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!

Friday, December 11, 2009

my list of useful comparative papers on public management reform

Iain MacWhirter is one of the links I recommend in the sidebar – and yesterday’s post on the latest phase of the banker’s scam in the UK is a good example of his writing. Cold mist has been surrounding the house for the past few days – and the trees had a delicate glow of snow this morning. But usually the snow is deep by now.

Yesterday I was still collating what I consider are key references for my briefing note on public management reform efforts (in Europe) and beginning to give some thought to the sort of structure my note will need.
First, however, I need to reread the “seminal accounts” – which, despite the large number of academic titles on comparative work in this field, are fairly small in number since most academic overviews which purport to be comparative actually fall into one of two rather different categories. First there are the ad-hoc collections of case-studies illustrating the priorities of a particular country. The best of this are written around a common set of questions – but most leave it to the author to decide how he wants to write about an experience.
The second type is more comparative – but focussed on a particular tool or approach eg financial, performance management, personnel, agencies, decentralisation etc For example the 2008 book on Managing Performance – international comparisons by Brouckaert and Halligan. A weakness of these books for the practitioner is that they are written to gain points in the academic community – and have therefore to use whatever description they contain into a specialist discourse. Academic discourse is bad enough – but some of the recent post-modernist are evil!
It is for this reason that the most useful books from the practitioner point are those which have been specially commissioned for a customer in the state sector eg OECD or written by an international body. So far my list includes the following -

Public sector reform in Western Europe (1997) Overview paper by Toone and Raadschelder to a larger academic study
Why is it so difficult to reform public administration? Government of the future – getting from here to there (1999) Series of OECD Conference papers
Public Management Reform – a comparative analysis (2000); Academic book by Pollitt and Brouckaert
Performance or compliance – performance audit and public management in five countries (2002); Academic book by Chris Pollitt
International Public Administration Reform – implications for the Russian Federation (2003); Commissioned study by Nick Manning and Neil Parison of the World Bank
Evaluation in public sector reform – concepts and practice (2003); an academic book by Herbert Wollmann
Responses to country questionnaire (2005); national inputs to an OECD survey
International Comparison of UK’s public administration (2008); Report commissioned by National Audit Office
Commentary on international models of good government (2008); Report commissioned by National Audit Office

Perhaps the most useful are the Manning report and the second last paper.
The Manning report (about 400 pages) selects countries considered to have some common features with Russian which might make their experience interesting. These are - Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, UK, USA on which there are individual chapters. The analysis sets up a typology of perceived problems and subsequent reform tools. Then at the results – suggesting that some countries have forces of resistance which make them “low traction” – for which certain tools only are relevant
The NAO paper is perhaps the most intriguing.It suggests that good public administration can be defined by sets of “values”,” outcomes” and “enablers”.
Good PAs are responsive, transparent, accountable, equitable and have a public service ethos.
These can be measured by high quality services, public confidence and trust, good policy advice, culture of seeking value for money and “stability and continuity”
“Enablers” are Culture of performance, Management; Appropriately skilled public Administration; Good leadership; Capacity for change. The report then identifies comparative indices on these outcomes and enablers to rank the UK system

The paintings are all by Atanas Mihov (1879-1974) one of my favourites for his use of colour. Born Stara Zagora. Graduated 1904 from Drawing School. Sofia where he studied under Vesin and Mrkvichka. One of the initiators of Bulgarian realistic painting.
1906-09 teacher in Silistra; 1910-12 Razgrad; 1918-23 Russe. War artist during Balkan War and First WW. Settled in Sofia 1923 where he worked in Knyazhevoo until 1932. I wish I cd find out more about him

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Today was my father's birthday - he would have been 102 - the same age my mum reached! My
October 16th posting - "fathers" - was about him. I honour once again his memory - what he gave me and what he stood for. He would have appreciated this picture - boats, church and foreign places....

a day's reading

I vowed to do a blog each day – partly to encourage the tiny readership I have but also because it is an important discipline – writing is more challenging than talking – it reveals the gaps in your logic and information. And I’ve found it salutary to put on record some of the discoveries which give life its daily delight. And, when you’re a bookish sort of person, that will include insights gained from books. That indeed is one of the main purpose of the blog – to share useful references in the field in which I’ve chosen to spend so much of my life.
Anyway, I have failed to deliver on my daily quota – mainly because I was going through one of these phases of disgust with reading. I was bloated! Books and work – a life not quite in balance? More of that, perhaps, in another post. In the meantime I simply have to admire those such as Matthew Taylor (see links) who are able to make regular posts – with helpful references to the writings of others. One of features I admire in Matthew’s blogs is the honesty with which he confesses his self-doubts. There are millions of us “symbolic analysts” (as Robert Reich memorably called us) who spend our lives scribbling and meeting in ways which our ancestors would find shocking – and being well paid for it. No wonder that the angst sometime shows through!

OK enough of the guilt. What have I found in recent days which is worth sharing? My focus at the moment is a rather challenging assignment in China. Subject to final medical and visa clearance, I depart in 5 weeks and have now started to think myself into the task. I have first to prepare a “Baseline study” on the state of public administration reform there – imagine!! And, as part of that, to draft various briefing papers on the lessons from the countless initiatives of European states in this area eg performance and quality management.
I want to hit the ground running as far as the second part of the initial work is concerned and am therefore trying to first to track down as many recent assessments on the European experience as I can. I do my best to keep up to date – but it is only in the break between assignments that I have to do the surfing and reading which is needed. Earlier this year, for example, I discovered that I had missed quite a few key documents from the British Cabinet Office and yesterday I came across some interesting reports which the National Audit Office had commissioned from academics on innovation in the public sector. I’ve not been able to get separate internet references for the various documents but punch “innovation government” in the NAO search engine and you’ll get 3-4 interesting papers . The NAO also commissioned PWC to do a review of “Good Government” which focuses on France and USA.
The Cabinet Office has also published a useful study of what they regard as good government initiatives here
“Innovation”, “good government”, “improvement”, quality management”, “performance management” etc The language itself confuses – and, to some post-modernists, is itself the product. I hope to return to this issue which is referred to by the academics who have made this their specialism eg Boivard, Brouckaert, Loeffler, Peters, Pollitt. The European Group of Public Administration has lhad a special committee exploring the issue of productivity in the public sector for some years. Their papers can be accessed here You can see why I had no time yesterday to blog – I was too busy surfing!

I also came across an interesting overview from 2004 by Elaine KamarckShe made some intriguing references to the work of President Vincente Fox of Mexico (2000-2006) and when I googled this item I was referred to an article in an open electronic journal I had forgotten about – The International Public Management Review. A glance at the article on the Mexican experience of reform (by Dusaugge) persuaded me that their experience is very relevant to the Chinese! Read it for yourself at And today, I discovered the Scandinavian Journal of Politics – whose articles I am able to access courtesy of Wiley. Some fascinating accounts of what they’ve been up to which rarely get to the mainstream journals. Sorry I’m not able to share them – I’ll try to summarise at some point in the future.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

are human resources people?

I’ve mentioned already the inimitable, little bombshell called Scottish Review which pops 2-3 times a week into my electronic letterbox. It’s been demonstrating the critical skills which the mainline media have lost by conducting in recent months a simple and one-man campaign to make senior executive pay in Scottish public Agencies and public bodies (such as Health Boards) more transparent and has scored several palpable hits. More of that in a minute.
Today’s issue had a short piece sparked off by the author meeting some of his colleagues who had recently retired from middle-level positions in the public service, noticing how more relaxed they looked. “One in particular had been transformed from a tired and careworn individual to a man with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. These were not people who had been in the wrong job, or had lost interest in their professional responsibilities. On the contrary, they had given many years of good service but had simply been ground down by the system and, in the end, were glad to get out. They mentioned a variety of factors which had made retirement a welcome release (or, in a few cases, had impelled them to seek early retirement): the lack of any acknowledgement of their contribution; endless pressure to increase output; the insane demands of an oppressive bureaucracy; less and less time to attend to the matters that they regarded as priorities; periodic restructurings which achieved nothing; managers who failed to inspire trust or respect

The writer (Walter Humes) concludes thus “
Despite all the 'supportive' measures introduced by Human Resource units, significant numbers of long-standing employees have ceased to experience the job satisfaction that motivated them previously and have been glad to escape the constraints of the workplace. Their experience should be taken seriously and used as a basis for reviewing current assumptions about how to treat staff. There is a difference between getting the most out of people and getting the best out of them. In my experience, staff are motivated not by the proliferation of back-covering ‘policies’ and so-called 'entitlements', but by a simple combination of clear expectations, fair treatment, recognition of achievement, backing at times of difficulty, and leadership by example. Underlying all of this is a disturbing question. What kind of people rise to the top when the prevailing culture is one which employs a dishonest rhetoric of employee care, and which alienates the genuinely good guys to the point where they simply want out? It seems a recipe that will allow the calculating, the self-seeking and the cynical to flourish. This perhaps explains why some of our public services are so urgently in need of radical reform. The barbarians are not just at the gate: in some cases, they are running the place”
. For the full article see here
Interesting that I should read this the same day I accessed a very good paper by Chris Demmke of the European Institute of Public Administration which reviews recent development in HRM in European member states - What are Public Services Good at? Success of Public Services in the Field of Human Resource Management; Study Commissioned by the Slovenian EU Presidency Professor Dr. Christoph Demmke/Thomas Henökl, Researcher, EIPA and Timo Moilanen, Researcher, University of Helsinki (EIPA May 2008)
To get a true picture, we always need both academics and vox pop!

Finally revenons aux moutons – pay for senior public executives. Kenneth Roy, the courageous editor of this great little publication, wonders in today’s posting whether the Prime Minister has perhaps been following his campaign. Gordon Brown spoke out strongly yesterday about naming and shaming highly paid senior executives in the public sector. One of them actually stated that he would work for 20% less! In recent postings Roy has been questioning the effectiveness of bodies such as Audit Scotland which are supposedly responsible for ensuring that all is well financially in public bodies

A comment from Marianna Clyde gives a sense of the significance of Roy’s campaign -
Well done on lifting the lid on Audit Scotland. There is indeed a cosy little world of consultants and private accountants benefitting at the public expense while the rest of us suffer. And what does Audit Scotland's staff do all day when their work is done for them by private contractors? And doesn't that rather go against the spirit of 'independent auditing' to hire outside firms? How independent is that?
It is also pretty extraordinary that 'in Scotland, executives and non-executives in public bodies have the right to withhold their consent for disclosure [of salaries] and neither the Auditor General nor Audit Scotland can compel them'. Why? What is the legal basis for this? There is a popular conceit in Scotland that we are naturally a more democratic and egalitarian people than the English, and that the coming of the Scottish Parliament would return us to our 'natural' state. But such disclosures dispel such comfortable myths and show a lazy, slavish, sluggish society apparently at ease with the legitimacy of 'reputation management' as a morally acceptable political technique, a society so comfortable with being managed it has subsumed its critical apparatus and is content to suffer vast and unjust inequalities without asking 'why'? But perhaps no more, if the Scottish Review continues to illuminate the dark corners and ask the awkward questions and expose the fact that Scotland is run by a cliquey, self-satisfied, self-regarding establishment of public sector grandees aided and abetted by their worshipful acolytes in the media and their equally moribund, uncurious politicians in the parliament. Never since the Letters of Zeno appeared in the Caledonian Mercury in December 1782 ('sleep, in a state, leads to slavery' – Zeno) criticising the lack of accountability of the political system of that time, which kick-started the political reform movment, has a series of articles done more to expose the shortcomings of a growing, unaccountable managerial elite and the growth of its management machine. It would be interesting to know what work the 'consultants' employed by Audit Scotland did. For my hopes for a vibrant, genuinely democratic Scottish society I sincerely wish 'reputation management' wasn't one of them!"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

back in mountains

Romania is an amazing country - with many beautiful places even if the wine, paintings and hospitality are not as impressive as its neighbour, Bulgaria. But Bucharest is a disaster - and kills creativity. That's the reason for the absence of blogging. The last few days have been dreich - but I drove this morning through the mist and was rewarded by the sights of the peaks of the Bucegi mountains - both at Busteni on the main road to Brasov and here in the house.
For an excellent take on the moral implications of the UK banking scandal - see Craig Murray's post of 5 December - "pity he wasn't a banker". Interesting for us Scots that "banker" rhymes with "wanker"!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

organisational narcissism

One of the issues which has puzzled me is the enormous gap between the rhetoric of management books and the organisational reality experienced by both staff and consumers. I found some answers recently in a book which came out a few years backs by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin - The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (2004). Between 1988 and 1994, Zuboff used acaemic funding “to follow a group of visionary top managers and watched each one fall prey to corporate politics (which she compares to the 18th century French court), self-interested boards and the whims of financial analysts reacting to short-term fluctuations in a company's earnings"
For Zuboff, managerial capitalism was so successful because it focused inward on the production of products. Henry Ford’s staff wanted product differentiation for the rich consumers who were able to buy cars – Ford saw the potential of economies of scale in offering only one product. The new system created great wealth but it also allowed the development of layers of management. “Organisational narcissism” is the result. Management sits at the centre of this universe and we are on the outer rim of the solar system. We are treated as transactions; we are made to conform to the rules of the organisation. We are treated with indifference and contempt both as employee and as consumer (which is seen as weak and feminine – “production” is the word and the world which matters!)
An early section of the book spells out the nature and implications of the new society of individuals the new-found wealth and technology has created - complex people who want to take control of their lives and whose needs, the authors argue, can best be described in relation to “sanctuary", "voice" and "connection". These new people have outgrown the old organisations which remain rooted in their inward product focus ("dynamic conservatism" was the wonderful phrase used by Donald Schon almost 40 years ago).
This has created a chasm or “transaction gap” between new people and old organisations. A powerful chapter of the book shows the failure of the various “waves of the future” which have swept companies in the last 2 decades – reengineering, quality management, relationship management etc The basic DNA of the “standard enterprise logic” overwhelmed them all and made consumers and staff alike even more alienated. A very powerful case she describes is that of an airline official in Rome who made it her business to "go the extra mile" but was unable to continue this by the combination of new central diktats and superior disapproval. All too often, the new systems and technologies seem basically to allow more aggressive and intrusive marketing.
“The Support Economy” tries to map out a different system – called “distributed capitalism” in which the individual (thanks to the internet) is at the centre of the universe. Eleven principles are set out – in rather obscure language, it must be said. The essence of business is to supply us – through a system of federations - with levels of support that will allow us to live our lives the way we want to live them. The providers of support will be our advocates acting as intermediaries between us and the supply federations.
This part of the argument is not as convincing – indeed the language becomes very abstract and esoteric. I also missed any references to Richard Semmler - whose Semco company tears up the management books. Companies which remain private (ie not quoted on the stock exchanges) or which are cooperatives have, presumably, more hope. Zuboff does not address this critical issue. And a minority of change endeavours do succeed – that is clearly shown in the chapter which rightly points to the general failure of the various expensive management fads and fashions of the past decades. So, clearly, if preconditions and leadership are right, change does work. Surely that is the area we should be focusing on?

What are the implications of these arguments for those involved in the reform of government systems? After all, most government reforms (certainly advice from management consultants) of the past 2 decades have been based on the assumption of the effectiveness of private management and the positive lessons which are contained in quality management, performance management etc. At one extreme, people could argue that the public sector is better placed to make a success of these ideas – since it does not have the poisonous framework of boards and shareholders expecting short-term profit. But the behaviour of ruling politicians is more and more similar to that myopic framework – and, of course, it has always been more difficult in the public sector to develop measures of performance which (a) can be agreed and (b) don’t cause counter-productive reactions (see....).

British government offers an object lesson in what not to do – control things from the centre. “Strong” local government is needed – with electoral and dialogue systems which enforce prior consultation and debate. Independent foundations should carry out the comparative assessments which act as a spur to initiative. Neither officials nor politicians can be relied upon to work for the public good – rather do we need an understanding that professional associations, voluntary groups, parties and officials are four groups with different interests and perspectives between which a balance can and should be struck.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

the scandinavian contribution

The Scandinavian contribution to public administration - at both a practical and theoretical level - is under-estimated.
Sweden, for example, pioneered Agencies and the Ombudsman.
Norway's distinctive take can be seen in the book co-authored by Tom Christensen in 2007 Organisation for the public sector – instrument, culture and myth
And Scandinavian countries as a whole blazed a trail in the lid 1980s with their “free commune experiment” – whereby municipalities were invited to make bids for being freed (on a pilot basis) from central controls. The process was monitored and evaluated and, if judged successful, led to legal changes. A real example of pilot work! Google, interestingly, hardly recognises it - so few people now will remember it. Talk about loss of institutional memory!! And in 2004, the Norwegian parliament instituted the most rigorous review of the state of democracy in their country the world has ever seen. Good article on its findings and recommendations here.

Jon Pierre is a prolific and clear write who is a contributor to Gothenburg University’s fairly new Institute on Quality of Government whose papers can be accessed here. I visited the political science people there in the late 1980s to learn about the Scandinavian “free communes experiment” and had a very friendly and lively reception as a local political reformer from another Scandinavian country. After our formal discussions, their Prof (could it have been Pierre??) took me to a night club whose bouncers took exception to a piece of dust on my coat. When the nearby police were called, I presented them with a rose which I happened to be carrying. The police were not amused – and I will never forget the frisson of recognition I had then about state totalitarianism!
The Institute papers focus on the classic values – and how they have been affected by the new public management. Trust and corruption, for example, figure in their papers. See an example here One of the recent paper by Pierre deals with the crucial issue of how the legal tradition can be reconciled with the new logic of markets -
If we accept the argument that public-sector organizations operate according to a different logic, with a multitude of objectives and with a different organizational structure and leadership compared to for-profit organizations or NGOs then it is only logical to argue that there are, or should be, rather distinct limits to what the public sector can learn from for-profit organizations (Christensen et al., 2007). If we furthermore agree with Suleiman (2003) that the public administration, and indeed the public sector as a whole, is an integral part of democratic governance, it becomes even more obvious that standards and benchmarks from the corporate world really have rather to little to offer when it comes to assess the quality of public-sector organizations. Yet, the normative point of departure of NPM was to deny any specificity of the public sector. Public management, to the extent that there was any managerial thinking, was arcane and had not adopted modern corporate philosophies. Indeed, management was believed to be a “generic” organizational task; there do not exist any significant differences between managing public or private organizations (Peters, 2001
The same philosophy was applied to reform of organizational structure, to performance measurement, to customer-provider exchanges, to efficiency improvements, and to organizational leadership and managerial autonomy. Reform only saw one of the two faces of public administration and forgot, or ignored, or circumvented, legality and the role of the public bureaucracy in enforcing the law and ensuring legal security and protection. Today, we seem to be at an impasse where the legal nature of public administration can no longer be ignored or circumvented by administrative reform, yet the architects of reform have few ideas about how to deal with legality or what could replace it. Therefore, we need to think carefully about what legality means to public administration, the extent to which is a critical feature of a public bureaucracy and the extent to which NPM, in various guises, is compatible with legality, transparency, due process, predictability and a public service ethos
The reference to Suleiman is a fascinating 2003 book about the implications of recent administrative reform – with the provocative title - Dismantling Democratic States

Friday, November 6, 2009

making sense of public sector reform

A decade ago, I had a few months to prepare for a major new assignment in central Asia – which turned into a 7 year spell in that part of the world. I used those few months to write a small book about what I thought I knew about my discipline. Some of the chapters of that book are “key papers” one, six and thirteen on my website. And what I think I learned from those 7 years is reflected in key paper 3.
Now I face another new continent – and am trying to do the same thing. Perhaps not a book – but a series of reflections. When you’re in the middle of an assignment working with a beneficiary, you have to be very practical. The last thing you want is an academic article. But – between assignments – academic journals can give you perspective; help you catch up with changing fashions (“skirt lines are falling this year”); and brief you on development in countries about which you know little.
My language and background is English/UK – so US and Commonwealth developments in public management have been easier to follow in the international journals than French and German. Low country and Scandinavian writers are more comfortable in English and their developments have, therefore, been easier to follow.
Even so, it’s obvious from looking at the back numbers of the UK journal Public Administration, for example, that I’ve missed a lot of useful writing about European developments recently. A particularly useful issue was one on traditions of government – and how they’ve changed recently under the onslaught of NPM.
The UK authors I’ve found useful are Hood, Pollitt, Stoker and Talbot (academic) and Mulgan and Peri6 (think-tanks) Today I found another - Martin Evans'Policy transfer in a global age
All countries, of course, are different - in their values, traditions and structures (see de Hofstede and Trompenaars for more) but the UK is quite exceptional in the ease (speed and extent) with which it can and does change its systems.
For the past 30 years, the country seems to have been in a never-ending process of administrative change.
It's easier to explain the "how" than the "why" of this . Despite the setting up in 1999 of a Scottish parliament and government, the country remains centralised in the worst sense of the word (it was a Conservative Minister who called the system "an elective dictatorship" – and that was in 1976 before the Thatcher and Blair regimes). What this means is that there is no effective political, ethical, social or intellectual force left to challenge the foibles of the executive. Charter 88 recognised this truth long before the rest of us – but it still seems too intellectual a point. Other countries have coalitions and constitutions to deal with.
Margaret Thatcher thought that markets were the answer - New Labour think central managers are. Although Newlabour is right-wing in its economic approach, it has compensated by the Stalinism of its social and organisational interventions. For all the talk in the 1990s of a third way, of partnerships and networks, NewLabour has not begun to understand what an organic approach to administrative change might look like. The Cabinet strategy unit has basically given rulers a new vocabulory of progressive words to use - behind which hides the old leviathan.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

some recent material on UK reform

In June, the UK Parliament's Select Committee on Public Administration published an interesting report on Good Government - complete with a separate 250 page Annex with all the exchanges they had with those who gave evidence and many of the papers which were submitted. This Committee - chaired by Tony Wright - is always good value for money - and this report reflects the thinking it has done on a variety of issues over the past 10 years. To read them, see here and here
The Annex put me on to various bodies and papers I’ve missed - such as the Institute for Government which has a useful survey of the British experience of performance management and attitudes of civil servants and local government officials to the system -

The Select Committee Report makes a simple recommendation in line with a recent pamphlet which recommended an abolition of the entire control regime which has grown up in Britain over the past 2 decades. Its title - Leading from the Front- reflects its basic argument that power should be returned to the front-line professionals - and the Stalinist measurement and control infrastructure should be dismantled. Unfortunately we have sold this model back to the central europeans. I found the monitoring culture of the young pubic manager here in Romania quite frightening...

The Institute for Government site also referred me to another useful toolkit produced by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) - on organisational development and its various tools -

And finally a Bertelsmann Foundation venture - comparing ("benchmarking") various countries on social and institutional issues. Very thought provoking - 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

reinventing public administration

Jules FeifferIn my other blog, I suggested some months back that the time was overdue for a reappraisal of public administration - and of what we have learned from all the reforms of the past few decades.
I recently discovered that the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain has set up a Public Service Trust which is encouraging just such a dialogue - which, it promises, will bring together practitioner and academic perspectives. It has published a couple of papers which you can find on its website - One is on the history of the UK reform - and the other on drivers of change.
Two things, however, make me rather suspicious of the venture. First one of the major funders is a large consultancy company - Ernest and Young. Second, its chairman is a banker! Such people should be in sackcloth and ashes in monasteries - not daring to tell us how to reform our public services!!
And my first skim of the "history" documents confirm my scepticism - it makes the fashionable suggestion that we need a "holistic" approach but then says nothing in its 65 pages to say what that might mean. And the "history" is the sort which a first year university undergraduate with no practical experience would write.
The only benefit I got from reading the document was a reminder of how fatuous the 2008 UK government strategy document of reform was. You can find it here
For those of you who want to know more of the reform experience in other administrative traditions have a look at Transcending new public management - the transformation of public sector reforms; T Christensen and Per Laegreid (2007). The book covers some of the Scandinavian experience – who always bring a freshness to the subject. I wonder why that is!
For some insights into the French and German experience see State and local government reforms in France and Germany: divergence and similarities; By Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, Hellmut Wollmann

Please note that I've updated the list of googlebook references - in the "key papers" part of my website
Another interesting paper I've just downloaded focuses on the more limited field of civil service reform - and what international experience tells us. It's produced by the British thinktank IPPR and is available on their website - or, as a short-cut,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

modern satire

I made a recent comment about how powerful an educational tool satire can be. The comment arose from my reading of Democratic Audit’s recent spoof - The Unwritten Constitution – which purported to be a draft constitution for the UK prepared by a civil servant (complete with some memos). On the basis that the document should be a formalisation of present practices, the draft mercilessly exposes the iniquitous system that is the British political system. You can find it at -

But the best satirical piece on the British system remains, for me, Anthony Jay’s priceless “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” which is some "tongue in cheek" advice from the retiring Sir Humphrey (of the famous BBC TV series "Yes Minister") to the guy we knew in the series as innocent young Bernard who, some decades later, inherits his position. Written some ten years ago, it exposes in some 6 pages all the mechanisms which ensure that politicians never challenge systems of privilege. You can access it from my website only!

And today I came across another short spoof which I can add to my library – an apparent leak of a first draft EU Directive on standards for literature. This is so well written (and so plausible) it took us some time to conclude that it was in fact a satire! Perhaps, however, it was real – and the leak killed the idea?? See for yourself at http://www.eurozine.com/pdf/2005-10-03-spiro-en.pdf

The other good modern satire I know is Susan George’s The Lugano Report – which seems to be a confidential paper prepared for some multinational businesses on the major global threats and how they might cope with them. http://books.google.com/books?q=lugano+report&btnG=Search+Books&uid=9404005052714784916 By the way, this link allows you to access the entire stock of my googlelibrary (650 books!)

I’ve spent some time in the last couple of days downloading articles from Wiley journals which are on a special free access. There are almost 2,000 journals in their stable – and many show the problems of over-specialisation. As I said in my other blog a month or so back, the British Public Administration journal seems to have fallen into the hands of post-modernists and is rapidly becoming the home of gibberish. Its US colleague - Public Administration Review – offers much better writing (although recent issues also seem to show some deterioration).
Government and Opposition remains one of the best examples of clear writing.
Governance is also interesting.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


A busy 2 days – Friday was the day I was closing the mountain house for the winter. During the night I noticed what I thought was fog outside. It turned out to be snow – and, by morning, was a good 7 cms. Fortunately it was soft – so no problems with the side road connecting the village to the main road after I had disconnected the water and placed the booby traps. Then an enjoyable drive to Bucharest – although not the last hour negotiating the traffic into the gridlocked city.
I didn’t therefore have much time for the internet – but enough to surf for “managerialism” and find an interesting short paper “In Praise of Managerialism” http://www.ashridge.org.uk/website/IC.nsf/wFARATT/In%20Praise%20of%20Managerialism/$file/InPraiseOfManagerialism.pdf

This morning I read Colin Talbot’s all too rare blog Whitehall Watch – which had a reference to one of my old favourites – the development economist AO Hirschman of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”. He was a real original (still alive at 94) – a rare interdisciplinarian who celebrated the “trespassing” across disciplinary boundaries. “A Propensity to self-subversion” is a good example - http://books.google.com/books?id=LlvD47cU-qAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false
That, in turn, led me to “Government and Opposition” - one of the Wiley publications to which I have a month’s free access – and several hours downloading articles from others in their stable such as Public Administration and Development. I generally don’t have much time for this journal – but was impressed to find a couple of articles in a 2006 issue on the theme of spiritual values in the workplace. “Growing numbers across many sectors feel an unprecedented crisis of identity and integrity. In international development, institutions often find themselves subordinated to the military in ever increasing conflict situations (the ‘development-security complex’). Locally, the global tendency is for public administration to be ‘re-engineered’ on the basis of so-called ‘market’ values (the ‘New Public Administration’). Private sector management models are, nevertheless, hardly exemplary. Corporate greed and scandals proliferate in a world featuring increasing poverty extremes, resurgence of old or advent in new diseases (e.g. HIV/Aids), environmental degradation and racism. This article takes, as its starting point, the fact that the workplace has become an insecure and alienating environment.
In pursuing the relationship between spirituality and religion, the article next distinguishes between, the dogmatic, institutionalised and potentially dangerous characteristics of many religions and the more intuitively contemplative character of spirituality with its stress on awareness of self, impact on others and feeling of universal connectedness.
Bearing in mind the often extremism as well as variety of religions (as distinct from spirituality), the second section examines the interrelationship between the two. A number of models are advanced concerning relationships between belief, belonging, salvation and ritual. It is argued that attention needs to be given to the inner side of religion, which requires individuals to embark on a spiritual journey through contemplation and reflection, rather than the more visible side of religion expressed in ritual. In sum, spiritual dialogue is offered as a way forward and as a mechanism for building spiritual community through engagement.
The final part of the article focuses on a trans-Atlantic spiritual engagement initiative. Faith-based discussion groups have been formed amongst business executives and professionals in USA (theWoodstock Business Conference promoted out of Georgetown University) and more recently in the City of London at the St Paul’s Cathedral Institute (the Paternoster Pilot Group). These aim to develop more meaningful work orientation: rediscovery of higher purpose and its relevance to restoration of ethical business and public service values, as well as better integration of personal and social domains
Well said! This links to an earlier post ("living each day" Oct 22). I will let you know more once I have read the article!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

managerialism as ideology

I asked why we had so easily forgotten the caution against hubris in the work of Karl Popper, James Scott etc Bit of a naive question! One obvious answer is that career incentives have developed in the last few decades for public managers, consultants and politicians who could sell the latest fashions in the private sector. Unfortunately this has tended to happen just at the moment the deficiencies of those ideas were becoming obvious (at least to those in the private sector). But the private consultants who were losing their market were only too happy to recycle their product. In the 1980s – when it was so difficult to get the public administration system to change - the key words in the field of commercial management were “reengineering”, “total quality management”, “transformation”; “reinvention” “culture change”.
Incremental change was for wimps! Suddenly, it was all or nothing!
And look at the number of Labour local politicians who were absorbed in the mid 1980s by private consultancies. Time was when the George Robertsons of this world were seduced by the American Atlanticist think-tanks. Management consultancies did the same business a decade or so later. Margaret Hodge was one of the most prominent. No wonder – as David Craig’s books so vividly show – that the spending by New Labour on such consultancies increased by a factor ten!
Nature abhors a vacuum - when old Labour lost its ideology, New Labour found managerialism!


Basically Labour (despite all the brave words) is no different – it simply does not trust people. And let there be no bones about it – this is an issue of trust.
The delivery of public services involves different groups of people – political, administrative, professional (at national and local levels) and the citizen. Time was when local professionals were trusted to do the job - that's changed in Britain over the past 30 years as a layer of public managers have been inserted between the professional and central government.
In Scandinavia, however, local professionals and local politicians have seen their responsibilities increased in structural changes in the past few decades. It's well known that the excellent Finnish educational system gives large autonomy to the local actors. Is this coincidence - or cause and effect?
In other countries again managers in the private sector have been trusted to do a better job – and functions such as water, transport, health and social policy have been transferred to the private sector. And, in some countries (Switzerland, Germany), citizens themselves are trusted to play an important role.

I’m now beginning to understand rather better one of the quotations on my masthead - "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" I liked this quotation but I have to say I never quite understood it. Was he really arguing that politicians knew best?
Clearly not – his reference was to the process by which a society deals with its problems. By central diktat – or by dialogue? People like Will Hutton tried to sell a different, more European, approach to Blair before he came to power – the name they used (the Stakeholder approach) clearly didn’t resonate.
Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam started a debate about trust and "social capital" which too rapidly got colonised by academics and international organisations. But there is an issue there we have to return to - how come that, within Europe, such different models of social trust exist? Is this in fact (as people like Leopold Kohr argued so eloquently 60 years ago) a function of scale? If so, does the recent Scottish experience thrown any light on this issue?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the wrong model of government

I’m now trying to explore the wider implications of the thoughts I posted earlier this morning – both on the blog and on the Guardian’s article comments pages - for the issue of getting government systems to deliver better value to their citizens.
The question which the Guardian article confronted was how society (not just teachers) can best deal with disruptive pupils. And parental satisfaction with the schooling system is as reasonable a test as one could imagine for how well a governance system is operating. (In Azerbaijan, I suggested the basic test was how easily people could cross the street!) Those who study and write about government and public administration over-complicate things - we need some simple tests like these!
So let’s explore what this example of the tools available to deal with disruptive pupil behaviour tells us about the British “governance” system.
The British political, professional and legal systems have made a lot of interventions over the past 30 years into the affairs of the school. Laws, targets, national curricula, guidelines, procedures and outside groups (such as police, social workers and a new breed of auditors) now constrain what teachers can and cannot do. Schools cannot easily get rid of unruly pupils – and have to deal with them in normal classes.
And yet the results of all this effort appear to have made the situation worse. This is ironic – since the NewLabour government boasted in its early years of having found a wider range of policy tools which could be used to fine-tune social behaviour.
I remember so well some of the chapters in Geoff Mulgan’s significantly-entitled “Life after Politics – new thinking for the twenty-first century” (1997). In particular Perri 6’s “Governing by cultures” – which classified the various tools government had to change social behaviour.
Douglas Hague’s title was also interesting – “Transforming the Dinosaurs”. That was strong language to use about schools and universities!
And, in 1999, we had the Modernising Government paper – and the Cabinet Office (under Geoff Mulgan) produced fascinating papers on policy-making and the development of effective strategies. Part of the new weaponry was “evidence-based policy-making”.
The tools of (central) government seemed so clear! This was social engineering with a vengeance!
I realise that this does not appear to be very helpful to the parent whose child’s education is suffering from the disruptive behaviour. But bear with me......

Knowing Labour as well as I do (having been a paid-up member since 1959 and a leading regional councillor from 1974-1991), I was disappointed but not surprised that local government did not appear as one of the possible mechanisms of change. New Labour had already absorbed that power ethos which was revealed when Hartley Shawcross spoke in 1946 the famous words - “Now WE are the masters”. That phrase gave the game away – that voting was simply to facilitate “the circulation of the elites” who knew best. The ratonale was superbly set out in Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
Sixty years later the assumptions of the British system have not changed - those at the centre know best - so central targets are set; laws are passed; and complex and invasive control systems established. John Seddon has been one of several recent critics of this "command and control" model which the recent Cambridge University report on primary education rightly called Stalinist.
And just look at the mechanistic language we all find ourselves using - policy "tools"; "machinery" of government! For God's sake, don't we realise that we have allowed ourselves to be classified as machines - subject to a few people pulling levers. It was Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation http://books.google.com/books?id=h-f429ueNRYC&printsec=frontcover&lr=&rview=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false) who made us realise the different metaphors we use to describe organisations - and how much they affect our thinking and awareness of options.
Morgan suggests there are eight basic "images" viz organisations as "political systems", as "instruments of domination", as "cultures", as "machines", as "organisms", as "brains", as "psychic prisons", as "flux and transformation" and as "instruments of domination". And the machine metaphor is the most primitive!
Have we utterly forgotten the powerful critique about the counterproductivity of state measures eg James Scott's classic Seeing like a state - how certain schmes to improve the human condition have failed? (1999)
OK this is long enough for the moment! What I am trying to say is that dealing with an issue like disruptive behaviour requires us to step out of the centralist, machine model of government - and go to a very different way of thinking. Are the British people up to this? I shall try to develop this theme in subsequent blogs

the new Weimar Republic

The painting which heads the last posting (“rotten from top to bottom”) is, of course, Georg Grosz’s famous “The Pillars of Society” which has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it – epitomising as it does the greed of those who rise to positions of power.
Painted as Germany descended into the despair of the 1920s, it was (in 1926) am amazingly prescient picture of the moral corruption which would overwhelm its elite and people. The sketch is another Grosz - a vivd portrayal of the social isolation which is a natural product of greedy elites.
Both images are now, sadly, a very apt logo for Britain. I will write more about this - and what disruptive pupils tells us about the state of "policy sciences", experts, politicians, consultants et al - in my next post.
For more on Grosz see the link on Olga’s Gallery which is always so pleasant to visit - http://www.abcgallery.com/G/grosz/grosz.html

rotten from top to bottom

Today’s Guardian has a good piece on the experience of 2 teachers who were recently charged with assault for manhandling in class an aggressive and persistently disruptive child. The whole force of the system was arrayed against them – one was cleared (after a year of suspension), the other found guilty and has lost his job. Amazingly there were already (06.00 UK time) more than 140 comments on the whole issue of school behaviour. The article had appeared last night – and people had been scribbling furiously throughout the night! As I scrolled through the comments, I was appalled at how emotional and polarised they were. Guardian readers, after all, are supposed to be reasonable people! Was this, I wondered, the evening wine and whisky talking? One contributor put it well – “just because you were abused at school (by a bullying teacher) doesn’t mean that teachers deserve anything that comes to them!”
The usual culprits were called into action – lack of discipline; the emphasis on rights; end of streaming; social workers; teaching methods; the culture of selfishness; television etc. Only 2 contributors mentioned that other European countries did not seem to experiencing this scale of problem. I then realised that the shallow and emotional tenor of the “discussion” was not just an annoying triviality – but was the clue to the problem under discussion and a pointer to the real answer.
For the first time, I was moved to draft a contribution of my own – here it is (number 147)

Interesting that the more thoughtful comments should come from those with experience of other countries eg France, Germany and Sweden. This is a very serious issue – which goes far beyond the issue of school behaviour – and does deserve more than cabby-driver rants. Britain does have a different culture of power from other countries. Those at the very top have never been held properly accountable; and the power has become more and more centralised. Our politics are conducted in more and more of an adversarial (and childish) manner – and the rhetoric of consumer-friendliness conceals the fact that our organisations are run in autocratic style. We do not talk to one another in a civilised manner because there is no civilised or thoughtful discourse at the highest level – only the exercise (and abuse) of power.
Other European countries have constitutions, legal (and sometimes even company) structures which have forced those at the top to justify and often to negotiate their actions. That, too, has been the Japanese way.
I’m afraid that, until we sort out that fundamental issue, our schools will continue to be the political football they are.

Things can change – the new Scottish parliament was given an electoral base which gave those supporting small parties a voice and required coalitions. And the Parliament gave itself a more inclusive and accountable structure – and has tried to reach out and involve the population.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes – the school issue is a classic example of the need for the stakeholder approach which requires, at all levels, responsibilities and rights to be properly recognised and balanced (and that very much includes the parents).
When people feel powerless and angry – they look for victims – and I’m not talking here about pupils. The country is angry because they have no voice – and those in power have been exposed (yet again) for the abusive and greedy people which the structures they inhabit allow and encourage them to be.
My reference to “abuse” is not a reference to political expenses (see my other blog for a couple of comments on that subject) - but to the much wider and longer abuse which is described so eloquently in Harold Perkins’ The Third Revolution – professional elites in the modern world

Kenneth Roy has described the latest twist of the larceny of the professionals in

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

health warning - blogging can be good for your mind

Honore Daumier - the legislative belly
OK an example of the benefits of a daily blog - I read a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s (of “Blink” fame) latest book This points me to his website - and allows me to download all the articles from New Yorker which form the content of this latest book. I recognise some of them – eg the review of the small book which classifies the various ways we try to explain (“Why?”) and the critiques of personnel evaluation tests.
I notice how elegantly the essays are constructed – beginning always with a very concrete incident we can all relate to; then introducing us to the arguments of a few authors; and exploring where those arguments take us. I read with great enjoyment (in the middle of the night no less!) a piece about the light which those writing recently about “risks” and accidents throws on the Challenger space vessel explosion.
My mind then takes me to the essay as a form. I remember the impact which the essays of 18/19th century English writers such as Addison, Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb made on me at secondary school. “What is truth, said Jesting Pilot, and would not stay for an answer” is a phrase stuck in my mind - and is apparently Bacon – although the wonderfully evocative piece on burning pork is apparently by Charles Lamb – not Bacon as I had thought! I start to google the various names and find a wonderful website devoted to.....essays! Lamb’s on pork is there. The site, however, has a classic and somewhat American bias (it’s from Brigham Young University – which as I recall is Mormon??) – so there don’t seem many modern examples eg George Orwell. But it’s clearly a treasure trove eg one by AA Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) struck a strong chord with my nomadic spirit

It was, of course, Montaigne who started this art form in the 16th Century in his castle near Bordeaux– and his Complete Works stands on a shelf above my study door. As I read Gladwell’s essays, I suddenly hear in my mind the tones of Alistair Cooke - as he read his Letters from America (for almost 50 years). What an institution he was! Weaving a spell as he slowly moved from his opening ear-catching sentences through a charming analysis of part of the American system to a laconic conclusion. I hope they use his texts on the Brigham Young courses. And then I thought of Thom Wolfe – whose 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the flak catchers” was such a merciless description of the funding culture which grew around the US War on Poverty. Unfortunately I couldn’t find this essay online – although (thanks to Wikipedia and New York Magazine) I could download his even more famous satire of “the radical chic”. If only someone would do a similar satire on EU funding – someone surely must have!! But it’s beyond a joking matter! Wolfe invented some great phrases - "shit-detector" was his word for someone who can smell out imposters and charlatans.
And so I am led, finally, to satire. And to realise how powerful a tool it can be. I’m not familiar with what the ancients contributed to this genre (some of the Sufi stories have gentle satire) so I generally start with Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
In our times, Antony Jay is well known for his “Yes, Minister” which showed on BBC in the 1970s. Forty years on we now have the not so subtle “In the Thick of it”. And “The Office” was apparently (the only decent BBC TV series I can access in central europe is Morse and Misummer Murders!!) a hilarious and accurate attack on office politics.

It’s not often, however, you get a management writer spoofing his profession but I discovered recently systems guru Russell Ackoff's Management F-Laws And Stuart Weir wrote earlier this year a spoof on the British political system -
Other examples of modern satire on management and politics would be much appreciated.
Anyway the point of this blog was to show the discoveries and rediscoveries which can come from a simple article and surf.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scots heritage

I learned a lot from re-reading Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots’ invention of the modern world (2003). He’s an American with no obvious axe to grind. I knew about Adam Smith and David Hume (although not properly appreciated the latter’s arguments eg “reason is – and ought to be – the slave of passions”). I knew about the openness of Scottish universities in medieval times and their strong links with continental universities (not least as a final stage of legal education); about the Scots role in the British Empire (and in exploiting the opium trade); and that most of the stuff with kilts is actually a Victorian invention.
What, however, I hadn’t realised were things such as –
- The speed with which Scotland apparently changed from a backwater of Iran-like religious domination and prejudice to playing a leading role in the development of the “study of mankind”
- just what a galaxy of stars there were in Edinburgh and Glasgow between the last 2 Scottish uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Frances Hutcheson I had vaguely heard of – but not his core argument that “all men of reflection from Socrates have sufficiently proved that the truest, most constant and lively pleasure, the happiest enjoyment in life, consists in kind affections to our fellow creatures”. The pulpit should not be a place to inspire fear and terror; but to uplift and inspire.
- William Robertson whose classification of history into 4 stages apparently shaped the modern approach to history
- The basically English agenda of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in 1745 – and how both Highland chieftains and the new bourgeoisie in Glasgow opposed him.

Nor have I ever read such a clear exposition of the issues and theories these individuals dealt with in the early decades of the 18th century – nor of the role of the Church of Scotland. My father – as a vicar of that Church and a great historian – will be turning in his grave!
And several times, phrases hit me with some personal force “The great figures of the Scottish enlightenment never lost sight of their educational mission. Most were teachers or university professors; others were clergymen who used their pulpits for the same purpose. In every case, the goal of educational life was to understand in order to teach others, to enable to next generation to learn what you yourself have mastered – and build on it” That helps me understand my drive!!

Several other things the book emphasises –
- How much Scotland benefitted from the 1707 merger with England – from which the Nationalist government now wishes Scotland to cut loose
- How misunderstood Adam Smith has been.
- The role Scots politicians played in liberalising British politics in the 1830 period
- How major a role Scots played in the American revolution – and, indeed (on the downside), in the development of its “revivalist” religious tradition!

I;m afraid that the book is not available in googlebooks.....I'll now try to find a suitable picture....

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is blogging useful only to the blogger?

The last few days have been glorious – I was sunning myself on the terrace yesterday afternoon – and today has dawned bright and cloudless. With the extra hour’s gift this morning from summer-time ending during the night, I skimmed through the blogs I have bookmarked. It made me think about their value. Many books have been written recently about blogging – its nature and its possible social and intellectual consequences The New York Review of Books reviewed some of the books and blogs at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21013 and http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22960

My "About the blog" section tries to explain my motives for this blog - I'm trying to make sense of my professional life and to see what I can usefully pass on to to others! So the blog is a discipline on me - not yet perhaps offering the reader very much (except pretty pictures!)

What about the blogs I look at - how useful do I find them? Of course my bookmarking is a highly selective activity – reflecting the interest I have in books and organisational change. The book-bloggers are a special breed – generally retired people who have the time to pursue and share their passion for reading – generally novels. For a sample see - http://www.britlitblogs.com/
I have, so far, bookmarked a hundred-odd general bloggers whose writing reflects some of my interest in understanding social, economic and organisational forces in the world – and in contributing to “positive change”. Who are they?
The first category is those who are paid to write – journalists, think-tankers, academics. They write well – but generally in specialist mode. They focus on a specific event and then relate this to some more general principles. Journalists (such as Ian McWhirter) and think-tankers (such as Matt Taylor (RSA Head) and Gerry Hassan) find this an effortless task. Academics such as Paul Krugman also have their journalistic side.
Then there are the overtly “political blogs” – politicians and party supporters – most of which confirm how low politics has fallen. So much self-centred and petty comment. Of course there are exceptions and I will add a link when I can find one!!

Then there are more theoretical blogs which have an interest in a discipline such as economics or sociology on theory and are generally written by struggling post-graduates. For example http://austrianeconomists.typepad.com/ or http://thesociologicalimagination.com/ or http://www.themonkeycage.org/. They give an insight into the soulless world of academia!

Some blogs are like helpful librarians – referring you on to interesting articles you would otherwise miss eg http://don-paskini.blogspot.com/ And there are digests of blogs eg http://scottishroundup.co.uk/These I enjoy.

Blogging, I seem to be saying, may be good for the blogger - in raising their profile or helping articulate inchoate thoughts - but what does is actually give the reader? The gems I look for are the free-spirits – those not attached to institutions such as the BBC, academia or think tanks who have had some experience of the real-world; are not specialists and continue to have an open mind. One such person seems to be Scott London - see his comments on dialogue http://www.scottlondon.com/blog/archives/61

Saturday, October 24, 2009

economics and management - the modern religious doctrine

One of my heroes has always been the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’ tale "The Emperor’s New Clothes" – the only person able to break the hypocrisy, fawning and lies around him and speak the truth. I was very happy therefore a few days to come across Steve Keen’s 2001 book “Debunking Economics – the naked emperor of the social sciences”. The last decade has, of course, seen many books critiquing the basic assumptions of economics and trying to build a more realistic discipline – but Keen’s seems to go further is being almost an alternative textbook. You can get a good sense of it here
For my sins, I not only studied economics, I actually tried to teach it at a polytechnic for several years. At University I had had the greatest of difficulty with some of the basic ideas (particularly the theory of the firm!) and would, occasionally, feel that I was studying a set of religious texts. )(Incidentally, this is an idea brilliantly explored in 1994 in Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli's Faith and Credit - the World Bank's Secular Empire).
I stuck with the subject only because of my interest in regional and urban development for which I could see some practical application. Eventually my disillusionment became too great and I switched my work to urban management. The other part of my Degree had been Politics and political sociology - with John Mackintosh (of "Cabinet Government" fame) one of my tutors. Here I felt on stronger ground - and was particularly excited to read books such as Heclo and Wildavsky's The Private Government of Public Money and EH Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis - both of which stripped away rhetoric to expose the realities of power.

But Britain has retained its mythical attachment to its form of "liberal democracy" - and developed a similar mystique around economics. Almost the same day I found the Keen book, I found a marvellous statement of the reality of the British political system - produced a few months ago by the UK Thinktank Democratic Audit
It is easier nowadays to make the point that economics is a religious doctrine - resting, as people beyond the classrom are slowly recognising, on dogmatic assumptions. The same is true of the even more popular field of management - which I have seen grow in my lifetime from a few (American) departments and books to a series of global industries In reality it is a new Roman Catholic Church - with its interdoctrinal disputes. Sad that there are so few demystications available in that field - Zuboff's The Support Economy (2001) was one of the few.
But back to economics - one of the latest Nobel prizewinners, Paul Krugman, asked last month why the economists got it (the finanical crisis) so wrong. He suggests that mathematical modelling is the answer - but the question which should be asked is why noone pays attention to the answers which have been available for 20 years or so? Paul Ormerod wrote his Death of Economics in 1993 - and that reflected a decade or so of private, professional concerns which could not be voiced for fear of losing tenure etc. A good resource for crtiqiues is post-autistic economics which was set up in 2000 by French students objecting to the irrelevance of economics

Friday, October 23, 2009

more recent influential books

The booklist I gave recently was, I failed to mention, of those books which had made a major impact on me at an earlier stage of my life – which, in a sense, shaped my attitudes. For example the powerful Camus and Koestler essays against capital punishment. So far I would add only one to the list EJ Mishan's "Costs of Economic Growth" (1967) which was a gentler Kohr critique and a forerunner to Schumacher’s writings on a different economics.
Tony Crosland’s books were elegant attacks on the inequalities of British society – but with a different “take” on how to deal with them than the build up of the state offered by the traditional left. Popper gave me the horror I have of an overbearing state – and people like Illich gave me my anarchistic streak. However it was Bernard Crick’s "In Defence of Politics" I suspect which persuaded me that politics was an honourable and necessary pursuit.
The collection of books therefore gave me both my political activism (as Brecht said – “So ist die Welt – und must nicht so sein”) – and some of the approaches which might be able to deal with the injustices (and inefficiencies) I wanted to deal with. For the first 22 years of my adult life I chose to pursue a political role – but at a local and regional level with my commitment to community development and community enterprise giving vent to the anarchistic element.
For the past 20 years, I have been operating as a consultant (although critical) – and perhaps reaching the point when I need to change/raise my game.

And I should now refer to the books/authors which have “spoken to” me in that last phase. My publicadminreform website http://www.freewebs.com/publicadminreform/mentions a lot of books – and has indeed several large bibliographies In “key papers”) which are worth looking at. But the following are the first which come to mind -
Stepen Covey; The Seven Habits of Effective People (1991) In the early 1990s this was the only management book which I could find translated into the various languages of central europe in which I was working – and therefore an ideal focus for some discussions.
Robert Greenleaf; On Becoming a servant leader (1996)
Charles Handy; all his writings
Paul Hawken etc Natural Capitalism – the next industrial revolution (1999)
Christopher Hood; The Art of the State (1998)
Will Hutton; The State we’re in; The world we’re in (2002)
David Korton; When Corporations rule the world (1995)
Ronnie Lessem; Management Diversity through cultural diversity (1998) and all his other books
George Monbiot; Captive State the corporate takeover of Britain (2000)
Guy Peters; The Future of Governing – four emerging models (1996)
Susan Strange; Mad Money – when markets outgrow governments (1998) Casino Capitalism etc
Theodor Zeldin; An Intimate History of Humanity (1998)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

living each day....

The snow melted very rapidly – and today is a typical blustery but bright autumn day. The wolves are already here – devouring this week a small foal. As I waited at the station for my significant other, I read Thomas a Kempis’ The Inner Life – thanks to Penguin’s Great Idea series. Very powerful! I was amazed to find this passage – “You should order your every deed and thought as though today were the day of your death.......each morning remember that you may not live until evening – and in the evening not assume to promise yourself another day"!
I remember being so impressed by Stephen Covey’s exercise in imagining that we were observing our funeral – and hearing what people were saying and thinking of us!

We do indeed need to celebrate the past much more – while remembering (as writers such as Marcus Aurelius and Tolstoy have emphasised) that we do and should live only in the present. I suppose this is one reason for this blog – wanting to put my thoughts in order – aware of my frustration at how little, for example, of my father’s thinking had been left in writing. I have a few of his notebooks – but they are either of journeys he took with his own father or lists of quotations that he could use in his sermons. It was the same with Geoff Shaw when he died – he had been so busy succouring the poor and, latterly, trying to put a new quality into politics that he had no time to write anything.
I am reading a very thoughtful book which I donwloaded recently – “Questions of business life” which is result of one churchman’s humble attempt to answer the question of what Christianity can offer to those in the middle of business affairs. It is both a helpful summary of relevant literature and theological principles and their application to dilemmas such as accountability (the stakeholder debate), corruption and alienation. The book came out of the discussions held at Ridley Hall - which is an Anglican theological college in Cambridge. Its primary task is training people for the ordained ministry, and part of the author’s job is teaching them courses in Ethics and Leadership. But Ridley has also spawned a number of projects which reflect a concern to relate Christian faith to key aspects of contemporary culture. Business was one of these projects - with many seminars on concrete issues facing businesspeople successfully held. 
I admire such retreats - I have been invited both to St George's Hall at Windsor and to the Ditchley Foundation for weekend sessions on Urban Regeneration.
One of the principles behind that last workshop (Jan 1989) was to bring people together from sectors which did not normally speak to one another. Religion; trade unions; military, for example, were represented. As a result of that weekend, I had an amazing day (and lunch) in New Jersey a year later - courtesy of Monsignor William Linder whom I had befriended at Ditchley. He ran a series of community initiatives there - one of which was a restaurant in a converted church! The Priory Restaurant. As we ate with some of his selected colleagues for a discussion, I learned the meaning of "companion" - con-pane - those you eat bread with. Just as Marlyn Fergusson taught me the meaning of "conspirator" - con-spire - "those you breath with"!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

a bible for our times

The outage lasted all day and allowed me therefore to read the entire Kohr book ("The Breakdown of Nations") - without the distractions of the internet! And what a book!! It pulsates with clarity, originality ...and wit.
Part of his argument is that – just as companies grow large and inefficient and have to be broken up by Monopoly Commissions – so have States grown to a size that makes them dangerous.

Remember he was an economist – and drafted the book in the early 1950s! He quotes the evidence there was even then that innovation came from small companies – and that decreasing returns of scale sets in early (evidence continues to accumulate that few company mergers are successful – and yet they continue).

In similar vein, he shows that cultural excellence was produced in small states – who may not have always been peaceful but whose wars with one another were short and limited in their damage. His early chapters are powerful statements that, when an organisation reaches the point of domination, it will always succumb to the temptation of aggression.

And he anticipates the contemporary arguments of writers such as Fridjof Capra and Margaret Wheatley about what students of organisations can learn from physics and the new insights into “chaos” – by a simple observation about “atoms”.

His main challenge, however, is to the principle of specialisation and you will find in chapter 6 – “The Efficiency of the Small”. There he is merciless in his critique of the “wealth” of the “modern” world – daring to suggest that most of is useless and counter-productive and that people were happier in medieval times! “The more powerful a society becomes, the more of its increasing product – instead of increasing individual consumption – is devoured by the task of coping with the problems caused by the rise of its very size and power

I always have pencilled underlines, ringed sections and exclamation marks in the good books I read – and my copy of this book is almost disfigured! Two insights I found particularly relevant – one which he produces as one of the reasons for the intense cultural productivity of the small state –
 “in a large state, we are forced to live in tightly specialised compartments since populous societies not only make large-scale specialisation possible – but necessary. As a result, our life’s experience is confined to a narrow segment whose borders we almost never cross, but within which we become great single-purpose experts”... “A small state offers the opportunity for everybody to experience everything simply by looking out of the window" – 
whereas a large state has to employ a legion of soi-disant experts to define its problems and produce “solutions”. The other striking comment he makes is –
the chief blessing of a small-state system is ...its gift of a freedom which hardly ever registers if it is pronounced.....freedom from issues....ninety percent of our intellectual miseries are due to the fact that almost everything in our life has become an ism, an issue... our life’s efforts seem to be committed exclusively to the task of discovering where we stand in some battle raging about some abstract issue... The blessing of a small state returns us from the misty sombreness of an existence in which we are nothing but ghostly shadows of meaningless issues to the reality which we can only find in our neighbours and neighbourhoods
Most people would probably see this as utopian – and yet its argument is ruthless and very much in what I would call the “realist” mode (one of the reasons why I was taken with several of the books in my earlier list). As he puts it at one stage in the argument –
many will object to the power or size theory on the ground that it is based on an unduly pessimistic interpretation of man. They will claim that, far from being seduced by power, we are generally and predominantly animated by the ideals of decency, justice, magnanimity etc This is true, but only because most of the time we do not possess the critical power enabling us to get away with indecency”.
This is the bible for both new management and the “slow-food” movement! The writing sparkles – and includes a good joke about a planner who, having died, is allowed to try to organise the time people spend in Heaven into more rational chunks of activity, fails and sent to help organise Hell. “I’m here to organise Hell”, he announces to Satan – who laughs and explains that “organisation IS hell”.

I once said that all courses relating to government should have Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the middle east on their reading list. This is a book which portrays both the victims of the slaughter and their families and also those in the Western bureaucracies – both private and public – who make the slaughter possible and ignored the lessons of history. Their words are closely analysed – and their actions held to account in a relentless way which restores one faith in journalism. I would now add Kohr’s book to that reading list – not least because it offers an answer to the question we ask from time to time “When will they ever learn?”

Bill McKibben's Deep Economy - economics as if the world mattered (2007) is another book which would be in that list (as well as Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma). I have a short comment on McKibben's book on my public admin reform site. Although he recognises Schumacher, Leopold Kohr gets no mention. Sad!