Monday, 22 February 2016

Four frameworks to understand public service reform – a proposal

Public services tend to be seen as guarantors of well-being. Whether we think of education, healthcare or essential local services, it is generally agreed that public services, funded by taxation and available to people regardless of their ability to directly pay, play a role in protecting certain minimum standards. As soon as we move however beyond these basic assumptions, debates around public services become more antagonistic, with competing arguments regarding the most efficient use of public funds, the most effective modes of delivery and the main priorities of service provision. It is thus not surprising that reform plans for public services are subject to controversial and often contradictory claims as to what should be done, can be done and why.

It is one of the tasks of social scientists to reveal what lies behind such arguments and to hence analyse the material and ideological drivers behind social transformations or policy change. To do this well, it makes sense to rely on an effective combination of empirical research and theorising, with the latter being essential to reduce the complexity of social reality and to create frameworks, models and categories that help to foster a critical understanding of the social world surrounding us.

Based on empirical research of public service reforms and having taught this topic for several years, I would argue that we can identify four distinct ideational frameworks, which represent a coherent set of beliefs guiding public service reform. In this blog post, I would like to briefly introduce these four and invite any comments, either publicly or via email:

The social-holistic framework sees public services as deeply interwoven with the integrative fabric of a society, as institutions that tie social groups, individuals and communities together by establishing bonds of collectively organised mutual support and interdependence. The importance of public services goes beyond the practical, as they represent one major expression of how a society chooses to be organised along the lines of democratic inclusiveness as well as inter-generational and inter-personal solidarity. Public services are, from this perspective and in the words of Castel and Haroche (2001), a form of social property accessible to all citizens and residents.

The political-selective framework is equally embedded in material social relations, but it is less universal and comprehensive than the previous framework, as it focuses on the conflictual interplays between social groups. The shape and generosity of public services as well as the priorities of service delivery are determined by the ability of social groups and classes to influence the policy process and to make demands for service provision.

The economic-functionalist framework defines public services negatively, as a response to perceived gaps and distortions in the functioning of markets. Wherever market failures occur, a space for legitimate government intervention opens up to address said market failures, but the scope of public services remains generally restricted to those realms where market-based approaches, according to the theoretical premises of this perspective, appear as insufficient.

The moral-residual framework takes this thinking further, by stipulating that public services ought to provide nothing more than a minimum safety net for the poorest members of society, in other words for those who do not possess the economic or social capital to protect themselves, for example by purchasing private education or health insurance. It could be argued that this framework represents a sub-set of the economic-functionalist framework, if it weren’t for one substantial difference: Similar to means-tested benefits, users of these residual public services can potentially be subjected to a moralising discourse that defines any reliance on the minimum safety net as a sign of personal failure.

These four frameworks obviously need to be fine-tuned by further empirical research in order to create proper ideal-types, but I think they can serve well as a starting point for analyses that seek to identify how advocates of public service reform, be it political parties, think tanks or NGOs, conceptualise and act upon public services.

In this way, we can gain a deeper understanding of the underpinning ideas and interests that drive policy change in this particular field. Moreover, it becomes easier to identify broader trends in public service reform and to situate specific case studies within these trends, going beyond categories such as ‘choice and competition’ that are frequently used by observers and policy-makers to describe reform processes. And finally, frameworks like these, or adjusted versions of them, should enable us to shine a brighter spotlight on the intellectual premises that underpin debates about public services. It seems to me this critical engagement is crucial in times when the neoliberal and managerial paradigms of the past, despite their obvious flaws and failures, continue to restrict policy debates.

Enrico Reuter - follow me on Twitter

Castel, R. and Haroche, C. (2001). Propriété privée, propriété sociale, propriété de soi. Paris: Librairie Artème Fayard.

Friday, 5 February 2016

COP 21 – Managing complex international negotiations

The Paris Climate Agreement, adopted by 195 States in Paris on 12 December 2015, at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) of the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is certainly a victory for its host country, France. Observing the negotiations from the side-lines, as observer organisations did not have access to the negotiation room, I found the set-up of the conference, led by its President Laurent Fabius, fascinating, in particular seeing it from the angle of change management. This article comments on what was done in Paris to bring states so divergent in their opinions to an agreement. 

The COP 21 – also called the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference – took place in Le Bourget near Paris from 30 November to 12 December 2015. The Paris Agreement was finally adopted in the early evening of the 12th. The Agreement will be deposited at the UN in New York and be opened on 22 April 2016 – Mother Earth Day – for one year (till 21 April 2017) for signatures by states. The agreement will enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

The draft agreement and decision document shared at the end of the first week of COP 21 was 43-page long and with hundreds of brackets indicating text still to be agreed. Considering the ambitious aim of finding an agreement that is legally binding, balanced and far-reaching, managing negotiations between 195 countries over two weeks seemed extremely challenging for the COP 21 Presidency and the UN.

In my view, it was a clever move of Fabius to set up at least three levels of negotiations: On the highest level, an Indaba-style meeting for parties to speak openly about their “red-lines” and trade-offs; on a technical level, a gathering of 17 ambassadors to facilitate the negotiations in different areas; and finally the COP 21 as a comprehensive process with seven meetings of the ‘Committée de Paris’, which gathered parties and observers, ensured the transparency of negotiations and promoted a common understanding of the progress made in the negotiation. During its meetings, parties could express their views on the draft text, while the COP21 President and his facilitator-ambassadors shared the information on the negotiation of the text. Keeping participants of COP21 as a whole – parties and observers – in the loop through the meetings of Committée de Paris and their presence in the same room facilitated the advance of the negotiations. It provided opportunities for parties and observer organisations to discuss key questions, and the latter could exercise advocacy through bilateral meetings as well as exercise public pressure outside of the conference halls.

It is also worth noting that to break through barriers that seemed to prevent progress during the first week, Fabius played a role as change manager to harness good will from all 195 states to advance the negotiation. The four core managerial competences that are essential for the effective management of change as proposed by Carnall (2003, as cited in Burnes, 2014) had been applied by Fabius in this context: decision-making, coalition-building, achieving action, and maintaining momentum and effort.

Decision-making: As described above, Fabius had been successful, by establishing various communication mechanisms, to advance negotiations of the draft text. Decisions were made step by step and progress was shared timely and publicly, to pave the way to reach a consensus at the end of the process.
Coalition-building: Since having taken over the presidency, Fabius had travelled and met with key governments for lobbying. More than 100 countries– including the richer ones (the ‘polluters’) and the poorer ones (the ‘vulnerable’) – had joined the ‘High Ambition Coalition’, an initiative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum. This Coalition had been formed in secret and was revealed only on the eighth day of COP 21, when it spoke out strongly in favour of an agreement. The Coalition also played an essential role in persuading parties with a recalcitrant attitude and in reducing the number of agreement-resistant states.
Achieving action: During the 2nd week of the negotiation at COP21, Fabius demonstrated confidence in achieving an agreement – and not just a mediocre agreement – and in the actions taken by the group of high-level facilitators supporting him in the process, including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which were two difficult parties to be convinced to form an agreement. By inviting them to be facilitators, they shared their responsibilities to produce results for the negotiation to move forward.
Maintaining momentum and effort: During the 2nd week, the process was full of suspense and Fabius’ skilful navigation through the negotiation, for instance by ensuring transparency regarding the advancement of the draft text and by proposing mechanisms to include not only parties but also observers, has enabled parties to engage well in negotiations and to reach a consensus. It seemed to me that the perseverance and patience of Fabius were decisive in this tricky process.

So, what has changed since the COP negotiation failure in 2009 in Copenhagen to facilitate this consensus of Paris in 2015? There may be less denial of the fact that climate is changing; decision makers and politicians might be more aware of impacts of climate change in their countries; the general public could have been awakened by catastrophic effects of climate change and may ask  for better responsibility and accountability of their public authorities; just to mention a few. Nevertheless, the organisation behind the scenes by the President of COP 21, Laurent Fabius, in addition to the efforts made by the Secretary General of the United Nations since 2010, was a key determinant of this success. 

On a personal note, I also found that the practical organisation of COP21 was of a high standard. During the two-week long conference, for example, relaxing rooms were at the disposal of delegates to rest a while after days and nights spent in negotiations; food from different regions of the world was provided to delegates far away from home; and shuttle bus services operated night and day between the conference venue and hotels. How can delegates not appreciate all the efforts made by France to reach an agreement in Paris?

Burnes, B. (2014). Managing Change. Sixth edition. Pearson Education Limited.