Learning from the past

We held a small event in Liverpool last week looking to the archives to learn about the development of the state over time (see: http://www.liv.ac.uk/state-admin/).  Papers went back into Pharaonic Egypt, through the Roman period, Abbasid Baghdad, early modern Netherlands and colonial and post-colonial Africa.  At face value, it seemed that we had pulled together an odd collection of speakers but the connections were very interesting indeed.  Throughout, though, we kept making links to contemporary events.  The struggle between the local and the centre, questions of politics and power that underpin administrative systems and the tensions between different ethical codes placed one on top of the other.

Bringing the discussion up to date, our final speakers issued almost a rallying cry for bureaucracy, not as caricatured but as a bulwark against worse.  Professor Michael Moss from Glasgow highlighted the role of records and of archives not as an unnecessary administrative burden but as the cornerstone to good decision making, organisational memory and justice.  Professor Paul du Gay from Copenhagen revisited Weber’s ideas of bureaucracy, reminding us that the bureau ethos is concerned with excluding personal prejudices and enthusiasms from the conduct of official roles as a fundamental underpinning of modern democrtatic states.

Challenging stuff when heard against the backdrop of cuts, of efficiencies and of turmoil in the public services.

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