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Monday, November 29, 2004

There's no place like home....

A few thoughts about Kansas as I work through Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas book.

I taught at the University of Kansas for eight years during the 1980s, and Lawrence was the family's "home" for about ten. My kids regard Lawrence as their "hometown," and we still think of the place and the people with fondness. In fact, from all I hear (I have not visited in awhile -- at least a decade), the city and its environs have become the western suburban edge of the Johnson County growth area -- and quite "the" place to live.

The picture that Frank (who comes from the upscale Mission Hills area of the Kansas City area -- the once wealthiest part of Johnson County) paints of the Johnson County suburbs is not surprising and reinforces the image of the kind of upscale sprawl that has developed at the suburban edge in many US cities.

What is shocking, however, is his description of what's taking place in the rest of Kansas. During the mid-1970s we lived in Emporia, Kansas for two years, a small city (dwarfed by Topeka to the north and Wichita to the south, but bigger than most towns). It wasn't a bad place to live and raise kids, and the people were incredibly nice. But its size and isolation gave us all the incentive we needed to move up the academic ladder by publishing our way out of there (next stop as Chicago before our return to Kansas). Emporia had a significant place in US history as perhaps the symbolic center the Progressive Movement (at least the Teddy Roosevelt version), and it retained much of the charm associated with Judge Hardy's America. Its main street (Commercial Avenue, as you might expect for a city named "Emporia") was not the most vibrant place. On very hot days you could literally see the heat rise from the pavement as you looked toward the horizon from the from the university (actually the state teachers' college) that stood at one end of the wide thoroughfare. But it certainly was not in the kind of condition described by Frank in his overview of small town Kansas.

Frank's comment, as he instroduced Emporia as his main example of the condition of Kansas' economy, was "this is a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay" (59)

I was reminded immediately of what is perhaps the most famous comment made about New York City (and big city America in general) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As it happens, the comment was made about another place I've lived, the Brownsville/East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn (I was born and raised there). Taken on a tour of the area by Mayor John Lindsay of New York, Boston's mayor, Kevin White, characterized what he saw as "the beginning of the end of civilization."

There are all sorts of "reflections" running through my head at the moment -- some personal and some more "analytic." It does seem that the past forty years has been a period of transformation when it comes to regional economic conditions. Small town America (as opposed to suburban America) has replaced the inner city as the most desolate of social spaces, for while the infamous Brownsville/East New York neighborhoods of the US are far from "revitalized," they seem to be benefitting from the overall "come back" made by New York and other major cities over the past two or three decades. In the meantime, it is the Emporias of middle America that have become the country's socioeconomic basket cases.

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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Shifting centers....

Yesterday's Guardian book section included Chris Patten's review of Jeremy Rifkin's The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream". Situated as I am on the northwesterly edge of Europe (as I have been for the past 15 months), I was not surprised by the Rifkin thesis, nor by Patten's brief but positive observations about the trend.

Patten is well qualified in this respect. The new chancellor of Oxford has just completed a term as an EU commissioner and is well known for his work in Northern Ireland and as the last British governor of Hong Kong. His agreement with Rifkin's arguments (qualified by some cautions) confirmed some of my own feelings that I am currently residing on the "sunny side" of the Atlantic (think attitude, not weather).

I suspect my perspective is a reflection of the recent election results and the continuous flow of negative news coming out of Iraq as well as Washington. Nor does my current reading (Roth's The Plot Against America and Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?) foster a more optimistic outlook. But even beyond those political and "cultural" factors, my view of a "shift" toward Europe is being influenced by much of the scholarly work I am reading in my "field," which I generally define as ‘governance-relevant’ studies (and which is meant to include public administration, public management, public and global affairs, accountability, etc.). I think an argument can be made that the intellectual center of political and administrative studies (broadly defined) is in the process of moving away from the US. In some areas, the shift has been toward Australian and New Zealand where public service delivery has been seriously transforming itself for nearly a quarter century; but it is also clear that some of the best and most interesting work in the study of governance and public affairs has been coming out of Europe.

I can think of a number of reasons for this. Some of it, I believe, is due to gradual adoption of American paradigms and their adaptation to European contexts. This is especially the case in the field of public administration where more "political" and "managerial" approaches have replaced the law-based and more formalistic perspectives that dominated European views of administration for decades. But more important has been the "pull" of European interdisciplinary work on issues of governance and the delivery of public services. The expansion of the EU and the spread of New Public Management have combined to generate a demand for more information and new perspectives that are just not within the purview of contemporary American-based frameworks. Moreover, the institutional support for this work is significant at all levels in Europe. In my own case, each week I am notified of opportunities for funding and networking at the local (Northern Ireland), national (UK), cross-border (Ireland-NI), and EU levels. Add to this the growing emphasis on accountability in higher education throughout the EU (i.e., more pervasive and formalized versions of "publish or perish"), and you have all the factors in place for that intellectual shift toward Europe.

I believe this is a healthy development for governance studies and its associated fields in the US, not only because it challenges some of our more parochial approaches to public affairs, but also because it should force us to cross more of our own intellectual (both disciplinary and methodological) boundaries as we are exposed to the richness of governance-relevant studies in Europe and the Pacific Rim. We already see some cross-fertilization as the number of non-US editorial board members on the major US journals in public administration and public management increase, and as more of us pay attention to the leading non-US journals in our fields (thanks to the expansion of access via e-journal collections).

My fear is that these observations are merely the blathering of an increasingly unapologetic Europhile....

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Shall we dance?

One of the more entertaining half hours on local TV in Northern Ireland for political junkies is BBCNI's Hearts and Minds. This is a programme (note the UK spelling! I may not come home with the brogue, but my Word settings are definitely reset) with an attitude, e.g. the most recent lead in at the web site:

With the DUP and Sinn Fein keeping schtum about the proposals the governments have given them, we engage in what Gerry Adams calls unhelpful speculation.

And speculate they do. The host is Noel Thompson, perhaps one of the sharpest news interviewers I have ever seen. Commentary (accompanied by some wonderful caricatures of local pols) is provided by Danny Morrison.

There is obviously enough material for both to work with in tracking the on-again, off-again negotations over the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. But they also spread their wings into other topics, e.g., the competition between Belfast and Lisburn over which will be the major retail center for Northern Ireland. Believe it or not, this is really great stuff. So I say to my US colleagues: take a break from Fox News and CNN and "tune in" to Hearts and Minds....

PS: Keep your ear tuned to the taxi driver commentary at the end of each show....

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Moving things along....

It is interesting to watch the shifting place of "accountability" in the negotiations for an agreement to end the suspension of the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Taking a step back from the immediate situation and viewing the current proposals in historical perspective, what we see is that the salient, deal-breaking demands for accountability have shifted from a focus on the past to an emphasis on the future.

Speculating on what solutions are being considered in this latest round of negotiations is just that -- speculation. But among the issues of accountability that have been stressed by the DUP is reflected in its stand of victims of the Troubles-era violence. From their perspective, discussions about victims must highlight those who suffered as a result of IRA actions, and the party's platform seems adamant that the rights of those individuals and families be given priority and special consideration and not be merged into some general pool of "victims of the Troubles." This is reflected in calls for investigations and prosecutions into unsolved acts of violence (the DUP figure is 2000, although media reports suggest the number is closer to 3000), with an accompanying pullback to the promise of a general amnesty. This is also stressed in their stand on reparations to victims of the Troubles, taking a strong position against programs that are as (or more) likely (in their estimation) to provide compensation to "rehabilitate terrorists."

On the nationalist side, there is a no less adamant stance on dealing with past injustices, but the view of legitimate victimization claims is quite different from the DUP’s. Sinn Fein's position is expressed in a 1995 document in which it declares that "Parity of esteem must extend to all the victims and their communities. To say that there have been victims on all sides is not some trite piece of propaganda but a recognition of reality. Republicans recognise that there have been victims on all sides - victims of British forces as well as British soldiers and RUC members, nationalists as well as unionists." The SDLP accepts a broad definition of victimhood, and uncritically takes note of a position expressed by in one official report that avoided the term "victim" altogether and instead spoke of those "affected by the civil unrest."

Indicaitons are that the emerging agreement will deal with these different demands for accountability for past injustices, at least in regard to compensation. The talk of a £1 billion funding package for the new agreement is probably aimed at addressing the reparation issue, and there is ongoing talk about funding more investigations as well as establishing a truth and reconciliation process.

But what seems increasingly clear is that these “hot button” and very emotional issues related to accountability for past injustices have been effectively moved to the background (at least for the moment) in order to make room for discussions about accountability for the future actions of a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive.

Under the current arrangements, the appointments of the dozen or so ministerial posts are subject to individual negotiation (once the First and Deputy First Ministers are selected) within the complex political matrix of Northern Ireland's Assembly -- a system I am still trying to figure out (this is one subject that is not helped by a Google search). What is clear is that some form of collective vote on a "ministerial package" (similar to the EU Commission appointments approach -- which has been making headlines in recent weeks) is on the negotiating table, with the expressed intent of supposedly given the Assembly greater leverage over the government.

Whatever the details, it is interesting to see how a shift in focus on accountability issues seems to be playing a key role in moving the process along….

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Monday, November 22, 2004

A modern alchemy....

Accountability is real. It is a necessary and undeniably important part of our modern existence.

It is the claimed capacity for accountability to magically transform social behavior and relationships into some desirable state that demands skepticism and requires careful examination.

Democracy, justice, ethical behavior and effective performance do not just emerge by putting in place mechanisms that require or imply account-giving actions. Yet that is the assumption -- an alchemist perspective -- standing at the center of every form of administrative and programmatic reform put forward by those who advise or conduct governance at every level of political and corporate life.


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Sunday, November 21, 2004

We feel your pain....

For those "accountability" junkies like myself, the current controversy at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is just one more ambulance to chase. The difference here is the degree to which the divisions within the agency are being exposed to public view. From the various reports and photos taken at the Senate Finance Committee hearing, you can see the stunned looks on the faces of folks from FDA and the drug industry who sat next to David Graham as he bluntly called the regulatory process at his agency "broken" and spoke of at least five approved drugs which might be as risky as Merck's painkiller, VIOXX, the subject of the hearings. It seems as if all were unprepared for this public airing of the agency's internal divisions.

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It's all about governance....

A few posts back I promised some reflections on Colin Powell and the nature of military style accountability. So here it goes....

In my work on accountability, I've attempted to explore some of the "cultural" and organizational variations on the norms and rules surrounding formal and informal account-giving behavior. And among the most distinctive are found in the US military. I assume that surprises no one, for it's always been taken for granted that even (or especially) in a democracy, the operating values and norms of the armed services would be different from the "civilian" side of the state. What is surprising to most, however, is the nature of that difference, for it is not the military's hierarchicalism or reliance on discipline that stands out, but rather its professionalism and status as a "moral community".

Powell's career and character as a public servant has been a manifestation and reflection of that distinctive form of accountability, and that is why I find him a compelling "case" for study. What we know of his character comes mainly from the news coverage and myths that have built up around Powell's life, and a good deal of that can be attributed to Bob Woodward's work over the past 14 years. From The Commanders to Plan of Attack, Woodward has documented the "inside story" of decisions from the Panama invasion and first Gulf War to the current war effort in Iraq. Powell, while not necessarily the focal point of these works, is the most interesting and intriguing personality in them. The image that emerges is that of an engaged infighter who does not hesitate to take a stand during the debates; but also a "good soldier" who, once the decision is made, salutes and carries out his orders with dedication.

Such is the image of the generation of "general officers" who took the helm of the US military in the post-Vietnam era. Journalist James Kitfield offers the best single portrait of this group and their development in Prodigal Soldiers, a book that deserves much more attention than it has received. The focus is that group of field-level officers (i.e., majors, colonels) in Vietnam who took over a demoralized military and rebuilt it from within during the late 1970s. Kitfield''s narrative not only focuses on the individuals (Powell is only one of those featured, but as much attention is given to Berry McCaffrey, Schwartzkopf and others) but also the emerging doctrines and attitudes that would eventually find expression in what is today called the Powell Doctrine. [Originally articulated as the Weinberger Doctrine -- after Powell's boss at DoD under Reagan -- it is notable for not being followed in Iraq.]

The nature and power of accountability in this military culture needs more exploration, but in many respects it is far different from the forms of accountability found in the civilian sphere or in other arenas of governance in the US (e.g., corporate). For one thing, it is far less hierarchical and litigious and a great deal more dependent on socialization into a community-based code of conduct. It is much closer to the legendary Japanese culture of corporate accountability, and thus difficult for "outsiders" to grasp. [When attempting to teach the difference to my students, I rely on "A Few Good Men, a movie (and play) best known for Jack Nicholson's "you can't handle the truth" speech.]

Bottom line: if we are going to understand the behavior and choices of the Colin Powells of the world, we need to enhance our understanding of the role of accountability in the military. Thus, the same knowledge that will help us deal with the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the recent events in Fallujah, can give us insight into the decision making that put those troops there. Those who think accountability is just about democracy, transparency, ethical behavior etc., etc. miss the point. It's all about governance.

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Saturday, November 20, 2004

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

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Friday, November 19, 2004

A 'foxy' moment for the UK constitution

Still another distraction in the news yesterday was an event in the UK Parliament that might just emerge in the history books as one of those 'constitutional moments' that will transform British politics for the coming decades. And its all about hunting foxes....

For those in the US who might not be following all this, for the past several years the House of Commons and the House of Lords have been at odds over the future of hunting with dogs -- a 700 year old tradition that most of us associate with images of men (and women) dressed in red coats and wearing funny hats, riding horses across fields and jumping over fenses in pursuit of a pack of hounds who, in turn, are in pursuit of foxes (or other game, as it turns out). As of February 18, 2005, this long time tradition will be banned in England and Wales (but still legal in Northern Ireland; it was banned earlier in Scotland).

So what does this have to do with the British constitution? Well, in order to get the ban through Parliament, its advocates in the Commons (a majority) had to overcome the oppostion of the House of Lords which had failed to support the legislation. This meant invoking the 1911 Parliament Act (amended in 1949), which contained provisions that allowed the Commons to pass legislation over the opposition of the Lords. Here is the relevant provision (2.1):

"if any Public Bill ... is passed by the House of Commons [in two successive sessions] (whether of the same Parliament or not), and, having been sent up to the House of Lords at least one month before the end of the session, is rejected by the House of Lords in each of those sessions, that Bill shall, on its rejection by the House of Lords, unless the House of Commons vote to the contrary, be presented to His Majesty and become an Act of Parliament on the Royal Assent being signified thereto, notwithstanding that the House of Lords have not consented to the Bill..."

Yesterday, the Speaker of the House of Commons 'invoked' section 2.1, and the hunting ban bill was sent forward for 'Royal Assent'.

The anti-ban forces (led by The Countryside Alliance) has already filed suit in the High Court to challenge this action on several grounds, including that the Parliament Act as amended is itself unconstitutional, but even if it is, that it was not intended to be used in matters of 'personal conscience.' Failing that, they plan to challenge the ban as a violation of their rights under the European Union human rights laws.

If the Countryside Alliance wins on any of these points, it could amount to what Bruce Ackerman terms a 'constitutional moment' in the sense that it would mark a watershed point in how the British understand and apply their constitution principles. If their victory is based on a human rights judgment in the European courts, this can prove to be a constitutional moment for the EU as well....

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Distractions, part two: Belfast and 'Titanic Bill'

After posting on yesterday's distraction (the talk by George Mitchell), I sat down to read today's newspaper, and once again was confronted with reminders of the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish and UK press is filled with stories about the recent flurry of meetings and consultations on resolving the stalemate that keeps devolved governance 'in suspension.' This is the stuff of headlines the world over, but interestingly it generates little more than indifference among the locals. Perhaps it's a way of avoiding the disappointment that seems to have accompanied most developments along the peace process road.... For most people here, the fact that the violence is now held in check seems accomplishment enough....

The other notable story comes out of Little Rock where folks gathered yesterday for the opening of the Clinton presidential library. All news stories indicate that the Agreement has proven to be among the most important legacies of Clinton's eight years. The highlights of the speechmaking and entertainment included Bono's comments about Northern Ireland and U2's rendition of Sunday Bloody Sunday. There was also Clinton's remarks aimed at Bush, implying that he would do well to leave the same kind of legacy by helping bring about an agreement in the Middle East.

And then there George W's inadvertent reference to Northern Ireland in his comment about how Clinton's aides were in awe at their boss's resilience during the darkest times of his Administration: "if Clinton were the Titanic," they would say, "the iceberg would sink." For those who were not aware of this bit of trivia, the Titanic was built in Belfast....

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A peaceful distraction

The past two days have been filled with "distractions" that have kept me from expanding on my points on the three 'military' stories highlighted a couple of posts earlier. [It is strange how quickly this 'blogging' task has become so central to my agenda that other (and far more interesting and important) things have now become 'distractions'.] It looks like it will be awhile before I get back to thoughts about Colin Powell and Fallujah.

In the meantime, more about one of those distractions.

Yesterday a number of us from Institute of Governance at Queen's University attended a lunch event featuring a 'lecture' by George Mitchell. Here is an individual of many roles and titles. He is introduced as "Senator" reflecting his years in Congress as the senator from Maine (the last couple as majority leader); but around Queen's he would be introduced as "Chancellor" (a figurehead position he has held here since 1999), and in the world of the Disney Corporation as "Mr. Chairman".

In Belfast and Northern Ireland, Mitchell is known more for what he accomplished than for any of his titles, for he is credited with having brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that proved to be a watershed point in the recent history of NI.

The 'lecture' itself was really little more than remarks sprinkled with anecdotes, but that was enough for the assembled group of 200 or so invited guests. There is a real 'connection' between Mitchell and the people of NI. As he tells it, when he came in 1994 at the request of Clinton to see what the US could do to help put an end to the violence associated with the Troubles, he expected to go home in a couple of weeks. The result was a five year stay in Belfast and intermittent extended visits ever since -- more to help sustain the implementation of the Agreement than to perform his symbolic duties as QUB chancellor.

I have been in Belfast since September 2003, but it is clear that what has taken place over the past five or six years has been transformational. The Agreement, even if not fully implemented (and even with major aspects of its governance provisions “in suspension”), has come to represent a pivotal historical point of change. At the surface level, at least, there are few signs of the tensions and divisions that made Northern Ireland a part of our daily news in the US for so many years. By spending all my time within the narrow corridor from the Botanic area of Belfast to City Centre, I managed to live here for several months without seeing a peace wall, ‘interface zone’ or any of the infamous murals that have now become a favorite photo op for Black Taxi tourists. Instead (and with the exception of the weather), I found this to be a charming place populated by wonderful people. (My line was, “I expected Beirut and got Boston”). I was soon brought back to reality when several new friends took me on a tour outside my little corridor -- and it was only then that the reality of the past became evident. This is a place filled with memories that will not disappear just because some peace agreement was brokered. That is the major theme that ran through Mitchell's talk, and it characterizes his approach to Northern Ireland and the other regions where he has tried to replicate his Good Friday efforts.

So while the 'lecture' was a disappointment for its substance, it was still of interest for a skeptic like me who every so often needs to be reminded that there are times when individuals (with a lot of help from their friends and enemies) can make a difference. Although Mitchell made clear in his remarks, it isn't an easy task.

Finally, two specific points made by Mitchell should be highlighted. One, slipped in during his remarks, highlighted the strong role played by women in the NI peace process. The second, in response to a question about the Middle East situation, spoke to the role that war weariness plays in the peace process. Obviously the points are related, and I assume (or at least hope) that someone is examining just what that relationship might be....

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It's the way things work around here....

There is something in the Anglo-Scottish-Irish character that we Americans admire, but it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint just what that is. Anecdotes are the best means for making the point, and a story in this morning’s Guardian (about the BBC and some sailor off the coast or Scotland) seems to say it well.

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Into the Petri dish....

These have been pretty heady days for an accountability bloke when it comes to the news. Three stories related to individuals associated with the military can provide enough material for days of reflections on this weblog, and I am finding it hard to resist long discussions of each.

The first is the resignation of Colin Powell, an individual who I believe personifies the demands and dilemmas of accountability. While I’ve always been on the lookout for an interesting event or situation to study, I’ve often thought of him (and some others from that post-Vietnam cadre of general officers) as a living, breathing case study. And at the heart of his approach to accountability is his background as a soldier. More on that later….

The second story is the latest horror story of the behavior of US military forces in Iraq. This time it is the shooting in a Fallujah mosque of “a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi insurgent” that was caught on video by an embedded news crew. While we are hearing today from the “war is hell” crowd courtesy of the US media, what I find more relevant was the official response from the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force: "We follow the Law of Armed Conflict (under the Geneva Convention) and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability. The facts of this case will be thoroughly pursued to make an informed decision and to protect the rights of all persons involved." Again, more on that to follow.

Finally, there is a piece in today’s New York Times about the resistance of some 2000 military veterans who, under their “inactive reservist” status, are still subject to being called into active duty as part of the US “Individual Ready Reserve.” According to the article, these vets “are seeking exemptions, filing court cases or simply failing to report for duty, moves that will be watched closely by approximately 110,000 other members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a corps of soldiers who are no longer on active duty but still are eligible for call-up.”

As someone obsessed with issues of accountability, I see each of these stories through a peculiar lens. Obviously, military cases are special and perhaps unique when it comes to questions of accountability, and it can be argued that the insights gained by studying these individuals or events would hardly be applicable to the mundane, everyday business of governance that (in the long run) is what we really need to better understand. My position is just the opposite. If the military represents anything, it is the “ideal” (in the Weberian sense) setting for comprehending the central role of accountability in modern governance. Focusing in on the lives of individuals like Powell or the resisting vets -- or situations like the horrors of Abu Ghraib or Fallujah – is like putting a specimen of accountability and governance on a Petri dish for closer examination.

The case of the called-up vets can help make my point, for there is more involved here than merely some anti-war, anti-military sentiments. The figures themselves are interesting. Of the more than 4000 called to active duty, some 1800 have filed for exemptions; of the remaining, only 733 showed up as ordered for re-training on November 7. Given these numbers and the nature of the group (after all, these are folks who had already served in the military), one wonders about the core reason for this reluctance (a term I think more appropriate than “resistance”). There are all sorts of things that can be said about the individual lack of responsibility, legal obligations, etc. But I suspect that most of the reluctance comes down to the fact that these folks take seriously the distinction between their “private” lives as civilians and the very “public” life of someone in the military. By this distinction I am not focusing on issues of “privacy”, etc., but rather the fact that by reentering the military they are submitting to a system of governance ruled by (rather specialized) norms of public accountability as opposed to being governed by the necessities and reproductive functions of the private household. Two paragraphs from the NYT article make the point quite nicely:

"I consider myself a civilian," said Rick Howell, a major from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who said he thought he had left the Army behind in 1997 after more than a decade flying helicopters. "I've done my time. I've got a brand new baby and a wife, and I haven't touched the controls of an aircraft in seven years. I'm 47 years old. How could they be calling me? How could they even want me?"

Some former soldiers acknowledge that the Army has every right to call them back, but argue that their personal circumstances - illness, single parenthood, financial woes - make going overseas impossible now.

A key point is that we are talking about a substantial difference. Being accountable in the public realm is more than merely being answerable or responsible or loyal or faithful. Those are standards for behavior as relevant and appropriate for the private as they are for the public arena. But entering into a system of public sector governance – into the “public service” – demands a transformation of one’s behavior of such magnitude and significance that we can understand why many of those veterans – even those who served many years and achieved high rank – would be reluctant.

It is that point of distinction that makes the military, and those who serve in it, such an interesting focus for attention. It is why all three cases deserve some attention….

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Red Poppies and Remembrance

Among the more noticeable accoutrements of British attire this time of year are the omnipresent paper poppies seen on the lapels of every suit jacket or dress. This is the symbolic "red corn poppy" of commemoration, and the narrative that explains its use around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday in the UK is more elaborate than one might expect.

But as interesting are the feelings the red poppy evokes in Ireland, and in Northern Ireland in particular. For some insight on this, see the commentary posted by a weblog colleague at Neither Indifferent Nor Sceptical.

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Ideal Government Project

Being new to this “weblog” business (and having much of Sunday in Northern Ireland with time on my hands), I began exploring what’s “out there” that might be relevant to my own interests. One of the most interesting hits was a weblog at, which its main blogger (William Heath) describes as “a web user's antidote to personal frustration with public services.” Good enough, but making things most attractive is the blog’s “Ideal Government Project” (ok, IGP from now on)-- and I immediately decided to join up.

The project modus operandi is simple enough: “1. Observe and record precisely what happens, and 2. what the ideal encounter should have been like.” My immediate reaction: Brilliant!

When I think about the general literature in American public administration, two books that I most admire fit the mode of “ethnographic” study that is central to the IGP: Herbert Kaufman’s THE FOREST RANGER (1967) and Michael Lipsky’s STREET-LEVEL BUREAUCRACY (1980). [A more recent work in the ethnography of government work is Stefano Harney’s lesser known STATE WORK (2002), which has sat on my book shelf here in Belfast long enough. I am now inspired to give it a more detailed read.]

The brilliance of the IGP is how it takes advantage of the weblog technology to create a collective do-it-yourself venue for perhaps the most significant and least utilized approach to understanding public service. For me, this is what has been missing in the study of accountability. We’ve developed neat little frameworks that provide broad understandings of what it means to be accountable, and many of us have used case studies (typically of the ‘ambulance chasing’ genre) to test and tease out those models.

What we haven’t done, however, is get down to the ground level to understand what the accountability relationship really means – and that is where the ethnographic analysis can have its greatest payoff. (There is the the complementary approach to listening to the "stories that managers tell" that has the same 'flavor' as ethnographic studies -- see the work of Ralph Hummel and others....)

Of course, the value of ethnographic approaches only emerges when they are executed in disciplined ways, and the open-ended nature of the IGP poses a challenge in that regard. At the same time, it is just as valuable to have this DIY venue where we can express out well-informed frustrations with the everyday encounters we have with bureaucracy.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what develops – and adding to the list of “aaaarghs”.

Hummel, Ralph P. 1991. Stories Managers Tell: Why They Are as Valid as Science. PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW 51 (1, January\February):31-41.
Kaufman, Herbert. 1967. THE FOREST RANGER: A STUDY IN ADMINISTRATIVE BEHAVIOR. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Parallel political capitals

In the UK, Channel 4 is replaying season 4 episodes of West Wing, and this past week it was “Swiss Diplomacy.” In the parallel universe of the Bartlet White House, the newly reelected president is riding high after his reelection:
"Well, the votes have been counted and the people have spoken and it's clear that their will is for me to be able to do and have anything I want. . . . Well, the President of Turkmenistan just extended the date of adolescence to 25. So, things like that."

"I think he also renamed the month of January after himself," Leo mentions.

"That's just greedy. Real power is knowing when to leave a little something on the table. . . . Patient's bill of rights, prescription drugs, keeping the economy growing, find a surplus again, keep the surplus growing, use the surplus to build schools. . . ."
Shifting to the real world of the Bush White House, over the past few days we’ve heard somewhat similar thoughts, although the sardonic wit of Jeb Bartlet has been replaced by the smirk assuredness of George W’s latest favorite phrase: spending “political capital”.

I do not do much Bush-watching over here. There are too many more interesting things for me to try to understand, including how both Tony Blair and Michael Howard are able to maintain their hold on their respective political parties. But I found it interesting that Bush chose to use the phrase "political capital" in a post-election press conference to explain what he was willing to do to pursue some policy objective. He would do it by spending the “political capital” he accumulated as a result of his electoral victory. It was obvious from the self-satisfied look on his face at the time that he was putting a newly learned concept to work. Here was a political idea he could work with, one he understood from his days in business. A simple idea: the election gave him more than just a victory; it earned him political capital – some surplus value that he can now invest where he needed to. As they say here in Northern Ireland (and in the south), brilliant!

But as it turned out, Bush was not quite finished with the phrase, for it showed up once again on Friday in the press conference he held with Tony Blair after five hours of chatting about world affairs. There the phrase emerged again, this time involving the Middle East and the US willingness to spend its “political capital” to move the peace process forward. And again there was that look on Bush’s face reflecting the conceit of empowered wisdom he assumes comes from his reelection. The President of Turkmenistan might be able to extend the age of adolescence, but George W was going to spend his political capital – that is, the political capital of the US – on bringing peace to a region that has already consumed the political investments of many regimes for many decades.

What is ironic about Bush’s idea of using US political capital on international affairs is that his administration had already spent much of what was in the bank when he took office back in 2001. While perhaps gaining come political capital in the election for policies and programs on his domestic agenda, Bush seems oblivious to the fact that the US gained little or nothing in the global political market with his reelection. If anything, the disappointment with his victory seems almost universal in Europe, and there are already signs in the recent events surrounding Arafat’s health problems and death that France will take advantage of the situation. It is little wonder that Blair seemed so somber throughout his meetings with Bush, for he understands that his own position as the one European leader with a “special relationship” with the White House is a burden rather than a benefit. And knowing George W as well as he does, Blair probably is well aware that there is nothing that can be done to make the president see the world in a more realistic light.

Shifting back to the post-election Bartlet White House, Leo realizes that he has his hands full. Viewing a press conference session in which giddy president is talking about “January,” he turns to his guest (the Swiss ambassador) to tell him that he will discuss an issue with the Bartlet when he returns. He’ll raise the question, he says, with ". . . the President, Gerneralismo --- whatever he comes back as."

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Big Yawn

Last week the UK Home Office released a White Paper titled "Building Communities, Beating Crime: A Better Police Service for the 21st Century." This was just the latest installment of the Blair Government's efforts to implement wide ranging public service reform -- an effort that is intended to touch on every dimension of domestic policy in the UK, from education and health care to transport and law enforcement. With general elections on the horizonin the first half of 2005, it is not surprising that policing and criminal justice have now been highlighted. It was, after all, his stand on crime in the early 1990s that elevated Blair to the leadership of the Labour Party.

What is different this time is, however, is that the central issue focused on in the White Paper is not fighting rising crime or even anti-social behavior (although these remain important issues). Rather, the stress in on improving police services by making them "more accessible, visible and accountable." This was evident in the rhetoric and news coverage surrounding the launch of the White Paper and the Home Secretary's (David Blunkett) presentation before the house of Commons. The primary goal was not to reduce crime, but to "embed a genuinely responsive customer service culture" throughout the UK's law enforcement community.

And it is on that point that I see a significant distinction between domestic public policy in the UK and the US. For while domestic policy agendas in the US are still driven by arena specific issues (e.g., crime levels drive law enforcement policies; traffic congestion drives transport policies; poor student performance drives education policies), the domestic agenda in the UK is driven by a broadly defined effort to improve public services. This is most clearly stated in a footnote included deep in the White Paper itself (in fact, in one of the appendicies): "The Government recognises that policing is, in some respects, necessarily different to other public services. But the debate around further reform of policing needs, nonetheless, to be seen within the important context of the Government’s wider strategy on public service reform."

Thus, the policing reforms put forward in the White Paper are not reflections of some crime fighting campaign or "broekn windows" theory; instead they are designed in accordance with the much touted "four principles of public service reform" set out by the Blair Government for all policy arenas: "namely, national standards, devolution and delegation, flexibility and expanding choice."

In similar fashion, public service reform is the overarching "driver" in many other countries as well, most notably New Zealand and Australia.

But in the US the very idea of a general domestic policy of public service reform draws little more than a big yawn from the media and the public. If Social Security is the "third rail" of US politics, adminsitrative reform is its "sleeping pill" issue.

I recall a story about advice given to Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign. As a policy wonkish advocate for reinventing government, Clinton was prepared to wax eloquent on improving government performance -- but he was advised by his staff to avoid the topic lest he bore the electorate. (Could it be that the famous call to arms -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- was as much a reminder to Clinton as to anyone?) Even the efforts Clinton and Al Gore made to hype their National Performance Review once in office ultimately proved futile -- and only a very small segment of the attentive US public paid much attention to public service reform for the next eight years.

Which raises an interesting question: why hasn't the US picked up on the global movement for public service reform?

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Guard(ian)ed Reactions

Life in Northern Ireland just picked up a notch or two for me since Starbucks made its way to Belfast City Centre. I realize that it is not PC to like old Starbucks, but it is a bit of 'home' in the corporate sense of the term.....

It isn't just the coffee, however, that draws me there. Belfast has a number of terrific coffee spots, including one ('Roast') that I spend a great deal of time in (so much so that some people actually phone them up to find me). No, what makes Starbucks so attractive are those damn cushy chairs, and the fact that I can sit for hours over a venti or two and read the UK version of the New York Times Book Review -- the Guardian Review section.

The Guardian Book Review section comes out on Saturday (the Guardian doesn't publish on Sunday), and it is probably the best read I engage in all week. The biggest problem I have is restraining myself from going right out to Waterstone's to buy some of the books being reviewed -- with the exchange rate of pounds to dollars, any book ends up costing significantly more here than in the US....

Today's issue was filled with interesting pieces, and it will probably be a few days before I stop writing about my reactions to each. But for me the two most interesting was a review and a commentary, both about the US.

The book, 'American, Right or Wrong' by Anatol Lieven, was reviewed by Martin Woollacott, and seems at first glance to be one of those 'what wrong with America' analyses that I found all over the bookstores both here and during my last trip back to the US. But Woollacott views it as much better than average among that genre and has given me reason to give it a closer look. Most interesting is the thesis that the US, for all its on-the-surface goodness, has kept many of its 'demons' in the basement -- and that these have now emerged after 9/11. This is an intriguing approach.... More on this at some later point.

The other piece was a short commentary by novelist Richard For on how it feels to be on the losing side after last week's election. Its a gloomy piece, but probably the one that comes closest to my own reactions to the the Bush victory. The view from 'this side of the pond' was depressing to say the least, especially for those of us who were being asked to publicly comment on the election as the results were coming in. One colleague -- another American here on fellowship leave -- was so down in the dumps that I was forced to find something positive to say about the future just to cheer him up. But my own sense of despair for what we face for the next four years soon returned. Reading Ford's comments at least put the feeling in some perspective....


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Distrust and democracy

One of the more useful "google" services I use is "Google Alerts (BETA)" for the word "accountability". Not suprisingly, each day I receive long lists of news stories from the "Google News (BETA)" site -- an indication of just how pervasive the term "accountability" has become in our daily lives. From a more academic perspective, most of these stories reflect gross misuses of the term -- but that is a topic for another day. From time to time, however, there is an interesting angle to follow.

That is the case with the emerging movement of self-appointed election watchdogs. We heard about them before the 2004 election cycle, but it seems we will hear much more from them over the next few months as they mobilize to hold the election system itself (and those who manage and oversee it) accountable. A case in point is written up in today's (Saturday, 11-13-2004) SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER:Watchdogs demand vote accountability, by Neil Modie.

There are a number of points about this story that fascinate me. Of course, there are the issues about how elections are conducted in the US. It is quite amazing how many different voting systems seem to be in place in the many jurisdictions, and that fact alone is a tribute to the complexities of the American way of governance. But the story in also interesting for what it implies about the relationship between democracy and trust.

We often think that democracy will thrive under conditions of trust, but here is a case where distrust is actually central to energizing democratic oversight. and similar "watchdog" groups are not part of any formal accountability or checks-and-balances system, and yet they seem crucial to keeping election officials "on their toes" and constantly reflecting on what they are doing. Driven by conspiracy theories and a general distrust of officials or the technology, these folks are using the media and the legal access they get through freedom of information rules to exercse their distrust. Ah, democracy at work!


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Opening thoughts

I have been fixated on the concept of accountability for nearly 25 years, and some of my colleagues would argue that the fixation has turned into an obsession. Guilty as charged. With weblog technology, I can now share this obsession with anyone who bothers to stop by for a 'look see'. It also provides an opportunity and outlet for me to publicly reflect on the news, ideas and events of the day that attract my attention. Reactions and comments from those who 'stop by' are welcome....

Some relevant background. At the moment I am located in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and have been here since September 2003 as a senior fellow at the Queen's University Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research (will just refer to it as the Institute of Governance from now on). My home, however, is in Massachusetts, and in the US I have my academic home at Rutgers University - Newark. I am a political scientist by training, and for most of my career I have been associated with the field of public administration.

Along the way I will give more background as it becomes relevant, but what is most important for the reader to know is that my obsession with accountability is primarily academic. You are not likely to find 'rants' or extended commentaries on the politics of the day (although I might slip into that mode every so often). Rather you'll find my comments to be more analytic and related to some research idea I might have -- pretty boring stuff for most.

That said, this isn't going to be a place for scholarship -- I am planning to use this as an outlet for general observations about things I come across each day. Let's see what develops....


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