administrative reform

About Me

I am a great reader – and scribbler. See also my daily blog at

When I’m sometimes asked at customs what I do, I’m always tempted to tell them I’m a writer or poet!  The first is certainly true – for the past 19 years I’ve been paid because I produced papers and reports for the various projects which I have led in central Europe and elsewhere  – a member of the new breed of what Robert Reich felicitously called the “symbolic analysts”!  But few read this paperwork – which I found frustrating. In an earlier life in Scotland as a reforming regional politician, I had been able to publish quite extensively – sharing, over a 14 year period, our efforts to make bureaucracy more sensitive and responsive to the needs of ordinary people.

 In my new role as consultant, there were things I wanted to be heard beyond my immediate circle – about the increasing nonsense which I was seeing in the whole business of Technical Assistance in transition countries. It all crystallised in a passage of a paper I presented in 2006 to the NISPAcee Annual Conference  –

 “We are daring to advise these transition countries to construct effective organisations; we are employed by organisations supposed to have the knowledge about how to put systems together which can deal effectively with the organisational and social problems of these countries. And we are supposed to have the knowledge and skills to help develop appropriate knowledge and skills in others! But how many of us can give positive answers to the following 5 questions? -

- Do the organisations which pay us practice what they and we preach on the ground about good organisational principles?

- Does the knowledge and experience we have as individual consultants actually help us identify and implement interventions which fit the context in which we are working?

- Do we have the skills to make that happen?

- What are the bodies which employ consultants doing to explore such questions – and to deal with the deficiencies which I dare to suggest would be revealed?

- Do any of us have a clue about how to turn kleptocratic regimes into systems that recognise the meaning of public service?"[1]

 At that stage my focus was mainly on such things as -

  • the limitations of the “project approach” used by the European Union for its programmes of Technical Assistance
  • the weaknesses of the competitive procurement process it used to get advisers into the field
  • the failure of the EC to consult those on the ground about the realities we experienced, living as some of us do for 2-3 years in the relevant country.

 But I was also concerned about the relevance of many of the “models of best practice” which consultants were peddling. There were two issues – first that many did not fit the local context; and, secondly, too many fashionable and untested models of management were being hoisted upon unsuspecting beneficiaries.

 These concerns are evident in 2 small books I wrote in 1995 and 1999 and printed and distributed from my own resources. The titles are significant – Puzzling Development – Odyssey of a modern Candide which told the story of my explorations in the worlds of politics and bureaucracy in Scotland and central europe. I had changed both my role and fields in the 1990s – from strategic leader to consultant; from social exclusion and community enterprise to building administrative capacity. But I was still in the same game – organising change for the public good.

The 1999 book – In Transit – notes on good governance - was larger (225 pages) – and reflected the reading and thinking I had been able to do in a 1 year period of “resting” between assignments and also a Fellowship given to me in Glasgow by the Urban Studies journal. The book was written both for myself and for some of the younger people I worked with in central Europe and central Asia. Ten years on, I find the preface just as relevant - "These pages reflect one (West European) man's attempt to understand the processes of improving our public institutions in a world of increasing interdependence and complexity. They bring together different sorts of experiences -

  • fighting with bureaucracy in the late 1960s and early 1970s;
  • helping to build community organisations;
  • creating and running a Regional government system from 1974-90;
  • introducing a new process of policy-making which broke down the boundaries between professionals and politicians
  • designing and managing during that period a highly participative urban strategy focussed on what is now called "social exclusion";
  • running an academic Unit concerned to help make sense of these efforts;
  • advising Central Europeans build their new systems of government during the 1990s
  • extensive reading in the field of public administration reform - and, latterly, of "transitology"

 "After two decades of working in Western Europe (mainly Scotland) and one decade in Central Europe, I seem now to be heading for a new continent (Central Asia). And we are all heading for the 21st Century. It seems therefore an appropriate time to take stock - to try to clarify both the experiences and the concepts and approaches being used in such endeavours - not least, perhaps, to make easier the task of engaging with future working environments.  The book tries to go beyond one man's perceptions and inclinations about these issues - it also tries to give a sense of what others are saying. And will hopefully therefore open up new perspectives and possibilities.

"But the personal is important - it is, after all, the only way we live our lives. Academic words so easily reify. Do not misunderstand me - I have a deep respect for academic world. I have inhabited it and obviously try to keep track of it - we are constantly being reminded that "knowledge" is now the most valuable resource, replacing the previous trilogy of land, labour and capital (World Bank 1998). But the business of academics is classification and correlation - within ever-increasing specialisation.

"You and I are in the business of improvement - faced with specific people and contexts. To make sense of it we require a multi-disciplinary approach - not a single discipline. What we see; what we want to do; and how we should do it - these are all unique choices we have.  No-one else can really help us. I have put these pages together as part of my own search for self-awareness - in a belief that administrative reform requires a more open and tentative spirit.

"A wise man once wrote that the best way to understand a topic was to act, read, reflect - and then write your own book. This booklet is written in that spirit". (1999) 

 Ten years has passed – a great deal has happened in that decade.

This website is an attempt to share the lessons of that experience and encourage a dialogue. Join me

Ronald Young


[1] The full paper is number 2 of the “key papers” of this website