Troubador Responsibility and its Avoidance

Released: 28/05/2017

ISBN: 9781788035422

Format: Paperback

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Responsibility and its Avoidance

Essays in Public Management and Governance


We live in anxious times, all too aware that governments can fail, markets too collapse and that NGOs, parties and other organisations in civil society are also prone to lose sight of the common good. Responsibility and its Avoidance seeks to understand the dynamic processes through which people struggle to produce a sound environment, stable trading arrangements, competent governance, personal security and other aspects of a ‘liveable society’. In Responsibility and its Avoidance, Donald Curtis brings a practitioner focus as a project manager in development to his essays, as well as a UK and World citizen concern for current social dilemmas. He seeks and occasionally finds, enlightenment in academic theory but, aware that contradictions in governance are as old as history, sometimes seeks solace in other people’s cultures or in literature. A key finding is that good governance is a matter of exercised responsibility. What emerged, through the themes of the various chapters, is that society’s attempts to create constitutions, governance structures and management processes through which leaders and citizens can exercise responsibility for the public good, run up against an avoidance paradox. As soon as an agreed allocation of responsibilities is achieved, with obligations and commitments set out and accountability processes established, perverse incentives set in. Common purpose can always be deemed personally costly, encouraging neglect, manipulation, avoidance or other forms of negation. The socially concerned citizen must commit to constant struggle against institutional decay and corruption; so runs Curtis’ thesis: responsibility is not good unless it is shared.

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Donald Curtis: Responsibility and its Avoidance: Essays in public management and governance. Matador, Leicestershire, UK, 2017, 378 pp., ISBN 978 1788035 422, £17.99

A book in Responsibility and its Avoidance, in governance and public management context, undescores the importance of being reflexive vis a vis the emergent issues at the time. Globally, significant numbers of professional across many sectors have felt since the mid 2000’s an unprecedented crisis of identity and integrity. In international development, institutions often found themselves subordinated to the military in ever increasing conflict situations (the ‘development-security complex’). Locally, the global tendency was for public administration to be ‘re-engineered’ on the basis of so-called ‘market’ values (the ‘New Public Administration’). Private sector management models were, nevertheless, hardly exemplary. Corporate greed and scandals proliferated in a world featuring increasing poverty extremes, resurgence of old or advent in new diseases (e.g. HIV/Aids), environmental degradation and racism. The workplace had thus become both an insecure and alienating environment. Public servants themselves, untied by the ideals of disinterested civil servants (‘servant leaders’) were being increasingly politicised and subject to the short-termist, utilitarian values that tended to dominate that domain.

This has called for more thinking as well as more research—in terms of validation, refutation, need for further (alternative) insights, experiences and approaches and the limits including the reality (or not) of the cross cultural divide. The importance of being reflexive has been seen as a possible key ingredient to our survival (forget about sustainability!) at all levels—from the individual (vocationless) professional level through the (predatory) organisational level to the (leaderless) state and (bankrupt) global policy process.

Donald Curtis’ book has bearing on this, covering a similar period. The book sees “good governance” as the taking of responsibility and “having room (or space) for responsible personal action” (p.xvi). Chapter 19 on Democracy looks at Europe in Brexit context, followed by Governance beyond Government (Chapter 20) and “Morality” (Chapter 22).
In terms of approach, the book comprises as series of essays and notes, mostly new and has a five part structure. Chapter One links each of the 23 chapters and the final one draws together common themes. Its cases or experiences are global – from UK to Asia (including Japan and China – more on the latter later. It takes in Africa (Botswana, South Africa), the Americas and many developing countries (e g. Nepal).
It is meant to provoke debate and reflection rather than provide any final answers. It is written within various main perspectives: sociologist/anthropologist (mentors Elinor Ostrom and Mary Douglas), development project manager (at University of Birmingham) and citizen.
Part I has a management focus, critiquing the NPM school of thought, including contradications in contract management, the “Third Way”, best value and competency approaches, with final words about Constitutionalism in UK and responsibities with the nation state; Part II devotes itself to different ways of breaking the mould and allowing or encouraging responsible innovative action, including performance management in University governance; Part III follows with two case studies of social policy disasters in UK so-called child care; Part IV touches on big questions about state, local government and super-state : “whither the state”, new starting points, amongst others; Part V pen-ultimately explores how in our complex world people in general as well as the author in particular are challenged by a nascent feeling of responsibility to be active and engaged citizens, yet most times fail.
There are many figures but one I find most instructive is 11 called “Power and responsibility in defining the common or public good.
Significantly, quoting Rowntree, Curtis stresses on p.376: “self-worth, shared values and dignity” and argues that we should “dissolve our self-deception about the kind of world we have allowed it to develop, faced with untruthfulness, fear and resentment (drivers of Brexit?) and we now need to get back to models of human identity.” Thus the search for truth is paramount but with recognition of the realities of power. As he argues on p.360, we need “reflections and light” (and not just heat) “otherwise what is becomes a tyranny”. A point of interest for me (p.362) is about “how does heritage bear upon what we do?” Heritage ideas about governance span the Ancient Greeks to China (Confucius), as he reminds us.
Three of the book’s key learning areas and points (“Reflections on Reflections” (pp. 360-362) are:
a) how is governance or public management influenced by contingent circumstances? (e.g. IT and media); b) Does a search for high principle (accountability, transparency) improve governance or is honest intent and personal intent and commitment to finding the public good a surer way to betterment (and I would add to the last, “what makes people honest”?) Curtis rightly refers to the role of heritage here. c) Does it take a crisis, a looming public “bad” to concentrate minds, to refocus actions on the potential good, or to turn attention from personal gain towards the gain that can only be achieved if shared?
The back cover reminds us of the anxious times we live in and rightly commends the book as a useful contribution to understanding the dynamic processes through struggle for a “liveable” society in terms of environment, stable trade, competent governance and security.
Curtis has thus provided a useful addition to recent equally stimulating literature, notably Millbank and Pabst on The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future and the review of the latter by Rowan Williams in the New Statesman of 18 October 2016 titled: “Liberalism and capitalism have hollowed out society – so where do we turn now? He writes: “John Milbank and Adrian Pabst's new book explores the "post-Liberal" moment, but leaves me wondering about the future”. Williams then argues that there are crises and metacrises and modern democracy is a symbiosis of oligarchy and majoritarianism. Which institutions, he asks do we need to challenge majoritarianism? Williams also points out that the international chapters of Milbank and Pabst are the weakest and so Curtis can provide a useful adjunct reading as one of his strengths.
Curtis has interesting things to say for China where he and I both teach on the International MBA in Chongqing. China is at the cross roads with regard to its new development path focussed also on internal growth and equity while at the same time wedded to one party state oligarchy. It is increasingly active overseas as Curtis points out in Africa and its alternative path is seen by many non - western countries as an alternative non-path dependent model. A matter for further reflection no doubt.
Dr Paul D Collins, Hon. Advisory Editor, Public Administration and Development,

by Dr Paul D Collins

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