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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!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Cultural Change - a neglected topic

Two issues have dominated my life – for the first 20 years what we in Scotland initially called (in the early 70s) “multiple deprivation” but which has subsequently become better known as “inequality”. Straddling then the worlds of politics and academia, I helped shape a social strategy which is still at the heart of the Scottish Government’s work 
In the 1990s , however,  I changed both continents and roles – and found myself dealing, as a consultant, with the question of how new public management and governance systems could be built in ex-communist countries which gave ordinary ordinary citizens in ex-communist countries a realistic chance to give vent to their voice and opinions – against the “powers that be”….. who rapidly were revealed to be …….the reinvented apparachtniki…..In a recent pessimistic post about the possibility of the Romanian political culture moving forward, I referred to the theory of path dependencywhich warns that formal institutions are shaped by informal group behavior which is deeply embedded in wider cultural values; and which easily undermines the rhetoric and good intentions of those who lead the institutions…

Until last week I saw these two strands of my life as very separate - but a conversation with a friend has made me realize that there is a profound cultural link between the 2 fields of work. I start by describing the culture of West of Scotland public agencies as I experienced them in the late 1960s and 1970s; then describe the 2 key organisational innovations some of us introduced to one of the UK’s largest public bodies in the mid 70s.
Readers will forgive me for going into some detail since these innovations have been neglected in subsequent social history…..I will take up the second part of the story in my next post 

In the early days people sometimes asked what, as a western consultant, I could bring to the task of crafting state bodies in such countries. They didn’t realise that, in many respects, Scotland was, until the 80s and 90s, culturally and institutionally, more socialist than countries such as Hungary. The scale of municipal power was particularly comprehensive in Scotland where the local  council still owned three quarters of the housing stock, 90% of education and most of the local services - including buses. Only health and social security escaped its control: these were handled by Central Government. Local government simply could not cope with such massive responsibilities (although such a view was rejected at the time).
This was particularly evident in the larger housing estates in the West of Scotland which had been built for low-income "slum" dwellers in the immediate post-war period -
- there were few services in these areas
- employment was insecure
- schools in such areas had poor educational achievement and were not attractive to teachers/headmasters
- local government officials were not trained in management : and treated their staff in a dictatorial way
·         who in turn treated the public with disdain

The contemptuous treatment given by local council services seemed to squash whatever initiative people from such areas had. They learned to accept second-class services. Behind this lay working and other conditions so familiar to people in Central Europe
- the culture was one of waiting for orders from above. There were few small businesses since the Scots - - middle class have tended to go into the professions rather than setting up one's own business
- work was in large industrial plants
- for whose products there was declining demand
- rising or insecure unemployment
- monopolistic provision of local public services
- hence underfunding of services - queues and insensitive provision
- hostility to initiatives, particularly those from outside the official system.
- elements of a "one-party state" (the Labour party has controlled most of local government in Scotland for several decades).

As a young councillor in the late 60s, I made an immediate impact by the way I mobilised tenants about the patronizing way they were being treated by the local municipality, I was lucky because, Labour having lost local power to a group of “liberals”, I had the freedom to flay “the system” with all my energies. In a sense I was giving the national liberals a taste of their own medicine since they were just beginning to invent a new form of “pavement politics”…..The community groups I worked with were very effective in their various projects concerned with adult education and youth, for example and one of the most powerful lessons I learned was how much many professionals in the system disliked such initiative.
But it was still a bit of a shock to realise how suspicious my own Labour colleagues were of the people they were supposed to support! Instead they echoed the reservations and criticisms of the officials. One of the things I was learning was the subtle and often implicit ways those with power made sure they kept control – whether in the formality of language used or in the layout of meetings.

I drew on this experience when, in 1977 I wrote a major article about community development – which was reproduced in a book of Readings about the subject in the early 80s
In 1974 I found myself in a lead role as new structures were set up for Europe’s largest regional authority;  - 
At the end of Strathclyde Region's first year of existence in 1976, a major weekend seminar of all the councillors and the new Directors was held to review the experience of the new systems of decision-making. The exhilarating experience a few of us had had of working together across the boundaries of political and professional roles first to set up the new Departments and second on the deprivation strategy was something we wanted to keep. And other councillors wanted that involvement too.
 Our answer was "member-officer groups" . These were working groups of about 15 people (equal number of officials and councillors) given the responsibility to investigate a service or problem area - and to produce, within 12-18 months, an analysis and recommendations for action. Initially social service topics were selected - youth services, mental handicap, pre-school services and the elderly - since the inspiration, on the officer side, was very much from one of the senior Social Work officials.
The council's organisational structure was also treated in this way in the late 1970s (the extent of external assistance sought was that every member of the group was given a copy of a Peter Drucker book as text!) - and a group on Community Development helped pave the way for the first local authority Committee for Community Development. And eventually, in the mid-1980s, even more traditional departments such as Education succumbed to this spirit of inquiry! 
The member-officer groups broke from the conventions of municipal decision-making in various ways -
- officials and members were treated as equals
- noone was assumed to have a monopoly of truth : by virtue of ideological or professional status
- the officers nominated to the groups were generally not from Headquarters - but from the field
- evidence was invited from staff and the outside world, in many cases from clients themselves
- it represented a political statement that certain issues had been neglected in the past
- the process invited external bodies (eg voluntary organisations) to give evidence
- the reports were written in frank terms : and concerned more with how existing resources were being used than with demands for more money.
- the reports were seen as the start of a process - rather than the end - with monitoring groups established once decisions had been made. 
The achievements of the groups can be measured in such terms as -
- the acceptance, and implementation, of most of the reports : after all, the composition and the openness of the process generates its own momentum of understanding and commitment !
- the subsequent career development of many of their chairmen
- the value given to critical inquiry - instead of traditional party-bickering and over-simplification.- the quality of relations between the councillors : and with the officials 
With this new way of working, we had done two things. First discovered a mechanism for continuing the momentum of innovation which was the feature of the Council's first years. Now more people had the chance to apply their energies and skills in the search for improvement.We had, however, done more - we had stumbled on far more fruitful ways of structuring local government than the traditional one (the Committee system) which focuses on one "Service" - eg Education which defines the world in terms of the client group: of one professional group and is producer-led. And whose deliberations are very sterile - as the various actors play their allotted roles (expert, leader, oppositionist, fool etc).
 As politicians representing people who lived in families and communities, we knew that the agendas of the Committees we spent our time in were not really dealing with the concerns of the public: were too narrowly conceived; and frustrated creative exchange. For this, we needed structures which had an "area-focus" and "problem focus". We were in fact developing them –
-       in the neighbourhood structures which allowed officers, residents and councillors to take a comprehensive view of the needs of their area and the operation of local services:
-       and in the member-officer groups.
 But they were running in parallel with the traditional system.The structures we developed gave those involved (not least the officials) a great deal of satisfaction.
The challenge, however, was to make those with the conventional positions of power (the Chairmen and Directors) feel comfortable with the challenges raised by the new structures. We were aware that our basic messages to professional staff - about (a) the need to work across the boundaries of departments; (b) the need for consultative structures in the designated priority areas; and (c) the capacity of people in these areas - represented a fundamental challenge to everything professional staff stood for.
This was expressed eloquently in an article in the early 1980s - "Insisting on a more co-ordinated approach from local government to the problems of these areas, trying to open up the processes of decision-making and to apply "positive discrimination" in favour of specific (poorer) areas challenge fundamental organising beliefs about urban government - viz the belief that services should be applied uniformly, be organised on a departmental basis; and hierarchically"
 What we were doing was in fact running two separate systems - a traditional one and a more innovative one which defied traditional lines of authority. The latter was more challenging - but, paradoxically, left with the younger officials and politicians to handle.  And, during the Eighties, more "alternative" systems were developed - such as 6 Divisional Deprivation Groups which to whom the Policy sub-Committee passed the responsibility for managing the urban programme budget in their area.

For 20 years – long before “cultural change” became fashionable - I was therefore in the middle of efforts to change organisational cultures. That helped me not only to see the world from other people’s standpoints but also to learn new skills of networking.
It was for this reason that the Head of Europe’s WHO’s Health Prevention Division commissioned me in 1990 to represent her on missions to the Health Ministries of the newly-liberated countries of Central and Eastern Europe (inc Russia).
So, when the EC started its programme of Technical Assistance (PHARE), I was one of its earliest and most experienced consultants – indeed, for the paranoic Poles, too experienced (all candidates were faulted for one of 2 reasons – knowing too little about Poland or knowing too much – or rather too many of the wrong people – after my work for WHO I was seen as falling into the second category!).

In my next post I will try to explore why changing the culture of public management and governance has not been taken more seriously in central Europe……

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