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Management and the British Council

October 26, 2011

Public diplomacy sits between communications, politics and organization.  I think that the organizational dimension is essential in explaining why PD activities turn out the way that they do rather than following the dictates of strategy or the prescriptions of effective  communication.

With this in mind this morning’s offering is a pointer towards a couple of papers on the management and organization of the British Council.  I’ve written before about the emphasis on plans, management and strategies in British Government.  In a 1995 paper J.M. Lee discussed the impact of ‘the new public management’ on the BC. Lee’s point is that the Council’s move towards a more  ‘strategic’ language about it’s activities was driven not by an analysis of the changing international environment but by the changing culture of British government.  The result of this was a concern with value for money, efficiency and explicit management strategies.  The BC had to be able to present itself in a way that gave it credibility with its funders.  Although there a language of strategy it is organizational strategy not public diplomacy strategy.  The new managerial model  creates an incentive to ‘follow the money’ even if this pulls in a different direction to an externally oriented PD strategy.  I think that this tension between strategy as a tool of organizational management and as a way of influencing the external world is still not fully recognized in UK government.

The second paper by Venters and Wood looks at the BC’s efforts to deploy information technology to build a networked organization in which ‘communities of practice’ shared good practice across the globe.  To put it more simply how could it get it’s country directors to talk to each other? The basic answer is that they couldn’t.  In the pre internet era the country director had a link back to the central British Council but didn’t talk to other countries.  The new more businesslike  BC sought to shrink the centre of the organization, empower the country offices and encourage horizontal linkages.  Venter and Wood find that as centre shrank it became less useful to the Country Directors who used their improved access to IT to a)google for the information that they needed instead of asking the centre and b) develop  ‘communities of expertise’ with people outside the organization.

In thinking about effective PD one issue to keep in mind are the incentives that actually operate for organizations and the people within them.

Lee, J.M. (1995) ‘The Reorganization of the British Council: Management Improvisation and Policy Uncertainty’, Public Administration, 73: 339-55.

Venters, W., and B. Wood (2007) ‘Degenerative Structures that Inhibit the Emergence of Communities of Practive: A Case Study of Knowledge Management in the British Council’, Information Systems Journal, 17: 349-68.

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