Confessions of a public administration professor

Teaching public administration to tyrants? The LSE, Libya … and me - but I have no moral qualms about teaching students as long as my position in clear, argues Colin Talbot
LSE sign
The LSE has come under the spotlight for its links to Libya but does the public management and administration community do enough to assert democratic values? Photograph: James Barr/Guardian

The London School of Economics (LSE) has gotten into hot water over links it has to the Gaddafi regime, including some executive education courses it has been running there.

Confession time: I taught part of one the modules on the LSE run programme for aspiring Libyan civil servants a couple of years ago.

I am not going to comment on the other relationships the LSE (of which I am a PhD graduate) apparently developed with the Gaddafi's, other than to say they appear "unwise" to me.

The programme I taught on was, as I understood it at the time, funded not by the Libyans but by our Foreign Office. But it doesn't really matter who paid for it as long as the aim of the programme was to teach some basic concepts of good public administration to current and aspiring Libyan civil servants, which it was.

Interesting I used an instrument about 'values' at one point and this sparked a very lively discussion about what 'good' PA should look like in Libya – and that was not what they currently had.

The actual course was run at a "hotel" complex up the coast from Tripoli, well away from any towns. Even within the complex, the participants were in separate blocks from from us tutors – they jokingly called their block Guantánamo Bay.

There were also some regime 'minders' about whose role was unclear.

But despite all that, we actually had fairly open and free discussions – at least about broad principles. Some issues were obviously skirted around, and some discussions avoided, at least in public, but some intestine exchanges happened, despite all this.

These sort of things always raise moral dilemmas, for me at any rate. I have spoken at conferences or delivered programmes in or for countries with whose regimes I have severe problems – China, Israel, Libya, to name a few. I deliver programmes almost every day to students from countries with despicable regimes.

It is never simple or straightforward how to deal with these situations. Let me say straight away I have no time for the moral relativist position that it is up to them how they run their countries. I support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and democracy.

But that doesn't answer the question of how to deal with questionable, and even downright despicable, regimes?

My rule of thumb is I won't do anything that appears to condone human rights abuses or anti-democratic practices. I make it clear, as appropriate, that I support democratic and human rights principles, but I don't go out of my way to be confrontational.

Usually the people I'm dealing with aren't the ones making the big decisions, and I (perhaps naively) think that if I can influence them even a little in the right direction, so much the better.

But I have been wondering for while if we, as a public management and public administration community, really do enough to assert democratic values?

Masters in Public Administration (MPA) programs have become increasingly popular in recent years (I'll be writing something about this shortly). Students from many countries flock to the US and other democratic countries to study it. But it's not entirely clear to me that we teach them democratic public administration.

I get the impression, and I may be wrong, that many of us slide around the thorny question of whether "good" PA is also democratic PA. I know I have wrestled with this dilemma, usually on my feet in front of an audience, too many times.

About a decade ago I was one of the opening keynote speakers at Australia's Institute of Public Administration annual conference, which was being held in Darwin. The Australian fleet was assembling in the bay to invade East Timor to come to the aid of their people against a tyrannous Indonesian regime.

General Pinochet was under house arrest in the UK, pending possible trial for his crimes. I made the decision to mention these things, along with the Balkans interventions, as signs of a developing international trend to confront dictators and thugs in the name of human rights and democracy.

The reaction was fascinating. A small minority, and it was fairly small, of the Australian public administration practitioners and academics applauded enthusiastically and congratulated me afterwards. The majority maintained a slightly embarrassed, uncomfortable silence in the hall and just didn't mention it afterwards.

I, and we, have the great privilege, not experienced by most humans for most of our history, to be able to speak truth unto power.

I often poke a stick at 'the powers that be' on a regular basis. It is a democratic privilege perhaps we should be more assertive about defending.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester Business School and a former specialist adviser to both the Treasury and public administration select committees

This blogpost first appeared on Whitehall Watch, one of our featured blogs

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