Archive for October, 2008

Performance Management Games

The news this morning has picked up on a very small part of a Natuional Audit Office report on PFI schemes in the Ministry of Defence (available at: http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/07-08/0708343.pdf).  It is an almost comical story.  The contract was to operate the MoD’s telephone systems through call centres.  A key target included the speed of response to calls.  To meet that target, some staff repeatedly rang each other to boost their performance.  I am not sure what the volume of calls will have been, but it probably made a marginal difference to performance.  Indeed, the effort of spending time ringing each other may well have had a more detrimental effect because, at the same time, they were presumably not answering genuine calls!  No wonder BT sacked them when they found out!

There is brief coverage of the story at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7698940.stm

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Justice Denied

Some time back, I wrote about the case of the Chagos islanders pursuing their right to return to their homes in the Indian Ocean (https://liverpoolmpa.wordpress.com/2007/05/30/slow-justice/).  I was wrong to call it slow justice.  It now looks like no justice from the UK.  I am no lawyer, but the case has involved the extraordinary use of the royal prerogative to override the courts.  If ever there were need for proof that our constitution is arcane and medieval, this appears to be it.

The full judgement can be read at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldjudgmt/jd081022/banc-1.htm.  It is evident that the five judges were split 3:2 on the issue on legal grounds.  There appears to be no disagreement as to the injustice being done.

A brief story has been posted on the BBC’s news pages: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7683726.stm.  It appears that the European Court of Human Rights may be the next port of call.  Doubtless a fuller discusion will follow.

The return of Marx and Keynes

On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 we had Eric Hobsbawn talking about a revival of interest in Marxism.  Apparently sales of Das Kapital are rising, even in the US.  If nothing else, that will soon finish off widespread interest in the subject – reading Das Kapital is hard work!

Flippant remarks aside, the discussion on news programmes has also been about the return of Keynesian economics.  Most obviously, Brown seems to be thinking of putting public money into building programmes (or at least bringing planned building programmes forward).  This is a classic Keynesian policy – use public resources in times of economic downturn to stimulate the economy.  The trouble in the past has been that government forgets to scale back its role during times of economic prosperity.  This, the argument goes, is where we ended up in the 1970s.  The welfare state had simply expanded beyond our ability to support it.

For years, teaching public administration and management has felt like giving a history lesson.  We have had to refer back to increasingly distant times – the 1970s and 1980s – to discuss the debates about the role of the state.  You could almost see students roll their eyes when we mentioned Margaret Thatcher and 1979.  So many students do not remember Margaret Thatcher resigning, let alone the events of the early 1980s.  Now it is suddenly topical again.  We can revive these discussions with daily updates as more and more banks are ‘nationalised’.

As we do so, we might also revive the other intellectual currents off that era.  We should not forget that there was a New Left, as critical of the state as the New Right, but for very different reasons.  For years, I have used Ramesh Mishra’s book, Welfare State in Crisis, as a good summary of thinking in the 1980s.  He presents a Marxist critique of the state and puts forward some alternative ideas.  It might be time to dust off these arguments and begin revising the way we teach the subject.  Suddenly, it all feels like it might be up for grabs again.

Interesting Times

Many commentators have compared recent state interventions in the banking sector as a return to Old Labour policies of the 1980s.  Others have referred to Trotsky and the old call for the state to take control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy – heavy industry and financial institutions.  These are interesting times indeed.

A good deal of blame is being thrown around.  Bankers have been heard recently blaming the lack of regulation.  The government should have stopped this.  They were responding to the rules and incentives that were set by government and are not to be blamed for the consequences.  The government, and even the Tory opposition, have pointed the finger at greedy bankers and have questioned the incentive structures, bonuses etc.  And, initially, a good number of Europeans and others suggested that this was a particular problem associated with an Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism – profit above all else.  Such grubby motives did not affect the more corporatist continental models of governance.

However, it is a little too easy to point the finger.  And there is a tendency for us, the general public, to look on as if it were nothing to do with us.  We are unfortunate victims off other people’s foolishness.  How can we ignore the fact that it is we who were taking out mortgages we could not afford?  Who is pointing the finger at us and out thirst to own property in the belief that, somehow, house prices will always rise?  Just as the consequences of the current crisis are complex and fall upon us all, so are the causes.  To blame a part of the system for the failings of the whole system is to misdiagnose the problem.

So where are we now going?  I have joked recently that the Masters in Public Administration will soon need to be teaching new subjects.  In particular, retail banking will be a new skill in demand in the civil service!  But on a more serious note, events will change a lot of discussions.  For many years, deregulation of the financial services sector has been a central demand made of developing countries seeking assistance and international aid.  Perhaps we might now see the taming of some of the ideologues that push these ideas.  Perhaps the WTO etc. will need to review the direction of change?  All is not right with the Anglo-Saxon and Western models.