Centres, boundaries and peripheries: some thinking about Public Sector Innovation at OCF2014

I’ve been fortunate to have been invited back to Oman this month to contribute to this year’s Oman Competitiveness Forum and its work on theme of Public Sector Innovation.

I’ve had lots of dealings with the public sector in recent years; either working within it, or outside it or in its boundaries so I’m looking forward to seeing how all the Forum’s contributors open up the discussions and what recommendations emerge from that process.

From my part, I’ve started thinking about centralisation and de-centralisation by looking at what our poets and philosophers have to say about centres and edges and have found some great starting points.

One of my favourites is the Yeats poem, The Second Coming, the first stanza of which is:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Working within the social enterprise sector recently means that the notion of the centre not being able to hold and things falling apart is something we are only too well aware of.

Earlier, the German writer, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe argued that political centralization would lead to the destruction of all culture. In his conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann he wrote:

“To be sure, the state has been compared to a living body with many parts, and a state’s capital thus might be compared to the heart, which supports the life and well-being of its near and distant parts. If the parts are very far from the heart, however, the flow of life will become weaker and weaker… 

“What makes Germany great is her admirable popular culture, which has penetrated all parts of the Empire evenly. And is it not the many different princely residences from whence this culture springs and which are its bearers and curators? Just assume that for centuries only the two capitals of Vienna and Berlin had existed in Germany, or even only a single one. Then, I am wondering, what would have happened to the German culture and the widespread prosperity that goes hand in hand with culture.

“Furthermore, look at the number of German theaters, which exceeds seventy, and which cannot be disregarded as bearers and promoters of higher public education. The appreciation of music and song and their performance is nowhere as prevalent as in Germany, and that counts for something, too.

“Then think about cities such as Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Braunschweig, Hannover, and similar ones; think about the energy that these cities represent; think about the effect they have on neighboring provinces, and ask yourself, if all of this would exist if such cities had not been the residences of princes for a long time.

“Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg, Luebeck are large and brilliant, and their impact on the prosperity of Germany is incalculable. Yet, would they remain what they are if they were to lose their independence and be incorporated as provincial cities into one great German Empire? I have reason to doubt this.”

We’ve been having similar discussions in the UK recently about how London and the South East’s centralising tendencies come to dominate much political, economic and cultural life and whilst the recent referendum on Scottish Independence had a galvanising effect on that debate, time will tell whether or not any permanent change has been wrought in our political landscape.

On the other hand you can always trust a Marxist to upset the liberal apple cart.  Terry Eagleton said in 2001:

These days, centrality is distinctly uncool. The centre has been marginalised, and marginality, like Bohemian Manchester or Cornish fishing villages, is the place to be. With so many groups muscling in on them, from sexual and ethnic minorities to dog-on-a-rope anarchists, the margins have grown so crowded that there is now standing room only. Indeed, they have bulged to spread over most of the page. Like elitism, marginality isn’t possible if too many people want to do it. It is an uncomfortable place, yet, oddly, it is where a lot of people want to be. In this sense it is a bit like Bangkok or the Aran islands.

So whilst we might enjoy – or not – our place in the centre, in the boundaries or right out on the edges, there’s a lot to think about how these relationships play out for all of us who have to contend with the public sector in all its many guises across the world.

Further information about the OCF 2014 programme can be seen here.

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