Public service reform needs three kinds of people: doers, thinkers and leaders. For doers, previous writers in this series have nominated Transport for London, unsung civic activists and Mike Bracken, the head of the government’s open data digital programme. For leaders, we’ve had Conservative ministers Kenneth Clarke, Francis Maude and Grant Shapps, and Steve Reed, Labour leader of Lambeth council – plus Lord Adonis, a Labour Number 10 policy wonk and former minister. Lord Adonis is a special case, because he is a doer, a thinker and a leader all in one. He left behind two legacies, two more than most ministers ever manage: academy schools and the high-speed rail line.
Apart from Adonis, though, so far no one has nominated any thinkers of innovation – those theorists who generalise the principles of reform and try to apply them across the public sector. So I put forward two – Sir Michael Barber and David Halpern – as well as a doer, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and a leader, Michael Gove.
Finally, Gove is the national politician who is currently most impressive in reforming the public service. In contrast to Andrew Lansley, who had a plan but didn’t tell anyone what it was, Gove arrived in government with a well-advertised purpose. Free schools were an important symbol of school autonomy, and attracted a lot of attention from sneerers who said parents did not have time to run their children’s schools. But the bigger plan was to accelerate the academy programme – to put “rocket boosters” on it, in Gove’s phrase, by allowing existing schools to “convert” to academy status.
This, too, was derided by critics, who suggested that schools were being bribed to re-badge themselves, or that the academy programme was being diluted. One of the most important benefits of the policy, though (apart from encouraging school autonomy), was to allow good schools to set up academy chains. These chains can now sponsor further new academies, which is important because it was the shortage of experienced sponsors that held back the growth of the original academies programme.
By 2015, nearly all secondary schools will be academies – a huge change and an intensification of the Blair schools reforms that I think will transform English education for the better. Gove deserves great credit for the skilful way he has handled this revolution.
Sir Michael Barber
Sir Michael Barber has worked for more than 20 years in education and in government reform. In Tony Blair’s first parliament, he was an adviser to David Blunkett at the Department of Education. His was a simple idea: we know how to teach early years children how to read and count, so let’s be systematic about it. This way, weaker or less confident teachers are clear about what to do and what they are expected to achieve. This had – along with the employment of teaching assistants and the raising of teachers’ pay –a dramatic effect in raising standards.
After four years, Sir Michael proposed bringing the same approach (finding out what works using measurements, incentives and targets) to improve other public services. A disarmingly modest man, he has a knack of asking the right questions. When told to look into the reliability of train services, he noticed a dip every autumn and asked why that should be. “Oh, that’s leaves on the line,” he was told. “And does that happen every year?” he asked. Since then, the use of leaf-clearing machines has eliminated this seasonal drop in reliability.
As Chief Adviser on Delivery in Blair’s second term, Sir Michael was mocked for his PowerPoint presentations, and conservatives in the public sector hated his target-driven approach. But his Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit was so successful that it has now been reinvented as the Number 10 Policy and Implementation Unit.
Head of the ‘Nudge Unit’ at the Cabinet Office (more formally the Behavioural Insights Team), Halpern pursues one aspect of Sir Michael’s work by looking at how public services can change people’s behaviour. He has had some success in cutting missed NHS appointments by encouraging patients to think that ‘everybody else’ lets the clinic know if they cannot attend. He has also helped raise levels of organ donation with the simple requirement that people must opt either in or out on their driving licence application forms, rather than leave the section blank.
Testing and extending these kinds of ‘nudges’ could also raise productivity substantially in the public sector. But some of the most exciting projects on which the unit is working have implications for private sector productivity too. Halpern is working with banks to come up with a product that allows the self-employed to hire other people without having to deal directly with issues of tax, national insurance and pay roll. That could make much more difference to the ease with which new workers are employed than the traditional big-government policy devices such as National Insurance ‘holidays’ and tax breaks.
Sir Michael Wilshaw
Now the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael made his name as the head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which replaced Hackney Downs, usually described as a failing school. Mossbourne is a too-good-to-be-true story of a school which simply refused to make any excuses for failure, and which last year sent several pupils to Cambridge University.
The Guardian and other conservative opponents of the academy programme have been desperate to show that Sir Michael gamed the system or harmed other local schools to build his success, but have been unable to do so. Most of the intake at the school remains socially deprived on all indicators, although there are admittedly more middle-class pupils now, drawn by its success. Furthermore, this is only one of a number of remarkable turnarounds in school standards throughout the east London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets.
The remaining question is whether Sir Michael can make the transition from doer, and leader of a school, to a leadership role nationally. His dilemma resembles that which faces good teachers everywhere: the really good ones are often promoted out of the classroom, where they do their best work. If he can be a thinker, too, and distil what he did at Mossbourne into a national template, then his promotion will have been worth it.
- Sir Michael Barber's Biennial Lecture at the 2010 College of Teachers Awards Ceremony, 'The prospects for global education reform'
- Parliamentary report on 'nudge' and the ethics of behaviour change interventions, July 2011
- Lecture given by Sir Michael Wilshaw in late 2011 before Ark, an educational charity, entitled 'Good Schools for all; an impossible dream?'
- Interview with Michael Gove, Spectator magazine, 2011