Bottom-Up vs Top-Down Procedures for Achieving a Bottoms-Down System: A Benchmark Christmas Tale


By URBACT, on January 3rd, 2012

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Imagine, if you will, that a few everyday folk decide to put a bench in a public square in their local neighbourhood. What could be easier? All they need is four breeze-blocks and a plank. It would take them about five minutes to set it up and the whole business would be finished with no time or space wasted; there would be no money wasted either; last, but not least, a local need would be almost instantaneously satisfied, while the whole structure would also be recyclable. This is what we might refer to as a bottom-up process – one leading to a highly satisfactory, bottoms-down sort of behaviour! Unfortunately such a swashbuckling procedure might well lead to the immediate consignment of the bench to the dustbins of history by the authorities owing to non-compliance with urban planning rules. Those responsible for it might well be forced to stand before a court of justice…

Let us now imagine that some overarching body or other, such as a town hall or a ministry declares this bench to be a “public” bench and, furthermore, to be a system for promoting social cohesion, one which will develop citizen participation and democracy. After all, people could then sit down in public together and sustain long conversations about sustainable development in their city.

Substantial public funds will now be allocated to the bench project within the framework of a multi-level contract policy, complemented by a request for further funding from the EU. Given the strategic importance of the project and given also the irresistible growth in spatial Balkanisation, the now geological-scale Layers of political and administrative “responsibility”, the Sectorisation of skills and services (the famous BL-S…), a vast panoply of aldermen, vice-presidents, directors, departmental heads will soon be au courant of the project, providing, that is, they can all be contacted, given the huge numbers involved. They will give forth opinions and counter opinions, all brilliantly presented and backed up, concerning the appropriateness and necessity of such a facility, its location and the inputs required for it. All this will of course be accompanied by the necessary permits, authorisations, rules for its use and cost estimates in terms of future frequentation worked out using EXCEL +++. The bench will probably take two or three years to be set up; it will no doubt be placed in the spot where local residents wanted it the least and completed when such street furniture is no longer in vogue. It is indeed quite possible that the bench will never come into existence at all, despite the expensive research contracts on which a multitude of shady organisations batten. This is the usual upshot of these top-down procedures in which we are all mired.

We all know that top-down and bottom-up procedures rarely meet up. This is referred to in France as the efficient optimisation of the Revision Generale des Politiques Publiques (the Reform for New Public Management).

Any resemblance between the foregoing and actual fact is purely coincidental.

And after all, as we say in my region, Savoy, all this is not as bad as if it were worse.

It’s Christmas! Bottoms down and bottoms up everybody!

Claude Jacquier
A bonkers benchmarker, one among an ever growing number of others

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