got one of the best critiques of British society of the past decade……

I remember being in New York in 1992 and finding a copy of Reinventing Government (by Osborne and Ted Graeber) in one of its famous bookstores - which went on to become the world’s bestseller on government (with the exception perhaps of Machiavelli’s The Prince?). I simply don’t understand why someone can’t do that again with all that’s happened in the past 25 years….

In 2015 Penguin Books made an effort in this direction with a couple of titles …..Michael Barber’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015) and The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge (2015). I’ve refused so far to buy the second since it is so obviously a right-wing tome – and the second suffers for me in too obviously being the special pleading of someone who was Tony Bliar’s Head of Delivery in the British Cabinet and has now reinvented himself as a Deliverology Guru.

Over my lifetime, I’ve read/dipped into thousands of books about managing public services and organisations generally. About a dozen have made a lasting impression on me – I’ll reveal them in a future post…Let me, for the moment, continue some of the questions I think we should be asking about the state – and our public services -


How has “the commentariat” dealt with the question?
 Recommended Reading
6. Has privatisation lived up to its hype?

There is now quite a strong backlash against the performance of privatised facilities – particularly in the field of water and communal services – with the Germans in particular mounting strong campaigns to return them to public ownership….

A lot of such services remain monopolies – occupying the worst of all worlds since privatisation creates “transaction costs” (both in the initial sale process and subsequent regulatory bodies) and boosts executive salaries and shareholders’ profits – thereby adding significant additional costs. The only advantage is an artificial one – in the removal of the investment cap. 

7. What are the realistic alternatives to state and private provision of Public Services?
A hundred years ago, a lot of public services (even in the education and health field) were charitable.
That changed in the 40s – but the 80s saw the welfare state being challenged throughout Europe. In the UK, government started to fund social enterprises working with disadvantaged groups – new Labour strengthened that work.

The 2010 Coalition government started to encourage mutual structures for public services  

8. Where can we find rigorous assessments of how well the “machinery of the state” works?

The process of changing the way the British “machinery of government” started in the 1970s and has been never-ending.
Although the emphasis during the Conservative period from 1979-97 was transfer of functions to the private sector, a lot of regulatory bodies were set up to control what became private monopolies – in fields such as rail and, in England, water.
And, in an effort to mimic real markets, the health service was also the subject of a major division between purchasers and suppliers.

Such innovations were eagerly marketed by international consultants – and copied globally
New Labour was in power between 1997 and 2010. Its Modernising Government programme was developed with a strong emphasis on sticks and carrots – eg naming and shaming.
Curiously, there are far more books describing the intentions and activities of specific programmes of change than assessments of the actual impact on organisations.
A Government that worked better and cost Less?; Hood and Dixon (2015) is one of the few attempts to assess the effects of the British changes of the past 40 years.

The two clearest and most exhaustive UK books analysing in detail the reasons for and the shape and consequences of the large number of change programmes between 1970 and 2005 were written by someone who was both an academic and practitioner - Chris Foster author (with F Plowden) of “The State Under Stress – can the hollow state be good?” (1996); and British Government in Crisis (2005)
Transforming British Government – roles and relationships ed R Rhodes (2000) is a good if outdated collection

9. What Lessons have people drawn from all this experience of changing the way public services are structured and delivered?
We have now almost 50 years of efforts to reform systems of delivering public services - and the last 20 years has seen a huge and global literature on the lessons……
Academics contribute the bulk of the publicly available material on the subject – with Think Tankers and staff of global institutions (World Bank; OECD; EC) the rest.
Consultants’ material is private and rarely surfaces – apart from their marketing stuff. 
Michael Barber was Head of New Labour’s Delivery Unit in the early 2000s and has now become a “deliverology” consultant to governments around the world. He shares his advice here -  How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy (2015)

Chris Pollitt and Rod Rhodes are 2 of the top political scientists studying the changes in the structure of the state - see Rethinking policy and politics – reflections on contemporary debates in policy studies). Their basic message seems to be that a lot of civil servant positions were disposed of; new jargon was learned; management positions strengthened – but “stuff” (ie crises) continued to happen!

The Fourth Revolution – the global race to reinvent the state; John Micklewaithe and Adrian Woolridge (Penguin 2015) is a rare journalistic entry into the field (to compare with Toynbee and Walker; and Barber).
The best short article on the experience must be 
What do we know about PM reform? Chris Pollitt (2013)

International Public Administration Reform  by Nick Manning and Neil Parison (World Bank 2004) had some good case studies of the early wave of efforts.

Two of the best collections of overviews are - Public and Social Services in Europe ed Wollman, Kopric and Marcou (2016) AND
10. Is anyone defending the state these days?
We have become very sceptical these days of writing which strikes too positive a tone. “Where’s the beef?” our inner voice is always asking – ie what interests is this writer pushing?

Paul du Gay is a rare academic who has been prepared over the years to speak up for the much-maligned “bureaucrat” and his is the opening chapter of a 2003 collection of very useful articles
The Toynbee and Walker book is another rare defence….this time from journalists
Dismembered – the ideological attack on the state; by Polly Toynbee and D Walker (Guardian Books 2017)

The Values of Bureaucracy”; ed P du Gay (2003) - googling the title should give you a complete download)