Sunday, January 22, 2012

You Can't Read This Book - Nick Cohen

I've spent a lot of the weekend going through Nick Cohen's 'You Can't Read This Book' - I'd get a copy if I were you.
It's very good, and as a follow-on to his 2007 title, What's Left, it represents a consolidation of many of the themes there about the reluctance of Western liberals to defend what one would expect to be their basic principles.

It's a good read, picking most of the right fights, and I'm not going to highlight too many of the minor quibbles I'd have with some of his approaches here.

There is one aspect, though, that falls into the 'I'd have done more on this if I were writing this book' category, that could provide a useful jumping off point for Nick here.

The book gives a lot of credit to some of the better UK bloggers - notably, David Allen Green on the chilling effect of our libel laws, and Chris Dillow on the cult of managerialism.

He also picks up on the way that scientific method relies upon open collaborative policymaking rather than the closed beltway structures that are found in modern management and government. There's also a nod towards some of the politics of transparency and some of the phony claims made, for example, about Wikileaks.

I think that there's a lot more to write about the dialectics of both managerialism and transparency. The lack of media pluralism, the need for more collectively-managed media structures such as those found, albeit imperfectly, in public service broadcasters such as the BBC.

There's a need for the skeptical (!) readers of Cohen's book to unite not just around what they are against when it comes to censorship, but also what they are in favour of. OK - our libel laws, the flaky responses from liberals to religious zealots and bullying oligarchs within capitalism and failed democracies are part of the problem. But they survive at least in part because they lack a coherent counter-proposal.

Managerialism is hardwired into British politics today. It provided Labour with a disastrous sledgehammer to crack the nut of the charge that a union-backed Labour Party faced in the 1990s. Disastrous in that it fed in to the economic catastrophe of recent years, but also because it robbed Labour of its credibility in promoting collecive provision of public services.

Managerialism was the handmaiden to the privatisation-lite agenda of New Labour. It was the essential pre-condition to state disvestment. Large numbers of professionals were sidelined by the flimsy claims to competence from managers - the same over-confident claims that shareholders have faced as over-paid managers have dwarfed the traditional 'budget-maximising bureaucrats' of statism's mythology in the way that corporations are controlled.

Today, the management of the public sector presents us with a crisis. There is no Plan B - and Cohen hints at one in his advocacy of a more open and collaborative policy making. I'd love to read him expanding on this argument.

What are the essential pre-conditions to a more collaborative approach to public management? I'd say that the answer to this needs a detailed mapping of the different types of transparency and collaboration that we've been offered in the UK over the past decade, along with a deeper understanding of what participation means - what dangers and opportunities it presents. We need to look at what we've been offered in terms of it being misdirection - there's a lot that we've not been offered while the right hand has been offering so much of it's preferred form of largesse on the 'transparency' front.

I try to make it a rule not to plug my own work here. With fewer posts these days, it's increasingly a rule that has more exceptions to it than it used to have, and today's exception is a link to this project that I'm organising over the next few months - helping to promote a wider understanding of the politics and practicalities of a more collaborative and participative form of open government.

I'm hoping to help flush out a few of the answers.


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