This is an open invitation to colleagues who want to participate in “investigative research with a public purpose”, digging deeper into what governments actually do as opposed to what they say they do. “Speaking Truth Unto Power” as Aaron Wildavsky famously put it.
For the past two years I have developed the Whitehall Watch blog as a vehicle for critiques of what government is doing and explanations of why what they say and what they do is often at odds.
This was the culmination of a great deal of research and observation over the past two decades on how Whitehall works, and especially how it deals with issues of public management. Whether it was the Conservative reforms of the 1990s, or New Labour’s from 1997, it became apparent to me that a defining feature is that the rhetoric of reform hardly, if ever, matched the actuality. Some of the difference was clearly intentional, with both politicians and civil service Mandarins (and even opponents) ‘hyping’ reforms with one-sided rhetoric which they clearly knew was inaccurate. Some was ‘unintended consequences’. But whatever the cause, I found again and again that asking some fairly simple questions about what was actually happening, and some in inventive digging, often easily uncovered important inconsistencies.
Some of these conclusions I have published as academic articles and book chapters, some as media articles, and some as evidence and advice to parliamentary committees and others. I’ve published regularly in practitioner magazines like Public Finance and Public Servant. I have been active giving regular commentary to various media outlets, including appearing on the Today programme and being quoted frequently in the daily broadsheets. And of course more recently Whitehall Watch has proved a useful vehicle.
Now I want to try and expand Whitehall Watch into a network of contributors and collaborators who share the aim if critiquing government policy and actions from a broadly positive point of view. In other words, to criticise the public domain in order to improve it, not to destroy it.
Whitehall Watch has built up a substantial following, but it is not just numbers that count. I know from numerous media and other enquiries that it has become a regular read for many opinion formers, policymakers and reporters, interested in more in-depth and informed analysis of government’s actions.
But there are clearly limits to what an individual can do. The pace of change under the current Coalition government is so great that it is hard for anyone to keep up. And yet never has critical analysis been more needed. Even seasoned commentators have misunderstood, or simply missed, the import of some important policy choices. For example, I think much of the popular coverage of the tuition fees issue has focussed too much on individual fees rather than the issue of University reform, which is just as, if not more, central to government thinking.
This Coalition is intent, in my view, in establishing a ‘permanent revolution’ in the way in which the public domain is organised in the UK – much smaller, much more Market oriented, less politically accountable, etc. These policies are in urgent need of serious critique before, during and after their implementation – and indeed as to whether they can be implemented at all in the ways envisaged.
So, here is an invitation to all those who study,
observe, analyse or otherwise critique government, public policy and public management to engage with this project.
This will probably involve, at the very least:
– creating a much more multi-author environment in Whitehall Watch (WW);
– creating a “wiki” adjunct to WW where a public record of policy, administrative and managerial changes can be ‘crowd sourced’ for public use;
– creating an ‘investigative research’ community which would both develop it’s own projects and also take on commissioned work from the media, civil society, and other organisations.
These are merely first thoughts, and I hope we can develop a dialogue around these and other ideas. in short, I’d like to turn the “org” WhitehallWatch.org from simply a suffix into a reality.
So, if you want to join in – however much or little – then either post a comment here of drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy New Year