Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Strolling with my mother

We've been on favourite walks - to Dunlichity, to the head of the Nairn near Dog Rose and along the shore of the Moray Firth, on the remains of the old Inverness to Aberdeen Road and to Cromarty in the rain
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E-mail from my colleague Tony Bovaird re Paper on National Indicators for a Thriving Third Sector:
I'm delivering a paper at APPAM in November on some research we recently did on developing a national performance indicator for local authorities, which attempts to assess their contribution to the environment of local third sector organisations. It's a complex issue and I think it raises some important issues for those of us who work at the interface of public sector and third sector issues. I'm attaching a draft of the paper and would be delighted if you had any comments. I'm taking this chance to circulate you on the old School of Public Policy list server, as I notice that, peculiarly, it still lives on, after 1 August! Best, Tony
My reply:
Dear T. A bold piece of pioneering methodology. I wonder if it would pick up any of the diverse ways Birmingham City Council people have helped or hindered endeavours with which I've been associated as member or initiator over the past 30 years living in Handsworth? I see it as both a practitioner and as a part-anthropologist, part-historian, in terms of myriad incidents, some pivotal, and personalities, often near infathomable. The end results are measurable in cash for projects on the ground. Something happened because the LA or someone or some group in it exercised agency. I worry that the performance management approach keeps us, in this area, in the world of getting better at knowing the costs but no closer to knowing the values, better at assessing quantity but no closer to understanding let alone measuring things to do with quality. How would your method add to our understanding of what made the Good Friday Agreement look and feel like a success and other peace making initiatives not? Best S
Tony's reply:
Hi Simon. Interesting. I think that such indicators are not really very suitable for mega-authorities like Birmingham - they depend on a close relationship between the local authority and the local third sector (in general), which in a city of 1m is never going to happen. So, it's not a surprise that Birmingham has NOT chosen this to be one of its 35 target indicators! (Although it has chosen it to be one of its local priorities, which will feature much less strongly in the CAA judgement). You mention the influence of "myriad incidents, some pivotal, and personalities, often near infathomable" - that sounds very much like the kind of context in which complexity theory becomes an interesting approach - have you explored that? It's something I've been interested in for some time - it gives a very different flavour to evaluation activities! "The end results are measurable in cash for projects on the ground". In the case of Birmingham - but it's true of many, if not most LAs (though rarely so true as in Brum!) - the end results are MATCHED FUNDED projects on the ground but not normally major changes to mainstream budget allocations. This is one of the greatest puzzles - I think 'scandals' would be better - of modern UK local government. I'd love to find a way of exploring it further. "I worry that the performance management approach keeps us, in this area, in the world of getting better at knowing the costs but no closer to knowing the values, better at assessing quantity but no closer to understanding let alone measuring things to do with quality" I think this was true up to the 1990s but has long since not been the case. Actually, I think the opposite is now becoming a real worry - so many of our evaluations focus on quality, and few have any real handle on costs - this has been a major source of embarrassment for the 20 odd evaluations carried out in recent years for CLG under the LGMA Evaluation Partnership. I find it's less surprising to me now that the guy who first came to fame promoting Activity Based Costing is now the Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Bus School! "How would you method add to our understanding of what made the Good Friday Agreement look and feel like a success and other peace making initiatives not?" The approach outlined in this paper is not designed to do that, nor would I be very comfortable with a PI approach that looked at specific cases. The strength of PI-based approaches lies partly in the protection given by the 'law of large numbers' - major variations between 149 LAAs are generally unintended and therefore they are interesting to observe and explore. (Of course, when intended, that's fine - but then it's interesting to ask if they are generally as LARGE as was originally intended!). In exploring the narratives thrown up by such questioning, good explanations will often come emerge, from which we learn. But often it is a case of "fair cop, we should have been more careful/thoughtful/imaginative ... we will now attempt to influence the behaviour of our staff and partners to get this indicator back onto a more desirable trajectory". Looking at something like the Good Friday Agreement, we are dealing with specific cases and comparative performance indicators are of no interest. Of course, if we were to look at the ending of colonialism in Latin America in the 19th century or in Africa in the 1950s and1960s, there would be enough cases to make some comparisons interesting. Although I'm a bit sceptical of cliometrics (and I always regarded the Fogel-Fishlow dispute about pork barrels leaving New Orleans in the 1840s as the nearest Economic History ever gets to slapstick), I have been impressed by those historians who can use some statistics very tellingly - e.g. Braudel, Andre Gunder Frank, Putnam). Now, as far as quality goes, I'm enjoying reading Sennett's latest book - The Craftsman - but I'm a bit distressed that he never mentions Pirsig, whose ideas are so similar to his. What approach do you normally take to quality. Best from a sunny Tuebingen, after a super bike ride through the forest! Tony

This is a lovely reply. You touch on things I know and things I don't - and for the latter I'm grateful. Yes you reminded me of someone I did know of, but had not read for ages - Braudel. And yes, he does use loads of fascinating quantitative material to explain things about social and economic life that would have been passed over by narrative histories. I first came across this approach with Giedion's work 'Mechanisation takes Command'. I feel reproached that I had for a moment there suggested you put quantity before quality. You are way outside that old debate. Sorry. I have just come across - in Borders - amid biographies of Hitler and Kathy Price - a fascinating book about the work of the Audit Commission by Duncan Campbell-Smith. My mum had to drag me away to supper (I'm staying with her in the Highlands but we make forays into Tesco land for provendor). This isn't quite the scholarship we are discussing but it runs parallel to the efforts needed to sustain our understanding of what works and worked and what doesn't and didn't. Its esoteric unless you are in our area, but reading its last chapter (I have bought a cheaper used copy off the internet) I felt a buzz of excitement at the project of place shaping, of decentralisation and empowerment that went beyond the words and ideas sprinkled around so liberally by Hazel Blears and her people. Much of my early life my narrative histories taught me about the good that attaches to accruing power into the hands of competent government; the domesday book and Norman governance and the crowns control over wayward church courts, before that the Romans ('what have they ever done for us') with their great public projects, roads , aqueducts, city planning; the work of Henry VIII with Star Chamber, and then our (not yours?) Empire growing to protect our trade monopolies but accompanied by works even grander than the Romans. This is all from my Ladybird Books of history, right? Then I learned how often attempts to give away power were fraught with peril - among these was Gladstone's destruction of the Liberal Party over Home Rule and then - god help us - Partition. Against this we can balance rather poignant flag lowering ceremonies over numerous colonies that in many cases chose to remain in a Commonwealth, the spread of the franchise, and most recently the Scottish, Welsh and N.Irish Parliaments and Assembly - for which, but for Iraq - Blair would be most remembered. My point is that devolution and empowerment are projects fraught with hazard and risk. Delegation spares no delegator responsibility for its consequences. I now realise that allowing and encouraging greater choice at local level feels incredibly dangerous to our leaders. The Japanese taught me this when I was in Tokyo the other day and dared to give a talk (long planned) on 'England, its own last colony'. Of course Chris G had sensibly advised me not to use that title, so I spoke about the Challenge of Central-Local Relations in the UK, or something like this, and got a round of applause and lots of lovely chat after, from a group of high- flying civil servants. Of course decentralisation permeates modern democracies - but how do you prevent local choice exacerbating the gaps between rich and poor? I thought about depravity and deprivation and the US civil rights movement and the lurking 'folkish layer' that Thomas Mann describes underlying fascism, and the Balkans and the 'many headed monster', the mob. Is this something in my genes -this lack of trust in 'the people'? My great great grandfather Sir Henry Maine said 'Democracy is just another form of government', 'stop worshipping the people with the same fervour that royalists worship the king - as though they are the source of some divine right and have some innate wisdom'. He argued that democracy can only be made to work by the constant and ingenious application of well informed interventions to keep it working properly (Persig? Zen and the art of democracy maintenance?). 'Worst form of government - except for all the others' etc. Your research is in line with and supportive of the continuing work of the Audit Commission. It need not be the hammer of localism, but it can play a vital role in showing what works and what doesn't. It can hold the balance, especially when supported by endeavours like yours to measure the quality and quantity of support for third sector activity. These are methodologies for empowerment, inventions for the next stage of democracy. I sound like a Victorian believer in progress. Well yes I am! If that ex-market trader Lyons can come up with prescriptions for 'place shaping' he's a hero in this fragmented messy world! This is a fascinating journey and there's plenty of room for academics preoccupied with the minutiae. I guess this is why I subtitle my blog 'Democracy Street' - the banality of good (written in Greek). I'm back-referencing to Arendt's brilliant phrase for which she took so much flack - the banality of evil. I so want your research to pick up the gods of small things, small acts and connections, some recovery of Yeats' 'ceremonies of innocence', though we musn't - and can't - be innocent any more. Ceremonies of good governance at the level of the street, the neighbourhood, the village, the allotment, the bowling club, is what we need to invent. Peter W said everyone would have to work out their own Barnett Principle at local level before you could make a Local Income Tax work, and since we don't trust it at national level I do wonder ... Enjoy your holiday. Thanks for the chance to be confused aloud. Best, Simon (Scotland until 12 August)

Note: Much can be learned on the subject of giving away, receiving and taking power by study of the abandonment by Great Britain of the Corfu Protectorate in 1864. How I wish I could discuss this with Theotokis. or Gladstone.

[back to thr future: 1/01/09 I'm going to have to start digesting Jonathan Davies' thinking about hegemony vs. governance]

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