Saturday, 17 May 2014

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”: Was Lampedusa thinking about the Portuguese state?

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s now classic “The Leopard” is back to the Portuguese bookshops, with a new edition just published by Dom Quixote. The cover highlights the well-known quote: “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. From a marketing perspective it makes sense, because the idea clearly resonates in every Portuguese mind.

This text was prepared with one working hypothesis: could the Italian writer be thinking about the Portuguese State. The answer must be a resounding “Yes!” if we consider the case of the Portuguese state not as a unique institution but as a prototype of institutions caught in vicious circularity. Vicious circles are manifest in the Portuguese state institutions, with some of the symptoms being:
  • The incapacity of the system to renew itself. Reform attempts fail consecutively, with each new government making new claims about the need to reform. After so much use, the notion of reform is itself in need of reform – nobody knowing exactly what it means in practice.
  • The country’s political leadership would, however – one can possibly assume- love to be able to reform. The difficulty, of course, is that change is hard. Considering how difficult it is to change one organization, one gets a clear perspective of the Herculean dimension of the task of changing one State.
  • Portuguese politics (emphasis on politics) is a highly polarized and adversarial game. The dominant political parties are so similar in so many dimensions that they have to stress their differences. The result, to the public, is the perception of politics as a terrain for confrontation rather than for confrontation and compromise.
  • The lack of major political agreements on strategic vectors is a cause and a consequence of inertia: it is caused by the lack of a clear strategic intent, and prevents the development of a stable, shared, future-oriented strategic intent.          
  • As a result, strategy-making is heavily influenced by corporate interests; strategy is never written on a blank page but the Portuguese strategy for the public sector is an exercise of navigation through corporative seas.
  •  One of the most important corporations is the party corporation which fills the state institutions with their apparatchicks. A former prime-minister once pronounced that, with him, there would be “No jobs for the boys” (English in the original). There are still jobs for the boys.                                                         


At this stage, how can reform be reformed? The symptoms offer some possibilities for action:
  • Reform must be both top-down and bottom-up. The State should accord more discretion and autonomy to its organizations and their professionals. Its Kafkaesque bureaucratic disposition should be substituted by more freedom and accountability.
  •  Claims about reform should be down-toned and replaced with a dual approach: the top would clarify rules and responsibilities for change; the organizations in the field would discover how to improve and to renew themselves. Learning about good practices would be encouraged and incentives for good practices would be positive actions rather than result of coercive controls.
  • Areas of agreement should be defined and accepted as long term collective projects.
  • They would form the backbone of a shared, beyond legislature, strategic intent.
  •  Corporate interests would be framed within the strategic intent and collective interest.                         
  • Parties may accept that State professionalization requires truly Weberian bureaucrats, immune to the pressure from the parties. The system should control itself with an effective system of checks and balances.

      
If Lampedusa’s idea is so powerful it is because it proved to be so true. We should thus avoid naiveté: powerful interests often prevail over good intentions. But the deliquescence of trust in the political system is a major threat to vested corporate interests. It should thus be in their interest to introduce change that produces … change.     



Author: Miguel Pina e Cunha 

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