Saturday, June 07, 2008

'This is a part of reality that economists simply don't see' says Ross Gittins

I am not quite sure what to make of this article by Ross Gittins, one of the main economic writers for the Fairfax media in Australia. On the positive side I concur with the main thrust of the argument - and would welcome much more of this type of analysis here in Australia where neo-classical theory is hegemonic. My concern is that in writing about so called 'economic sociologists' he presents these ideas as if they are something new (it would appear that Neil Fligstein whose work he draws upon has been writing about this subject since at least the early 1990s) . Has Gittins not heard of institutional and new institutional economics ? Perhaps not because there are so few in Australia.

Gittins also appears to fall into the trap, common in Australia, for natural scientists and economists to label all other researchers and scholars concerned with the social dimension as 'sociologists'. In saying this I am not having a go at sociologists but at the lack of awareness amongst natural scientists and mainstream economists of the diversity within the social sciences and the
place of this scholarship for informing policy and practice, including research practice. This is not only true in Australia as the outcomes of a recent review of DEFRA science in the UK reports:

Social researchers being ‘overstretched’ by Defra

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] is overstretching its social researchers and undervaluing their contribution to policy making, a report has found.

Defra’s Science Advisory Council’s Social Science Sub-Group has criticised the department for defining social research too narrowly as “engagement or consultation”. It also reports that social research “was not always accorded equivalent status to other contributions, such as that from the natural sciences, to the evidence base for the policy cycle and research strategy”.

The social research capacity within the department is described as “not sufficient to meet the needs of existing or future Departmental policy objectives,” causing staff to be overstretched.

The group warns Defra that it must develop a clear strategy for the use of social research, including a dramatic change in culture that “challenges negative attitudes”.

The department should also increase the number of social researchers on its books and develop stronger links with the social science community, the report suggests.

Discount on John Seddon's book for readers of this blog

Following my posting on John Seddon's book I have been contacted by folk at Triarchy Press.

They are offering my ' blog readers a 20% discount on the full price of Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. In order to claim their discount, readers should enter tp20 in the promotional code field at the checkout'.

Friday, June 06, 2008

More sobering analysis .....but what of the action?

In today's paper:

'Water shortages could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves, a panel of global experts has told the Goldman Sachs "Top Five Risks" conference.'

Thursday, June 05, 2008

John Seddon's book should be an early Christmas present for all politicians

Like so many others I rejoiced when New Labour and Tony Blair were first elected. By the time of the next election I could not bring myself to vote for him or New Labour (not that I voted Tory either). By the time of his departure I was so relieved that we threw a party and invited all those friends who felt like us ...and it was a good crowd.

John Seddon in his book 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector' (Triarchy Press) gives a good account of all the reasons (Iraq aside) why I wanted to celebrate Blair's departure. Unfortunately most of the thinking and the practices his term spawned or perpetuated did not leave office with him. New Labour are in an intellectual mire of their own making. It is hard to imagine that they can break out of these profound conceptual and practical traps before the next election. And there is a great danger the new Australian government led by Kevin Rudd will import the same intellectual deficiencies. For one thing the brand of economic thinking which Seddon quite rightly criticizes is even more entrenched and perverse in Oz.

Here are some tasters from the book:

'[In the UK] 'bureaucracy and red tape' have driven public services in the wrong direction. The cost is not just the cost of the bureaucracy itself; there is an additional cost because the changes being mandated by the bureaucracy are the wrong things to do. The bureaucracy has made services worse, and public sector morale has been sapped'. (p. iv)

'We invest in the wrong things believing them to be the right things. We think inspection drives improvement, we believe in the notion of economies of scale, we think choice and quasi-markets are levers for improvement, we believe people can be motivated with incentives, we think leaders need visions, managers need targets, and information technology is a driver of change. These are all wrong-headed ideas. But they have been the foundation of public sector 'reform'. (p. iv)

The language of his text speaks to the frustration he has experienced and his appreciation of how the principles and practices of systems thinking could make things better. Throughout the text he refers to New Labour as 'the regime' which in the strict sense it is (regime means both the 'diet we are prescribed' and the 'system of government or rule') but I am sure his correct usage of the term will not win him friends in high places!

In his first chapter Seddon explores the ideological ground on which a lot of New Labour policies stand - as I outlined earlier this was a theme developed in Adam Curtis' three-part TV series 'The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom'.

Chapter 2 on 'choices' addresses a particular bete noir of mine and does it well. Take the following example:

'I recall being embarrassed watching a PMDU [Prime Minister's Delivery Unit] representative explaining to a Swedish public sector audience how people should be able to choose their treatment in the NHS [National Health Service]. The Swedes took the view that doctors would know best, and the patient would expect 'advice' not 'choice'. Now in a hole, the official hurried on to the view that 'choice meant choosing another hospital if the local hospital was too busy to treat them. The Swedes politely pointed out this was no choice (Hobson's choice); what mattered to patients was not making choices but getting their problem solved.'

There is also a lovely example of how in an attempt to emulate good practice from the Netherlands they fell into the trap of 'copying without knowledge rather than seeking first to understand the thinking and principles behind the original design'.

I look forward to reading the rest of the book. If you are feeling flush send a copy to your MP as an early Christmas present! If you do ask her or him why there is not more opportunity for learning and practising systems thinking in the UK.
The recursion of real-life and fiction... Barack Obama and the West Wing

I liked Justin Webb's 10 reasons Why Obama won. As a West Wing fan I was particularly struck by his 10th reason. Liberal fantasy or not ...the first phase has come to pass.

'1. He is black. Geraldine Ferraro has a point: Obama's individual story is important and his racial makeup - he is of mixed race - is a part of his appeal. Black people have rallied to him.

2. He is not black. He is also the first black presidential hopeful to run as a post-racial candidate (hence the upset with Ferraro). White people feel unthreatened by him.

3. He was not taken seriously. Oops. If the Clinton people had blown him out in Iowa, at the beginning of the process, he would be toast.

4. He is serious. This appears to be a serious year, in which Americans are deeply worried about the state of the nation, and Obama's slightly professorial demeanour looks a good fit.

5. He offers self-help and self-improvement. She offered a plan to make America better - he offers a plan to make Americans themselves better.

6. He promises change in a year when Americans are ready for change.

7. He is 46 and handsome.

8. He catches the attention of the media but is a hard target to attack - you look uncool to diss him (as Hillary has discovered).

9. Mark Warner - the former governor of Virginia, the other young anti-Hillary man - didn't stand.

10. Axelrod wrote the script. David Axelrod was an adviser to The West Wing and helped mould the character (Matt Santos) who succeeded Jed Bartlett. He based him on Obama and now Obama seems based on Santos. But either way, it was written... And it has come to pass...'