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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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