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Home > About Autism > Strategy, Policy and Initiatives > Prof Malcolm Sparrow workshop

Prof Malcolm Sparrow workshop

Fresh Insight from Leading Harvard Professor

As part of the work underway to deliver the goals set out in the Scottish Strategy for Autism, Scottish Autism, together with the Scottish Government, invited Professor Malcolm K. Sparrow from Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government to host a workshop for delegates in Edinburgh in December 2012.

The event brought together a cross-section of professionals and individuals from within the autism community who are involved in delivering the goals set out in the Strategy. The key objective of the day was to explore different ways of tackling and breaking down what is a large and complex project ainvolving many different stakeholders to ensure that the operational challenges of doing so do not in themselves become barriers to success.

An introduction to Professor Sparrow

Malcolm K. Sparrow is Professor of the Practice of Public Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is Faculty Chair of the school’s executive programmes on regulation and enforcement, corruption control, policing, and counter-terrorism. In March 2010 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel, to advise the Recovery Board on protecting the integrity of the economic stimulus package.

Professor Sparrow is no stranger to Scotland, having given lectures and run workshops on regulation, the control of “harms” and in refining the business model for SCISWIS, where he delivered a Scrutiny Reform Master Class. He has worked extensively with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency in refining that agency’s approach to “Better Regulation.” The Scottish Government’s response to the Crerar Report was also informed by reference to Professor Sparrow’s work, in particular his book The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Public servants all over the world have found in The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control astonishingly useful ways to take on crime, poverty, pollution, fraud and many other public problems. Drawing from a range of societal ills (including crime, pollution, terrorism, corruption, poverty, occupational hazards, drug-smuggling, and many others) Sparrow demonstrates that an explicit focus on the bads, rather than on the countervailing goods (public safety, environmental stewardship, integrity, economic prosperity, etc.) can provide rich opportunities for surgically efficient and effective interventions - an operational approach which he terms ‘the sabotage of harms.’ The principal audience for this message to date has been the public sector, and specifically regulatory (and some enforcement) agencies.

In the last couple of years Malcolm Sparrow in collaboration with Tamar Miller[1]has begun to explore how the Character of Harms and its associated approaches to defining and solving problems might apply to not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations around the world. They refer to these social change agents[2] by an apt and increasingly popular descriptive label, social benefit organisations (SBO’s).

In The Character of Harms Malcolm Sparrow explores the choices available to organizations who either hold primary responsibility for a harm-reduction task, or which want to make a substantial contribution to such endeavours: How to define the work? How to match parts of the task with the distinctive capabilities of different contributing organizations? How to divide and distribute the work, and measure progress? Professor Sparrow points out the importance of charting the “textured landscape” below the level of generalities and broad definitions:

“We’ve done the macro-level generic analysis and learned a lot from it. We can also use such analyses to monitor aggregate changes in conditions. But the challenge of drilling down to the operational level remains. Now we have to identify the individual knots [concentrations of harm, or of needs], and choose those that are most important. Unless we can actually see them clearly, then we will never be able to unravel them.” Malcolm Sparrow

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[1]Tamar Miller works with social justice and peace building organisations and is the former Executive Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

[2]Including foundations, community development programs, civil society organisations, advocacy campaigns, religious missions, peace building projects, social justice initiatives, and work in the voluntary and philanthropic sector.